Friday, February 10, 2017

Resistance should make immunization central to our culture

So the unpresidential Tangerine has lost a round as federal judges have extended the stay of his Muslim ban. Good. We can now have some confidence that this round will play out over some time period. Any grit in the wheels of his autocratic white nationalist project is a good thing. But let's look ahead a bit. What might we really be up against here?

It looks to me a good bet that much of Trump's snarling at federal judges (and at the media) is designed to give him someone else to blame when the U.S. is hit with some sort of terrorist incident. We will suffer such an attack; in a country that sends its military tromping through nations around the world, a country awash in unregulated guns, and stocked with the usual quantity of damaged people (including the one in the White House), something is going to happen. Our incompetent president and his proto-fascist, white nationalist brain trust led by Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions hope to be able to use popular panic to overthrow constraints on the emerging autocracy.

Our struggle to preserve the rule law will be enhanced by promoting a widespread understanding that when a terror attack occurs 1) something awful and wrong happened; 2) it happened under a president failing to do his job; 3) and terrorism is no excuse for curtailing civil liberties and trying to rule by executive order. Helping as many people as possible to get a grip on that understanding now is what I mean by immunization.

Fortunately, there are people with a big megaphone are out there sounding the alarm. Jack Goldsmith, formerly of George W. Bush's Office of Legal Counsel, led off with a Lawfare blog post asking a provocative and scary question about Trump's Muslim ban: "Does Trump Want to Lose the Executive Order Battle in Court?"

... the only reason I can think of is that Trump is setting the scene to blame judges after an attack that has any conceivable connection to immigration.  If Trump loses in court he credibly will say to the American people that he tried and failed to create tighter immigration controls.  This will deflect blame for the attack.  And it will also help Trump to enhance his power after the attack.  ...the usual security panic after a bad attack will be enhanced quite a lot—in courts and in Congress—if before the attack legal and judicial constraints are seen to block safety.   If Trump assumes that there will be a bad terrorist attack on his watch, blaming judges now will deflect blame and enhance his power more than usual after the next attack.

This isn't coming from some paranoid lefty -- this is from a conservative Harvard Law professor.

Goldsmith's warning on Monday, February 6, seems to have unleashed a slew of "serious" media voices making similar points.
  • Journalist Eric Levitz:

    [Trump's attack on the judge] was not merely an intemperate tweet. It was the president instructing the American people to view the next terrorist attack on U.S. soil as an indictment of the judiciary. ... This is an argument for allowing our fear of terrorism to overwhelm our commitment to the rule of law — a line of reasoning that poses a far greater threat to the American form of government and way of life than any closeted-jihadist refugee ever could.

  • Perceptive Democratic Party pundit Ed Kilgore:

    [Trump] is preemptively clearing himself and his administration of any responsibility for future terrorist acts its policies might fail to prevent — or even invite. ... Perhaps the larger challenge is how Trump opponents can safeguard themselves and the country from this sort of irresponsible blame-shifting, which could not only misrepresent the causes for terrorist acts, but justify steps by Trump that endanger our security even more and vitiate civil liberties even further.

  • New Republic columnist Jeet Heer:

    If the U.S. is hit by a terrorist attack that can be connected to Islamic radicalism, Trump will blame his opponents, whether they be the courts, politicians, journalists, or whomever; the terrorist attack will be anyone’s fault but his own. Knowing this, Democrats must be ready to play politics in return.

  • New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza sought the opinion of George W. Bush's torture-apologist lawyer, John Yoo:

    ... Yoo told me, “If there is another terrorist attack, I could see Trump seeking all of the powers that the President can exercise during wartime. The domestic powers would have to be approved by Congress, such as limitations on habeas, domestic warrantless surveillance, and an internal security act. We really haven’t had a system like that since the Second World War or the Communist cases of the nineteen-fifties.”

  • Lizza also interviewed Todd Breasseale, the former assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security:

    “We ... wholly believe that Trump needs a bogeyman. But, more importantly, he needs distraction and a blame source. In terrorists, he has his bogeyman. In his control of the prevailing press narrative via tweet, he has distraction. And, in the judiciary, he has a source of blame for why his way was right from the beginning.” Breasseale added, “I am fully confident that an attack is exactly what he wants and needs.”

We, let's call ourselves the Resistance, have a multitude of fights ahead. In all those fights we must holler far and wide that the President is setting the country up to use a terror event to seize greater powers than the constitution allows. That's immunization. I've done my bit. Understanding this has to be a central part of our culture of resistance.

If we do a good job, the inevitable terror attack might well bounce back against Trump. So asserts political scientist Jonathan Bernstein:

It's also possible that some event could inspire a rally-around-the-flag response that could spike his approval ratings. But that's a lot less predictable a reaction than many believe. Large, long-lasting rally effects are rare. And there's no guarantee that Trump would benefit from, say, a terrorist attack, even in the short run. Reactions to such events depend on how the media reports them and how Democrats respond, and neither would necessarily support Trump.

Nor is it certain that the Tweeter-in-Chief would be able to behave himself well enough to get the benefit of the doubt from many who currently think he's doing a bad job. It's not hard to imagine Trump reacting to a foreign-policy or national-security crisis by lashing out at an inappropriate target -- or by getting distracted by some petty unrelated feud.

Let's make sure he is right; we can do this.

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