Defying the Law and Reason, Trump Begins His American Nightmare

After Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, his successor Gerald Ford declared that the country’s “long national nightmare was over”. The Watergate scandal had precipitated a near constitutional crisis with a standoff between all branches of government.

For many Donald Trump’s sacking of Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, evoked Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre when Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned over the dismissal of Archibald Cox, the independent special prosecutor.

Yates had announced to Justice Department staff that she would not look to defend Trump’s executive order on the grounds of conscience and legality. She was promptly fired. Martyrdom followed.

After his election many said we should take Trump seriously but not literally. His first week, unfortunately, demonstrates that Trump must be taken both seriously and literally.  

It has to be admitted that Trump’s “Muslim Ban” enjoys slim but conflicted public support. It has also provoked defiant protests from opponents: major cities have seen large, passionate protests. No moderate in the “war on terror” Dick Cheney has condemned the ban. Trump’s election revealed a divided nation; his first actions have further exposed those divisions. America is a country at odds with itself.

Trump’s election was the greatest political upset since Truman beat Dewey in 1948; however, for all the freak show bravura, he worked on a paranoia that is ingrained in American public life and defies its self-image as a bastion of freedom.

America is a nation that was founded on the principle of religious toleration, yet tolerated the persecution of its Catholic minority; it defied British colonial rule but shamefully allowed the indigenous population to become subservient, often associating them with infection and disease; both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were freemasons whose secrecy fed divisions between the governed and government.

The 19th Century saw William Jennings Bryan, the populist who railed against “big money” and its supposed connections with Judaism; more famously, Joseph McCarthy led the anti-Communist hysteria in the mid-20th Century.

Trump has struck a fierce blow against democracy

Trump brashly copied this playbook to ensure his election. He lacked the subtlety of Richard Nixon who used race and fear to win in 1968 but his electoral college victory demonstrated that the paranoia within the dark underbelly of American populism has not gone away.

There is a danger that outsiders damn absolutely the one indispensable nation's hypocrisy. However, the greater danger is that its own self-image deceives itself into thinking that its every action is inherently free and democratic.

Within a week of his inauguration Trump has struck a fierce blow against democracy. Executive Order 13769 suspends for 120 days the US refugee programme and indefinitely the Syrian refugee programme. Citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries - Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - have been barred entry. It also allows immigration authorities to prioritise claims from religious minorities, which will pave the way for Christians to be given greater favour.

The framers of the US constitution intended the executive branch to be the weakest arm of government. For all the democratic anachronism of the electoral college, it is important that - unlike his congressional peers - the president is not directly elected.

Executive orders are not intended as quick-fix policy solutions. They are a presidential tool used to reflect the existing will of elected representatives. Their legality rests on authority delegated to the president by the legislature.

Control over immigration laws clearly rests with Congress not the president. “It is not for the president alone to make foundational changes to immigration law - in conflict with the laws passed by Congress and in ways that go beyond constitutionally authorized executive power,” the Cato Institute has argued. Trump’s EO contravenes the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that prohibits discrimination from entry to the US on the basis of nationality. He is attempting to change immigration policy with the illegal stroke of a pen.

The objections go wider: Trump’s order is in direct contravention of the first and fifth amendment which guarantee freedom of religion and the right to due process. This alone should prevent implementation.

Yet with US Customs and Border Protection agents ignoring federal court orders, Trump is risking the US constitutional order. That framework, established by the landmark 1803 Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court case, rests upon the principle of judicial review: when the branches of government clash, the executive branch must defer to judicial decision. That Trump has ridden roughshod over the law and constitution should chill democrats everywhere.

subservience to Trump reveals the fear of ‘the other’ when talking about security

Within his own party there have been honourable opponents of the ban, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Yet greater are the number who conveniently now support Trump, despite previous opposition: most shamefully House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence. The subservience to Trump reveals the fear of ‘the other’ when talking about security. The chances of Congress repealing the ban seem depressingly slight.

It is not as if there are not firm grounds for opposition beyond the legal and constitutional. As with Trump's support for torture, military and security veterans have condemned the ban as ineffective and damaging to national security. It has angered soldiers fighting terrorism. ISIL and al-Qaeda have celebrated the ban as a perfect propaganda tool for recruitment and strengthening their political grip.

Already the US refugee entry process is one of the most severe in the world, often taking 2 years. Despite propaganda, there has been no influx of Muslims: in 2016 of the 85,000 admitted, the percentage of Muslim refugees was less than half and outnumbered by Christian refugees. Since 2001, the number of Christian refugees has dwarfed Muslims by 400,000 to 279,000. There is no link between domestic terrorism and the refugees. Most importantly, no Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks committed by any of the seven countries on the banned list since 1975.  

There is a need for moral leadership certainly, but the need for the enduring qualities of reason and empiricism is greater still.

That Trump signed his executive order on Holocaust Memorial Day, while the White House statement failed to acknowledge that another religious minority, the Jews, were its main target, speaks of the hypocrisy that lies at the centre of this wrong-headed and foul policy.

The Saturday Night Massacre was part of Nixon’s desperate endgame. Within months he had resigned the presidency. Eventually the weight of opposition became too great. The country had endured much. The legacy of doubt lasted but the drama was nearing its conclusion.

The terrible thing in 2017 is that the new and worse nightmare is just beginning.

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Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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