In this most unusual of presidential elections, with a Republican candidate whose ascension to this point would have seemed inconceivable to many Americans not so very many months ago, we are permitted to contemplate other outcomes we might once have thought inconceivable. We can muse darkly.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, while backing Donald Trump’s election, has remarked, “I do think that the Constitution and the traditions of this county constrain all of us — those of us in Congress and those of us in the White House — from some of our impulses, shall I say, that we’d like to pursue.”
It may not matter if Trump has ever read the Constitution, as Gold Star father Khizr Khan asked in his speech at the Democratic Convention. For Trump rules are either to be exploited, if they are to his benefit, or ignored, if they are not, so far as he can get away with it. Owe small union contractors money that they will use to pay the wages and benefits of workers who have sweated in a New Jersey summer to build your casinos? Use bankruptcy laws to stiff them. Need the favor of a Florida prosecutor? Use your nonprofit to make an illegal political contribution to her, then consider the fine you’re levied money well spent.
The Constitution may be a set of rules with greater weight than most, but in calling for a ban on entry of Muslims into the United States, or in saying that he “would do a lot more than waterboarding,” Trump at the very least has shown that he is impatient of its guarantees of freedom of religion or its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
As to the traditions of this country, we are graced or cursed with many, and they are frequently neither consistent over time nor with each other.
One national tradition is that the military will not take armed action on American soil. San Franciscans will know an exception to this tradition from the City’s own history: After the 1906 earthquake, General Frederick Funston sent Presidio troops into the streets of the City, where Mayor Eugene Schmitz proclaimed that they were authorized “to kill any and all persons found engaged in Looting or in the Commission of Any Other Crime,” but where some were said to have engaged in looting themselves.
How will a President Trump use the military? Will he be satisfied in hiring “experts” and letting them effectively run the country, because the mere fact of having achieved the office is enough for his ego, or will he himself want close control of the power voters have given him? If he encounters resistance to his actions, will he be content to work patiently through the existing mechanisms of government, to woo legislators, to wait on cases to make their way through courts, to allow public hearings and formal studies to run their course, or will he want to do something swifter and less boring?
If demonstrators clog streets, if workers sit down on factory floors or the ground at construction sites, if protestors block equipment to build border walls, will he send Melania to speak with them, as Franklin Roosevelt once sent his wife Eleanor to speak with veterans in a protest encampment – or instead react by telling the military now under his command to enforce his will?
These are not the kinds of questions we have had to contemplate in our lifetimes until now.
One telling predictor of the answers will be how Trump handles his command staff. He has already said he will fire generals once he takes office. This is the prerogative of any Commander in Chief, and many presidents have exercised it. A mass firing of command staff, or a firing of commanders who resist actions they consider unconstitutional, however, will result in a staff more compliant to President Trump, even perhaps to the point of obeying a command to use arms on American soil.
This is not to say that the entire military will salute and follow such a command. Dissension and disobedience will be inevitable. Even if just a few units obey, however, we will have a very different America from what we have always known.
Unions are among a very few institutions capable of sustained organizing to resist the power of government or business. In much and maybe most of the world, they become therefore one of the first targets at which power released from other constraints takes aim.
As a brother of my former brother-in-law, from Togo in West Africa, when I was a union organizer told me, “In my country, you’d be dead.”
If we in unions believe that a President Trump is damaging the interests of working men and women – as he certainly will – we will of course resist, and such resistance will mean, as it always has, thwarting him with our bodies, in picket lines, in takeovers and occupations, in street rallies.
We may then have to conceive of a very different risk in such actions than we face now.