Nearly half a century ago, historian Arnold Schleshinger Jr. wrote about the rise of the Imperial President whose executive powers exceed those assigned by the Constitution. Since then, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have been accused of “imperial” tendencies.
President Donald Trump, however, has taken this tendency to a whole new level as even his own former Defense Secretary James Mattis has indicated, which poses an imminent threat to institutions and principles that serve as the foundation of American democracy. To protect American democracy, the undermining of civil liberties, civil rights and the abuse of executive power by the Trump administration should be condemned and placed in check through immediate bipartisan actions.
American civil liberties have continually come under fire from the Trump administration. Credible media outlets that play a critical role in holding government officials accountable have been accused of being “fake news” because they challenge the president by asking difficult questions and report on his actions, statements, and polling that put him in an unfavorable light. Trump has threatened the right of some citizens to assemble, including those who have taken to the streets to demand justice and reform of the criminal justice system, while encouraging others to protest against COVID-19 stay-home orders based on his own political views and interests. He has resorted to maligning and destabilizing governors who are struggling to respond to the pandemic in the absence of strong, responsible national leadership.
In addition, the administration has undermined the achievements of decades of civil rights reforms by attacking voters’ rights while refusing to expand mail-in voting, citing unsubstantiated claims of fraud. Most recently, the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos threatened to withhold funding to states that protect the civil rights of transgender students to play sports in violation of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, and Trump rolled back a ban on discriminating against transgender patients. His threat to use the Insurrection Act, last invoked by a president to fight segregation, to put down the Black Lives Matter protests was a direct attack on civil liberties and civil rights as well as an abuse of executive power.
Among the most egregious abuses of power by Trump has been his sacking of inspectors general who serve as internal watchdogs in the federal government. His recent firing of the State Department inspector general is particularly disturbing given that Trump’s decision to do so was reportedly at the urging of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was under investigation for the misuse of tax funds and expediting an $8 billion dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
Veteran CIA analysts who have monitored crackdowns in Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes have identified disturbing parallels to Trump’s handling of BLM protesters. Marc Polymeropoulos, who served in the CIA for over 25 years, said that the clearing of peaceful protests in Washington reminded him of similar tactics used in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Another former CIA analyst Gail Helt told The New York Times that the Administration’s response is reminiscent of the actions of autocrats, adding that this “is what happens in countries before a collapse.”
Trump’s penchant for an authoritarian leadership style is evident in his praise for autocratic leaders like Xi Jinping of China and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom and Canada, two of our oldest and closest allies, are aghast at Trump’s efforts to strong arm the G-7 into admitting Russia although Vladimir Putin’s administration has been accused of anti-democratic actions both at home and abroad.
Unified bipartisan action has been critical to protecting American democracy, exemplified by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith during the McCarthy era and more recently by Sen. Mitt Romney and former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. We must call upon our elected officials to hold this administration accountable, expand dialogue across the political aisle, and protect the institutional and constitutional foundations of our democracy. We as citizens need to continue to educate ourselves, speak out, support organizations that uphold our democratic principles, and most importantly, exercise our right to vote.
Linda Beck and Nicole Kellett are members of the faculty at the University of Maine at Farmington. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.