To shamelessly steal a great line from a great author for an undeserving purpose: Donald Trump is scary to a lot of people in a lot of different ways. Wanna know how he’s scary to me?
Here’s the thing that scares me most about Donald Trump – and it actually isn’t specific to Donald Trump. What’s scary to me about Donald Trump is that he’s not having the clarifying effect that people like him should.
To illustrate before explaining, this weekend a friend sent me this link on Slack chat calling it "so good." It’s a recent post about an old issue: gun owners accuse President Obama of pushing backdoor gun bans, and Obama responds with a crushing one-liner that…
Well, you kinda have to go read it for yourself, but long story short, there is no "good" here. The man asks Obama a perfectly reasonable question, which I’ll paraphrase (you can check my paraphrase at the original link) as "Mr. President, gun owners would be more sympathetic to your guns agenda if you employed more targeted approaches rather than the blanket attacks on the gun industry you’ve advocated." For the uninformed, what he’s talking about here are things like
The Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act, which allows gunshot victims to sue gun manufacturers if their loved ones are killed by gunfire. The belief among gun ownders is that the purpose here is to bankrupt the gun industry, or at least to help make guns prohibitively expensive.
The executive order closing the so-called "gunshow loophole" which may be unconstitutional and is currently the subject of a lawsuit. The suspicion here is that this is a backdoor attempt to criminalize private/individual gun sales.
A proposed ban on civilian sales of certain kinds of ammunition – dropped in the face of Republican opposition, largely because proponents of the ban could not point to a single incident of it ever having been used in the killing of a law enforcement officer, despite that being their stated reason for supporting the ban. The suspicion here is the same as in (1) – that they’re trying to make ammunition prohibitively expensive
The Obama Administration has answers to all three lines of attack – some more cogent than others (personal opinion: there is simply no defense in the case of (2) – that’s a clear cut case of the President issuing orders to ignore laws he doesn’t like – the gunshow "loophole" may be a "loophole," but it’s one duly enacted by Congress and so must be rescinded by Congress). But in this exchange he declines to give any of them. What he does instead is respond to an accusation his petitioner did NOT make – namely that he wants to ban and then confiscate guns. Leaving aside that that’s the probably true on the personal level – it’s also true that President Obama hasn’t advocated any gun bans or confiscation programs in his official capacity as president, even though he’s been roundly accused of doing so by the usual suspects. The thing that gets me is: the usual suspects aren’t here, and the question before him isn’t whether he’s trying to ban guns. The question is rather whether it isn’t constitutionally suspect to make gun ownership in general more difficult just because a very small segment of the population abuses their gun rights? Obama can and should answer that question – but he opts instead to burn a straw man like a pimply junior high debate team amateur.
And then it gets worse.
In the course of burning his straw man, the President laments the fact that he can’t prohibit people from buying guns just because they visited web sites which advocate national security threats. Meaning – his cute little debate trick is actually in the service of a fascist principle. Let’s spell this out so it’s clear – individual gun ownership is a constitutional right – meaning the government must not infringe on it. If you want to deprive a citizen of any right, there must be Due Process of Law. This is – quite obviously – doubly true when the right you propose to deprive a citizen of is explicitly constitutionally protected, as gun ownership is. The line of argument the President is using here is "I’m trying to keep you safe by depriving citizens of constitutional rights, and I want to do this without charging them with a crime or even taking them to court. I want the mere fact that they visited certain websites to suffice." You can say I’m exaggerating for effect if you like, but you’ll be wrong: that is an expressly fascist attitude.
Now, I went down this garden path for a reason – which is to point out that some of my liberal friends can’t see this for what it is merely because they personally dislike guns and gun owners. They see this same exchange, but they don’t notice the dodge, and they don’t notice that the president is plainly arguing for executive fiat in deciding who has constitutional rights – a thing which flatly contradicts the Constitution. This should concern them, but it doesn’t, because the man arguing for it is on their team. They don’t stop to think that people on their team can have dangerous authoritarian impulses, so they just appreciate they (ineffective, but they don’t notice) smackdown.
So what does this have to do with Donald Trump being scary?
It has to do with Donald Trump being scary because for once in my adult life, the Republicans have nominated someone who more or less really does fit the Democrats’ caricatures. I mean, he really does seem to be racist, cavalier about important Constitutional protections (esp. Free Speech and – wouldnchaknowit? – Due Process), and personally unstable. So, that would be the kind of person who, if duly elected President, you would really want constrained by Constitutional protections.
Unfortunately, people have been dishing stuff that they know to be nonsense (e.g. comparing Bush II to Hitler) against their political opponents for so long that when someone who’s actually a little bit scary comes along, they fail to notice the difference.
Look, if you’re worried about the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, then the very best place to start limiting the damage is making sure that the Constitution is working as intended. The horriying beauty of Democracy is that whatever goes for your team eventually goes for the other team as well. If you sit back and watch important constitutional principles eroded so that your guy can achieve some policy goals, it’s just eventually going to be true that someone you don’t like can take advantage of that same erosion to achieve policy goals you don’t like. If Donald Trump can’t clear that up for you, it’s really not obvious to me what it’s going to take.
There are some things that I like about Trump. I like that he’s smashing political correctness canards. I like that he’s asking us to reevaluate a lot of foreign policy sacred cows. I like that he’s nationalistic. And I like that he’s put immigration on the table as a real political issue. But liking individual things about him doesn’t mean I can’t see the package for what it is: a reckless disregard for everything that makes the American constitutional system great combined with a personal style that will have lasting negative effects on the culture. There’s no way in hell I’m voting for Donald Trump.
I realize that it’s largely too late for the left to start reining Obama’s excesses in – but late is still better than never. So, I propose a "Trump Test." Before you go calling any and everything that Obama says "so good," could you maybe do a little thought experiment where you imagine Donald Trump asking for the same thing? So when Obama says he wants people on the no fly list to be prohibited from buying guns, could you maybe imagine Donald Trump saying the same thing, just as an exercise? Because I have to believe that if Donald Trump were advocating it, you would actually ask yourself the right questions – like whether you can trust him not to use that power to make life difficult for Muslims just for being Muslim. To name one example.