By Grace Bird
Authoritarianism is upon us, and we need to act. This was the resounding message of the panel on Feb. 1 at American University, “The Challenge of Setting Limits on Presidential Power Under the Trump Administration.”
Hosted by SPA’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, the panel featured a diverse, complementary cast; Amanda Terkel, Senior Political Reporter for the Huffington Post, Joe Gaeta, Senior Advisor for U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Ian Millhiser, Senior Fellow for the Center for American Progress.
Moderated by AU Professor Chris Edelson, panelists didn’t strive for impartiality. Instead, it was assumed the audience not only did not vote for Donald Trump, but despised him – a safe assumption at a liberal arts college in a district where 90.48% of residents voted for Hillary Clinton, according to the District of Columbia Board of Elections.
“Authoritarianism means the inability to bring about meaningful change through elections,” Millhiser said, “Trump is an authoritarian.” Millhiser blamed the constitution, a sacred document enshrined in American politics and culture, for the rise of an authoritarianism. The electoral college, intended to unify the nation, only divided it. It disproportionately augmented the value of rural votes and diminished democratic ones – as Democrats are mostly concentrated in cities.
“One person, one vote, is just a really important moral principle,” said Millhiser. A vote from Wyoming will count 67 times more than a vote from California, Millhiser said. The American democracy allows certain people more rights to participate in politics.
“That’s a moral abomination,” said Millhiser.
Millhiser took issue with the American government’s emphasis on checks and balances. The gridlock that plagued Obama’s Presidency left constituents frustrated. Too many veto points caused a stagnant government “incapable of change in any direction,” said Millhiser. While the founders should be respected for their work 230 years ago in Philadelphia, “a lot of human history” has occurred since then. Governments drew inspiration from the first democracy, established in America, and made appropriate alternations. Millhiser argued parliaments in Canada and England were not falling to tyranny. Moderator Edelson concurred; the too framers believed they were conducting an experiment.
“Something had to give,” said Millhiser, in reference to Trump’s win. He conceded it is “lucky” the individual benefitting from years of inefficiency in government is an “orange, short-fingered vulgarian” rather than an establishment politician like Marco Rubio. Rubio would introduce similarly dark laws in a “normal,” and unnoticeable manner, Millhiser said.
Gaeta admitted last week was one of “shock and awfulness.”
“We had a hard time in congress trying to figure out what everything meant,” said Gaeta. Last weekend however, he emerged from the fog, newly interpreting the disorganization of the current administration to be positive.
“People are quickly realizing, this may not have been the change we wanted,” said Gaeta. “It seems to have been a bit of a gift and I hope we’re going to use it.”
However, Gaeta admitted the Democratic party is also disorganized. The diversity of the left in terms of ideology, race, and orientation, is vastly enriching, yet can be confusing. Congress struggles to “pull the oars in the same direction,” said Gaeta.
“Time is on our side with this,” said Gaeta. The bureaucracy inherently slows progress, and change is enabled by consent, he said.
“Before we know it we’re going to be in 2018. So delay, delay,” said Gaeta.
In terms of the future of journalism, Amanda Terkel isn’t worried.
“Ratings are stronger at CNN are than ever,” said Terkel. Despite lectures from Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and the President himself warning the media against criticizing the administration, Terkel does not believe outlets will remove a reporter for “talking smack about Trump.” She argued access journalism was overrated. Terkel began her career at a blog in 2005 when blogs weren’t considered “a thing,” had limited access — and was able to write critically, without fear of retribution. Access has value, yet “you don’t want to sell your soul to get that information,” argued Terkel.
Although this Presidency may be an anomaly, Millhiser expressed concerned about its long-term implications. He cautioned Trump may hollow out the American government, as seen by Nixon’s administration.
“A lot of expertise is housed in government right now and I worry it’s going to depart for good reasons,” said Milheiser. “They are going to be asked to do immoral things and they aren’t going to want to do them.” The next President may arrive in four or eight years to a government “hollowed out of institutional memory.”
Post-Watergate the government became a “much younger place,” said Gaeta, who, despite his relative youth, is the youngest employee in his office besides the senator.
“People who know where the bodies are buried in the agencies are gone,” said Gaeta.
The panelists were clear: the new administration defines authoritarianism, the product of an archaic constitution designed to prevent change.
Panelists weren’t only despairing. Gaeta, Terkel, and Millhiser were encouraged by a quickly organizing left, descending on streets and airports.
“Now we have a common enemy,” said Terkel. “The base is coming together.”