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It’s been just over two weeks, and the whirlwind that is the new US president has already created a sharp collision course in the USA—a collision course between the federal government and many local and state governments, which are diametrically opposed to the policies of discrimination, anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-environmental protection, and some might say cold-hearted cruelty.

Courts Check Trump

Checks and Balances in the Age of Trump—Maria Armoudian

The struggles between national and state governments have marked the country’s development since its founding and have arisen under many presidents, including under Barack Obama’s eight years. For example, twenty-one states sued the administration over its policies protecting rights of transgender people and requiring overtime pay under certain conditions. Thirteen states sued to block the Affordable Healthcare Act, claiming it was unconstitutional. Texas alone sued the Obama Administration at least 48 times. At least one case related to immigration. The state sued Obama over his order to give deportation relief for a class of undocumented immigrants.

Perhaps the two most dramatic eras of the local-versus-federal policies arose during the fights over slavery and desegregation. Before the Civil War era, the USA was torn between “slave states” and “free states.” The federal government passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring the return of those African Americans who escaped their bondage in the Southern “slave” states and reached safer ground in the Northern “free” states. In acts of defiance, many in the free states refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Acts.

Fast forward to the era of desegregation and the roles reversed. After the landmark desegregation cases, particularly Brown v. Board of Education, it was now the Southern states that sought to defy the national government, refusing to let African Americans into “whites only” public schools, universities and public amenities.

Today’s conflicts are also ethical issues, arising primarily from two realities—a rapidly warming planet that threatens all of our survival and the unfolding humanitarian crises connected to decades of “might-makes-right” policies that have empowered a select few to own or control most of the world’s wealth at the expense of the rest of humanity. While the power-hungry few enjoy wild wealth and frequent impunity, some 75 percent of humanity struggle to survive.

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The new President has shot back that he will strip federal funds from “sanctuary cities” that have vowed to protect immigrants from mass deportation.

These two fundamental ethical questions are a large part of the wedge between Donald Trump and these local and state officials in the USA. Today, we are on encountering another divisive era of US history, as two contests: One between scientifically-based facts and Donald Trump’s scorched earth policies that will damage the planet on which our survival depends. The other is a basic humane policy that recognizes our collective roles in the displacement of millions of our fellow members of our global village.

It is on the latter issue that the legal battles have begun. As of this writing, at least 39 cities and 364 counties nationwide have declared themselves as “sanctuaries” for immigrants. They have avowed to resist participating in the thoughtless Trump orders. Taking the legal fight one step further, the City of San Francisco and the states of New York, Washington, Virginia and Massachusetts have filed lawsuits to legally fight the Trump orders to severely limit immigration.

The new President has shot back that he will strip federal funds from “sanctuary cities” that have vowed to protect immigrants from mass deportation. And in the spirit of Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” Trump has sacked the acting U.S. attorney general who questioned the constitutionality of his executive order, replacing her with someone vowing to support his efforts. His recent pick for the U.S. Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, is par for the Trump course—highly ideological and young enough to influence the law of the land for decades. After all, justices get to serve for life, “on good behavior.”

American politics is supposed to have checks and balances that make it hard for thoughtless or extremely ideological policy to become law. But that tends to only work in a divided government, when the three branches are populated with enough from the opposition party to provide a veto on bad lawmaking. But now, the three branches are mostly in the hands of a republican party that has drifted far from the center.

The remaining check is coming from the states, which have limited resources to challenge a unified government such as the one we are witnessing today. Their ability to challenge Trump’s “unified” government will depend on the courts, which in some cases, they have been able to do. And if the Democrats fail to block the confirmation, the Court, too, remains on the ideological right. And the decks are then stacked against thoughtful, scientifically-based, and compassionate policy-making for a wide range of issues.

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Maria Armoudian