Donald Trump’s recent actions in regards to security laws have distinct authoritarian undertones and a dangerous potential. Since the beginning of his term, President Donald Trump has had an interesting relationship with surveillance laws. Near the beginning of his term, the President claimed without substantial evidence that the Obama administration had “wrongly abused” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to listen in on Trump Tower during the presidential election.
Despite having no evidence to back up his claims, President Trump is still attempting to discredit threats to his legitimacy by suggesting that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Justice Department are biased against him. He has accused the FBI of politicizing “the sacred investigation process of Democrats and against Republicans”. However, despite his complaints about the intelligence sector’s use of surveillance, Donald Trump signed a bill in early January to reauthorize FISA, which allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect and use communication surveillance without a warrant. Some Congressional representatives were against renewing FISA without any amendments to safeguard the privacy of American citizens, but despite the threat to the Fourth Amendment, the bill was approved.
Although these instances may seem insignificant, there are some warning signs that could, if left unchecked, result in an erosion of the United States’ democratic institutions. One such warning sign is President Trump’s need to undermine institutions or individuals that he views as “barriers” to his governance.
Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss potential reasons for this behavior in their work, “How Democracies Die.” They claim that populist leaders with authoritarian tendencies usually do not have past political experience, so democratic road blocks are highly frustrating. This is true in the case of President Trump, who was popular because he was a “Washington outsider” and not a politician. Levistky and Ziblatt also claim that these autocratic leaders will respond to their frustrations by trying to undermine perceived barriers to governance. Finally, autocratic leaders will try to use security threats to justify undemocratic measures. All of these trends are present in Donald Trump’s approach to surveillance laws.
The President attempted to undermine the FBI by de-classifying the memo about the investigation on his former adviser, Carter Page. The FBI appealed to the White House to keep the memo classified because the document, written by the chair of the House Intelligence Committee and known Trump ally Devin Nunes, is not entirely accurate. In addition to this assault on the judicial system, which is currently investigating President Trump for corrupt dealings with Russia, President Trump is threatening Congress with a shutdown of the federal government if they do not crack down on illegal immigration in the new budget. These actions show that Donald Trump, who has no political experience, is finding the democratic roadblocks of bureaucracy to be highly frustrating.
It is worrisome that his response to these frustrations is to forcibly coerce the legislative and judicial branches into agreeing with his policy ideals. The President follows up his threats with populist rhetoric, claiming that he is combating political bias or corruption in order to fulfill the wishes of the people. For example, after passing the bill to renew FISA despite his previous skepticism about government surveillance, President Trump tweeted: “This is NOT the same FISA law that was so wrongly abused during the election. I will always do the right thing for our country and put the safety of the American people first”.
Despite these lofty claims, the White House had issued a statement the day before Congress voted urging Congressional members to block any significant constraints on the NSA program. Also, the minimal changes that were proposed were shot down in the House of Representatives. Congress used the threat of terror attacks to justify the decision not to limit the NSA’s program by requiring officials to obtain warrants before finding and reading emails or other messages received or sent by Americans. FISA has been renewed three times since the terror attack on September 11, 2001. Since that event, the citizens of the United States have been more tolerant and supportive of laws that violate their constitutional rights in some way. While this was understandable in the initial aftermath of the September 11 security crisis, the privacy rights of Americans have been restricted for almost seventeen years.
In addition to the risk faced by U.S. citizens because of the surveillance laws, Donald Trump’s accusation that the Obama administration abused the surveillance technology during the election raises democratic concerns as well. If this did occur, it could be an indicator that the Democratic party and previous administration attempted to undermine the democratic system of elections by de-legitimizing Donald Trump with blackmail obtained from unethical surveillance of a citizen.
This accusation is serious even if the actual surveillance did not occur because it would mean that President Trump is manipulating the public sphere. As the President of the United States, his word is highly influential to the state and the population. If he is spreading false information about himself, his campaign, his opponents, or the state of the country, then many voting individuals will not have true information. This means that whatever choice they make while voting does not result in an individual that best represents them.
Alone, these occurrences may appear to be inconsequential. However, once they are put together and examined with the other political acts since the last presidential election, there are some worrisome patterns arising. Because Donald Trump was a populist candidate, he will govern as a populist President. Because of this, it is the duty of the judicial and legislative branches to closely watch for any unusual actions by the executive branch of government to avoid the erosion of democracy.
*Photo by MIH83, “Trump, USA, Policy” (Pixabay), Creative Commons Zero licence.