Let's Talk About the Constitution – After Trump's Win, We're Going to Need It

Liberals have ceded too much ground to the constitutional interpretations of white men longing for the good ol' days

Donald Trump rose to power by telling disaffected white people that the past represents the right and natural order. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

The rise of President-elect Donald J. Trump is a triumph for white supremacy and misogyny that too many of us believed was impossible in the United States in 2016. Trump's promise to "Make America Great Again" is a call to return us to a past in which white men of all classes could expect the government to protect their economic and social dominance relative to racial minorities and women.

It's a harkening back to the "greatness" of a time when programs like the New Deal and the G.I. Bill created a path to a middle-class life through government benefits that were systematically denied to black people. When you didn't have to let black people live in your white apartment buildings. When it was difficult or dangerous for a person of color to participate in the political process by voting. When only white men were judges. When black men accused of sexual assault were presumed guilty and faced execution, but powerful white men were free to treat women's bodies as their property without facing legal consequences or even outrage. When men were men, and women knew their value depended on their attractiveness and subservience to those men. When a high school diploma entitled a white man to a good job without competition from people of color, women or robots.

Trump rose to power by telling disaffected white people that the past represents the right and natural order, and he can bring it back. He made no secret of who he would take our country back from: minorities, women, immigrants, Muslims, Jews. And despite his open disdain for the rule of law, he often justified his mission by invoking the language the reactionary right has long used to describe their quest to turn back time: "restoring the Constitution."

It is imperative that we stop letting the right own the Constitution. Given that we're about to have a president with dictatorial aspirations, and both houses of Congress controlled by the Republican Party from which he sprang, the public needs more than ever to understand and demand our constitutional protections. We must be a meaningful check on how much damage these people can do.

But for that to happen, liberals are going to have to stop letting the right's claims to constitutional authority for their preferred social order go unanswered. Too often, liberals and progressives treat the Constitution as an obsolete document written by white men who enslaved black people and treated women as property that has little relevance to our modern battles. In doing so, we've ceded the ground to white men longing for the good ol' days.

Yes, the Constitution was written by white guys who got a lot very wrong, and it would indeed be a bankrupt document if it were frozen in time. But while the Founders lacked the empathy or courage to recognize that "We the People" includes people of all colors, religions and genders, they enshrined revolutionary principles of what liberty entails and left room for us to interpret and amend the document to be more in keeping with those principles.

Liberals must articulate a vision of the Constitution, because what Americans understand the Constitution to say acts as a constraint on what politicians and courts can do. Historically, we've made major strides by getting our fellow citizens to accept evolved interpretations of the Constitution's text – for example, by arguing that segregation violates the right to equal protection of the law, and that forcing a person to carry a pregnancy to term against her will violates her 14th Amendment right to liberty.

The shocking election of Donald Trump tells us we haven't made nearly as much progress as we thought toward convincing our fellow citizens that all people are created equal and protected by the Constitution. It's a moment to remember that in the not-so-distant past a suffragette demanding the full rights of citizenship could be imprisoned and force-fed, and even more recently black people doing the same were beaten and lynched. In hindsight, it was somewhat naive to think the country had changed so much and so quickly that it would resoundingly reject Trump's misogyny, racism and xenophobia.

Right now, in the days and weeks and months after Trump's upset victory, we must articulate a vision of the Constitution to combat the idea that our changed country is a deviation from it. It is deeply unsettling to a large segment of Americans that they can suffer in economic malaise while a black man occupies the highest office, as the country becomes less white and Christian, and as women assume new roles. We need to be clear that there is no going back to when things were "great" just for white men – the changes we've seen are the inevitable result of moving closer to the equality the Constitution requires.

We're here, we're queer, we're female, we're black, we're brown, we're Jewish and we're Muslim. As dire as things feel today, Trump, his supporters and the Republicans who bred them will eventually have to get used to it. We must explain to change-resistant white people that an altered country is the inevitable result of adhering to the founding document they claim to revere.

But the more concrete and immediate reason we have to start talking about the Constitution is that many of the things Trump wants to do are not only terrible policy, but flagrantly unconstitutional. We just elected a man who has proposed torturing people, making religious discrimination official policy, banning abortion and "loosening up" the First Amendment, along with a Congress full of Republicans who have proven incapable of standing up to him. We cannot let shock and fear and defeatism paralyze us. When Trump proposes something that is off-the-table constitutionally, We the People must tell him early and often and loudly that we're not going to take it.

Donald Trump becomes president-elect of the United States. Watch here.