I sometimes think that the price of liberty is not so much eternal vigilance as eternal dirt.
— George Orwell
When Hillary Clinton was running for president against Donald Trump, the latter stage of her campaign pretty much consisted of “He’s Bad,” with some actual policy salted in here and there. The “He’s Bad” exercise centered around the doomsday scenario of Trump having access to the nuclear codes. If a tweet can make him flip out, went the argument, he has no business being allowed anywhere near The Button. The line joined death and taxes in the pantheon of inevitables; if Clinton gave a stump speech during the last six weeks of the race, the nuclear codes were going to get mentioned.
This was an important and perfectly legitimate tactic for Clinton to employ, the only flaw being that it ultimately didn’t work. She needed to explain why he was unfit for the office, and did so. Nuclear weapons are flatly terrifying. Knowing they are about to be in the hands of an angry, petty, vengefully ignorant rage junkie like Donald Trump is enough to make anyone with a thimbleful of sense seriously contemplate relocation to the deepest cave available, preferably one that is lead-lined.
But by turning her campaign into a long version of LBJ’s “Daisy Ad,” by going for the scariest thing imaginable as a campaign ploy, candidate Clinton skipped a vital opportunity to underscore certain other serious threats inherent in a Trump presidency. (These come on top, of course, of the litany of towering dangers we’ve detailed extensively on Truthout, including the possibility of a Muslim registry, mass deportations, a rollback of environmental protections and more.)
Nukes are clearly not the only executive weapons available to a President Trump. Two that leap immediately to mind are martial law and the suspension of the Posse Comitatus Act. The first one creates a police state where your right to come and go as you please, your right to an attorney and a trial upon arrest, and your basic rights as afforded by habeas corpus exist only at the whim of your captors. The second puts troops on the streets. Both are right there waiting for him to walk into that big round room on January 20. Conspiracy theories about the misuse of such powers have been rampant during the Obama administration, and well before, but we are into a whole different phenomenon with Trump, and it is important to take these powers seriously without descending into the rabbit hole of alarmism.
The reasons for concern have been flapping off the front pages of newspapers like inked bats over the last several weeks. Here is a man who won the election according to the rules as they stand. Donald Trump is about to become president of the United States of America, and yet he cannot stand the fact that he lost the popular vote. Result? He went on a Twitter tirade and completely undermined the validity of his own victory by bleating some balderdash about millions of illegal votes. It wasn’t a one-off tweet, either; he just kept going and going and going like some cross between the Energizer Bunny and a character from Mortal Kombat.
Then, out of a clear blue sky, Trump became the defender of the American flag, tweeting that, perhaps, anyone who burns that flag should either be thrown in prison or stripped of their citizenship. The First Amendment, augmented by the Supreme Court’s 1989 Texas v. Johnson decision, defends the burning of the flag as an act of free speech. The Fourteenth Amendment specifically prohibits the government from stripping a citizen of their citizenship. This is all black-letter law, making Trump’s flag tweet just another burp in the void … but for this: His casual recommendation for addressing something so picayune as a burned flag is imprisonment or exile.
Put it all together. A man with the temperament of an earthquake, utterly devoid of self-control, with no one around him apparently capable of reining him in, a man who admittedly lives for revenge and retribution, who is completely incapable of absorbing criticism without having a very public meltdown, who knows little of the world, and who thinks nothing of throwing people who commit minor acts of dissent in prison … this man is about to be invested with astonishing legal powers. Make no mistake: Donald Trump wants to make history, and he doesn’t give a damn how he does it. His ego demands nothing less.
We live in a country where executive powers involve extreme, rights-secondary muscle. Martial law. Suspension of the Posse Comitatus Act. These are clubs in Mr. Trump’s bag. Safeguards against abuse of these provisions have been in place for many years, but those were drastically watered down by the Bush administration in 2007, and again by the Obama administration in 2012. Terrorism, you see. Imagine Trump reacting to a serious act of terrorism in the US. Those two options will be waiting on his desk. There is no guarantee he will use them, but again, there is no guarantee he won’t.
Take it a few steps further. The unrest over Trump’s looming presidency is only going to grow as his policies begin to sink their teeth in. If Paul Ryan and the Republican-dominated Congress are able to do as they wish and gut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, that unrest will explode in all manner of unexpected directions. Trump and the GOP can bring the nation to the brink of chaos and beyond, and his administration will have the option of using the powers of the presidency to sweep away anyone who doesn’t like it.
He’s got just the people to help him, too. National Security Advisor Mike Flynn sees enemies everywhere. Stalwart Tea Partier Mike Pompeo will have the CIA under his control. Hell, the guy Trump is considering to run the Department of Homeland Security wants to send a million people to Guantanamo Bay. Through it all will be Jeff Sessions as Attorney General saying everything they do is perfectly legal. If Trump and his GOP friends are able to get a couple of Scalia clones on the Supreme Court, Richard Nixon’s fever dream will become a stark reality: If the president does it, it’s not illegal.
I offer this not as prediction, but as warning. Deploying the hard fist of martial law is no easy task, even for a despot. Here is a man about to be ensconced in a bureaucracy; if he wants to push a button — nuclear or otherwise — he’s going to have to find it first, but the threat is there, and loud, and real.
Such a turn of events will not come on January 20, but it may well come. Advance preparation is key. Reach out to your community and make sure people understand the potential for such draconian actions. Park yourself somewhere next to the nose of your congressional delegation and remind them of their sworn duty to stand against executive overreach, including threats to civil rights and liberties. Keep in mind that those who will be most targeted — such as Muslims and immigrants — will need the most support, in terms of allies, resources and legal pushback. Support civil liberties organizations and grassroots legal services. Be surprised by nothing, and be ready for anything. Trump will have power, sure. So do we.
Will Trump nuke the world? Maybe. Will he abuse the powers of his office? You can damn near count on it. If and how he does so will be the whole ballgame. Take appropriate precautions.
Makes me want to burn a flag.