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The Chilling Powers That Trump Will Inherit

What will Trump do with his presidential authority and his access to history’s most powerful military and its most frightening surveillance apparatus?

The threat of a far-right white supremacist movement rising to the surface in the US has long been a possibility. But few could have imagined that Donald Trump would actually win the US presidential election.

That possibility alone was hard to accept. But a much more sobering reality is that, as US “commander-in-chief”, this dangerous man will soon have his hands on the levers of power overseen by the previous administration of Barack Obama. This includes the powers of mass surveillance and weapons of mass destruction.

Writing in TIME Magazine the day after Trump’s upsetting victory, transgender and digital rights activist Evan Greer observed that Obama has “a matter of weeks to do one thing that could help prevent the United States from veering into fascism: declassifying and dismantling as much of the federal government’s unaccountable, secretive, mass surveillance state as he can — before Trump is the one running it.”

On November 10, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted: “The powers of one government are inherited by the next. Reforming them is now the greatest responsibility of this president, long overdue.” Snowden continued: “To be clear, ‘this president’ means this president, right now. Not the next one. There is still time to act.”

On November 12, insurgent publisher WikiLeaks tweeted a reminder to those in the US who “let Obama ‘legalize'” assassinating anyone, spying on everyone, and prosecuting publishers and sources. “It’s all Trump’s in 69 days,” they warned.

During Trump’s election campaign, he shot-off a litany of verbal missiles that should have sunk his own candidacy. Echoing darker periods in US history — such as the FBI’s COINTELPRO which carried out covert, violent and illegal actions against domestic groups — Trump called for surveillance of mosques, suggested he might direct his attorney general to investigate the Black Lives Matter movement, and threatened journalists and freedom of the press.

These threats by Trump — as worrisome as they are — are not new. The FBI surveilled the Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in April last year. After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, New York City police systematized the surveillance of Muslims. And during his term, Obama has persecuted more whistleblowers under the archaic 1917 Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined.

Trump has promised to bring back waterboarding interrogation methods and even apply “unthinkable” torture techniques. He has expressed his wish to fill the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba with more prisoners. He will oversee Obama’s drone program.

The list of vile Trump promises and possibilities spans from the dark and macabre to the dark and comedic. Even those of Dr. Strange Love proportions instill a macabre sobriety about the situation.

Ten former US nuclear launch officers have expressed concern about Trump gaining power over nuclear weapons. These officers — who were responsible for executing nuclear launch orders — signed a letter warning that Trump should not have his “finger on the button” because of his volatile temperament.

There is good reason to be concerned about what Trump will do with all his newfound presidential authority. He has, after all, vowed to take revenge on his adversaries. Whether he means this threat or was playing up the hate of his xenophobic electoral base to whip up votes is unknown. But what is known is that Trump’s election brings us into dangerous and uncharted territory.

Just days after the presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 201 “incidents of election-related harassment and intimidation across the country … that range from anti-Black to anti-woman to anti-LGBT incidents.”

The German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt observed that the most obvious distinctions between power and violence is that “power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence relying on instruments up to a point can manage without them.”

Trump’s numbers may not be that strong, but he will soon have access to powerful instruments. Forty-three percent of eligible voters abstained from this election. Among those who did vote, just 27 percent preferred him. This means that a little more than a quarter of the eligible voting population supports Trump. Indeed, he lost the popular vote. It was the Electoral College that put him in power. How will he respond to rebellion or dissent? It is too soon to tell.

Looking beyond a Trump presidency, over the next four years social movements will have an opportunity to reach out to the disheartened and disillusioned and to become entrenched for the long-haul and for deep structural change: movements, organizations and institutions that are pro-women, pro-people of color, pro-LGBTQ, pro-working class, pro-diversity, pro-equality, and for mass participation in politics.

This suggests also looking beyond the limits of Democratic Party politics and the neoliberal order that helped give rise to this situation in the first place.

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