This is the third entry in our post-election series of blogs here on Teaching Human Rights. We have read about teaching in a non-political course to a very diverse campus, as well as about a guest speaker addressing race and class with respect to the election. Much like Nicole discusses in her post, I have rather diverse classes and found myself talking to many students from marginalized groups who were terrified about the prospects of what Trump’s election means. However, unlike Nicole, I teach explicitly political classes about American government and American constitutional law, and I also teach in a fairly red part of a blue state. The former means students expect some discussion of the election, and the latter means that while I faced many students who were genuinely frightened about the future, these students were also in the room with others who remained civil, but were not at all upset by the election results.
This blending of political views in classes about American government created an interesting environment in which to discuss how the election turned out, but also what it means moving forward both for American politics and for human rights. Much of what I discussed with my introductory-level classes was dissecting the voting patterns as well as discussing policy implications at a basic level. This discussion involved some of my own input, but largely we had a very open-ended discussion where I tried to create a safe space for all to talk (much like Nicole described), and then spent time together answering their questions, addressing their fears, and dispelling rumors, myths, or otherwise fake accounts of what has happened and what will happen. This was part therapy, part education, and part fact-checking, which the students reported appreciating and finding beneficial. While I think it is important to share this experience, I am actually going to focus the rest of this post on teaching American constitutional law in light of the election, before relating these discussions to teaching about human rights.
One of the courses I am teaching this semester, which I regularly teach, is constitutional law. Typically at the undergraduate level American constitutional law is broken into two (or sometimes three) main areas: (1) government institutions and powers, and (2) civil rights and civil liberties (and if a third, rights of the accused). While I am teaching the second of these courses in the spring (which seems incredibly timely given the campaign rhetoric), I am teaching the first version this semester. This class largely focuses on what the federal and state governments can and cannot do under the constitution, as interpreted by the US Supreme Court. It is from within this context that I want to focus. The students in this class, by the time of the election, have read about how the various branches check the other branches, as well as various elements of governmental power over foreign and domestic policy. It is precisely this information that had this class discussing the implications of Trump being president-elect and broader concerns for human rights (the latter not normally a topic for this specific course).
To put things in perspective, Trump has discussed drastically lowering if not completely stopping the number of refugees the US accepts, in addition to imposing a Muslim registry, authorizing waterboarding and other forms of torture because he “knows” they work (a position he is slightly stepping back), and using military force to indiscriminately target those whom he does not like. What the students in my class expressed is that these acts are fundamentally against the constitution, but not clearly beyond the President’s power to enact (even if for only for a short time). Korematsu, which upheld FDR’s plan of Japanese internment during World War II, has never been overturned and has been positively cited as supporting Trump’s Muslim registry ideas. While we have laws outlawing the use of torture, and the Supreme Court has said that the Geneva Conventions still apply to the U.S., that does not mean that Congress and former President George W. Bush did not try to circumvent both of these, and thus president-elect Trump and his Republican Congress could do the same.
Presidential power has been expanding for years, and much of it exists with few checks. President Obama, out of necessity from the intransigent Republican Congress, has extensively employed executive orders and executive agreements, all of which Trump can undo by simply signing his own executive orders and agreements. Most terrifying from a human rights standpoint is that the current Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning president has greatly expanded the use of drones, ordering over 500 strikes, often with little regard for citizen casualties. This is further complicated by the fact that the US policy arbitrarily designates all fighting-aged men killed by a drone are terrorists, unless evidence emerges after the fact that they were not. On top of this, Obama has overseen at least six US citizens killed with drones, although only one was specifically—and extra-judicially—targeted. This is especially concerning when considering the hostility many of Trump’s currently-named advisors and cabinet members have for much of the rest of the world, given Trump’s desire to blow up our enemies with reckless abandon, and given his seemingly thin-skinned reactions to anything he perceives as a slight (see almost anything on Trump’s Twitter feed). Remember, he will have the ability to, more or less, order these strikes at will. All of this without even discussing the domestic implications for human rights for discriminating against minorities, or anyone receiving government assistance as part of the U.S.’s social safety net that has been targeted by the incoming Republican-dominated government.
Our laws are not self-enforcing. Our institutions cannot stop authoritarianism if we lack the political will to do anything. Trump will not listen to Democrats, he’s made that clear, and Republicans, at least not openly and publicly, especially since the election outcome, are not pushing back against him (not that it is clear that he would listen). Nothing in our system works to check power without opposition. If the government does not oppose him, there is little that we, as US citizens, can really do. The naming of Bannon as his chief policy advisor and the Republican complacency over it is a very telling moment. Unless Republicans suddenly push back aggressively against Trump on this, things are not looking good for human rights in the US. To try to put this into context of teaching, my advice (and my approach) has been to be open and direct with students. Encourage them to ask questions, encourage them to speak out when they disagree with what the government is doing, and remind them that the US system is built on the premise of active citizens working as a check on the government, which is particularly necessary when the government will not check itself. These are difficult times for many and pedagogically challenging discussions to have, but we must have these discussions with students if we are to be involved in helping students develop into thoughtful individuals who will be responsible for the future.