As of Tuesday’s Democratic primaries, it is now entirely safe to say that this time next year, either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be president of these United States.
Sure, a third-party candidate like Gary Johnson could play spoiler, but realistically, that’s about it. Even more of a pipe dream is an independent candidate with no party infrastructure, who will almost certainly fail to navigate the arcane ballot access laws with which one must reckon to run a 50-state campaign.
So them’s the breaks, and come January we’ll find ourselves with either President Clinton or President Trump.
Both options strike an unprecedented degree of horror into the electorate, scoring historic unfavorability ratings for presidential frontrunners. (I myself am among the one in four who can’t hold my nose hard enough to vote for either.) And that record-breaking unpopularity has led not only to the great American tradition of threatening to move to Canada, but also to a much-overdue reexamination of the powers of the presidency.
It’s as if the United States has had a minor heart attack upon the realization: “Wait, the president can do that?! And we’re going to give [Clinton or Trump] that kind of power?!!”
Yes, indeed, the president can do that, whatever that is. In fact, given the sheer overgrowth of executive authority, it would be faster to list the things that is not instead of the things it is.
Thus you may have noticed a whole new genre of articles penned by writers from across the political spectrum who recognize that powers they were totally okay giving to, say, a President Obama, could now belong to a President Trump or President Clinton.
Writing over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf—who is no latecomer to recognizing the dangers of an imperial presidency—hammered this point home with devastating clarity. Even if every single “branch of the federal government had been improbably filled, top to bottom, with incorruptible patriots constitutionally incapable of wrongdoing, this would still be so: The American people have no idea who the president will be in 2017,” he wrote four years ago.
What we did know then, Friedersdorf added, is that thanks to decades of unaccountable and unconstitutional expansions of the presidency, “the people in charge will possess the capacity to be tyrants—to use power oppressively and unjustly.”
What we know now is who will be in charge, and the picture Friedersdorf paints is no less frightening. Whether Trump or Clinton wins, our next president will by definition of the modern office be a threat to personal liberty, prosperity, and peace.
Of course, not to say “I told you so,” but we libertarians have been saying this for years. As libertarian comedian Penn Jillette said back in 2012, even with “the best president possible, even if everything he did were perfect, you’re still going into this expansion of presidential power, which has gone on with Clinton, Bush, and Obama.”
The problem here is so much bigger than the specific candidates for president (and this year, that’s saying a lot!). The problem is with what it means to be president in 2017—with the secret kill lists, the warrantless surveillance, the assassinations of innocent American teenagers, the indefinite detention, and so much more.
As Jillette added, “The president should have so little power that it doesn’t matter who they are, instead of having so much power that it doesn’t matter who they are.”
Still, it’s not January yet. In theory, Congress could get its act together and reassert some meaningful limits on presidential power. (Just this week, for example, Senator Rand Paul introduced an amendment to rein in executive war-making, a simple but significant constitutional check.) President Obama might oppose such changes if Clinton succeeds him, but perhaps that’s a chance he won’t want to take.
I confess I don’t have high hopes for such reform. And without it, what makes the prospect of this election scary isn’t primarily the race with which we are now officially stuck. Rather, it’s the guarantee that whichever candidate takes office, he or she will possess a degree of power better suited to an Age of Absolutism-era monarch than the administrator of a constitutional republic.
Whoever wins, we’ve already lost.