On Thursday morning, Donald Trump issued a series of tweets suggesting that he intends to issue an executive order that adds a citizenship question to the census—despite an explicit ruling from the Supreme Court. If Trump follows through on this threat, it would follow a chaotic week in which the Commerce Department first signaled it had begun printing the documents without the question, as ordered by the courts, before being overruled by Trump.
This action comes after a string of complaints from Trump on Thursday in which he expressed frustration that a federal judge wouldn’t allow Attorney General William Barr to completely sack the legal team that had been arguing the citizenship question before the courts and replace them with an entirely new team, arguing entirely new points, in the midst of a case given emergency rush status at the request of the White House.
Americans of a certain age may remember when the United States had a thing called a judicial branch [joo-dish-uhl branch]—a coequal segment of the government dedicated to the idea of upholding the law and determining if actions fall within the boundaries permitted by the Constitution. But, just as with the concept that the Congress has oversight authority, the idea of the courts acting as a check on actions of Trump now seems to be heading for the history books.
There’s a reason why Trump keeps that portrait of Andrew Jackson on his wall, and the attraction is more than simply the brutal, reflexive racism. From the morning tweets, and previous statements on the topic, it seems that the citizenship question is the point at which Trump has decided to declare that Mr. Roberts has made his decision—now let him enforce it.
For those who haven’t read them recently, this is a good time to revisit Masha Gessen’s rules for surviving an autocracy. Her article continues to be the most vital, and sadly predictive, reading of the last three years. “It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed.” Gessen did suggest that American institutions were more hardy than those of the nascent Russian republic, and that toppling them might take longer. However, Trump appears to be right on schedule.
Backed by William Barr, Trump intends to step into the Rose Garden on Thursday and explain why he can override a decision of the Supreme Court with a scrawl of his pen.
The purpose of the citizenship question was, and is, to generate a purposeful undercount of certain states, cities, and neighborhoods. That inaccurate count would then be used to see that a disproportionate amount of funds were directed to other areas, while adding to the burdens in the undercounted regions. It would also affect the apportionment of representatives at both the state and the federal levels, acting as a persistent barrier to equal representation. This isn’t theoretical. Republican strategists proposed adding the question for exactly this purpose, and for this purpose it was discussed in the Trump White House.
Until Thursday, that made the citizenship question not just symbolic, but the embodiment of ongoing efforts by Republicans to boost the already lopsided representation of a rural white minority. However, should Trump act to place the question on the census in defiance of orders by the judiciary at every level, up to and including the Supreme Court, the issue will become the emblem not just of attempts to cripple American democracy through a series of incremental assaults, but of a move to outright end the pretense that we are anything other than a dictatorship.