This is an incisive editorial from today’s NYT, on President’s Trump’s Twitter attack on the “so-called judge” who blocked his immigration ban. The piece argues that the role of courts, as upholders of rationality, has, in the age of Trump, become more important than ever, particularly as other key institutions, including Congress and significant swaths of the media, cannot be counted on to play their necessary roles in maintaining a civil, safe society.
No question that’s true, and the quick response of the courts to a ban that even I, a non-lawyerly observer, immediately viewed as unconstitutional, is extremely good to see (later today, a federal appeals court will hear the government’s argument to restore the ban).
But I saw something else in Trump’s attacks on the judiciary. Our president has always and highly effectively used fear and divisiveness as political tactics, and the possibility that these tactics could be taken from him represents a fundamental threat to his and Bannon’s strategy.
The refugee ban is a great example of this phenomenon, because most people have two opposing impulses. One is to welcome strangers. I was elated to see pictures in the paper the other day of joyous African refugees arriving at their new home in the snow-filled Hudson Valley (they even seemed happy to see the snow!). But we also instinctively fear strangers, something fake populists and demagogues have exploited forever. A core strategy of Trump’s campaign was to set his voters against others, and himself as the strongman that can protect us from the marauding intruders, many of whom are already within our midst, while others are aggressively trying to get here to kill us.
As far as the ban itself is concerned, this last part is of course an alternative fact of the vilest type. In decades, there’s no evidence of refugees killing Americans and this (actual) fact has been particularly underscored re the seven nations in the ban. (The Times points out that “[T]here was, in fact, a terrorist attack shortly after Mr. Trump issued his immigration order: a white supremacist, officials say, armed himself with an assault rifle and stormed a mosque in Quebec City, slaughtering six Muslims during their prayers.”)
Look at his tweet (my bold): “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
The last bit—“Bad!”—is especially primal and revealing (it’s also what I just said to my cat for jumping up on the table). By threatening to take away the ability of the president to promulgate fear, the courts are going after his essential playbook. And once you take away a bully’s key psychological weapon, what has he got left? Well, in this case, he has an army, a nuclear arsenal, and a compliant Congress.
In other words, the institution of the judiciary is unimaginably important.