Efforts to put Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies into a historical context usually begin with the simultaneously troubling and reassuring precedent of Richard M. Nixon. Like Trump, Nixon was a mistrustful and self-conscious “outsider” who hated the news media and compulsively focused on “enemies.” As we fear Trump will do, Nixon harnessed government resources to harass those enemies, ordered widespread law-breaking, expanded presidential powers to the breaking point, and tried to hide his more nefarious activities from scrutiny. But despite his power and a reelection landslide victory that makes a mockery of Trump’s pretensions of popularity, Nixon was brought to heel and eventually forced to resign. A potential authoritarian threat to democracy was repulsed.
Nixon was not, however, unique in succumbing to the temptations of an imperial presidency. As Jonathan Rauch reminds us in an important new analysis of how to contain Trump if he goes off the rails, all presidents cross lines and seek to expand their powers. And in fact, the most relevant precedent may be a relatively recent one:
For a good example, one need look back no further than the presidency of George W. Bush. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush claimed alarmingly broad presidential powers. He said he could define the entire world as a battlefield in the War on Terror, designate noncitizens and citizens alike as enemy combatants, and then seize and detain them indefinitely, without judicial interference or congressional approval or the oversight called for by the Geneva Conventions.
It’s initially hard to think of the sometimes-comical and often self-deprecating W. as resembling the volatile narcissist in the White House today; when Bush call himself “the decider,” more people laughed than cowered. But whatever the 43rd president lacked in bully-boy arrogance the people around him — most notably his vice-president — supplied abundantly. And there is no getting around the fact that the Bush team deliberately exploited the national emergency of 9/11 to do all sorts of things it had no real popular mandate to do, most notably the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and to intimidate opponents with the charge of anti-Americanism. It is very easy to imagine Team Trump doing the same thing. The president’s charge that he would hold “the court system” responsible for any future terrorist attacks is a credible threat that like Bush he might convert a national-security failure into a warrant for near-total power.
As Rauch notes, however, Bush was, like Nixon, eventually brought to heel as well, without the trauma of a threatened impeachment and a resignation. He quotes one-time Bush administration Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith as describing a “giant distributed networks of lawyers, investigators, and auditors, both inside and outside the executive branch” that reined in a potentially authoritarian regime:
These forces swarmed the government with hundreds of critical reports and lawsuits that challenged every aspect of the President’s war powers. They also brought thousands of critical minds to bear on the government’s activities, resulting in bestselling books, reports, blog posts, and press tips that shaped the public’s view of presidential action and informed congressional responses, lawsuits, and mainstream media reporting.
Eventually Congress and the courts joined this effort, and in 2006, so did the American electorate, in a midterm buffeting of the president’s party that ruined Karl Rove’s painstaking efforts to build a durable GOP majority based on a combination of national-security fearmongering and carefully targeted domestic initiatives. But it was a near thing.
The good news is that many of the same forces that helped rein in Bush are at hand today, and Trump’s open contempt for norms has put them on high alert. But as Trump’s election showed, the old norms don’t have the power they had in the past — even the most recent past.
It should be relatively apparent that the first step toward making sure the Trump administration doesn’t lurch down the path to authoritarian abuse of power via a national-security “emergency” is to deny it the sort of government-of-national-salvation status Bush and his team enjoyed in the wake of 9/11. If that means Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans (the few who are left, anyway) have to run the risk of being attacked for insufficient patriotism, so be it. It is their patriotic duty to do so. And as the example of George W. Bush shows, the sooner the president is denied imperial powers, the sooner his imperial pretensions can be exposed as mere power-grabs.
With luck, there will not be an incident like 9/11 — or the Iraq War — during the Trump presidency. But if there is, does anyone doubt he will exploit it to the hilt? That’s the authoritarian emergency for which we must all prepare.