WASHINGTON — On July 7, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, met privately with House Republicans near the Capitol. I was present as chief policy director of the House Republican Conference. Mr. Trump’s purpose was to persuade the representatives to unite around him, a pitch he delivered in a subdued version of his stream-of-consciousness style. A congresswoman asked him about his plans to protect Article I of the Constitution, which assigns all federal lawmaking power to Congress.
Mr. Trump interrupted her to declare his commitment to the Constitution — even to parts of it that do not exist, such as “Article XII.” Shock swept through the room as Mr. Trump confirmed one of our chief concerns about him: He lacked a basic knowledge of the Constitution.
There is still deeper cause for concern. Mr. Trump’s erroneous proclamation also suggested that he lacked even an interest in the Constitution. Worse, his campaign rhetoric had demonstrated authoritarian tendencies.
He had questioned judicial independence, threatened the freedom of the press, called for violating Muslims’ equal protection under the law, promised the use of torture and attacked Americans based on their gender, race and religion. He had also undermined critical democratic norms including peaceful debate and transitions of power, commitment to truth, freedom from foreign interference and abstention from the use of executive power for political retribution.
There is little indication that anything has changed since Election Day. Last week, Mr. Trump commented on Twitter that flag-burning should be punished by jailing and revocation of citizenship. As someone who has served this country, I carry no brief for flag-burners, but I defend their free-speech right to protest — a right guaranteed under the First Amendment. Although I suspect that Mr. Trump’s chief purpose was to provoke his opponents, his action was consistent with the authoritarian playbook he uses.
Mr. Trump also recently inflated his election performance, claiming — without evidence — that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” This, too, is nothing new. Authoritarians often exaggerate their popular support to increase the perception of their legitimacy. But the deeper objective is to weaken the democratic institutions that limit their power. Eroding confidence in voting, elections and representative bodies gives them a freer hand to wield more power.
As a C.I.A. officer, I saw firsthand authoritarians’ use of these tactics around the world. Their profound appetite for absolute power drives their intolerance for any restraint — whether by people, organizations, the law, cultural norms, principles or even the expectation of consistency. For a despot, all of these checks on power must be ignored, undermined or destroyed so that he is all that matters.
Mr. Trump has said that he prefers to be unpredictable because it maximizes his power. During his recent interview with The New York Times, he casually abandoned his fiery calls during the campaign for torture, prosecuting Hillary Clinton and changing libel laws. Mr. Trump’s inconsistencies and provocative proposals are a strategy; they are intended to elevate his importance above all else — and to place him beyond democratic norms, beyond even the Constitution.
In our nation, power is shared, checked and balanced precisely to thwart would-be autocrats. But as we become desensitized to the notion that Mr. Trump is the ultimate authority, we may attribute less importance to the laws, norms and principles that uphold our system of government, which protects our rights. Most dangerously, we devalue our own worth and that of our fellow Americans.
We must never forget that we are born equal, with basic, natural rights, including those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those rights are inherent in us because we are humans, not because they are granted by government. Government, indeed, exists primarily to protect those natural rights; the only legitimate power it has is that which we grant to it.
We can no longer assume that all Americans understand the origins of their rights and the importance of liberal democracy. We need a new era of civic engagement that will reawaken us to the cause of liberty and equality. That engagement must extend to ensuring that our elected representatives uphold the Constitution, in deed and discourse — even if doing so puts them at odds with their party.
We cannot allow Mr. Trump to normalize the idea that he is the ultimate arbiter of our rights. Those who can will need to speak out boldly and suffer possible retaliation. Others will need to offer hands of kindness and friendship across the traditional political divide, as well as to those who may become targets because of who they are or what they believe. Those who understand the cause are called to the work, which I hope will unify and bless our nation in time.
The New York Times