Counter-Forces to the Chaos: We’re Becoming Constitutionalists, Ethicists, Candidates for Office, and Other Good Things
As awful as the present historical moment is — specifically, the train wreck of the Trump administration and, generally, the post-9/11 chaos and seeming acceleration of America’s decline — it is important to note that some Americans have recognized the peril we are in and, like a fire brigade in response, have stepped up to the rescue.
It’s also important to note that this rescue work focuses on foundational repair — repair to the foundations of American democracy. These foundations were fraying before Trump came to power, but it is Trump in his day-to-day awfulness in office who’s galvanized John Q. Public off his sofa and into action. In an article titled “Rallying Nation,” The Washington Post reports on its recent poll finding that one in five Americans have participated in political protests since the beginning of 2016. That’s a lot of protest.
While the commentariat’s report cards on Trump’s first year were comprehensively negative, there was little reference in them to these counter-forces emerging from the grassroots. These citizens, whom I call “the conscientious public,” refuse to collapse in despair at the damage Trump the Disrupter is doing. Instead, ignoring the myriad armchair cynics, and countering Trump’s base who seem to delight in “blowing the place up,” these citizens are mobilizing, either individually or collectively, to fortify our democratic foundations.
Which is to say, in posing a counter-force to chaos, some of us have become:
Constitutionalists. At a time when the occupant of the White House sees himself beyond the law and treats the Attorney General as his own personal attorney, expecting him to protect the president’s interests rather than those of the American people, We the People in self-defense go to our foundational document — the U.S. Constitution — the document guaranteeing our panoply of rights and outlining the proper balance of power between governor and governed.
Constant reference is made in letters to the editor and comments threads to the Constitution’s various missions set out in the preamble: “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Especially in these deranged times, how often have we heard sighs from the public for “a more perfect union” and the imperatives to “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare”?
Likewise, there is heightened awareness of our First Amendment rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Establishment Clause, prohibiting the establishment of a state religion, entered into public consciousness with Trump’s several attempts to enact an anti-Muslim travel ban. And Trump’s war on the media and his threats to ease the libel laws, the better to cow tough reporting of his autocratic tendencies, is broadly recognized as a real danger to free speech. (There needs to be a better understanding on the left of how unfettered free speech abuses this precious right.)
And, outside of a Constitutional Law class, have we ever heard so much about the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits the president from accepting gifts of any kind from foreign governments? At issue in several lawsuits is the question whether Trump can legally accept foreign payments to the Trump business organization.
Further, with every gun-related act of carnage, we are brought back to the Second Amendment and its interpretation in modern times. And, of course if impeachment proceedings are instituted against Trump, the advisability of which is questionable, everything would turn on contending interpretations of the Constitution’s injunction against “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Greater public awareness of the Constitution may seem a slim reed to point to, but it’s always good to refresh one’s grasp of one’s founding documents and founding principles: “rule of law,” “a nation of laws, not men.” I know of people now walking around with a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution on their person. It beats “The Anarchist Cookbook.”
Ethicists. America lost its moral compass some time ago — was it in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ‘90s? — and subsequently much of America got comfortable with an “anything goes” ethos, to our undoing. For ultimate evidence of that moral falling-off, look no further than the amoralist now in the White House.
Yet two mighty civic movements arising just in the last year — the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and the #March for Our Lives movement against gun violence — reflect a profound yearning to retrieve that compass once again. While both movements are about phenomena that predate Trump, his amorality no doubt acts as a spur to these grassroots uprisings. His admission on the “Access Hollywood” tape to vulgarly groping women no doubt energizes much of #MeToo.
But #MeToo is more than about physical assault; it is also about resetting the power balance between men and women, both in the workplace and in the private sphere. The women testifying against their sexual predators have shone a light on the gross, and in some cases criminal, imbalance in the power dynamics between the sexes. Reflecting our fallen times, few of these women employ moral language in making their claims, yet they are clearly arguing “This is wrong” — all of it: the physical assault, the power imbalance. And the public, newly conscious, is taking their point.
Likewise the #March for our Lives movement: Mass shootings occur so often in this gun-ridden country that one despairs there is an end to it. But the mass shooting on Valentine’s Day at a high school in Parkland, Florida, leaving 17 dead and many critically injured, has led to something new and powerful: The victims themselves taking action, political action, to advocate for gun safety. And that it is young people, of all races, doing the leading spells good things for our Renaissance. Again, few of these young people employ moral language, yet again they are clearly arguing “This is wrong” — all of it: the carnage, the trauma. And the public, again, takes their point.
Also, of course, there is the #Black Lives Matter movement: At a time when the white supremacist in the White House stokes racial and ethnic tensions for his own divisive ends, this movement no doubt has more to say and do to enable America to reach racial justice.
In a nation thrown off its axis in so many ways, these movements — #MeToo for greater fairness, #March For Our Lives for gun sanity, and #Black Lives Matter for racial justice, and, importantly, the public support they have engendered — show an America groping for its misplaced compass. America is trying mightily to get right again.
Candidates for office. The most tangible and perhaps most consequential counter-force to the present chaos is this: Recognizing that American democracy is under grave threat, and recognizing that a democracy is powered by the people, the demos, astonishing numbers of the American people are in turn becoming small-d democrats and running for elective office — at the local, state, and national levels — as the surest way to stabilize our system. The demos is out to save our democracy.
Indisputably, the impetus for this outburst of civic activism is Donald Trump himself — his autocratic tendencies seen in his disdain for the law and democratic norms, his constant lying, his constant attacks on truth and fact, his racism, his amorality, his scorn of statesmanship; in short, as Zorba the Greek put it, “the full catastrophe.” And this catastrophe is, to the conscientious citizen, sufficient inspiration to override the well-reported fact that American political campaigns are nasty, brutish, and long. Here, you throw your hat in the ring and you know you’re in for a ringer.
In what The Washington Post calls a “gusher,” candidates as of Dec. 31, 2017 have filed to run for Congress in numbers — more than 2,100 — almost twice that of 2015. Enthusiasm is especially high on the left, with some 1,133 Democrats filing to run for House seats, in what the Post calls a “never-before-seen gusher,” as they aim to pick up the 24 seats needed to win back the majority in the November midterms.
Women are the big story this election cycle: In its most recent release, Emily’s List reports that 34,000 women (that’s not a typo) have contacted the organization since Election Day 2016, expressing serious interest in running for office. These numbers relate to all levels of elective office, from local school board to Congress. As The Economist writes, “Women could be the undoing of Trump” — which is sweet justice, given Trump’s disgusting behavior toward them. Notable also is the “record number” of women running for governor: 79, as of January — 49 Democrats and 30 Republicans.
Even scientists in significant numbers are running for office, to counter the anti-science stance of Trump and his Republican cohort. According to 314 Action, as of February more than 60 scientists have announced a run for federal office, while almost 200 are running for state legislature and another 200 for local school boards.
There are other good things afoot, mainly our greater sense of realism: Americans can live in their own worlds in pursuit of their personal dreams, but the peril posed by Trump has pierced through and forced us to come to grips with perilous reality. Yet we are not fatalists — not yet. We still largely retain the American belief that we can “front” Fate (a favorite verb of American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson) and prevail.
Taken together, these counter-forces — constitutional, ethical, electoral, greater realism, little fatalism as yet — reflect a powerful stabilizing reaction to the chaos President Donald Trump has unleashed and exploits. America is in a titanic struggle with itself, one that is existential in its implications and riveting in its drama. Here’s to democracy.
Photo: David Everett Strickler, Unsplash