Executive Power

‘Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America’

By Jack Goldsmith
Monday, March 5, 2018, 8:00 AM

Tuesday is the release date for an extraordinary collection of essays published under the title: Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America. The editor of the book, my colleague Cass Sunstein, says this in the introduction:

This is not a book about Donald Trump, not by any means, but there is no question that many people, including some of the authors here, think that Trump’s words and deeds have put the can-it-happen-here question on the table. Several of the essays engage his election and presidency. Some of the authors fear that an election of a left-wing extremist could create its own form of “it.”

But the discussions here reach well beyond President Trump, left-wing extremists, and any other contemporary figure. They are focused on big and enduring questions. For example:

Is a powerful central government a threat to liberty—or a safeguard against it?

If a President wants to be a dictator, what steps would he take?

Can populism produce authoritarianism?

What’s the Deep State, and should we worry about it?

How robust is freedom of speech?

Can we rely on our courts?

Does the American Constitution solve the problem?

What can we learn from history?

That’s a pretty good summary of the book. Here is the table of contents:

My contribution is about the paradoxes of the “Deep State”:

Some see these bureaucrats [of the American Deep State] as a vital check on the law-breaking or authoritarian or otherwise-illegitimate tendencies of democratically elected officials. Others decry the Deep State as a self-serving authoritarian cabal that illegally and illegitimately undermines democratically elected officials and the policies they were elected to implement. The truth is that the Deep State, which is a real phenomenon, has long been both a threat to democratic politics and a savior of it. The problem is that it is hard to maintain its savior role without also accepting its threatening role. The two go hand in hand, and are difficult to untangle. ...

There is significant evidence that the Deep State…—either as part of a concerted movement or via individuals acting independently—has used secretly collected information opportunistically and illegally to sabotage the President and his senior officials. The hard questions are whether this sabotage is virtuous or abusive, whether we can tell, and what the consequences of these actions are.

My essay traces the history of the national security Deep State from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to the present; shows how the Deep State’s reaction to Trump has been norm-defiant and damaging yet at the same time possibly necessary; and concludes pessimistically by explaining how and why the battle of “Trump v. Deep State” has been harmful to our national security institutions.

Collections of essays are often dull affairs, but this one isn’t.