There is a lot of loose talk these days about the supposedly unprecedented threat Donald Trump poses to all things good and true and American: democracy, a free press, our sacrosanct Constitution. Yet specifics are often lacking. “This is how fascism comes to America,” warns the neocon theorist Robert Kagan. It seems fair to wonder, though, how exactly Kagan’s notorious late-1990s Project for a New American Century differed substantively from Trump’s oft-repeated promise to “make American great again.”
Still, one does get the sense that Trump’s toxic brew of vulgarity, outright bigotry and unapologetic disregard for our country’s most basic political commitments is, in fact, something new under the sun. In the interest of offering a little more nuance than Trump’s neocon opponents in the Republican Party seem inclined to provide, we asked three writers to consider the precise nature of the threat Trump poses to the Constitution, democracy, and the freedom of the press, and to address that question that’s always asked when a system’s internal contradictions are brought into sharp relief: What is to be done?
Louis Michael Seidman
Poor Advocate, Good Cause
Would the election of Donald Trump threaten the sanctity of the United States Constitution? We should be so lucky.
As it functions in the 21st century, American constitutionalism is authoritarian, obfuscatory, and reactionary. It is also arbitrary, providing a ready excuse for some people to exercise power over other people without having to offer good arguments for the outcomes they favor.
Consider, for example, the current controversy over gun control. There are strong arguments on both sides of the gun-control issue that ought to be discussed openly and honestly. But what happens when one side invokes the Constitution? No one who wishes to be taken seriously can afford to be seen opposing the Constitution. Therefore, opponents of gun control are forced into a debate about issues that are completely irrelevant to the question at hand, concerning the meaning of an ancient text drafted by people who had no understanding of our modern world. Worse yet, if gun-control advocates lose the argument over what this text means, the issue is effectively taken off the table.
For these reasons, contemporary American constitutionalism is deeply antidemocratic, and deserves to be disrupted. The Constitution is our meta-script, and much of Trump’s appeal derives from the fact that he presents himself as persistently, uncontrollably “off script.” He seems prepared to say and do things the ruling elites of both parties consider outside acceptable boundaries. If Trump’s rise is the harbinger of an emerging public awareness that nothing but the shackles of dead tradition compels us to obey the Constitution, it might foreshadow a healthy revolt against elites who use the empty rhetoric of constitutionalism to stifle honest debate.
The urgent question is whether his election would really move us toward this goal. The answer is complicated. Like most politicians, Trump regularly uses the Constitution as a cudgel to discredit his opponents. Moreover, Trump’s racism, xenophobia, narcissism, and ignorance make him both dangerous and despicable. I would never vote for him.
Because he stands for reaction and intolerance, Trump is a poor advocate for a good cause. Worst of all, he risks discrediting the enterprise of constitutional disobedience entirely. Trump himself may embody spontaneity and rejection of the elite consensus, but his success provides an argument for those who believe that ordinary Americans cannot be trusted with real political power. We need constitutional constraints, they will say, precisely because without them, demagogues like Trump will rise to power.
In fact, a musty old parchment locked away in the National Archives provides scant protection from the likes of Donald Trump. The only real protection comes from habits of tolerance and acceptance of difference that are the necessary preconditions for real democracy. Instead of fostering those habits, authoritarian insistence that others must agree with us because of words written centuries ago by men long dead erodes them further. We need to prove wrong those who claim that the country would come apart without the phony unity imposed by constitutional obligation. Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is already being heralded, falsely, as more proof that they are right.
Boycott, Don’t Sanction
Time and again, Donald Trump has not only crossed the line in his attacks on the press, but obliterated it, putting all friends of the First Amendment on notice. By any standards, his campaign’s recent revocation of The Washington Post’s credentials was a monumental escalation. The only question now is what to do about it. Writing condemnatory editorials is not enough. What is needed is for journalists, as proxies for the nation’s citizenry, to take a meaningful stand and form a united front against one of the most virulent assaults on the freedom of the press in recent memory.
A boycott by all news organizations of Trump events, speeches, and rallies would be a good way to start. Imagine an alliance of the press—center, left, and right—that declares “enough is enough,” that, until he restores press credentials and shows some respect for the role of the press in a free society, we will not cover his campaign. Instead of obsessively reporting on his latest histrionics, we could return to our traditional role of focusing on positions and policies. That would be a true service to the electorate.
