“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! cries she
With silent lips, “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
—“The New Colossus”, Emma Lazarus
Donald Trump’s first week in office brought a flurry of executive orders that are likely to clog up the American court system for years to come. Some of these decisions imply an attack on the day to day functioning of the federal government itself.
Trump and his inner circle seem intent on using the cudgel of the executive, which has seized more and more authority for itself under previous administrations, to diminish the clout of the judiciary and the Congress right out of the gate, endangering the balance of power written into the American republic at its founding in the process.
Soon after provoking a dispute with Mexico over paying for a wall on the southern U.S. border, Trump unleashed chaos through a surprise executive order effectively banning travel and immigration from seven majority Muslim nations for at minimum 3 months and denying entry to Syrian refugees for at least 4. Further, as noted by the Black Agenda Report’s Margaret Kimberly, “Visa waivers no longer applied to people who visited these countries. Even persons with dual citizenships were subjected to these restrictions which amounted to nothing else but war by other means.”
Of course, there were a lot of countries with much more extensive records of their citizens targeting the U.S. and its interests through terrorism who didn’t make the list, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whose nationals killed thousands on September 11th, 2001.
As explained by veteran reporter Robert Parry, who broke the Iran Contra scandal in the mid 1980s, “Trump’s ban is really a twisted case of ‘political correctness’ purporting to reject ‘political correctness’. While Trump claims to recognize that it is dangerously naive to let in Muslims when Islamic terrorism has remained a threat to Americans. Trump has left off his list the most likely sources of terrorists because -to do otherwise -would have negative political consequences in Official Washington.”
An immediate problem that presented itself in the implementation of the order was the decision by some low level Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees to follow the President’s decrees even after they’d been blocked by the courts, continuing to detain some travelers and denying them legal representation.
If other law enforcement agencies, who were among the President’s earliest supporters, decide to take similar actions at the local level against protesters and other dissidents, there is no way to tell where it might lead.
Steve Bannon, who has the newly created post of ‘Chief Strategist’ to the President, pushed for the order to include permanent residents with Green Cards over the objections of officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and actually won this battle in the early going.
Bannon will also be a principal at National Security Council meetings in which decisions on domestic security and foreign policy will be made. The unprecedented appointment of this deeply unqualified individual with zero experience in either realm was, somewhat suspiciously, made during the chaos provoked by the President’s order.
While Trump’s calls for a Muslim registry during the campaign for the presidency caused horror and consternation, the simple truth was the idea wasn’t without precedent:
“Between 2002 and 2011, NSEER, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, acted as a registry database for Muslims, treating all Muslims as suspects or accomplices in the war on terror. …Both Republicans and Democrats have perpetuated this discrimination and the use of this list and similar watch lists secretly constructed by government agencies, which have included babies listed.”
While the breakneck speed with which the executive order was released and enforced was new, its object wasn‘t.
Unfortunately, the banning of specific groups is not unknown in U.S. history outside of officially declared hostilities, a 1924 immigration law banned all Asian immigration to the country (a law that still has an odd defender in current Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions). A more contemporary case was a 1987 ban on HIV positive people.
Senator Jesse Helms, who would have given Trump a run for his money in terms of lack of empathy for his fellow human beings, crafted the ‘Helms Amendment’ to add those suffering from the illness to the list of those excluded from travel to the country, saying at the time, “We have got to call a spade a spade and a perverted human being a perverted human being.”
Although little remembered, this cruel policy was cheered by Reagan era rightwingers, especially the then newly emboldened evangelical Christian fundamentalists and their reactionary Catholic allies.
What’s most heartening this time around, with both white nationalism and religious fundamentalism on the rise, was the response of so many Americans of goodwill in the hours and days after the executive order. It may very well be that this part of the ongoing story of the Trump presidency is the one that history will eventually tell
The large crowds who made their way to many airports and later public spaces across the United States on very short notice showed that ordinary Americans are ready to make their voices heard whether the President is willing to listen or not.
An even more positive development was the rapid response of lawyers, translators and law students who volunteered their services to free detained immigrants and travelers, with dozens appearing and setting to work at airports throughout the nation in the executive order’s wake.
As Melissa Trent, a civil rights attorney who joined with others of her profession at La Guardia in New York told Time Magazine, “I think lawyers get a bad rap, and sometimes it’s deserved. But most of us went to law school to help people. We believe in this country, its laws and the Constitution… and when we see those values challenged, we show up.”
The courts, although often agonizingly slow, are probably the place where this particular fight will take place. Organizations like the ACLU, which quickly mobilized to challenge the order, will be vital in resisting this growing assault from within on the American constitution and system of government.
This is especially true considering the lack of backbone being shown by most of the Democratic opposition, especially in the Senate.
The main driver of all this disorder seems to be Bannon, whose influence over the ill prepared new President seems much greater than previously expected. Although he is still, in my opinion, a lightweight, pseudo-intellectual incapable of rational argument, the former Breitbart editor is nonetheless bringing religious fundamentalists, white nationalists, Big Oil and financial interests like his former employer Goldman Sachs together under a new Trumpian Republican Big Tent.
This administration, and the Presidential campaign that led up to it, have already produced a marriage of bad ideas and worse actors made in hell, bent on re-creating some long lost era that never really existed.
At the same time, it’s also giving the world a glimpse into the compassion that a clear majority of Americans feel for their fellow citizens and those less fortunate than themselves; a compassion clearly articulated by the poem quoted above, itself inscribed on a plaque beneath that great symbol of liberty that has greeted so many displaced people who have landed on the country’s shores.