By David K. Shipler
All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.
In the Revolution of 2016, alienated Americans have set the stage for a hard lesson in how democracy can be used to disable democracy. It would not happen at once, but as gradually as if the constitutional body were afflicted by an autoimmune disease. The curing power of the people’s voice would be turned against itself. The strong hand at the top, so fervently desired by the forgotten and ignored, would evolve into a counter-revolution of authoritarian demagoguery, which even a tradition of pluralism could not withstand. This is the gloomiest scenario.
There is another scenario, however. It envisions a successful test of the ingenious American system, imagined and created to separate, check, and limit the power to reign and abuse. The Constitution restrains and holds. The president’s autocratic impulses are shackled to the rule of law.
Nothing in Donald Trump’s pronouncements, policies, and behavior so far suggests that he grasps or accepts the constraints of the Framers’ inspired concepts. He fired up masses of aggrieved citizens by promising them decrees, not proposals. He talked as if he could do whatever suited him, as if no legislative branch existed, no courts stood to thwart his whims. He has recognized no principle of protecting minority interests. He has nurtured a cult of personality more suitable to a dictatorship than a democracy.
Therefore, it is reasonable to expect in him a president who will push far past the boundaries of his constitutional prerogatives by trying to politicize law enforcement and the judiciary until they are mere shadows of justice. It is logical to expect a president who will insult and dismiss citizens along racial, gender, and religious lines, as he did during his campaign, and continue to give license to the hate-mongers among us. It is likely that he will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to divide and diminish this once-great nation, and even to bring dissidents to subservience.
“President-elect Trump,” the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in an open letter today, “as you assume the nation’s highest office, we urge you to reconsider and change course on certain campaign promises you have made. These include your plan to amass a deportation force to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants; ban the entry of Muslims into our country and aggressively surveil them; punish women for accessing abortion; reauthorize waterboarding and other forms of torture; and change our nation’s libel laws and restrict freedom of expression.
“These proposals are not simply un-American and wrong-headed, they are unlawful and unconstitutional. They violate the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. If you do not reverse course and instead endeavor to make these campaign promises a reality, you will have to contend with the full firepower of the ACLU at every step. Our staff of litigators and activists in every state . . . are ready to fight against any encroachment on our cherished freedoms and rights.”
When the ACLU fights, it sometimes wins. But it relies on the courts to rule against violations of constitutional rights; after a while, there will be enough federal judges nominated by Trump and confirmed by a rightwing Republican-led Senate that the courts are less likely to see and defend the rights of the little guy, the marginalized, the helpless—that is, precisely the people who voted Trump in.
Those voters shook up the political map, rearranged the major parties’ coalitions, destroyed all assumptions, and gave a slap across the face to the political professionals, pundits, and pollsters. The white working-class anxiety and anger, which propelled him to victory, had economic roots that might have been channeled to the good: more job training, more subsidized health insurance, more unionization, higher minimum wages—not less of all these, as Trump will bring.
But years of rightwing propaganda also generated distress over an America that was less and less white, more and more international, more and more accepting of varieties of sexual orientation. This now establishes the ground for finger-pointing when Trump supporters find their lives failing to improve in line with the hot air of his rhetoric. Their alienation will deepen. Trump will blame everyone but himself: China, immigrants, liberals, and so on.
After terrorist attacks, which are inevitable in this age, scapegoating will focus on Muslims, many of whom could find themselves facing the same fate as ethnic Japanese during World War II. Stoke enough fear by hyping dangers, and large numbers of good Americans could line up behind Trump, Congress, and the courts to favor some kind of internment of Muslims.
How solid the constitutional structure will be is the question. Where the Congress and the courts and the conscience of the public will draw the lines is the test. For lines will have to be drawn around President Trump, and boldly.
If history is the ultimate arbiter, then it will be no kinder to current America than to other countries that have gone astray. Let History Judge, which the Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev risked his freedom to write, was the first exhaustive account of Stalinism compiled inside the Soviet Union. It could be published only outside, in the West, where the judgment of Stalin’s demented crimes was unequivocal. Let us hope that no book with that title will be appropriate for an account of Trumpism.