In Search of Silver Linings

Where to begin?

America’s President-elect is a man whose flaws have been so well-documented as to make documenting them redundant. If you remain unconvinced that Donald J. Trump is anything other than wholly unfit in both temperament and ideology to hold the office of the President of the United States, nothing on Earth will convince you otherwise. But, as concerned as I am by the thought of the incoming president, at the moment I’m more preoccupied with the incumbent.

After campaigning in 2008 on a platform of restraining the executive and restoring the rule of law, Barack Obama decided upon taking office that unfettered power wasn’t so bad, so long as he was the one wielding it. His party decided that, after eight years of protesting the lawlessness and jingoism of the Bush administration, it didn’t mind an unconstrained, warmongering executive when it was in office. And so rather than spend his two terms rolling back his predecessor’s excesses, Obama instead consolidated the powers that he inherited and declined to prosecute those responsible for criminal actions such as torture and illegal surveillance. As a result, upon assuming office, the powers of President Trump – a man whose aides felt he could not be trusted with his own Twitter account – will include the following:

  1. The power to imprison anyone he likes, forever, without charge.
  2. The power to execute anyone he likes, for any reason he sees fit.
  3. The power to unilaterally decide to send the United States to war, even against an explicit Congressional vote.
  4. The power to enact laws unilaterally by creating regulations as he pleases.
  5. A massive administrative state that he can unleash against anyone whom he dislikes (as he’s threatened to do).
  6. A massive surveillance apparatus able to spy on anyone in the world.
  7. And, generally, the ability to act without opposition based on the principle that he should not exceed his limited, constitutionally-granted powers.

For this catastrophe, we can blame Obama and his predecessors, who expanded their authority at every turn. We can blame Congress, which has abdicated its role as a co-equal branch of government and delegated its law-making functions to the executive branch, which it then lobbies for favours. We can blame the intellectual class, which appears to define presidential greatness as the ability to centralize ever more authority in the Oval Office. And, above all, we can blame the voters themselves, for seeking solutions to all of their problems in Washington and, in particular, in the figure of the president himself as though he were the literal father of the nation.

This disaster has been centuries in the making. Since shortly after the ink was dry on the Constitution, presidents have pushed back against the remarkably limited powers granted to them under its Article II, Section 2. Through Thomas Jefferson completing the Louisiana Purchase; through Abraham Lincoln ignoring the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the president could not suspend habeas corpus; through Theodore Roosevelt, who all but invented the concept of the executive order; through the election and re-election of Woodrow Wilson, who rejected the very notion of checks and balances and argued that the presidency was whatever the president could make of it; through FDR, whose entire presidency seemed predicated on the notion that the executive branch was free of constraints; through JFK and LBJ, who dragged the country into the Vietnam War without the requisite declaration by Congress; through George W. Bush, whose administration claimed that he was above the law since he was prosecuting an (undeclared) war; through Obama himself, who claimed the sole power of life and death over every living person, US citizens included.

So from whence the silver lining referred to in the headline? It’s the hope that maybe – just maybe – Trump’s election will serve as a wake-up call to skeptics who have hitherto mocked the idea that big government might be something to fear. Maybe – just maybe – the next four years will win numerous converts to the idea that the state’s powers should be strictly limited and that it should not be used an an instrument to alter reality when it fails to reflect your preferences. Maybe – just maybe – this is the beginning of the end of big government.

Granted, these wildly optimistic thoughts are probably unwarranted on so dark a day. But believers in individual rights and human freedom will have precious little to sustain themselves over the next four years other than the promise of better days ahead, so we may as well get started now. If the darkest hour is indeed just before the dawn, then sunrise may be coming sooner than we dare hope.

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