BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | “We are all here today to discuss the devastating aftermath of the 2016 election,” Congressmember Jerrold Nadler told an anxious overflow crowd at New York University on the evening of December 19. “The outcome was as upsetting as it was unexpected for so many of us. But we must not be overwhelmed. We must not back down. We must not roll over and play dead. We must fight.”
The West Side Democrat’s remarks opened a panel discussion, “What To Expect From the Trump Administration and the New Congress,” that also included Burt Neuborne, a professor of law and civil liberties and the founding legal director of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“Donald Trump represents a clear and present danger in many, many ways,” Nadler continued. “He has given us no reasons or assurances to alleviate our grave concerns about his personal conduct, his decision-making, or his ability to lead.”
In short, the congressmember said, the country has seen no sign of a movement away from “the divisive and extreme campaign promises” the president-elect made.
Nadler went on to list some of the most egregious pledges made by Trump: “Promises to ignore and exacerbate climate change, promises of religious tests for immigration, promises of mass deportations, promises to ‘murder,’ in terms of budgets, all of our social and housing and other programs.”
Meanwhile, he said, the Republicans in Congress are threatening to privatize Medicare and cut Social Security — and Trump “seems to be going that way,” too.
Nadler described the overall political situation facing the country – with the GOP controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, and having the ability to reshape the nation’s courts, including its highest – as bleak. And with “extremist cabinet appointments” – including Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Betsy DeVos at Education, Georgia Congressmember Tom Price at Health and Human Services, and Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development – not to mention Breitbart.com’s Steve Bannon in a senior White House post, the Trump presidency poses serious threats to civil rights, environmental protections, and social service programs for the most vulnerable, the congressmember added.
Nadler also touched on Trump’s enormous conflicts of interest.
“We’ve never really seen anything like this,” he said. “The conflicts extend beyond him to his children… If he doesn’t divest the moment he becomes president, it will make him a walking constitutional violation.”
A champion of civil liberties and of the Constitution for his entire political career, Nadler assured the crowd he will do his utmost to keep protecting them — and reach out to his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to help.
“We will need to fight very hard to protect our civilizing programs of the New Deal and the Great Society and civil rights,” Nadler soberly warned, even as he told the crowd, in a more upbeat note, “The turnout here today, initially, is very encouraging.”
Neuborne, the next speaker, offered the crowd some tough love.
“It’s a fact, we have to get over the hand-wringing phase,” he said, adding it was time to stop blaming the FBI and Russian hacking for the election outcome.
Instead, he said, “We need a cold-eyed view.” The problem, Neuborne argued, is really much bigger than Trump. Namely that during the eight years of the Obama presidency, Democrats lost 1,000 seats in state legislatures around the country, giving Republicans control of both houses in two-thirds of the states.
“This was a slow-moving train wreck that finally hit us,” the professor said.
The key to a political turnaround is to organize to regain the political majority across the nation — meaning the whole nation — he stressed.
“We cannot continue as a coastal republic — where we carry both coasts and continue to lose the middle of the country,” Neuborne said. “Everyone who voted for Trump is not a racist, or an…”
“Yes they are!,” a woman in the audience shouted out.
“…or an enemy,” Neuborne continued. “It is not in our best interests to demonize him or ignore the fact that there are serious social issues to deal with.”
Continue to treat Middle Americans as enemies, he cautioned, and it will keep on dividing the country “and we will continue to lose.”
Looking back more than half a century, Neuborne, noted, “This is not the first time that liberals have found themselves in crisis in this country. I lived through [Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph] McCarthy. It was dreadful, and people suffered… The assassination of John F. Kennedy was one of the most shocking moments in my life… the martyrdom of Martin Luther King, Jr., the murder of Robert Kennedy… enduring the Vietnam War, which was an unconstitutional war… Watergate, the collapse of our social contract during Reagan, after September 2001 the fear and essential security terror, the economic collapse in 2007… Do not succumb to the idea that this is somehow a unique moment in which we are about to lose the republic.”
