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What Does Nonpartisanship Look Like in the Age of Trump?

Bill of Rights
Bill of Rights
Anthony D. Romero,
ACLU Executive Director
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March 17, 2017

Last Saturday, this organization marked a radical departure from how we have done things in the past. At 2,200 events around the country, some 200,000 people across the country joined the ACLU to learn how they can fight the Trump agenda. For the first time in our 97-year history, we are organizing a grassroots resistance to unconstitutional policies for now and into the future, no matter which party is in power.

But even as we begin to build political power through grassroots organizing, the ACLU will continue to pride itself on nonpartisanship. Our allegiance is to the Constitution, not any political party. Our mission is to protect the constitutional rights of every person in the United States, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion. In fulfilling that mission, we have challenged the administration of every president since Woodrow Wilson, regardless of party affiliation.

Since the election of Donald Trump, the ACLU has emerged as a formidable leader opposing many of his administration’s policies. Our membership has nearly tripled. People have channeled their fears about the assault on our civil liberties into support for us because they see us as the best-suited organization in the country to challenge the constitutional crisis we are facing.

Our aggressive stance against Trump and our efforts to build political power by no means move us from our core ideals or our commitment to nonpartisanship. Trump follows a long line of presidents taken to court by the ACLU. He won’t be the last.

It is true that our oppositional stance against this president is particularly strong, but President Trump’s administration poses an unprecedented threat to our civil liberties. Trump’s policies on immigration, Muslims, torture, freedom of speech, reproductive rights, healthcare, and criminal justice — coupled with his lack of understanding and respect for the rule of law — amount to a constitutional crisis, the likes of which we have never seen. Their cruelty seems to know no bounds and could adversely affect the lives of millions of people. People with disabilities stand to be denied health care; women who need abortions or birth control could be unable to get either; families could be torn apart as parents of American children are deported. And we anticipate an assault on voting rights.

At the same time, this president has created new civil liberties angles to old problems. His lack of transparency and accountability has compromised the integrity of our political system. If a foreign power intervened to influence the election, and the president looks the other way because he benefited from that intervention, this is a civil liberties issue because it devalues our voting rights. If a president puts his business interests ahead of the interests of the people he governs, this is a civil liberties issue because it undermines the Constitution by casting doubt on the longstanding value of impartiality in government decision-making.

It is our responsibility as the country’s leading civil liberties organization to fight Trump at every step — both on traditional civil liberties fronts and new ones — to prevent the litany of human carnage in the making. And that fight cannot be limited to the courtroom. If our surge in membership, alongside recent protests across the country, has taught us anything, it is that our supporters want to be engaged in the fight. That means we need to organize town halls, lobby lawmakers, and organize protests — both in opposition to Trump’s policies and in support of the groups he has targeted. That is why we created People Power, the digital organizing platform that will enable us to do this.

Our aggressive stance against Trump and our efforts to build political power by no means move us from our core ideals or our commitment to nonpartisanship.

We will not be creating a Political Action Committee or making donations to political candidates. We will not be registering voters. We will not be supporting or opposing candidates for office or cabinet nominations. But we will be moving further into political spaces across the country as we fight to prevent and dismantle the Trump agenda. We will also fight the Trump effect at the state level, as local elected officials mimic Trump’s anti-civil liberties positions and endeavor to codify them in state laws.

While politicians and political parties bend and abandon their principles to win votes, we steadfastly defend our principles whether or not it makes us popular or aligns with either major political party.

While we praised the Obama administration for the strides it made on voting rights, criminal justice reform, and LGBT rights, we fought him on national security and other civil liberties matters that were inconsistent with constitutional principles.

When President Obama began backtracking on his commitment to try the alleged 9/11 planners in federal court and instead defaulted to fundamentally flawed military commissions, we took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. It showed a picture of Obama morphing into a picture of President George Bush, with the text: “What will it be Mr. President? Change or more of the Same?”

We were a constant thorn in President Obama’s side, challenging his administration on the use of military commissions, mass surveillance, drones, its failure to prosecute those responsible for creating the Bush-era torture program, and on its inhumane deportation policies.

In a meeting Obama held with civil liberties groups, I told him that I feared entrenching a policy of indefinite detention at Guantánamo would sacrifice his legacy and disappoint a generation. The president clenched his jaw, said he was doing the best he could, and said that the ACLU’s statements comparing his administration to Bush’s were not helpful.

Months later, when I criticized the Obama’s administration’s lack of progress on closing Guantánamo, I received an email from Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s top advisors, saying that there had been a “material breach” of trust between the administration and the ACLU.

We fought President Bill Clinton for his support of the 1996 Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which limited the rights of those convicted of capital crimes and permitted indefinite detention of noncitizens. After World War II we challenged President Truman’s Loyalty Order — which required federal employees to take loyalty oaths in an attempt to root out communist influence — calling it “a menace to civil liberties.” The list goes on.

We have alienated the left with our opposition to campus speech codes and campaign finance restrictions. We alienated the right with our positions on abortion and LGBT rights. We alienated almost everyone by defending the right of neo-Nazis to march. And we challenged the national sensibility by mounting a multi-million-dollar legal defense for the alleged 9/11 planners.

That is because our job is to aggressively uphold our constitutional rights — regardless of the political winds or the party in power.

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