Week two of Donald Trump’s presidency and George Orwell’s iconic boot is already stamping the face of every American. At least, that’s how the left sees it.
The Atlantic’s latest cover story about Trump is titled “How to build an autocracy” while the less pithy New Republic warns that “Donald Trump is becoming an authoritarian leader before our very eyes.” Exceptional vehemence is reserved for the executive order freezing the refugee and visa programs, with one British lawmaker insistent that it exposes Trump as a “fascist” and New York’s state attorney general calling it “fundamentally un-American.”
You would think the American presidency had been a modest constitutional backwater before Trump came along and turned it into a dictatorship. Not so. A certain fellow by the name of Barack Obama also had a gaping authoritarian streak, one that went largely unremarked upon by the same voices now decrying Trump’s energy in the executive.
They didn’t care when Obama imposed onerous requirements on the refugee program in 2011 after it was discovered that two Iraqis who had been granted asylum were guilty of terrorism. Obama’s order was far more limited than Trump’s, but it did temporarily chill the resettlement of Iraqis in America: 18,251 came over in 2010, compared to 6,339 the next year.
They didn’t care when Obama signed a defense bill granting himself the authority to detain anyone at any time. They didn’t care when he approved another law cementing a system of military commissions that impeded the right to a fair trial.
They didn’t care when point-and-click drone operators killed up to 117 civilians during his presidency. They didn’t care when he assassinated an American citizen with a drone strike or when drones accidentally killed several more Americans. They didn’t care when he coldly assembled a “kill list” of those he wanted targeted and liquidated. They didn’t care that American drones became an ubiquitous airborne terror in Yemen.
They didn’t care when he launched an illegal war in Libya without obtaining congressional approval, only for that country to dilapidate into jihadist-infested chaos. They didn’t care that he deployed American troops to at least five different countries, again sans Congress, laughably citing the same hoary authorization for use of military force that was passed after 9/11.
They didn’t care when he attempted to ostracize Fox News from the White House press pool because he didn’t like the network’s critical coverage. They didn’t care when his communications staffer Anita Dunn delegitimized Fox as “either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.” They didn’t care when he tried to obtain a warrant against a Fox reporter under the Espionage Act or when he harvested two months’ worth of phone records from the Associated Press.
Some of those “they didn’t care” lines are admittedly broad. A handful of principled progressives have consistently criticized Obama, and his abuses have sometimes drawn wider condemnation, especially the ones involving Fox and the AP. But there were no wall-to-wall remonstrations across CNN, no warnings that liberty was in its twilight, at least not from anyone outside the far right. And the right shouldn’t be exonerated here either. I’ve grown a bit tired of former Bush administration staffers, who defended torture and black sites and unlimited government surveillance, suddenly wailing about the rise of American autocracy.
By institutionalizing authoritarianism in the executive branch, we’ve laid the groundwork for a potential strongman like Trump. One measly Electoral College victory is not a sufficient prophylactic between a human being and nigh-unlimited power. Presidential authority needs to be restrained. It wasn’t under Bush and Obama; perhaps now, amidst the hypocritical caterwauling, it finally will be.
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Matt Purple is the Deputy Editor for Rare Politics (Rare.us).