If you need some low-cost entertainment, ask a person raised in the era of Google Maps to figure out how to get to somewhere without technology. It illustrates what we all know: Even those of us old enough to remember the world of paper atlases and “calling for directions” have become hopelessly dependent on those colored lines and disembodied voices to tell us where to go.
The Global Positioning System is also deeply integrated into the modern economy. A GPS shutdown would cause widespread chaos.
Now consider the fact that since GPS is military hardware with a secondary civilian use, the president could order it turned off. Right before the election. For whatever nonsense reason occurred to him (antifa is using it, or something).
Could such a thing happen? Despite government reassurances that neither the military nor civilian GPS systems have ever been shut down, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Just last year, the brief January 2019 government “shutdown” degraded civilian GPS service by withholding funds for certain types of data collection.
The ongoing crisis Trump is creating by hamstringing the US Postal Service is just the tip of the iceberg. An executive branch truly committed to misusing its power to disrupt society has an uncomfortably large number of tools at its disposal. In theory, could a president shut down air traffic? Sure; it happened after 9/11. Manipulate the granting of passports? It’s already happening. Turn off the power grid? The Department of Energy’s grid regulator, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, consists of four Trump appointees. Use immigration enforcement maliciously, targeting cities around the election? We’ve seen this already. Impose onerous restrictions on travel within the United States based on dubious claims about civil disorder? Homeland Security could certainly accommodate that request. Simply arrest people arbitrarily, holding and releasing them without charges, to create fear and unrest? We just saw the dry run for that in Portland and other cities. Impose arbitrary restrictions on broadcasting or the availability of wireless services or the Internet? The FCC has a three-Republican majority, and authoritarians around the world love this trick.
If any of this sounds outlandish, you need to pay closer attention to the news. With all pretense that Trump is not an authoritarianism gone, it might not be alarmist enough. The implicit understanding in American politics that there are certain things a president could do but never would has—if it ever was true—been thoroughly undone. The institutions designed to constrain the executive branch have proven useless repeatedly over the past four years, and they’re not going to save us now that Trump is desperate to hold on to power.
There is no way to solve these problems before the upcoming election, but in many cases we are dealing with the long-term consequences of ignoring or degrading public services, and with the assent of Congress. The USPS, most notably, was financially crippled by a law, the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, that faced so little opposition in Congress that it passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House via voice vote before being signed by President George W. Bush during a December lame-duck session.
Republicans eager to privatize the Postal Service joined the Democratic cosponsors (Representatives Henry Waxman and Danny Davis) showing off their “anti–big government” chops to put the post office in a state of permanent financial crisis. Did the bill explicitly tell the president to manipulate mail service during an election? No. But it laid the groundwork for Trump’s actions. Members of Congress told in 2016 about what is happening in 2020 surely would have claimed that no president would ever do such a thing. Yet here we are.
Whether through its failure to allocate the money needed to maintain physical infrastructure or its inability to see how fundamental services are vulnerable to political manipulation, Congress has not taken steps to protect the American public’s access to basic services and infrastructure from a malicious executive branch. It is past time to drop the assumption that future presidents will steward the nation’s resources in good faith. As uncomfortable as it is to admit, presidents and appointees may again use their powers in the crassest, most partisan, and most damaging way possible. The merging of the interests of the state and the personal political interests of the president cannot be undone by electing one pleasantly bland president who promises to be a good sport. The specter of Trump will keep haunting us.
Congress cannot unilaterally revoke all the powers of the executive branch, obviously. But moving forward it needs to legislate for the worst-case scenario, not the assumption that presidents will be fundamentally decent folks. Legislation designed to insulate essential services from political manipulation to the greatest possible extent would likely be politically popular. “Good government” reforms were easily passed in the 1970s in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War, and the post-Trump era (whenever that is) will be a good time to undo some of the mistakes of the past as well. It’s not the sexiest agenda a Biden presidency could push, but this problem runs deeper than a single man. Switching out Trump for amiable old Joe is not a solution, just a temporary reprieve.