9/11 and America's March Toward Authoritarianism

GOP pols in the Bush years kick-started America’s march toward authoritarianism. Now Democrats have embraced Bush’s vision, and are making Republicans targets of their own repressive policies

Well, that didn’t take long. Within a day after Joe Biden announced his vaccine mandate plan, a conga line of effervescent blue-friendly pundits rushed to offer their hottest hot takes on the many exciting authoritarian possibilities that might now be open, with government unshackled at last.

CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen had a busy end of the week, proposing the equivalent of a no-fly list for the unvaccinated, explaining, “It’s not a constitutional right as far as I know to board a plane.” She also compared walking outside unvaccinated to driving drunk, suggested the penalties should be similar, and praised Biden’s plan by saying, “if you endanger other people, there is an obligation by society to do something about that.”

USA Today said the mandate was a great start, but now we need “data-driven mask mandates, too.” FBI agent-turned-“journalist” Asha Rangappa playfully retweeted one poster’s all-in-one solution, in which the government would simply conscript all unvaccinated people into the service, vaccinate them as required for active duty personnel, then discharge them.

The Biden speech inspiring all this was pure catnip to those yearning to punish all the obstinate ignoramuses said to be causing America’s problems. It was announced that the TSA would double fines for people on planes not wearing masks, with Biden snapping, “If you break the rules, be prepared to pay.” President DodderGramps then took a hard stance on the “nearly 80 million Americans” who still aren’t vaccinated, saying through gritted teeth, “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” and “your refusal has cost all of us.” It was the most pointed presidential warning since 2001, when George W. Bush all but rolled out Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly theme as he promised to “smoke [terrorists] out of their holes.”

The Republican Party’s collective response to Biden’s mandate plan reminded me of the Zucker brothers take on how to deal with adversity in “a mature and adult fashion”:

Republican Senator John Thune decried an “extreme government overreach,” Arizona governor Doug Ducey called the vaccine mandate a “dictatorial approach,” while a Kentucky congressman denounced Biden’s move as “absolutely unconstitutional.” Mark Meadows said Biden was a “lawless President” who will “trample over the constitution” to achieve partisan goals. Utah’s Mike Lee, who clerked for Samuel Alito in the early War on Terror years, said Biden was a “would-be autocrat” who’d exhibited a “wanton disregard for the U.S. Constitution.” Hillbilly Elegy author and likely presidential hopeful J.D. Vance denounced Biden as a “geriatric tyrant” and outlined a plan of “mass civil disobedience” against what he called the “illegal and unconstitutional” vaccine mandate:

It’s not easy to pick which of the above actors deserves the biggest belly laugh — there were enough authoritarian inanities emanating just from CNN Friday to power ten years of scientific research on the International Space Station — but my early vote goes with the Republicans, whose self-righteous wig-out will surely end up in the Unintentional Comedy Hall of Fame. Is the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 really the moment when Republican politicians want to hold a mass cry-in about “extreme government overreach,” a “dictatorial approach,” and ignoring the constitution?

That party has centuries of amends to make before it should ever get a whiff of being taken seriously again on questions of “overreach” and extraconstitutional mischief. Even the current meandering, messageless version of the GOP would have a powerful weapon against Democrats if it could just admit, “We spent much of the early 2000s building some of the most heinously extrajudicial and anti-democratic governmental infrastructure the world has ever seen, and we designed those mechanisms to be secret and exempt from oversight. So it’s somewhere between totally and mostly on us that a Democratic administration is now deploying these ideas in all directions, including against our voters. That’s our bad, and we’re sorry.”

Of course, this Republican party — whose modus operandi for decades has been gobbling defense and oil and gas donations in exchange for tax and regulatory giveaways, while winning votes of actual people by waving the flag and pretending to know scripture — is incapable of that kind of epiphany. It just wants to have its cake and eat it too, wailing at maximum volume about Democratic Party authoritarianism while keeping schtum about the fact that almost every policy they’re now complaining about was a Bush-era invention they once applauded. Bush even founded the TSA, the original prying federal pain in the ass! Forget about doubled fines for mask violators — during the War on Terror years, they doled out $1,500 tickets to randos who showed the wrong “attitude” when passing through TSA checkpoints.

On the anniversary of 9/11, it’s worth remembering exactly how many freedoms were lost in pursuit of Dick Cheney’s Middle East science project, and how lustily Republicans cheered each one of those changes.

Congressional passage of the first Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) after 9/11 symbolized the breadth of the coming power grab. It gave Bush unilateral authority to deploy the military against “nations, organizations, or persons” who “planned, committed, or aided” the 9/11 attacks. This should have been broad enough, but White House lawyer John Yoo more or less immediately added a memo interpreting the AUMF to also give the president the “pre-emptive” authority to wage war against any target deemed necessary, “whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of September 11.” The absurdity of this legal construct was such that it has since been invoked on countless occasions to launch military strikes and assassinations against groups and members of groups that didn’t even exist on 9/11.

It’s been suggested by some of Biden’s critics that he should have sought congressional approval for something so significant as a vaccine mandate. I’d agree, but I’m not interested in hearing that criticism from any Republican who cheered the “I’m the decider!” years, when Bush used executive orders so often and for so many things — including warrantless surveillance — that a whole generation grew up unaware that things like sending troops into combat once required congressional approval.

The Biden vaccine mandate will probably presage a host of new hardcore measures that will be our next versions of incurable policy herpes — get ready for vaccine passports and facial recognition and permanent online surveillance of the “vaccine hesitant,” among countless other things — and though I’m not sure how worked up I’m prepared to get about the mandate itself, it’d be nice if there was at least one serious political organization watching out for rights issues.

Unfortunately, Republican complaints about such problems will be impossible to take seriously until the party repudiates its role in building the first War on Terror. A short list of the more obscene authoritarian practices Republicans rammed into being since 9/11/2001, most of which have stuck with us in stubborn fashion ever since, with no apology from the party of origin:

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