Saturday, June 30, 2018

Dahlia Lithwick on the death of America at Slate reminds me of Friedersdorf's pleas to tyrant-proof the executive office before it was too late in 2016

Because countries are not people, it’s tricky to translate whatever “loving one’s country” means—it’s quite abstract—into the language of heartbreak. It sounds melodramatic. What can heartbreak mean as a civic matter? And yet it is what I feel.
A corrupt but weak president—this has been my comfort, his weakness—has been given a gift that will make him strong. After upholding the travel ban, weakening labor unions, and allowing crisis pregnancy centers to misrepresent themselves to women seeking help, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he was retiring before the midterm elections. That decision empowers a reality-television star who lost the popular vote by millions to reform the Supreme Court for at least a generation—a court that rather than rebut his claim to power has affirmed it. In his own branch, he asked James Comey for a loyalty oath and lamented not getting one from Jeff Sessions, whom he has repeatedly condemned for recusing himself in the Russia investigation, saying he never would have hired him as attorney general had he known. There is every reason to think he will do the same for a Supreme Court nominee. When Neil Gorsuch—who took the seat Mitch McConnell withheld from Merrick Garland—seemed to distance himself from the man who offered him the robes, Donald Trump reportedly considered pulling the nomination. Trump has said he will pardon himself if he needs to, a controversial stance that would likely need approval from the high court. Now he has been given a way to assure it. He holds the power over the person who can rubber-stamp him into invulnerability.
The capitulation of two branches of government to a terrifying third, elected by a minority, is not how our government was envisioned. That is frightening. It is also, depending on the America you want to live in, painful.
There is, no doubt, a parlance and a jargon within which it's possible to describe Trump as a weak president in the sense that he has advisors who can influence him, let's say. But if that's the case then that practical in-industry jargon for "weak" refers to "how" the power gets wielded and less to the nature of the power inherent in the office.
I am not convinced that what transpired in 2016 is as simple as the assertion that Russia hacked our election.  Even if that did happen at some level I don't see how the gerrymandering the GOP did in the wake of their defeats during the Obama years wasn't a more salient variable.  What did the DNC do to avert that?  Not that I really have any regard for the DNC, either. 
But the lamentation that the "real" America is gone because Republicans seems to ring hollow.  Living in Seattle I can hardly forget the vitriolic triumphalism of The Urban Archipelago.  The contempt shown in that editorial for anyone regarded as red-state flyover country or even just anyone who was not living in an urban center was clear enough.  There's another way to translate that contempt, as a contempt for democratic processes that do not automatically and inherently favor urban centers over against all the stereotypically uneducated redneck white hick Republican voters without college degrees who shouldn't be allowed to have any input in the democratic process because democracy isn't for them, really, it's for people who understand the potential fate of the world and the obligation genuine humanity has to make that world a better place.
So as I've been watching American politics over the last twenty years it seems the only real debate we're ultimately having is not about whether or not we're going to get ourselves a police state but merely about whether it's a red or blue code of conduct.  The debate isn't really about whether or not the executive branch should have a mind-bendingly large amount of power over a web of surveillance tools and forces to kill, it's over what the intra-American allegiance is going to be.  To put it more starkly, Americans are really just debating whether they think we should have a red-state police state or a blue-state police state and not whether or not the police state itself is what is wanted by the kinds of people who write about the subject.
Well, maybe not entirely .. since ... Conor Friedersdorf wrote a couple of times that we needed to tyrant-proof the executive office regardless of who was going to win the job title in 2016.
May 23, 2016
Wake up, establishment centrists: Donald Trump is coming!

After the Vietnam War and Watergate and the spying scandals uncovered by the Church Committee and the Nixon Administration cronies who nearly firebombed the Brookings Institution, Americans were briefly inclined to rein in executive power—a rebuke to Richard Nixon’s claim that “if the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Powerful committees were created to oversee misconduct-prone spy agencies. The War Powers Resolution revived a legislative check on warmaking. “In 34 years,” Vice President Dick Cheney would lament to ABC News in a January 2002 interview, “I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job. I feel an obligation... to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors."

The Bush Administration aggressively moved to expand executive power, drawing on the dubious legal maneuvering of David Addington, John Yoo, and their enablers. Starting in 2005, the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, would repeatedly insist that Bush’s assertions of executive power violated the Constitution. Nonetheless, Obama inherited a newly powerful executive branch, just as Cheney had hoped. And rather than dismantle it, Obama spent two terms lending the imprimatur of centrist, establishment bipartisanship to Cheney’s vision.  [emphasis added] 
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. [emphases added]
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.
An op-ed in Tuesday’s New York Times points out that, thanks to precedents set by President Obama, “whoever prevails in November will inherit a sweeping power to use lethal force against suspected terrorists and militants, including Americans.”
Let me put things more starkly: Under current precedent, the commander in chief can give a secret order to kill an American citizen with a drone strike without charges or trial.
But to go by what writers at Slate have tended to have to say over the last decade the very idea that a blue state executive branch could be as tyrannical as a red state executive branch (let alone more, though in obviously different ways) was not on the table.

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