Twenty years of a dic­ta­to­rial democ­racy

Both Trump and Clin­ton would con­tinue the power grab

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By James Bo­vard

The 2016 elec­tion cam­paign is mor­ti­fy­ing mil­lions of Amer­i­cans in part be­cause the pres­i­dency has be­come far more dan­ger­ous in re­cent times. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have lived in a per­pet­ual emer­gency, which sup­pos­edly jus­ti­fies rou­tinely ig­nor­ing the law and Con­sti­tu­tion. And both Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton have sig­naled that power grabs will pro­lif­er­ate in the next four years.

Politi­cians talk as if vot­ing mag­i­cally pro­tects the rights of ev­ery­one within a 50-mile ra­dius of the polling booth. But the bal­lots Amer­i­cans have cast in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions since 2000 did noth­ing to con­strain the com­man­der in chief.

Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s dec­la­ra­tion in 2000 that Amer­ica needed a more “hum­ble” for­eign pol­icy did not de­ter him from vow­ing to “rid the world of evil” and launch­ing the most cat­a­strophic war in Amer­i­can his­tory. Eight years later, Barack Obama cam­paigned as the can­di­date of peace and promised “a new birth of free­dom.” But that did not stop him from bomb­ing seven na­tions, claim­ing a right to as­sas­si­nate Amer­i­can cit­i­zens, and cham­pi­oning Or­wellian to­tal sur­veil­lance.

Mr. Bush was fa­mous for “sign­ing state­ments” de­crees that nul­li­fied hun­dreds of pro­vi­sions of laws en­acted by Congress. Pres­i­dent Obama is renowned for uni­lat­er­ally and end­lessly rewrit­ing laws such as the Af­ford­able Care Act to post­pone po­lit­i­cal back­lashes against the Demo­cratic Party and for ef­fec­tively waiv­ing fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion law. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama ex­ploited the “state se­crets doc­trine” to shield their most con­tro­ver­sial poli­cies from the Amer­i­can pub­lic.

While many con­ser­va­tives ap­plauded Mr. Bush’s power grabs, many lib­er­als cheered Mr. Obama’s de­crees. Af­ter 16 years of BushObama, the fed­eral govern­ment is far more ar­bi­trary and lethal. Richard Nixon’s maxim — “it’s not il­le­gal if the pres­i­dent does it” — is the lodestar for com­man­ders in chief in the new cen­tury.

There is no rea­son to ex­pect the next pres­i­dent to be less power hun­gry than the last two White House oc­cu­pants. Both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clin­ton can be ex­pected to tram­ple the First Amend­ment. Mr. Trump has talked of shut­ting down mosques and chang­ing li­bel laws to make it far more per­ilous for the me­dia to re­veal abuses by the na­tion’s elite. Mrs. Clin­ton was in the fore­front of an ad­min­is­tra­tion that broke all records for pros­e­cut­ing leak­ers and jour­nal­ists who ex­posed govern­ment abuses. She could smash the rem­nants of the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act like her aides ham­mered her Black­berry phones to oblit­er­ate her email trail.

Nei­ther can­di­date seems to rec­og­nize any limit on pres­i­den­tial power. Mr. Trump calls for re­viv­ing the bru­tal in­ter­ro­ga­tion meth­ods of the Ge­orge W. Bush era. Mrs. Clin­ton op­poses tor­ture but be­lieves pres­i­dents have a right to launch wars when­ever they de­cide it is in the na­tional in­ter­est. Af­ter Mrs. Clin­ton helped per­suade Mr. Obama to bomb Libya in 2011, she sig­naled that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would scorn any con­gres­sional cease-and-de­sist or­der un­der the War Pow­ers Act.

If Amer­i­cans could be con­fi­dent that ei­ther Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clin­ton would be leashed by the law, there would be less dread about who wins in Novem­ber. But elec­tions are be­com­ing sim­ply coro­na­tions via vote counts. The pres­i­dent will take an oath of of­fice on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day, but then can do as he or she pleases.

We now have a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem which is nom­i­nally demo­cratic but in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian. The rule oflLaw has been de­fined down to find­ing a sin­gle fed­eral lawyer to write a se­cret memo vin­di­cat­ing the pres­i­dent’s lat­est un­pub­lished ex­ec­u­tive or­der.

By the end of the next pres­i­den­tial term, Amer­ica will have had al­most a 20-year stretch of dic­ta­to­rial democ­racy. Our rulers’ dis­dain for the high­est law of the land is tor­pe­do­ing the cit­i­zenry’s faith in rep­re­sen­ta­tive govern­ment. Forty per­cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers have “lost faith in Amer­i­can democ­racy,” ac­cord­ing to re­cent Sur­vey Mon­key poll.

The United States may be on the verge of the big­gest le­git­i­macy cri­sis since the Civil War. Who­ever wins on Nov. 8 will be pro­foundly dis­trusted even be­fore be­ing sworn in. The com­bi­na­tion of a widely detested new pres­i­dent and un­re­strained power al­most guar­an­tees greater crises in the com­ing years.

Nei­ther Mr. Trump nor Mrs. Clin­ton are promis­ing to “make Amer­ica con­sti­tu­tional again.” But as Thomas Jef­fer­son de­clared in 1786, “An elec­tive despo­tism was not the govern­ment we fought for.” If pres­i­dents are law­less, then vot­ers are merely des­ig­nat­ing the most dan­ger­ous crim­i­nal in the land. James Bo­vard is the au­thor of “At­ten­tion Deficit Democ­racy” (Pal­grave, 2006) and “Lost Rights” (St. Martin’s, 1994).

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