During the war on terror, Presidents Bush and Obama built the outlines of a potential police state — a turnkey tyranny. Now Donald Trump, who has that dictator's combination of needy egotism, extreme sensitivity to criticism, and utter contempt for democratic norms, is going to be president.
Will President Obama simply hand over this thing to President Trump, ready for use against potential regime enemies? So far, all signs point to yes. So if Trump turns the United States into something like Vladimir Putin's Russia, an authoritarian pseudo-democracy where liberal freedoms are all but abolished, Obama and the Democratic Party will bear a huge share of the blame.
Let's review what has been built over the last years and decades.
There is the dragnet surveillance program at the NSA, built by Bush and expanded by Obama, which might be used to monitor political dissidents and blackmail them with personal indiscretions. (It has been restrained, but not by much.)
There is Obama's drone assassination program, in which the president personally condemns people, including a U.S. citizen, to death without trial. It could be used domestically to pick off those who won't submit to other pressure.
There is the gigantic U.S. prison system. As of 2014, some 6,851,000 people were under criminal supervision (either in prison, jail, or on probation) in the United States. That's over 2 percent of the entire population. In many places, the criminal justice system is used as an all-purpose warehouse for any sort of social dysfunction, or simply as a way to fund the local government. Some rural locations have a supervision rate of about 10 percent. Even 2 percent is likely more than enough capacity than would be necessary to utterly crush any organized political movement — the Soviet gulags took up roughly 1-2 percent of the Soviet population at their height.
Finally, there was Bush's CIA torture program, which could be used to intimidate political dissidents or their families. While it has been halted, and Trump has apparently been talked out of torture for the moment, his stated positions shift with every passing second.
But equally important as the torture program's previous existence is the way President Obama's defense of CIA torturers — they were "patriots" who had a "tough job" and we shouldn't be "sanctimonious" about their war crimes, he said — firmly established the principle of total immunity for any lawbreaking on the part of the security apparatus. Torture is illegal under U.S. law, and is banned in the most categorical possible language ("No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture," it says) under a treaty duly passed by the Senate and signed by President Reagan. Yet Obama treated the idea that CIA torturers should face any accountability whatsoever with airy contempt. And when the CIA allegedly spied on its Senate overseers as they were attempting to finish a descriptive report — not a criminal investigation — Obama quietly backed the spies to the hilt.
It may seem far-fetched that Trump would sic the security apparatus on his critics and political enemies. But all the ingredients are there: the machinery, the impunity, and the expressed desire to do it.
Moreover, it will not be necessary to go quite as far as Putin to make it dramatically harder to organize anti-Trump efforts. People with the wrong politics could simply find their tax returns subject to endless audits, their every behavior monitored for the slightest legal transgression, their online history combed through for any pretext for a gigantic civil lawsuit (secretly funded by regime sympathizers), and their businesses subject to crippling regulatory nitpicks.
On the other hand, people who submit to the regime might find their career prospects correspondingly enhanced. Toe the line, and suddenly doors will start opening. Regime loyalists could become fabulously wealthy. When eight large Silicon Valley companies were asked, only Twitter said it would refuse to help Trump build a Muslim registry. As Steve Randy Waldman writes, the problem with an unaccountable security apparatus is corruption, not just loss of freedom.
The vast majority of people do not have the zealotry necessary to stand up to such tactics. Most just go along with whatever is happening. Would you maintain an anti-Trump stance if blackmail and threats of destitution started coming in from every direction? How about if they targeted your friends and family?
In a democratic government, the citizenry consent to government by making a free choice about whom to support at the polls. In an authoritarian government, consent is coerced through fear and intimidation. Americans might just be getting a taste of the latter, very soon.