The stakes could hardly be higher. A free press is the hallmark of a democracy, so vital that, if forced to choose between a government without a press and a press without a government, Thomas Jefferson said he would not hesitate to embrace the latter. If we believe our own words about Trump—that he is a genuine threat to American values of diversity, inclusiveness, restraint, respect for others, free speech—then now is the time to demonstrate our resolve, to show, not merely state, that there are limits to what an aspirant to the highest office in the land can get away with. If we now choose the path of least resistance, if we choose mere scolding over the courage of our convictions, then who will listen to us later when we urge others less powerful and more vulnerable than ourselves not to allow bullies to ride roughshod over them? The public looks to us not only for information but also for moral guidance, and tarnished as our reputation is in that regard, our failure to stand up to such intimidation and demagoguery reduces our stature and compromises our ability to serve as a respected voice in public debates.
So long as business continues as usual for those who have not yet faced Trump’s wrath, Trump is the victor, and citizens are the victims. Those who dutifully attend his events despite what has happened to their fellow journalists become complicit in the diminution of the press and the dilution of its independence. When organizations like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the networks, and online enterprises continue to dispatch reporters to Trump events to which others in the field are barred, it normalizes a practice that threatens one and all, emboldens Trump to expand his offensive, and raises the specter of self-censorship—no matter how unfounded. Citizens may rightly ask what compromises those news organizations have made to preserve their access.
A mass boycott would signal to Trump that he must respect the role of the press. It would signal to those journalists who have been targeted that we recognize their plight as our own. And it would signal to the nation at large that we are not the craven, mendacious institution that Trump says we are. This is an opportunity, no matter how difficult, to rise above Trump’s petty disparagements and demonstrate the truth of those nostrums about the importance of the press in a free society that we so often and so solemnly intone.
Unwittingly, we in the press appear be getting sucked into his reality-TV world where he dictates the routine and controls the outcome. Donald Trump is the man whose trademark phrase is “You’re fired!” Now he is attempting to say as much to the American press. Are we to let that pass?
The Movement Behind the Man
Ever since November 12, 1988, when I learned that the three Portland, Oregon, skinheads who killed an Ethiopian man named Mulugeta Seraw were, in turn, a neighbor of mine, the homecoming king of a local high school, and a rock musician who was part of the same circles as some of my friends, and that they were schooled in Nazism, I have lived with the unwanted knowledge that the lines separating the “far right” from the rest of society are more apparent than real. The people I met during my subsequent years-long investigation of the national neo-Nazi movement came in many guises. But whether they were white-sheeted, brown-shirted, or dressed like you and me, they shared a reading list dominated by the classics of white supremacy and a deep-seated conviction that the engine of human civilization is the white race. For a time they were on the rise, showcased by media that gave them every opportunity, in some cases literally, to strut their stuff, but they lacked a leader who could capitalize on their gains and move them forward. Now they have one.
What frustrates me about some of the discussion of whether Donald Trump is a fascist is that it is more about the man than the movement. Surely, it is the interplay between the two that matters. When Trump touts his “beautiful” wall, he is fanning a flame lit by white nationalists David Duke and Tom Metzger in their “patrols” of the San Ysidro–Tijuana border crossing in the 1970s. When he talks about “my African American,” he is telling his supporters he sees the world, at least in part, as they do. And they hear him. To me, this movement of some of the ugliest strains in American life from the fringes to the center of our political process is the single most shocking aspect of the Trump phenomenon. Themes that were being whispered in the past are being shouted now. Before, if you wanted to say vicious things about another individual or race, it was best to do so privately. Now they are shouted through one of the most powerful bullhorns in the land.
There is nothing good about what this implies for the republic and its Constitution. When Trump tells CNN that the three top functions of the United States government are “security, security, security,” he is saying that, notwithstanding the separation of powers and the Bill of Rights, when it comes to the problem of terror, which for him means Muslims, anything goes. The proportion of “extremists” to more moderate elements among Trump’s followers is an important question to which we do not know the answer. What is certain, however, is that the worst of them are being encouraged and enabled by his rise. As for the others, judging by the waffling of top Republicans who consistently refuse to disavow him, they themselves do not know where they will stop. For the most part, the racial and political violence that so bloodily pits neighbor against neighbor in much of the world has been held in check here in recent years by the ideals of the Constitution and the laws derived from it as upheld by an ideologically diverse assortment of politicians, civil servants, jurists, and ordinary citizens, great and small. Imperfect, inadequate, and sometimes even hypocritical, their words and acts have been an obstacle to the brute expression of the fears, rage, and resentments that afflict Americans as much as they do other members of the human community. A crowd becomes a mob at the wave of a hand. If the barriers fall, what will happen then?