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Opinion | John Shattuck

How to defend human rights in the Trump era

Demonstrators attended the Women's March on Washington Saturday.AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz

The Women’s March and demonstrations throughout the country last weekend served notice on President Trump that if he persists in assaulting human rights, he will face massive resistance.

Recent presidents who threatened rights have been reined in. Richard Nixon used the power of the presidency to attack the Constitution and his political enemies, but the House of Representatives voted to impeach him. Ronald Reagan tried to overturn hard-won legislation on the rights of women and minorities, but civil society groups and a bipartisan congressional coalition beat back the attack. George W. Bush introduced the use of torture in violation of domestic and international law, but resistance inside the federal government led to reinstatement of the torture ban.

Following these examples, a new citizen movement must mobilize the assets of American democracy to protect basic rights and freedoms in the Trump era.


The first asset is a strong and multilayered civil society. From mass demonstrations to coalition-building to political lobbying, civil society must be the backbone of the movement. This will require people to come out of their silos, reach across partisan divides, and seek common ground on political goals such as protecting the right to vote, resisting discrimination against minorities and women, protecting the environment, and supporting immigration. Effective movements are built by unlikely allies. A broad coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association prevented President Reagan from getting Congress to pass legislation stripping the federal courts of jurisdiction in cases involving abortion rights and school desegregation.

Second is America’s diversity. Trump appealed to the “forgotten (white) man” who may feel threatened by diversity. But as the Bernie Sanders campaign showed, there are ways of reaching this constituency from the left. Crosscutting interests in creating jobs and reducing inequality connect Trump and non-Trump voters, making it possible to build a new political base to promote economic justice. Organizing a broad-based demand for economic inclusion would undercut Trump’s brand of racial exclusion, symbolized by his appointment of Breitbart media executive Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist.


Third is the federal bureaucracy and state and local governments. Federal employees are as diverse as American society itself. Many are career professionals wary of extremism and resistant to carrying out illegal orders. The pushback on torture in the Bush Pentagon was done by mid-level officials determined to adhere to the rule of law against pressure from their political superiors. Beyond the federal government, constitutional authority over many domestic issues is diffused throughout state and local levels. On the day Trump was elected president, scores of state and local referendums were passed on such issues as education reform, de-incarceration, and marijuana use. The movement to defend basic rights should look for allies among federal employees and state and local officials.

Fourth are the federal courts, empowered by the Constitution to review government actions that violate constitutional rights. The courts have repeatedly entertained such cases in previous presidencies. For example, as an ACLU lawyer, I successfully challenged Richard Nixon’s warrantless wiretapping of government officials and journalists, cited in the Nixon impeachment proceedings. President Obama appointed several hundred federal judges who can be counted on to uphold the Constitution against presidential abuses of power, just as judges named by previous presidents have done. Trump has the power to nominate one Supreme Court justice, but this will not change the current five-justice majority in very recent cases involving abortion rights, press freedom, and civil rights. Of course, any new nomination should be closely scrutinized and strongly opposed if it threatens constitutional rights.


Fifth are the media. Despite fragmentation in an increasingly digital landscape and vulnerability to manipulation by political liars and propagandists, the media are protected by the First Amendment and remain a central component in the defense of constitutional democracy. Journalists need to stand up for verified facts and hold the Trump administration accountable, but the public must also back them up.

Sixth is the Congress. The resistance movement must cultivate relationships with moderate members of Congress and confront hostile members in their districts with demands to support constitutional rights.

The movement to resist Trumpism must build a firewall against authoritarianism. In doing so, it must be on guard against new authoritarian moves by the president — for example, in response to a political emergency, such as his potential implication in the Russian hacking scandal, or a new terrorist attack on American soil that he might use to establish a Muslim registry or regulate the media. The Reichstag fire in 1933 was cited by Hitler to justify suspending civil liberties in Germany. We must not allow this to happen here.

John Shattuck, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, and Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union, is professor of practice at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.