This is no time to relax. Reining in our country’s runaway executive branch must begin now, even as the current occupant of the White House grasps at his last days in office and before the new administration has a chance to overstep its authority when responding to the national health emergency or the nationwide protests for racial justice.
Widespread abuses of power and the erosion of civil liberties, many of which predate Trump, will not go away when he does. All Americans should be troubled by the ease in which recent presidents, Republican or Democrat, have repeatedly violated the rule of law and abandoned accepted norms. The framers of the Constitution understood this authoritarian impulse, which is why they entrusted the legislative branch, over the executive, with control of the country’s purse and military. Over the past five decades, however, Congress has largely abdicated their responsibilities to the White House, upending the system of checks and balances.
George Washington famously relinquished his hold on power, but don’t expect today’s leaders to act so nobly. While it would be politically difficult for the incoming administration to repeat the shameless abuses of its predecessor, which deployed heavily armed federal agents to suppress protest, attacked whistleblowers who signaled government misconduct, and sought retribution against news outlets and reporters for doing their jobs, major reforms and legislative fixes (with some serious teeth!) will be required to prevent the next American tyrant.
We should not give the new administration the benefit of the doubt, but instead must hold their feet to the fire from the start. It’s a lesson learned after eight excruciating years of the Bush administration. Many, including myself, looked to the incoming Obama administration for relief from the abuses of the Patriot Act and other sweeping security and surveillance powers passed after 9/11. How naïve we were. Progress was made in some areas, like Obama’s efforts to curb the military-to-police weapons and equipment pipeline (which Trump revived), and the modest surveillance reforms found in the Orwellian-named USA Freedom Act. But like many candidates who advocate for reforms while on the campaign trail, Obama became reluctant to surrender the broad executive powers once he was sworn in as commander-in-chief.
The Obama administration prosecuted more government whistleblowers than all past administrations combined, oversaw the FBI raid and harassment of antiwar activists in Chicago and Minneapolis, and fell woefully short on being transparent about its reliance on unmanned armed drones to conduct its foreign policy. He may have called for closing Guantánamo Bay prison, but he chose not to hold Bush administration officials responsible for torture at CIA black sites and unleashing mass surveillance on law abiding Americans.
Following the Watergate scandal, presidential advisor and historian Arthur Schlesinger popularized the phrase, “the imperial presidency,” to describe excesses of the Richard Nixon era. He warned that the country’s political system was threatened by “a conception of presidential power so spacious and peremptory” that it could effectively make the president above the law. Given Congress’ unwillingness to meet its obligations to hold the executive in check combined with the assault on First Amendment rights by this administration, that risk is even higher today. And while the recent election may have ended one imperial presidency, we cannot wait another four years to stop the next one.