When the dust settled on the Nov. 8 election, we learned that a completely unpredictable, egomaniacal, narcissistic buffoon would inherit the White House and the vast powers that go along with it. This deeply offended many people who see Donald Trump’s racist and misogynistic rhetoric as “unpresidential.” Liberal New York Times columnist Charles Blow summed up this view: “I respect the presidency; I do not respect this president-elect.” That the president-elect should not be respected is a given. But why should we respect the presidency?
The Imperial Presidency of the United States has evolved over the last century to the point that the executive holds certain powers that can be considered dictatorial. Arguably, the most consequential decision in politics is to wage war. The Constitution specifically reserves this right for Congress. The President, as Commander-in-Chief, directs the wars that Congress declares. However, starting with Truman’s intervention in the Korean War in 1950 and continuing with invasions of Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq and Afghanistan and the bombings of dozens more countries, the President’s ability to unilaterally initiate war with a sovereign nation has been normalized. Congress has not declared war since 1941 despite the fact the U.S. military has intervened in nearly every corner of the world in the years since.
In recent years, George W. Bush assumed the power to kidnap, torture, and assassinate any individual, anywhere in the world, at any time, without even a pretense of due process. Upon replacing Bush, Barack Obama legitimized Bush’s kidnapping and torture (by refusing to prosecute the perpetrators or provide recourse to the victims) while enthusiastically embracing the power to assassinate at will. Noam Chomsky has said this represents Obama trashing the 800-year-old Magna Carta, which King John of England would have approved of.
Can there be anything more dictatorial than the power of a single individual to kill and make war at will? While American presidents thankfully do not have the power to unilaterally impose taxes, pass legislation, or incarcerate without charges inside U.S. borders, the illegitimate authority they do possess to carry out unrestrained violence across the world is unquestionably a dictatorial feature.
There has not been a single American president since World War II that has not exceeded his constitutional authority by committing crimes that would meet the standard by which officials were convicted and executed at the Nuremberg trials.
Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 to imprison Japanese Americans in concentration camps was a flagrant violation of the Fifth Amendment right not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
Truman’s firebombing of Tokyo, nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and invasion of Korea violated provisions of multiple treaties that are considered the “supreme law of the land” per Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.
Eisenhower’s use of the CIA to overthrow democratically elected presidents in Iran and Guatemala, as well as the initiation of a terrorist campaign against Cuba, violated the UN Charter, another international treaty that the Constitution regards as the supreme law of the land.
Kennedy was guilty of approving the creation of a mercenary army to invade Cuba, as well as covert warfare in Vietnam. Johnson massively escalated U.S. military involvement in Vietnam with the introduction of ground troops, which he fraudulently justified through misrepresentation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Succeeding Johnson, Nixon waged a nearly genocidal air campaign against not only Vietnam but Cambodia and Laos, killing hundreds of thousands of people, destroying ecosystems across Indochina, and leaving an unfathomable amount of unexploded ordnance, which continues to kill and maim hundreds of people each year.
Ford covertly supported the South African invasion of Angola and overtly supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Carter continued supporting the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, as well as providing financial and military support to military dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador. Reagan oversaw the creation and operation of a terrorist army in Nicaragua, sponsored military dictatorships throughout Central America, and directly invaded Grenada.
Bush the Elder invaded Panama and Iraq. Clinton oversaw sanctions in Iraq that killed as many as 1 million people, carried out an air war that indiscriminately pulverized civilian targets from 15,000 feet in Serbia, and bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that produced medications for half the country. Bush the Lesser invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama continued both of those wars, as well as dramatically expanding the drone assassination program in as many as seven countries.
So I beg to differ with Blow and anyone else who claims the presidency deserves respect. Any institution or position that permits such illegal and immoral actions unchecked should be eradicated and replaced with some alternative that does not.
Liberal Clinton defender Matt Yglesias argues that from a historical perspective, Trump is uniquely dangerous. “(P)ast presidents,” Yglesias writes, “have simply been restrained by restraint. By a belief that there are certain things one simply cannot try or do.”
It is hard to take such vacuous proclamations with a straight face. As we have seen, every single American president since at least WWII has engaged in serious violations of international and domestic law to cause death, destruction and misery across the world, from murdering individuals without due process to unleashing two nuclear bombs on civilian populations in a defeated country that was seeking to surrender.
When Trump assumes the presidency, he will inherit a frightening surveillance/military/incarceration apparatus that includes a targeted killing program; a vast NSA domestic and international spying network; a death squad (the Joint Special Operations Command); and an extralegal system for indefinite kidnapping and imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay.
Partisans see a problem only when the presidency is in the “wrong” hands. If Obama is at the helm, liberals are fine with unconstitutional mass surveillance or killing an American citizen without charge or trial every now and then. Conservatives trusted Bush to warrantlessly surveill Americans, but were outraged at the Snowden revelations.
Principled opponents recognize that no one should be trusted with illegitimate authority. The hand-wringing and hyperventilation by liberals about the dangers of a Trump presidency ring hollow and hypocritical.
American presidents long ago became the equivalent of elected monarchs, beyond the democratic control of the those they purportedly serve. The occupant of the office is able to substitute his own judgments and whims for a universally applicable set of laws and limits on the exercise of power. It is what Dolores Vek describes as “actually existing fascism.” Both parties have contributed to it, the media has normalized it, and the public has accepted its creation and continued existence without rebelling against it. It’s time to stop treating the presidency itself with respect and start actively delegitimizing it.