How Activism Can Lead the Way in the Trump Era

In his first year in office, Donald Trump has proved to be simultaneously the most dangerous and the most frustrated president in living memory.  The danger is clear: He seems unable to control his most basic impulses, and those impulses are shaped more by concern about his image than about the Constitution or the people’s best interests. He has sought to ban Muslims, increase deportations, intimidate the media, repeal Obamacare, bar transgender people from serving the military, and threaten football players taking a knee to oppose racial injustice. 

The threat he poses continues. 

But he has also proved to be one of the nation’s least effectual presidents — even though he enjoys Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. That’s because Americans who care about civil rights, civil liberties, the rule of law, and basic human dignity have stood up to him. And if Americans continue to mobilize in defense of these values, Trump will continue to be stymied. That is our job as citizens — to ensure that a president who tends toward authoritarianism is checked at every juncture. And that is also our job at the ACLU.

Thus far, those who have stood up for civil rights have often succeeded. Courts have struck down three iterations of Trump’s “Muslim ban,” finding it a violation of the Establishment Clause and contrary to immigration law. Trump has been unable to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, despite repeated efforts and ultimatums. His administration’s threat to deny federal funds to cities and states that adopted sanctuary policies has been declared invalid. So, too, has his ban on transgender people serving in the military. And the courts also overruled his administration’s effort to block an undocumented minor’s access to an abortion. 

These victories, many of them in cases brought by the ACLU, have mostly come in courts. But the victories have been made possible by the remarkable upsurge in citizen engagement on these issues. From the Women’s March to the airport demonstrations, from the town halls to preserve the ACA to the many demonstrations in support of young immigrants known as Dreamers, Americans have chosen to stand up and stand together against the president’s actions and policies. And in a constitutional democracy, that is ultimately how we preserve liberty. Courts are an important bulwark against abuse, but they are most effective where there is substantial popular opposition to the actions they are reviewing. The courts cannot do it alone. 

I examined the central role of citizen mobilization in defense of liberty in my book, "Engines of Liberty: How Citizen Movements Succeed," now with a revised introduction and conclusion that addresses the particular threat represented by Trump. Citizens coming together and acting strategically resulted in three of the most successful constitutional reform movements in the last quarter century. Because of citizen activism, marriage equality went from unthinkable to inevitable; the individual right to bear arms, dismissed as a fraud by Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1990, was recognized as a constitutional right by the Supreme Court in 2008; and the Bush administration’s most aggressive “war on terror” initiatives were abandoned or substantially curtailed by the time he left office.

In each instance, civil society organizations — groups like the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Lambda Legal Defense Fund, and the National Rifle Association — led the way.  Few people will agree with all the goals of all of these groups. But anyone who cares about liberty should study how these groups advanced and defended their causes.   

Our constitutional system depends as much or more on the work of citizen groups as it does on lawyers in court or the judges themselves. Civil society institutions — including the nonprofit sector, the press, the academy, and organized religion — play an often underappreciated role in shaping and defending constitutional liberties and in checking government abuse. Trump is learning that lesson every day, much to his dismay. 

The founders of the ACLU understood this in 1920 when they established a citizens’ organization dedicated to defending liberty in the streets as much as or more than in the courts. Ever since, we have done just that. In the wake of Trump’s election, our membership quadrupled, from 400,000 to more than 1.6 million. We have encouraged our members to engage directly in the fight for liberty, through People Power, a nationwide initiative that encourages, coordinates, and facilitates activism at the local level. And as we promised, we have seen the Trump administration in court, challenging its actions on immigration, voting rights, LGBT rights, national security, and reproductive rights. 

In 1944, Learned Hand, who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and is widely considered one of the country’s greatest judges ever, also recognized the importance of the citizenry’s defense of constitutional rights. Addressing a crowd of 150,000 newly naturalized citizens in Central Park, he told them that “liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it ... While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.” At the ACLU, we seek to nurture the liberty that lies in the hearts of men and women. And as Trump is discovering, that liberty is not easily vanquished. 

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Anonymous

2nd Amendment gun owners should realize that the U.S. Constitution is a "package deal" - not an a la carte menu!

By supporting the 14th Amendment rights of African-Americans, LGBT Americans, immigrants and even Tea Party folks - it actually strengthens 2nd Amendment rights (by supporting the entire package of amendments and articles). It actually benefits 14th Amendment fans to support the 2nd Amendment (which allows some regulation in the wording of the amendment).

By contrast, if we can justify violating the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 14th amendments supposedly for added "safety and security", couldn't you use the very same argument to justify violating the 2nd Amendment? In the court system, that is exactly how constitutional rulings are made by the courts.

If any of us, from any political view, cherry-pick only the amendments we agree with - then the entire package is meaningless.

Benjamin Franklin warned: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety".

Anonymous

That's all well and good but your argument falls apart when you factor in the 18th and 21st Amendments.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

It is always the same. No matter who the president is, one way or another, he is always criticized, fault found, and lampooned.
It is still an enigma to me why so many people denigrated a fine man like Barack Obama. I, for one, was never niggardly in my praises for his victory in two elections.

Jeriah Knox

Laws are put in place by belief systems. As beliefs change, the laws will follow. The U.S. Constitution will only survive as long as people adhere to the beliefs which created it. While people today, may like the constitution and recognize the benefits of the freedoms provided by it, how many adhere to the beliefs which demanded it as law?

Anonymous

The Constitution can be Amended as society changes and has.

Anonymous

President Trump is anti-establishment and that's why the ACLU (unfortunatly Co-opted by the alt-left), the fourteen billionaires who control the 6 corporations which control 90% of all media in our country (according to Bernie Sanders, 'Our Revolution' chapter ten), the superdelegates and the 'rinos' are all coordinating and colluding to illegally remove him from office. President Trump will be known as the last democratically elected president.

Anonymous

You are right. There are 14 billionaires that control 90% of capital. But you are ignorant to the system. The6 are supported by thousands of millionaires and millions of hundred thousandaires. These are called employees that run the corporations. That 90% of capital employes 90% of the humans on the planet. Get it. You probably don’t since you never picked up a math or statistics book. Add it up before you run your mouth.

How many people do you think are in “control” of the government? About 14. And at least 3 of of them can launch a nuclear war at anytime. No it’s not true just the president can launch nukes, fuck what you heard.

Donald Trump is the most ignorant, dangerous president since Andrew Jackson. Trump would have nigger slaves working Michelle’s garden if it where legal.

He will be known as the American Neopolean after China nukes us. He is a Bafoon, it’s a fool baboon.

Anonymous

Like the hierarchy in a law firm, the senior partners agree upon strategies and 'collude' to further their agenda, as do the fourteen billionaires who are in control of 90% of all media in our country. PR firms like Media Matters literally write copy for the collective news casts to simultaneously broadcast. As a school of fish turning at once, you see the terminology change as well in a coordinated way; at once it's 'climate change' from 'global warming', all from the same copy. Yes, the information we get is micro-managed by this handful of people, fourteen of them. We should bust up those monopolies and break them into hundreds of independent media companies and return some free speech to our country.

Anonymous

President is the first to stand up to special interests, lobbyists and ,what is historic, his epic battle against the 6 mega-media corporations. Support the 'outsider', support the president.

Antoniokim

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