Each time the nation has confronted such trying times, it “came out the other end,” said Neuborne, who acknowledged that it is still undeniable that Trump is truly scary.
“We have someone as president who is intellectually unmoored, utterly narcissistic, and terribly authoritarian,” he said, “and that should make us nervous, but it should not drive us into panic.”
In offering a policy prescription, Neuborne said, “First, remember, ‘It’s the economy stupid’” – a winning approach for Democrats dating back to the New Deal.
Like Nadler, he was gladdened by the big turnout. “This is a galvanizing force to many of us. And my hope is it is the beginning of the organization of a very, very powerful political movement,” Neuborne said, as the crowd cheered.
Pro-choice advocate Northrup emphasized that the threat to abortion rights is not just now starting with Trump’s election. Since 2010, 800 state laws have been passed restricting access to abortion, she noted.
“So we and our colleagues at the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have gone to court again and again,” she said. “So we’re used to this fight.”
The defunding of Planned Parenthood, by cutting off its Medicaid funding, Northrup warned, is “one of most devastating things that will be coming… a long attempt that will probably succeed.” The effect on low-income women, she said, will be devastating, with an estimated $500 million in annual payments for non-abortion services – including STD testing, Pap smears, and contraceptives – at risk, and impacting men as well as women.
“And we will probably see Congress pass a ban on abortion after 20 weeks,” she added. “This is a flat-up violation of Roe v. Wade, which says abortion must be available until viability… which is well after 20 weeks.”
Though it’s extremely rare for women to get abortions after 20 weeks, Northrup said, the right to that recourse is significant when needed. There will definitely be lawsuits filed over both abortion access and Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood services, she said.
As for the possible repeal of Roe v. Wade, Nadler noted that a second new conservative Supreme Court justice – beyond the late Antonin Scalia’s replacement – would be needed, but he also pointed out that pro-choice justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, and Stephen Breyer are the three oldest on the bench.
The NYCLU’s Lieberman, in fiery remarks, warned that a Trump presidency will obviously be a trying time for civil liberties.
“He is surrounding himself with people whose records on civil rights and human rights are a civil rights nightmare,” she said. “Everybody who is not a white male citizen has reason to be afraid. Journalists and protesters have reason to be afraid.”
Civil libertarians, Lieberman said, must be ready to stand up “against the hate” and in support of blacks, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, women, and the LGBTQ community. In addition to protecting specific rights such as those of immigrants or of gay and lesbian couples to marry, she added, there is an overall need to “protect dissent.”
“This guy wants to strip anybody who burns the flag of citizenship — brilliant,” she scoffed incredulously.
Lieberman said public schools also must be protected and all citizens shielded against a “surveillance society,” which she warned will only get worse under Trump. And to preserve abortion rights here, she declared that Roe v. Wade must be “fucking codified in New York State!”
During a question and answer session moderated by Julie Kashen, co-executive director of Make It Work, an advocacy group for working families, Nadler said the nation won’t know exactly what the Trump administration plans until at least late January.
“Are they really going to do these deportations?” he asked. “If they do, we’ll have to fight like cats and dogs.”
Turning to structural issues in the nation’s politics, Nadler said, “We gotta do something about the Electoral College. It’s a relic of the 18th century.” When he then noted that enacting that change would require the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-quarters of the state legislatures, the room erupted in laughter at the futility of the idea.
Neuborne suggested that the Democratic Party borrow from the British playbook, where the opposition party creates a “shadow cabinet” to stake out a clear set of alternative positions to the governing party’s. This idea won knowing applause.
But, in reiterating his point that the economy really is the key issue facing both parties, Neuborne argued the big question is not whether jobs are headed offshore but whether in the longer run “mechanization and robotization” will take away people’s work.
And the professor addressed what perhaps was the biggest elephant in the room that night, when he said, “We ran, I think, the worst political campaign of my lifetime. The Democratic campaign was: ‘You can’t possibly elect this man.’ Then you’re trapped on his terms.”
In a final sign of just how exasperated many in the crowd continued to feel at the end of a long discussion on important policy issues, one woman cried out, “Hillary won!”