Wednesday,14 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)
Wednesday,14 November, 2018
Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The new American rebellion

A rebellion by US states and cities against the actions of an erratic president is now underway, writes Yassin El-Ayouty

The man is out of control. “Make America Great Again is his call. Its practical effect has been “Make America the World’s Pariah.” US President Donald Trump may be impeached before too long, and his swagger in public may be to mask his fear of eventual humiliation. The recent appointment of a special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, to investigate the possibility of a Trump-Putin axis signals the ultimate check on a president who has gone rogue.

The most recent straw straining the American camel’s back has been Trump’s abandonment of the Paris Accord of 2016 on climate-change. Resorting to a junk misinterpretation of this voluntary agreement of 195 states on the reduction of fossil-fuel emissions, Trump declared on 1 June that that Accord was an economic straitjacket. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said.

Rebukes of this isolationist move against combating global warming have been fast and furious, and not only from heads of state, especially those of least developed countries, but also from American businessmen, corporate executives, climate activists and state governors and city mayors. A new American rebellion by cities and states against an erratic president is now underway.

Led by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in the east and governor Jerry Brown of California in the west, the rebellion is a practical application of the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads that “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.”

From his campaign for the presidency from June 2015 to November 2016, it became clear that Trump is not conversant with the US Constitution. A Muslim father of a US army officer killed in Afghanistan, Khizr Khan, angered by Trump’s foolish call for a ban on Muslims entering the US at the time, posed a challenge to Trump at the Democratic Party National Convention. Flourishing a copy of the American Constitution, Khan asked of Trump “have you ever even read the US Constitution?”

The fact that the federal government in America is one of “enumerated” (limited) powers has created for the states and cities that are in favour of the Paris Accord the requisite space for checks on Trump’s “act of gratuitous destruction,” to quote US commentator Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate in economics.

This challenge by city mayors and state governors to Trump’s headlong isolationism has been in the making since their opposition to Trump’s executive orders for the deportation of “illegal immigrants.” In one of the so-called “sanctuary cities,” mayor Bill De Blasio of New York City led the charge by instructing the New York Police Department not to cooperate with federal agents attempting to arrest persons who lacked documentary evidence of being in America legally.

In America, police departments (47,000 in all) are not controlled by the federal government. As in the case of education, they are subject to control by cities only, in the case of the police, or by community school boards, in the case of public education.

The spark that has further ignited the states’ and cities’ rebellion against Trump’s “reckless climate decision” has been described by John Niles, director of the Carbon Institute of California, a climate-change think tank, in these words: “Trump’s decision is not only an arrogant abrogation of science and cooperation, but also defies logic. Ignoring the opportunities for clean innovation and relying on 18th-century technologies is a mistaken bet to 'make American great again. ’”

This new assertion of local power over federal power in America is taking place against a series of Trumpist isolationist moves that have created voids now filled by China. Trump’s avoidance of reaffirming the US commitment to NATO, his abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his reduction of the budgets of the US state department in favour of a 10 per cent increase in the military budget have all alarmed an America whose leadership has been the mainstay of the post-war world order since 1945.

As of now, former New York City mayor Bloomberg, together with 30 mayors, several governors, 80 university presidents and more than 100 businesses in the US are now negotiating with the UN to formalise their contribution to the Paris Accord. Bloomberg has declared that “we are going to do everything America would have done if it has stayed committed.” It is incorrect to claim that such an initiative has no formal mechanism for entities that are not countries to be full parties to the Paris Accord.

Although the UN is an inter-state system, its charter, a World War II document dating back to 1945, declares in its preamble that “We the peoples of the United Nations determined... to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedoms.” The cluster of US cities and states now rising against Trump in support of the climate accord endorsed by 195 states falls into the category of legitimate UN participants. This is particularly so because such a cluster includes US states whose status under the Constitution is regarded as “supreme.”

The continuous creation by the UN of new mechanisms to overcome the strictures imposed by a literal interpretation of the UN Charter is also relevant in this regard. The most important examples of this have been the creation of peace-keeping operations (there is no mention in the UN Charter of the term “peace-keeping”); the expansion of the authority of the UN Security Council to impose travel bans on individual citizens of sovereign states; and the avoidance of voting in the UN Security Council for fear of paralysis by some states using their veto and the creation of “presidential statements” to replace formal decisions.

Bloomberg is also a UN envoy on climate change. In an example of improvised American leadership outside of a White House that is going back on international commitments, Bloomberg has declared that his approach to the UN is “a parallel pledge.” Jerry Brown said that “if the president is going backward, we are going forward.” California’s economy is the 6th-largest in the world.

In America, the fight has now shifted from the federal government to lower levels, including academia and industry. This is a rebellion whose vanguard includes Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York State and Governor Brown of California. All of them, Democrats, have declared an alliance committed to upholding the Paris Accord.

There are also European allies in the new American rebellion of cities and states against Trump. France’s President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the uprising in these words: “I want to say that they will find in France a second home... I can assure you that France will not give up the fight.” During her meeting in Berlin with Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel also pledged her support and distanced the European Union from Trump. She has welcomed China’s leadership in the global push for action on climate change.

Under Trump, America is being transformed, but not in the way the Trumpists hoped. There has been a rise of new checks and balances that have not been used before to chain a president who thinks that running a country is akin to running a company. As a country governed by the rule of law, the system may yet force Trump out of the White House, which he has recently dubbed “the People’s House.”

The US Constitution begins with these words: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union ... ” It looks as if this “more perfect Union” is now in the making through the rebellion of US cities and states.


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

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