When is a judge not a judge? When does a member of the United States’ judiciary lack credibility and legitimacy? When he or she rules against Donald Trump’s authoritarian administration, it seems. On Thursday, the tantrum-prone president lashed out at the judge who ruled against his discriminatory travel ban, referring to him as a “so-called judge.”
Trump followed up, musing angrily aloud, “What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into the US?”
There are at least two levels of pernicious dishonesty in Trump’s tweets, that get to the heart of how this authoritarian man works and thinks.
The first is his attack on the integrity of the judiciary by referring to the judge as “so-called.” An angry Trump could have used any number of words that criticized the judge and his rulings, but respected his status as a confirmed and legitimate member of our judiciary. Instead, Trump chose to call into question--crudely--the legitimacy of the judge.
This isn’t the first time Trump has attacked the courts, which he undoubtedly sees as the primary obstacle to being able to rule unchecked, despite having won nearly three million fewer votes than his election opponent. During the primary, he attacked the credentials of a judge who ruled unfavorably against his fraudulent university, claiming that a Latino judge was inherently biased and could therefore not pronounce judgment on Trump.
This was a deeply troubling suggestion, namely that race is the primary, core factor influencing how a member of a judiciary--or a person more broadly--processes information and makes decisions. The subtler extension of Trump’s argument is that Latino judges are not fit to sit on cases involving white Americans, or perhaps that American Latinos do not possess the full rights of citizenship allowing them to serve in the capacities open to other Americans.
When it appeared likely that he would lose both popular and electoral college votes, Trump again suggested the courts have little place in his thinking about how American politics function. Rather, violence and confrontation would rule. He recommended that his supporters shoot Hillary Clinton, suggested that he would provoke a constitutional crisis, and leading surrogates threatened a “blood bath” if Trump would lose.
Finally, when a New York judge issued a limited stay against the functioning of Trump’s order, the administration instructed border security to ignore the courts, setting up a confrontation between rogue agencies and a rogue administration on the one hand, and the judiciary on the other.
The second layer of dishonesty in Trump’s tweeting--which could also be abject ignorance or the fascist fingers of President Bedsheet Bannon--revolved around his almost comical surprise that a judge could rule against the discriminatory ban. I’m sure someone in the Bannon/Trump Whitehouse is feeling some heat, as Trump rages around, demanding, “What do you mean, I can’t just do whatever I want? Why didn’t someone tell me that!” as his enablers cower.
As the BBC noted mildly, “No one--not even a president--gets to pick and choose which court rulings to listen to and which to ignore.” In other words, Trump shouldn’t be surprised that a judge was able to halt his order. The purpose of the judiciary is among other things, to check a president when that president oversteps his power.
Trump’s tweets also badly misrepresented what the ruling does. Perhaps his small hands can’t handle the keys well, but when Trump wrote that the judge had “halt[ed] a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into the US,” he was, as usual, lying.
Trump’s travel ban did at least three things: it froze entry and suspended visas for 90 days for people from a number of countries which were clearly selected based on the Muslim majority of their populations, omitting several terrorist-sponsoring states, including those with a Trump business presence; it froze the entire U.S. refugee admission program, impacting people fleeing dangerous situations who had already been vetted by the U.S.’ stringent, two-year process; and it indefinitely halted the processing of Syrian refugees, those perhaps most in need, fleeing a conflict exacerbated by American policy and the devastating violence inflicted by Trump’s Russian ally.
In light of these facts, the judge’s ruling did not, as Trump claimed, mean that anyone, even those wishing us ill, could enter the U.S. The already incredibly rigorous vetting process remains in place. The trickle of refugees into the U.S. will continue, but the small numbers of people admitted will be vetted and subjected to serious scrutiny.
Visa seekers and holders from the named countries will be able to enter the U.S, but again, only if cleared by the agencies to whom they routinely submit information and which work hard to ensure they represent no public threat. In other words, the agencies and processes that have been quite successful at protecting the U.S. public since 9/11 will continue to function as they have. They will simply be unable to discriminate in the illegal, blanket fashion envisioned by Trump’s order, which was greeted with enthusiasm by jihadist organizations who had the wit to recognize it for what it was--a recruiting tool for international terrorists who claim that the U.S. has an anti-Muslim agenda.
Trump and his supporters seem wildly ignorant of how vetting and immigration work, and are highly resistant to hearing the rigorous realities that migrants and visitors experience when they seek to enter the U.S. as it is.
It has fallen to the Vice-President to defend Trump from the criticism his ignorant, authoritarian, dangerous language provoked.
It must feel a little strange for Mike Pence. Here is the vice president who joined Trump’s campaign because the fascist was supposedly a straight-talking truth-teller. And yet from his debate to this morning, most of Pence’s life has come to revolve around explaining why a) Trump doesn’t actually mean any of the things he’s said; or b) common understandings of the English language aside, Trump’s arrangements of words mean something completely different from what most of us thing. All the while, of course, Pence is trying to cover up his own savage homophobia, dangerous religious bigotry, and fairytale economics.
USA Today reported that Pence described Trump as simply “speaking his mind” when he questioned the legitimacy of the judge. We all accept that. But the difference between most people’s interpretation of those comments and Pence’s interpretation, is that we believe Trump’s words have meaning, and that they must be understood as such.
He was speaking his mind. And in that mind, the judiciary doesn’t have legitimacy, doesn’t have the right to rule against a president, and doesn’t represent the public interest in the same way that Trump sees his administration as doing, in spite of the fact that he won nearly three million fewer votes than his opponent.
Contempt for the courts, an inflated sense of mandate, and a disregard for the rights of U.S. citizens and the need to protect refugees in need is putting Trump on a collision course with the judiciary. Egged on by white supremacists and fascists in his administration, Trump is fanning the flames of conflict. And if he continues along these lines, he will fracture the institutions that have hitherto been the last line of defence for those who are persecuted by bigoted, authoritarian elites like Trump.