It’s still impossible to know what president-elect Donald Trump will do. His statements over the past 18 months, and before, have often contradicted each other on issues as varied as foreign policy and transgender people using the bathroom of their choice.
On one important issue, however, Trump has been depressingly consistent. From all appearances, he does not seem to be a friend of the Fourth Amendment. But then, that puts him into the camp of the vast majority of politicians. In America we’ve managed to do a surprisingly decent job holding onto our First Amendment rights; even our Second Amendment ones have not been trashed in the same manner as our right to privacy. The Fourth Amendment is in perpetual distress thanks to the war on drugs, immigration, and terror. Police, feds, and intelligence agencies are constantly demanding more information about us in order to protect us from terrible things.
The war on drugs deeply wounded the Fourth Amendment. SWAT raids on private homes became commonplace, and continue to this day – sometimes with deadly results. Supreme Court decisions upheld everything from helicopters hovering over property, to busting doors in over marijuana smells and the sounds of movement.
New York City’s infamous Stop and Frisk program detained hundreds of thousands of people over more than a decade. The majority of them were black and Hispanic men, who were also innocent of any crime, even a nonviolent one. This program of so-called Terry Stops was legalized harassment, with a racial disparity in its execution that made the whole thing even less defensible.
Trump, however, thinks Stop and Frisk was terrific. He also thinks it should be tried in other cities, such as crime-ridden Chicago. Maybe the Trump of 30 years ago was bold and bizarre enough to suggest that legalizing all drugs would be a solution to the power of drug cartels. President-elect Donald is a timid, political creature who sailed to the Oval Office on an ocean of Nixonian tough on crime rhetoric.
While running for the Republican nomination, and then the presidency, Trump had two relatively consistent lines. One was that police are the "most oppressed people in America" even though they possess a myriad of of social and legal protections superior to yours or mine. The cops killed in the last few years has increased seemingly dramatically, but this is only because the numbers hit a record low of 33 in 2013. There are always anecdotally horrible incidents of shoot-outs and ambush killings of police, but the narrative of a war on cops is myth intended to, well, get someone like Trump elected.
The other refrain from Trump? Build the wall. That’s fine and good on the surface, in a world that contains terrorist attacks and criminals, and if you believe laws are inherently moral. In reality, most illegal immigrants are nonviolent people who put more into the economy than they take out. Furthermore, even if you care nothing about the right to movement of non-Americans, the privacy repercussions of a wall, and a more militarized (than it is already) border could be dire. Already, Americans who happen to look Hispanic are targeted by Border Patrol agents. Sometimes the search for immigrants crosses over with the search for illegal drugs and turns into legalized sexual assault. Rights to be free from unreasonable searches are already decreased on the borders. Worst still, borders are an awfully stretchy definition. Technically, Border Patrol has increased jurisdiction within 100 miles of any international border. The majority of Americans live within that area. Is there any reason to suppose that doubling the number of agents, adding more drones, and happily trading even more freedom for supposed security would be worth it to save us from blue collar Mexican migrants?
That last plan wasn’t even Trump’s, just a so-moderate-it-stalled Senate compromise bill. Everybody in DC seems to agree the the border needs to be a mini Berlin wall. But, as former Congressman Ron Paul wants pointed out, borders can be turned inwards. Nobody in America should be cavalier enough to assume that walls won’t be used against them when, in fact, they already are.
Trump, too, is disinterested in standing on the right side of the encryption debate. During the election, he, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and nearly every other candidate basically said there must be a compromise between security and privacy, but failed to elaborate on what that would look like. Trump in particular was outraged that Apple wasn’t being forced to unlock the encrypted phone of the dead San Bernardino terrorist. Almost no politician seems willing to accept that the makers of tech devices know how to make them, and that demanding the keys will make an inferior quality product.
And there’s more. The National Security Agency (NSA) has been fighting back against any attempt to rein it in post-Snowden revelations. The NSA, the DEA, and the FBI share information that they acquire through spying. Technology from Smartphones, to "Stingrays," to convenient new toys such as Amazon’s Echo device are used to violate the privacy of Americans.
Trump remains the ultimate wild card, but there’s so far very little reason to hope that he will be anything different than the status quo DC-er on privacy. He may indeed turn out to be even less amenable to the Fourth Amendment than the last few presidents. And in a nation that contains more drones, a mass spying apparatus ready to get worse, and countless toys that track us in exchange for providing entertainment, we need not to relax and assume that because he’s from outside the stinking DC swamp, that Trump will improve things. The only way to get privacy is to demand it, no matter who is in charge; but first we must want it more.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.