The scale of the early anti-Trump protests has been impressive. As have the efforts of a few officials to stand up to him, such as the Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, who was fired for upholding the law against Trump’s illegal order to ban travel by people born in seven Muslim-majority countries. But much more sustained action will be needed, on many fronts, to stop Trump doing major damage.
Even those Americans who voted for Trump and support his wall-building, torture-promoting policies, should be alarmed by his methods. Trump is governing by executive order to evade the checks and balances upon which the American political system is based. This dictatorial “ruling by decree” is an assault on the country’s democracy.
The Republican Party now controls all the main elected institutions designed to separate powers and prevent presidential tyranny. Tragically, most of the party’s leaders appear drunk on rabble-rousing euphoria. Apart from a pair of marginalised elder statesmen, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, they seem uninterested in the dangers Trump presents. This is extremely short-sighted of the Republicans. All parties have a fundamental interest in protecting the basic rules of democracy. Bypassing and breaking them might seem seductive whilst your party is in power. It becomes less appealing when it is not.
Sadly, this situation is not surprising. For several decades now, the Republicans have been largely responsible for corroding the infrastructure of America’s democracy. They have repeatedly sought to reduce voting in poorer areas with high ethnic minority populations and where their support is low by cutting the numbers of polling stations and instituting onerous identity checks. They have also rigged the boundaries of numerous constituencies for seats in Congress to ensure that there is no risk of their representatives losing office.
The effect of these activities has been to weaken Congress and make it less able to defend the country against an autocratic President. If the main elected institutions cannot do this crucial job, then who can? And how?
One of the features that distinguishes a democracy from a dictatorship is the rule of law. In dictatorships like Russia and China, the legal system is a tool used by the regime to enforce its will and persecute opponents. In democracies, the impartial justice system ensures that the law of the land is applied fairly and equally to all. These laws and the protection they offer endures over the long-term, even as governments and politicians come and go. It is perhaps now more crucial than at any time in the United States’ history, that judges and the legal system follow former Attorney General Yates’ lead. They must honour their jobs by standing firm in applying the constitution and the law in the face of Trump’s attempts to override them.
The public, of course, have the most to lose from their free society being taken away and have a huge role to play in preventing that from happening. For all that it gets difficult, when people have jobs to do and busy lives to lead, they must keep up the pressure. As well as continuing to protest, they need to defend their right to vote. This right must then be exercised at mid-term and other elections in favour of candidates who oppose Trump’s anti-democratic and un-American actions (lower down the scale, there are Republicans who fall into this category as well as Democrats).
Rather than opposing Trump, as he loudly claims, the media played a significant part in his rise. Perhaps the stupidest quote of an election campaign that featured plenty of them came from Leslie Moonves, the Chief Executive of national TV network CBS. He said Trump’s candidacy "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS”. Many media organisations like CBS gave Trump endless, unchallenged free airtime. They did so because they were addicted to the easy headlines his various outrages provided, which boosted their ratings and advertising revenues. This is turning out to have been a grievous mistake now that Trump is attacking their credibility and attempting to side-line them.
There are various ways in which the media can push back against Trump’s attacks on them. It is essential that they do so to preserve the crucial democratic role they play in keeping politicians accountable to the people. The most obvious is to investigate thoroughly and expose Trump’s lies and misconduct. Some journalists are already searching for more information on the many skeletons in Trump’s closet. But uncovering these fully will not happen quickly and the media has a strong common interest in cooperating to defend its collective rights in the meantime. When Trump and his team publicly denigrates or attempts to intimidate legitimate journalists at press conferences, the whole press corps should walk out. When they refuse to take or answer questions from one journalist, the others should keep asking the same question until it has been responded to appropriately.
The media could stop, too, being distracted by Trump’s every outburst on Twitter and stick to reporting the real stories of what he and his team are actually doing.
Strange though it feels to say it, the law enforcement and intelligence agencies also have an important role to play now in protecting America from its own President. Trump’s business and financial affairs create significant conflicts of interest that need to be monitored. Saudi Arabia was not included in Trump’s disgraceful “Muslim Ban”, despite it being the nation from where most of the 9/11 terrorists came. It may not be entirely coincidental that Trump has investments there and has previously been bailed out of financial trouble by members of the Saudi royal family.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, the reasons for Trump’s curious deference to Russia and its dictator Vladimir Putin have still not been explained. Since the two Presidents spoke on the phone on 28 January, Russia has launched a renewed assault on Ukraine. Over recent days, several Russian Security Service (FSB) agents have been arrested in Moscow for alleged cooperation with the CIA and a senior FSB official has died mysteriously. These events, of course, may have nothing to do with Trump’s presence in the White House. But the proven links between some of his team and Russia, and Russia’s interference in the election campaign in Trump’s favour, give grounds for some serious concerns. It is to be hoped that the American intelligence agencies are continuing to defend national security by investigating these matters independent of any political pressure.
The first two weeks of Trump’s Presidency have only increased the sense that his character flaws and propensity for scandal are likely to result in his term in office ending badly. Whether it ends badly merely for him or for America as a whole (and the rest of the world) may now depend on how willing and able the American people, their politicians, media and justice system are to defend their democracy. To do so, they need to find ways to put pressure on Trump, rather than simply responding to his actions.