Theater of Cruelty

A thorough breach of the norms

Subtle Tools. The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump
USA / Donald Trump broke down established norms and led democracy astray, but he would never have reached this far, if the groundwork had not been laid by others – this new tradition of imprecise wording, secrecy and dodgy methods.


Donald Trump broke with a norm by being the first president in the history of the United States, who did not readily acknowledge the election result and step aside for his successor. This is only one of many conditions, which paint the picture of Trump as a swindler, who has led the United States on a course for disaster.

Karen J. Greenberg, who is director of the Center for National Security at Fordham University in New York, considers January 6, 2021 a milestone in recent American history. It was the day Trump supporters invaded and occupied the Capitol in Washington, and in his latest book Greenberg describes it as a temporary climax in a development that includes two other important dates – September 11, 2001 and December 7, 1941. On that basis, she refers to 6 January as Joe Biden's Ground Zero.

But she has an important point. Trump could hardly have carried the madness this far, if the basis for his disregard of the democratic rules of the game had not been laid in advance – and we find this basis in the Middle East.

The historical perspective

We will, however, include the historical perspective to get the author's point across, and therefore the dates are important. On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a dramatic attack on the American Pearl Harbor naval base. This shook the nation and was the direct cause of the US entering the Second World War.

The attack on New York, Washington and a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001 had a similar shock effect on the American people. Like Pearl Harbour, it was an attack that seemingly came out of the blue, and it led to an immediate response.

There is, however, a decisive difference between the two landmark events. In 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. It was a declaration of war entirely according to the book, with a clearly described enemy, namely the Japanese government, and a clearly defined goal, namely the defeat of this enemy. In 2001, President George W. Bush by starting the war on terror, and from the very beginning it was a different diffuse undertaking. Bush and his advisers did not seek a declaration of war according to the norm, but instead asked for a so-called one Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUME).

Trump 2018 10

This AUMF, which has since been periodically renewed, is characterized by inaccuracies and terminology that is solely intended to issue increased powers. It allows the president to "use all necessary and sufficient power" without specified limitations – and it can be directed at an unnamed enemy. There is also no geographical or temporal demarcation of the war. When the Islamic State appeared much later, it was thus not necessary to get Congress's approval of a declaration of war, as this new group could easily be inserted into the already existing AUMF.

In quick succession, Bush followed up with two other initiatives. Already the day after the adoption of the AUMF, Congress was presented with the first draft of a far-reaching legislative package against terrorism, which is best known by the name The Patriot Act, and at the beginning of October the president announced that he would establish a special Office of Homeland Security. Where the AUMF opened up far-reaching possibilities for taking military initiative, the Patriot Act gave the authorities enormous powers in the area of ​​intelligence, and Homeland Security paved the way for a dramatic upgrade of the security apparatus on the home front.

A paradigm shift

This development can be described as a sort of domino effect of destructive tools. And it set the stage for what Greenberg describes as the fourth piece of the game, which came to define Trump's four years in the White House: a sweeping breach of the norms.

The latter was very clearly expressed when Trump, one of the first things, appointed General James Mattis as defense minister. In his military career, this had been deeply involved in the war on terror, which Trump argued with when he sought – and received – dispensation from Congress in connection with the appointment. It could only take place by changing the norms, as the rules stipulate that no military person can become defense minister until seven years after putting on the uniform.

The appointment of Mattis was therefore a marked breach of norms, and it happened on the basis of the very diffuse definition of the word terror. Something similar was also the case with Trump's appointment of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to his special adviser. This was in violation of the anti-nepotism statute, which was introduced in 1967, after then-President John F. Kennedy had given his brother, Bobby, the job of attorney general.

The war on terror has thus left a clear mark on developments in the United States. In any case, there is good reason to regard 11 September as the starting point for a paradigm shift, which has significantly contributed to the undermining of American democracy.

This is clearly seen in one of Trump's very controversial measures, namely the entry ban on citizens from the age of seven muslimhappen nations. Already when he announced his candidacy for the presidency in June 2015, he struck on the fear of Islamic terror. "We are at war against radical Islamism", he said repeatedly during the election campaign, and on January 27, 2017 – a week after his inauguration – he issued a presidential decree with the full name "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States ».

Between Bush and Trump, the Democrat Obama was president for two terms, and he often spoke of his desire for greater transparency in the administration and to throttle back his predecessor's drastic measures in this area. Obama then also classified far fewer documents than any other president in recent history.

Such a vague term as "terror" does not belong in a democratic rule of law.

Nevertheless, he did not succeed in undoing the development that Bush had set in motion. He talked about dismantling Guantanamo, but he did not succeed in this. He took over the presidency at a time when George W. Bush had set new standards after the attacks on 11 September. This new tradition of imprecise wording, secrecy and hideous methods had in a short time become so embedded that Obama was unable to put a stop to the rampage. And thus we have an important explanation for how Trump could get such free play.

Karen J. Greenberg

Biden blatantly stepped in the spinach

In his inauguration speech on 20 January 2021, Joe Biden thus chose to use the word "terror". It is a given that he put something else in the word than Bush and Trump, but nevertheless such a vague designation does not belong in a democratic rule of law. Biden set out to issue a record number of presidential decrees, which were supposed to make amends for the disastrous course of his predecessor, and then he himself blatantly stepped into the spinach. He decided to appoint General Lloyd Austin as Minister of Defense – despite the fact that he had only been away from the military system for four years.

Karen J. Greenberg sees this as a worrying sign that Biden will probably not be able to do away with the movement away from democracy, which Bush started and which Trump blew up into monstrosities.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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