Civil Society During The Trump Years

As the Obama administration winds down and the Trump presidency is now only a few days away, it is apparent that civil society, in the form of non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, professional association and perhaps most importantly a broad sense among the American people that we are a free people with rights that we will not relinquish easily, will become an increasingly important bulwark against efforts by the Trump administration to rollback democracy. That language may be a strong way to start the New Year, but that is what the president-elect, in so many words, has pledged to do, and there is little reason to think he will move away from that position.

Civil society has long been strong and vibrant and strong in the US. National organizations across the political spectrum, including groups like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, and yes the NRA and the Chamber of Commerce, have played an important role in our democracy and our political life. Additionally, thousands of organizations at the local level have helped people fight against injustice, learn more about policy questions, mobilize to achieve political goals and help people understand their rights. Without these types of organizations, and the networks of trust and cooperation that they help engender, and indeed from which they spring, American democracy would be a shadow of what has been. This is a foundational reality about our country.

It is also one that will be likely be tested during the next administration. Civil society organizations that are committed to protecting the rights of Americans, particularly women, LGBT people, and racial and religious minorities will be essential to preserving American democracy in the months and years to come. While it is important to recognize the value of these kinds of organizations, and the critical role they must play in the near future, it is also necessary to recognize that they too will encounter obstacles and potentially harassment from the government.

It is not at all difficult to imagine that a president who during his campaign and the transition period has attacked and made threats against the media will take a similar approach to civil society more broadly. A Trump administration that seeks to pass laws limiting the rights of, for example, Muslims, through registries or other forms of discrimination will encounter resistance from organizations like the ACLU. A President Trump would then likely turn to Twitter to insult the leaders of ACLU and the organization itself. This is not a far-fetched scenario given what he recently did to Indiana labor leader Chuck Jones. President Trump could defend those Tweets, change the subject and otherwise deflect responsibility, but his more thuggish supporters could easily take it upon themselves to threaten or harass those ACLU leaders. Events like this have not happened yet, but they are the kinds of things about which we should be particularly aware as the administration settles in. In countries around the world, one of the first components of democratic rollback are efforts by the state to delegitimize and damage important civil society organizations. We must be prepared for that in Trump's America as well.

Significantly, most of the strategies employed by civil society such as mobilizing people for elections, seeking to put pressure on members of congress, lawsuits and the like, rely upon functioning, and sometimes even sympathetic, political institutions. In the US, civil society has drawn much of its strength precisely from being able to operate in relationship to consistent and rational government institutions. After January 20th, the political space for this will continue to shrink. We already see a Republican congress that is extremely reluctant to look into conflicts of interests, and the ties between Trump and Moscow that would, in previous eras, be major and enduring scandals. Because of Republicans in the Senate who refused to do their constitutional duty and hold hearings and a confirmation vote for President Obama's Supreme Court appointee last year, Trump will inherit a vacancy on the court. It is all but certain he will fill that vacancy with a very conservative judge, thus making it more difficult for civil society organizations to win cases in front of the country's highest court. Lastly, that court will very likely support GOP efforts in key states to pass more voter suppression laws, making electoral strategies less likely so succeed.

This will add up to a political environment where many progressive civil society organizations will find themselves either stymied or harassed much of the time. Thus, while it civil society remains an important piece of the democratic milieu in the US, the ability of these organizations to stop the undemocratic impulses of the incoming Trump administration will be strained. Progressive organizations are absolutely essential to protecting our rights and to preserving our democracy and deserver our ongoing support, but they will also face unprecedented challenges; and Americans would be over-optimistic to simply assume that this longstanding safeguard will remain effective in the coming Trump years.