The constitutionality of the Trump administration’s ‘Muslim ban’ (and there is good reason to believe the U.S. judiciary will uphold its key provisions, at the very least) remains a pertinent question, but it is unclear if history will accord the matter any such significance in hindsight.
The affair has a tactical cynicism about it wholly in keeping with Trump’s character – in Washington itself, beyond the immediate jurisdiction of the incensed media, a story far less credible, and every bit as portentous, is rapidly unfolding. The bellicosity of the new regime, a mere four weeks into its tenure, can lead the bystander to but one sobering conclusion: that this is just the start of many months, if not years of political turmoil. This, coupled with the desire of Trump’s detractors for a return to ‘normality’, assures us as to the certainty of two potential outcomes.
A revolt at the heart of the American state apparatus could retard the President, if not oust him entirely. The State Department has already taken steps to this effect, with around 900 officials registering their objection to the ban in a defiant memo; the travel restrictions have, for the meanwhile, been suspended. Chicanery at the Department of Justice (including the removal of Sally Yates, the recalcitrant Acting Attorney General, in a move which has invited comparisons with Nixon’s botched ‘Saturday Night Massacre’) bodes ill for the administration – in the face of Congressional opposition, Trump will likely struggle to staff the Department on his own terms.
But the capacity of U.S. institutions to resist a renegade executive is in doubt, owing to the swiftness with which the Trump team has acted. Crucial sections have exhibited loyalty to Trump throughout the current crisis – the Department of Homeland Security have proven enthusiastic enforcers of the travel ban, and James Comey, the FBI Director accused of pro-Trump partisanship during the election, has kept his post at the agency. Moreover, an insurrection from within government, at a time when political constellations as diverse as Clintonite liberalism and the Chinese state media have come to frame Trump as indicative of democracy’s ‘failure’, is likely to acquire technocratic, antipopular dimensions.
In spite of the chaos of the past few weeks, Trump has consolidated his position on Capitol Hill with far greater ease than was expected, a fact that will no doubt be underlined when an obedient Congress and a packed SCOTUS come into play. Steve Bannon, the former chairman of fascist news outlet Breitbart, has overnight elevated himself to a position of direct national influence; the State Department upper crust has been purged, the White House effectively encouraging rebels there to follow them out of the door. All this points strongly towards a more sinister scenario – the gradual deconstruction of democratic standards from within, culminating in the inauguration of an American strongman politics, the ‘Putinization’ of the United States.
The sloppiness of Executive Order 13769 (full title: ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States’) has heartened those critics whom have retained an iota of faith in American constitutionalism, but the Muslim ban, even if it is eventually overturned, looks less akin to an actual, long-term policy than to a probing by the administration of the national waters, a cheap provocation. The past few weeks have seen mass mobilisations against Trump, the centrepiece of which, the Women’s March on Washington, eclipsed the swearing-in ceremony in terms of its size. It is in the interest of the President and his allies to exhaust this nascent movement, and this will take the form of a barrage of ‘incidents’ and harsh edicts aimed at rooting out, identifying and bewildering troublemakers and disputants. With the Holocaust Remembrance Day controversy, a particularly loathsome stitch-up likely orchestrated by Bannon, we may have already borne witness to the second of these.
If little else, the Muslim ban has set an awfully convenient precedent. The Trump clique now only need await the opposition’s decline into fatigue. What holds the future? Assaults on the Obama administration’s flagship LGBT protections; a crackdown on undocumented migrants; tax and ‘red tape’ cuts with an eye to bringing the American oligarchs on-side; further police militarization; perhaps even a registry for the ‘bad dudes’. A Presidency, in other words, in the Napoleonic vein.