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Friday, May 27, 2016

Don't Elect Tyrants

Benjamin Wittes writes at Lawfare:
John Adams's famous aspiration is not our reality: We live in a government of men, as well as laws.

One of those men, the most powerful of them all, may soon be Donald Trump.

So as the late Joan Rivers might have said, "Can we talk?"
The possibility of Trump's election warrants a serious conversation about the nature of the American presidency and what it would mean for someone of Trump's dubious mental health to occupy the office. I am not a clinician, but I think it's safe to say without fear of libeling the man that Trump's speeches reflect a degree of grandiosity, narcissicm, impulsivity, lack of self command, and instinct to attack political opponents that are unusual even within the end-of-the-bell-curve emotional zone reserved for politicians. This is a highly unusual man, one with a pronounced instinct to threaten and verbally attack those who disagree with him or whom he just dislikes. He goes after foreign countries, news reporters, opponents, and anyone else who criticizes him. When you're talking about putting such a man into a unique office with atypical powers to carry out threats, it is worth dwelling on the compatibility of the two.
The soft spot, the least tyrant-proof part of the government, is the U.S. Department of Justice and the larger law enforcement and regulatory apparatus of the United States government. The first reason you should fear a Donald Trump presidency is what he would do to the ordinary enforcement functions of the federal government, not the most extraordinary ones.
A prosecutor—and by extention, a tyrant president who directs that prosecutor—can harass or target almost anyone, and he can often do so without violating any law. He doesn't actually need to indict the person, though that can be fun. He needs only open an investigation; that alone can be ruinous. The standards for doing so, criminal predication, are not high. And the fabric of American federal law—criminal and civil law alike—is so vast that a huge number of people and institutions of consequence are ripe for some sort of meddling from authorities.
 The presidency's very virtues as an office—relative unity and vertical integration—make it impossible to render abuse-proof. It is vested with a truly awesome thing:"the executive power" of the entire federal government. There are simply too many ways to abuse that power to imagine we can denude the office of the ability to behave tyranically.
There is, in fact, only one way to tyrant-proof the American presidency: Don't elect tyrants to it.
To a degree we don't choose to acknowledge, our system does rely on civic virtue and decency. Trump has campaigned against that decency. He has actively promised countless abuses of power. He has promised retaliations against his enemies. A country that, having been so clearly forewarned, nonetheless chooses to elect such a man cannot then treat his midconduct as indicating a deficiency in the office in which it knowingly installed him.