The recent news that the Trump Justice Department subpoenaed Apple seeking data from the accounts of Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell presumably to spy on two partisan opponents brought howls of outrage from leading Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called it “shocking” when the story broke last week. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin demanded an investigation into the “appalling politicization of the Justice Department by Donald Trump and his sycophants.”
Mr. Schumer and Mr. Durbin are at least as outraged as Republicans were when former Attorney General Eric Holder, President Barack Obama’s self-described “wing man,” authorized wiretaps on journalists critical of his boss. Had the senators condemned Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder for their similar and equally outrageous abuse of power, one might take them more seriously. But they were as silent then as Trump supporters now.
Elected officials shocked only when the opposing party abuses power should be ashamed of their hypocrisy. After the attack on the World Trade Center, I joined liberals critical of the almost mindless escalation in domestic spying in the name of homeland security. My liberal friends were delighted, but I asked what they would do when a Democratic president did something similar. It didn’t take long to find out.
These self-proclaimed champions of privacy and a free press fell dutifully silent within a few years as Barack Obama managed to make George W. Bush look like a civil libertarian. They only rediscovered the Bill of Rights after Donald Trump moved into the Oval Office.
The political posturing by the enablers of both parties proves once again that power is as corrupting as Lord Acton warned back in 1887. The fear that power could tempt even good men to abuse their countrymen is what led the delegates gathered in Philadelphia to draft a Constitution for the new American republic to divide power among three equal branches and included Bill of Rights to enumerate individual rights so important that government should forever be denied the power to arbitrarily ignore them.
Nearly a century before Acton, James Madison wrote of the need to circumscribe the power of elected officials to ignore the rights of those who elect them: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men … you must first enable the government to control the governed, and … oblige it to control itself.” The Constitution was designed with limits that worked well until president after president found loopholes that allowed them to amass more and more power — just as Madison and Acton feared.
While Lord Acton’s observation that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is often quoted, what follows is too often ignored. Acton then wrote in the very next sentence that “Great men are almost always bad men.”
Many good men and women are attracted to politics and run for offices up to and including the presidency for the purest of reasons, but even the best of them once elected too often conclude that those opposed to their vision are not only wrong, but corrupt or evil… and must therefore be stopped even if to do so they resort to means they once condemned.
Politicians go after their critics to enhance their own desire to win the next election, to satisfy a personal desire for power, to deny opponents any chance to thwart or roll back their plans for a better future, because they are thin-skinned or sometimes just because they can. The reasons are irrelevant. Once a president, for example, successfully manages to get away with practices that previously seemed unacceptable his successors of both parties, since they are unlikely to be angels, will do the same.
Many today consider former Presidents Barack Obama or Donald Trump great men, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that Lord Acton would have also described both as “bad men.” Whatever the value of their quite different visions, they both illegitimately used power to attempt to silence their critics. Earlier presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson did the same in an earlier day and were defended by those who supported them and attacked by those who didn’t.
Partisans of the left and right are all too willing to defend their own right or wrong. Those who excused Barack Obama’s misuse of the Justice Department to go after his opponents and to intimidate reporters he didn’t like are this week appalled that Donald Trump did the same thing — while those Republicans who were quick to condemn a Democratic president for spying on his opponents are silent in the face of evidence of Mr. Trump’s misuse of the same power.
To survive as a free society, America needs public officials who believe in the rights they swore to protect and defend when they took office and have the courage to call out their friends as well as their opponents when they find them misusing the powers with which they have been entrusted by the Constitution and the men and women who elected them.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for the Washington Times.