I need to pace myself. As my friends of color remind me, the race for justice isn’t a sprint; it is a grueling marathon. They worry that the surge of interest in justice and equality may be the fad of the day and not a cultural shift. That is a fair critique. When it comes to fighting for justice, most white people are out of shape. Having never had to walk up hill or against the wind, we grow exhausted quickly. So I need to pace myself.
I cannot attend every march, protest or meeting. I cannot read every article. I cannot generate outrage for every Trump action. I cannot focus on every injustice. My black daughter-in-law wrote these words to me after the election,
“This whole “racism” issue is new to you. For me, it is a constant in my life. You cannot let your newfound knowledge and first-hand experiences of racism consume you. There is nothing good that will come of that. You cannot change the world despite your best intentions to make it a better place for your daughter. It breaks my heart that she will have her own experiences, because despite how far we have come, we still have not gone far enough. My advice is to seek joy, seek love, and find reasons to smile”
I appreciate her advice. I’m slowly learning how to be both passionate about justice and life. Too often, in these past three months, I’ve allowed my anger and depression about the election of Donald Trump to diminish other parts of my life. While I don’t want to return to my past complacency, I also want to find some balance. How do I discern between what is ugly and what is an actual threat to liberty, justice and democracy?
In sorting through the words and actions of the Trump administration, I’m trying to determine the appropriate level of outrage – to pace myself. I can’t treat every tweet as a national crisis. I’m sorting Trump actions into three categories – redecorating, remodeling and gutting the American political and cultural system. Trump has the right to redecorate the White House, but he doesn’t get to gut it.
While I oppose many of Trump’s executive orders, they are mostly redecorating. Executive orders move the furniture, repaint the walls, change the pictures and alter the curtains. This can still have a profound effect on the building. You can change a space from warm and inviting to cold and unwelcoming. However, redecorating doesn’t alter the structural integrity of the building.
Think about it. Most of Trump’s executive orders rescinded the executive orders of President Obama. While these orders can do damage to people, they do not forever change our democratic system. Indeed, they are part of our system. We allow our presidents – for better or worse – wide discretion when it comes to implementing our laws. Those of us who applauded many of President Obama’s orders need to accept Trump’s right to make his own.
We also need to remember how temporary those orders can be. If Trump can rescind the actions of the Obama administration, the next president can rescind those of Donald Trump. While it is appropriate to oppose the executive orders of Trump, I try to remember that they are redecorating.
I am more afraid of how Trump and a Republican Congress could alter our democracy. Passing or changing our laws is not redecorating. That is remodeling. New laws knock out a wall, add a new room or change the location of doors and windows. These changes have a more permanent effect on the building. They can alter how and who can use the building. Adding a ramp allows more people into the house. Destroying one leaves certain people outside.
Remodeling can be dangerous. If you remove a weight bearing wall, you can destroy the structural integrity of the building. It can collapse and kill those inside. Remodeling can also be helpful. In my opinion, Obamacare – which was a law rather than an executive order – shored up a section of our building that was in peril of collapse. Even the Republicans seem to realize this as they cautiously attempt to dismantle it.
So, as much as I am monitoring Trump’s executive orders, the laws passed by this Congress deserve my fuller attention. Laws can significantly alter our democracy in both positive and negative ways. When both Trump and the Republican Congress agree on something that is ugly or unjust, we need to resist.
We also need to hope our system of checks and balances works, that the courts continue to protect that system from laws that might destroy it. While the Supreme Court is an imperfect institution, it has generally kept our democracy from crumbling. The courts have the ability to challenge both executive orders and newly minted laws. They are the building inspectors. The recent challenge to Trump’s executive order on immigration gives me some hope.
What should keep all of us awake at night are attempts to gut the democratic system. Some aren’t satisfied with redecorating or remodeling. They hate the building. They want to tear it down and replace it with something more to their taste. They want to build a new structure and surround the grounds with a high wall. Where our present system is open and inclusive, they want a fortress with dungeons.
Gutting a system can happen in a variety of ways. If Trump or the Congress ignore the courts, they are gutting the system. If they give themselves powers they’ve never had, they are gutting the system. If they use their present power to alter the Constitution, they are gutting the system.
The question is not whether Trump can make executive orders or the Congress can pass laws, it is whether they are constitutional. Do they increase the liberties we presently enjoy as Americans or do they decrease them? Do they reserve these liberties for some while denying them to others? These are the questions we should ask ourselves each time we see an executive order, law or governmental action.
I cannot find the energy to oppose every executive order, every bill and every action of Donald Trump and our government. I can accept that not every action of my government will please me. I can oppose the present redecorating and remodeling while respecting the right of my opponents to govern. What I cannot tolerate is any action that would forever alter our democratic foundations.
Donald Trump is a guest in the White House. As a guest, he can redecorate and even remodel. He cannot gut the building. Ultimately, the house belongs to us.