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The Challenges of a Trump Presidency

Posted: November 12, 2016|

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by Steven Brown, Executive Director

Based on what we heard on the campaign trail, those of us who care deeply about civil rights and civil liberties have a lot to be concerned about with the Trump presidency. The campaign rhetoric was awash with xenophobia, sexism, racism and a healthy disregard for the First Amendment right of dissent. Only time will tell how much of all this was just political pandering that won’t see the light of day in actual policy, but Latinos, Muslims, and other people of color are understandably fearful of what awaits. The bedrock of our democracy – the First Amendment right to speak our minds – could also be at risk based on the President-elect’s repeated comments about loosening libel laws.

Amidst this legitimate doom and gloom, however, there are a few important things to keep in mind. First, we have seen and lived through this before. The ACLU and those who care about civil liberties have fought similar challenges over the decades and – ultimately, I believe – emerged stronger.

The ACLU itself was born almost 100 years ago partly in response to the infamous Palmer Raids, where immigrants were routinely rounded up and jailed for no reason.  We were there to defend Fred Korematsu during that shameful episode when this country rounded up Japanese-Americans into internment camps. We fought through and survived the McCarthy witch hunt era. Within the scope of some of our lifetimes, the ACLU had to defend Richard and Mildred Loving from the “crime” of an interracial marriage, persistently challenge widespread attacks on dissent during the Vietnam War, and unmask the widespread covert surveillance of political activity that marked the Nixon Administration. And to this day we struggle over the challenges to civil liberties arising from the post-9/11 national security state.

What can we learn from all this? Well, at least from a distance, that arc that bends towards justice seems to have a lot of kinks in it -- but the arc still bends. This is an important and positive lesson we simply must not forget.

But, to be candid, a rah-rah attitude can only go so far. In fighting against attacks on civil rights, even when they are successful, real people get hurt in the meantime. Being a martyr for a cause is nowhere near as comforting as not needing martyrs in the first place.

Perhaps more importantly, even in successfully resisting the possible anti-civil liberties tide of a Trump presidency, it could mean largely being on the defensive for four years – fighting to not go backwards and to keep what we already have, instead of being able to use our time and energy to expand the frontiers of justice, freedom and equality, and to have that arc bend a little more quickly.

Nonetheless, the scenario of an anti-civil liberties Washington, D.C. still brings opportunity. While we may be very limited in making progress for civil rights at the federal level, nothing stops us from demanding it at the state and local level. Instead, those of us who are concerned about a possible rollback of rights in Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court must redouble our efforts to promote change at the more communal level of our city and town councils and our state legislature. After all, it is worth remembering that it is not in Washington, but on the ground, in states like ours, where, to a very large extent, what civil liberties we get to enjoy actually gets decided. If all politics is local, the same can largely be said about our civil liberties. 

So if a Trump presidency is going to engage in a concerted push for mass deportations, then we must work to get protections at the state and local level to limit local law enforcement cooperation with immigration officials. If a Trump presidency means the resurgence of groups like the KKK, we must work harder at the state and local level to strengthen our anti-discrimination laws and address the problem of racial profiling. If his Presidency unleashes an attack on dissent and government transparency, we must work to stave off any efforts to roll back the rights to free speech and open government we enjoy at the state level. At the same time, we must also be prepared, unlike our foes, to defend the indivisibility of civil liberties and the free speech rights of even those we vehemently disagree with.

Here in Rhode Island, the ACLU is preparing to meet the challenges that the Trump presidency may bring. I urge everybody who cares about our mission and about the ideals of our country to join with us so that, as in past struggles, we end up with a state and a nation that is even more committed to the ideals of freedom, justice and equality for all.


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