Tuesday,23 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Tuesday,23 October, 2018
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A chaotic American Spring

People across the US are resisting the actions of the Trump administration, helped as they do so by the US Constitution

This is a “Made in America” American Spring and one quite different from the 2011 Arab Spring. Its participants are not the masses. They are the billionaires. Its ethos is not democracy: It is the gradual destruction of democratic institutions, with the freedom of the press, a constitutional right under the First Amendment, as a primary target.

As in the Arab Spring, there is no recognisable spokesman. Donald Trump is US president, gushing out daily with his “alternative facts” (meaning falsehoods), and the White House staff spins what he says. The cabinet reshapes these utterances in various forms. In the meantime, workers in the US civil service (two million of them in various departments) ignore these directions, or at best kill them off by a deliberate policy of slow motion.

In the midst of this chaotic American Spring, the US masses (65 per cent of the American public no longer trusts the man in the White House) use their weekends to fill the American equivalents of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. This is a popular movement that aims to resist Trump’s espousal of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s style of leadership, his Muslim ban, his wall on the US-Mexican border, his attacks on the judiciary, his non-divulgence of his tax returns, and his assault on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

There are variables between the American Spring and the Arab Spring, but they share one primary quality: One does not know their final outcome. The fragmentation (in the Arab world it is called “sectarianism”) in America is the “creative chaos” that Washington used in its attempts to effect change in the Middle East. However, in the American Spring it is constitutionally induced chaos. And here is the reason why.

In the American Constitution there is a “supremacy clause” in the shape of the Tenth Amendment. Because of its importance to understanding the American Spring, this merits quotation. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” the amendment says. As a result, it was difficult for me, when lecturing at the Cairo University School of Law, the pearl of Arab legal education, to explain to my students that the American federal government is a government with limited powers.

We have to bear in mind that the masses taking part in the American Spring do not only draw their right to do so from “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” (the First Amendment to the US Constitution). The practical source of such power in the US lies in the States, which control the police (not federal in America), the education system (controlled largely by local school boards), the State legislatures, taxation systems, licensing of businesses and corporations, and the elections of non-Article III judges.

These are all huge powers. By contrast, the US federal government, among other things, controls foreign policy, foreign and interstate commerce, immigration, the coinage of money, post offices, the promotion of intellectual property and declarations of war.

This is a very broad and thus incomplete comparison between State powers and federal powers in the US. But guess what? In the American Spring, stimulated by the election of Trump, State flags are now flying high. The mayors of many cities and the governors of a dozen American States have ordered their police forces not to cooperate with the federal authorities in various activities. Sanctuary cities are resisting Trump’s draconian methods of deportation, and New York’s Times Square (the American Tahrir Square) is proclaiming “We are Muslims too.”

The allies of the masses in the American Spring include the federal judiciary, the free press, the constitutional provisions on the separation between church and state, the civil service below the billionaires who now compose the cabinet, and the on-going investigations into Russia’s intervention in the American presidential elections.

To the above should be added the 17 American intelligence and security services about which Trump has frothed at the mouth in petulant anger. When confronted by a president whose impeachment is already being publicly discussed after only four weeks of his administration, they are opting for selective briefs to be given to Trump that are tailored to protect America from leaks to its adversaries.

In his book The Art of Intelligence, US CIA operative Henry Crumpton, who spent his life in the service, shows the huge gulf that exists between “the Art of Intelligence” and Trump’s “Art of the Deal,” the title of one of Trump’s books. Trump’s “America uber Alles” policy relies on megaphones from Trump Tower. The American masses are relying on resistance from the ground up.

Commenting on the chaotic US national scene in the Trump era, journalist Daniel Gross sounded the alarm in the New Yorker magazine recently. Under the title of “The German National Anthem and ‘America First,’ ” he wrote that “political language, when misused, can turn healthy patriotism into toxic nationalism.”

The New York Times magazine of 12 February also festooned its cover with one word: Resist.


The writer is a professor of law at New York University.

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