Welcome to the Fight Against Unchecked Power

The dangers of wherewereyouism


Vincent Maher/Creative Commons

You may have heard of whataboutism—the practice of rejecting criticisms of a regime on the grounds that other regimes do bad things too. Well, whataboutism has a cousin. Call it wherewereyouism: the impatient disdain that civil libertarians start to feel right after an election, when many members of the newly disempowered party suddenly rediscover the virtues of limiting government power.

It's an understandable feeling, and I've sometimes been prone to it myself. (Back in 2009, when the Tea Party protests started taking off, my initial response was: "Why weren't you marching when Bush was pushing through TARP?") To an extent, it's not just understandable but valuable. As center-left types watch Donald Trump take control of a presidency whose powers grew greater while Obama was in office, making the executive branch an even vaster and less accountable maze of surveillance and secrecy and unilateral punitive action, it's a fine time for libertarians (and for those progressives who kept their wits in the Obama years) to try to seize the teachable moment: "You see? YOU SEE? Now will you listen when we warn you what could happen?"

But you don't want to get mired there. Eventually you've got to reach out and work with those chastened fair-weather friends of freedom. I don't mean the hacks who gave us Hillary Clinton. (They don't seem all that chastened, and they're not even fair-weather friends.) I mean rank-and-file activists, legislative backbenchers, or anyone else who has suddenly learned how it feels to look at the government and feel dread. We don't know yet whether the worst names being floated for a Trump cabinet will actually land there, but even if we're spared the horrors of David Clarke at Homeland Security or John Bolton at State, it's clear that Trump's presidency will be terrible on a host of issues, particularly where police powers are concerned. And since the number of Americans who are consistent defenders of civil liberties is pretty small, obstructing or rolling back bad policies will require coalitions.

Some of this month's born-again dissidents will learn their lesson and be more skeptical of the state even after Trump makes his exit; some will be back to cheerleading executive authority as soon as President Michael Bloomberg wants the right to call in drone strikes against black-market Big Gulp dealers. But as long as any of them are willing to stand against Trump when he tries to take new powers—or to abuse the powers his predecessors bequeathed him—I say welcome to the fight.