Presidents don’t give up power.
Executive orders don’t expire at the end of each presidential term.
The Constitution invests the President with very specific, limited powers. In recent years, however, American presidents have anointed themselves with the power to wage war, unilaterally kill Americans, torture prisoners, strip citizens of their rights, arrest and detain citizens indefinitely, carry out warrantless spying on Americans, and erect their own secretive, shadow government.
These are the powers that will be inherited by the next heir to the throne, and it won’t make a difference whether it’s a President Trump or a President Clinton occupying the Oval Office.
The powers amassed by each successive president through the negligence of Congress and the courts—powers which add up to a toolbox of terror for an imperial ruler—empower whomever occupies the Oval Office to act as a dictator, above the law and beyond any real accountability.
Consider some of the presidential powers—which have been acquired through the use of executive orders, decrees, memorandums, proclamations, national security directives and legislative signing statements and can be activated by any sitting president—that have allowed past presidents to operate above the law and beyond the reach of the Constitution.
The power to kill. President Obama has become the “first president to claim the legal authority to order an American citizen killed without judicial involvement, real oversight or public accountability.”
The power to wage war. Ever since 9/11, the United States has been in a state of endless war without Congress ever having declared one. Having pledged to end Bush’s wars, Barack Obama has instead extended them.
The power to torture. The authorization of torture tactics such as waterboarding remain part of the president’s domain should he or she ever choose to revive it.
The power to spy on American citizens. Directed by the President, the National Security Agency has carried out warrantless surveillance on Americans’ phone calls and emails since 9/11.
The power to indefinitely detain American citizens. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order requiring that all Japanese-Americans be held in internment camps. Such blatantly illegal detentions could happen again. In fact, each National Defense Authorization Act since 2012 has included a provision that permits the military to detain individuals—including Americans citizens—indefinitely without trial.
The power to strip American citizens of their constitutional rights. The Bush Administration claimed it could strip American citizens of their constitutional rights, imprison them indefinitely, and deny them legal representation simply by labeling them as enemy combatants. The Obama Administration has persisted in defending the president’s unilateral and global right to detain anyone suspected of supporting terrorist activities.
The power to secretly rewrite or sidestep the laws of the country. Secret courts, secret orders, and secret budgets have become standard operating procedure for presidential administrations in recent years. A good case in point is Presidential Policy Directive 20, a secret order signed by President Obama that essentially gives the military the ability to shut off communications with the outside world if necessary.
The power to transform the police into extensions of the military and indirectly institute martial law. What began in the 1960s as a war on drugs transitioned into an all-out campaign to transform America’s police forces into extensions of the military. Every successive president since Nixon has added to the police’s arsenal, tactics and authority. In fact, the Obama Administration has accelerated police militarization by distributing military weapons and equipment to police and incentivizing SWAT team raids and heavy-handed police tactics through the use of federal grants and asset forfeiture schemes.
The power to command the largest military and intelligence capabilities in the world and, in turn, “wag the dog.” As law professor William P. Marshall points out: In his roles as Commander-in-Chief and head of the Executive Branch, the President directly controls the most powerful military in the world and directs clandestine agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency. That control provides the President with immensely effective, non-transparent capabilities to further his political agenda and/or diminish the political abilities of his opponents.
Thus, it doesn’t matter what the pundits predict, the candidates promise, and the people decree.
It doesn’t even matter whether the people elect Trump or Clinton. After all, politicians sing a different tune once elected. For instance, the Chicago Tribune editorial board observed that although Barack Obama opposed the imperial tendencies of George W. Bush, once in office, Obama “wound up behaving as if he had a scepter and throne.”
What matters is that the damage has already been done.
As Professor Marshall explains, “every extraordinary use of power by one President expands the availability of executive branch power for use by future Presidents.” Moreover, it doesn’t even matter whether other presidents have chosen not to take advantage of any particular power, because “it is a President’s action in using power, rather than forsaking its use, that has the precedential significance.”
In other words, each successive president continues to add to his office’s list of extraordinary orders and directives, granting him- or herself near dictatorial powers.
So let’s not have any more talk of which candidate would be more dangerous with these powers.
The fact that any individual—or branch of government—is empowered to act like a dictator is danger enough.
This abuse of presidential powers has been going on for so long that it has become the norm and it will continue no matter which corporate puppet wins the election. The Constitution be damned.
The government of laws idealized by John Adams has fallen prey to a government of men.
The solution is far from simple but it’s time, as Marshall suggests, to recalibrate the balance of power. This will mean putting an end to the use of executive orders, decrees, memorandums, proclamations, national security directives and legislative signing statements as a means of getting around Congress and the courts. It will mean that Americans will have to stop letting their politics blind them to government wrongdoing. And it will mean holding all three branches of government accountable to the Constitution (i.e., if they abuse their powers, vote them out of office).
Thus far, Congress, with little spine, less integrity and too busy running for re-election, has offered little attempt at oversight, enabling the president to ride roughshod over the Constitution. The media—the perfect accomplice in this stealthy, bloodless coup—continues to inundate us with the latest celebrity scandal, says virtually nothing about these burgeoning powers. All the while, most Americans continue to operate in blissful near-ignorance, unaware or uncaring that the republic is about to fall.
Yet as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, it will be “we the people”—not the president, the politicians, the corporate elite or the media—who will suffer the consequences when freedom falls and tyranny rises. They may justify violating our freedoms in the name of whatever phantom menace-of-the-month threatens “national security,” but we will always be the ones to pay the price.