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The silver lining of the Trump presidency?


Rarely, if ever, has a president wound up his term of office with as many people thinking ill of him as will be the case when Donald Trump returns to private life. The grave flaws of his administration have already been chronicled. What hasn’t been much noticed, however, is the positive impact he has had on one important part of American life: public engagement.

This is not to say that the pluses of the last four years outweigh the minuses — they don’t, even without the coronavirus and its spectacular and continuing mismanagement. But there is a sense in which Mr. Trump’s four years as chief executive have a silver lining.

Historians will one day look back on this time as a golden era for civil society. In every direction, Americans have created new voluntary organizations for the purpose of resisting and undoing the various kinds of mischief visited on the country by an elected leader with no appreciation for the basics of civics, the Constitution, or the unwritten norms that have served as guard rails in the past. To cite a few examples:

The Lincoln Project, formed by disaffected Republicans dismayed by the hollowing out of the Republican Party, which was so lacking in substance that the 2020 national convention saw no need even to prepare a platform. Will this be the starting point for a return of the Grand Old Party to its historic values or for the creation of a new center-right party?

Black Lives Matter, formed to combat, among other evils, police brutality against Black Americans.

Fair Fight, led by Stacey Abrams, to increase voter registration. This group has played a critical role in the 2020-21 elections and senatorial runoffs in Georgia.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, working to un-disenfranchise convicted felons who are unable to pay off their fines, restitution and court costs.

Lawyers Defending American Democracy, formed in 2019 to push back on attacks on the Rule of Law, and to encourage bar associations to speak out. (The New York City and Boston Bars have been outspoken; the American Bar Association less so.) LDAD filed briefs in the criminal case of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and in Michael Cohen’s suit to overturn an effort to keep him behind bars if he persisted in writing a book critical of the president. It has also been outspoken in condemning lawyers who have abused the legal process in pursuit of Mr. Trump’s political interests. A similar organization is Lawyers for Good Government.

Veterans for Responsible Leadership, established by a group of Naval Academy graduates, but now including veterans from all branches.

The Orders Project (TOP), a pop-up organization formed to help GIs obtain legal advice if they have questions about the lawfulness of orders they may be given by military superiors. TOP is direct fallout of Mr. Trump’s use of the military last year to suppress demonstrations in the nation’s capital.

And there have been organizations formed to combat societal evils than predate the 45th president. These include the #MeToo movement, concerned with battling sexual assault and obtaining accountability for victims, and Protect Our Defenders, working to reduce the incidence of sexual assault in the armed forces.

In addition to ad hoc organizations, law school clinics around the country have mobilized on a host of Trump-generated issues. A prominent example is the mobilization that occurred literally overnight in connection with the “Muslim Ban” policy. Law students, faculty, and other lawyers sprang into action on extremely short notice. The Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School was prominent in that effort. The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law Center continues to work to excellent effect on a host of Trump-generated issues.

Established organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union also played major roles in successfully resisting some of the administration’s harshest policies, such as those involving the “Dreamers” and the intentional separation of immigrant children from their parents. The progressive Democracy Alliance pre-dated the Trump presidency, but — like the ACLU — shifted into high gear to combat his administration’s malign initiatives.

In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville wrote of political parties as well as the infinite variety of other associations Americans are capable of creating. He would not have been surprised by the impulse of so many from across the political spectrum to roll up their sleeves and join together to combat an administration that disrespected American values on issue after issue.

The question, once Mr. Trump is out of office, is whether these organizations will dissolve or remain part of the Nation’s civic life, assist in the hard work of cleaning up the messes he will have left, and, importantly, remain active in pursuit of their own affirmative policy objectives. I believe they will stay the course. If they do, we will be able to thank the president.

Having done his level best to drive the American people apart, in the end Mr. Trump has brought many of us together for a new burst of activity in the public interest.

Eugene R. Fidell is an adjunct professor of law at New York University and a senior research scholar at Yale Law School. He is of counsel at the Washington, D.C., law firm Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP. He edits the blog Global Military Justice Reform, He co-founded The Orders Project and is on the steering committee of Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

Tags All Black Lives Matter Civil society Donald Trump Fair Fight Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Lawyers Defending American Democracy Michael Cohen Presidency of Donald Trump Public engagement The Lincoln Project

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