Now, Donald Trump is coming.
Civil libertarians have long warned the partisans who trusted Bush and Obama, and the establishment centrists who couldn’t imagine anyone in the White House besides an Al Gore or John Kerry or John McCain or Mitt Romney, that they were underestimating both the seriousness of civil liberties abuses under Bush and Obama and the likelihood of even less responsible leaders wreaking havoc in the White House.
Three years ago, in “All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama,” I warned that “more and more, we're counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils,” and that come January, 2017, an unknown person would enter the Oval Office and inherit all of these precedents:
- The president can order American citizens killed in secret.
- The president can detain prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial.
- The president can order drone strikes at will in countries against which no war has been declared.
- The president can start a torture program with impunity.
- The president can conduct warrantless surveillance on tens of millions of Americans.
Now, Donald Trump is coming. And many establishment centrists are professing alarm. There is nothing more establishment than Robert Kagan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post. He begins by observing that if Trump wins, his coalition will include tens of millions of Americans.
“Imagine the power he would wield then,” Kagan wrote. “In addition to all that comes from being the leader of a mass following, he would also have the immense powers of the American presidency at his command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military. Who would dare to oppose him then? Certainly not a Republican Party that laid down before him even when he was comparatively weak. Is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands, likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-corrupt?”
Kagan’s article seemed well-received among establishment centrists.
Yet neither he nor most others who share his fears have yet acknowledged their bygone failures of imagination, or granted that civil libertarians were right: The establishment has permitted the American presidency to get dangerously powerful.
While writing or sharing articles that compare Trump to Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, few if any have called on Obama or Congress to act now “to tyrant-proof the White House.” However much they fear Trump, however rhetorically maximalist their warnings, even the prospect of him controlling the national security state does not cause them to renounce their reckless embrace of “The Cult of the Presidency,” a centrist religion that persisted across the Bush administration’s torture chambers and the Obama administration’s unlawful War in Libya.