That wall between us

President Trump, the story goes, happened upon a politically powerful, though not thought-through idea during his campaign. The key to unlawful immigration would be a wall from sea to sea on our southern border, its cost borne by Mexico. Once pronounced to diehard, screaming fans, the fact that a wall was a questionable solution, based on no analysis, and relying on the decision of a separate country were of no concern to him. He has since altered some of that wall’s characteristics, but “The Wall” came to be the term used by both Trump’s admiring supporters and his adversaries. As a non-expert, I’d like to add a few comments about The Wall.

1

Mexican citizens’ incursion into the United States has been an issue for decades. Illegal immigration was primarily for finding work, often on a temporary basis. Of course, finding work was paired with finding workers. In other words, American employers offered jobs to persons for whom the low pay was enough to attract them to take the chances inherent in crossing a national border numerous times. Prohibiting such employment was an obvious solution, but was opposed by employers who wanted to keep their source of cheap labor. Republican and Democratic Administrations failed not so much because of porous borders the political cost of opposing employers. Meanwhile, American rhetoric was mounted against temporary migrants half-heartedly, so that we could threaten workers and employers without having to confront employers by prohibiting their lucrative practice.

Poor parenting often reveals itself in threats never fulfilled. “If you don’t stop [hitting your brother] [running through the house] [hogging the toy], I’m going to [turn off the TV] [give you no dessert] [return your new $200 running shoes]. As a psychologist, I learned that threats made but not fulfilled convey to the child that the parent really doesn’t mean those threats, no matter how much he or she argues they’re truly meant. That is what we’ve done to Mexicans at our southern border. We’ve said for decades border crossing is against the law . . . with a wink and a nod. At some point we might start meaning what we said and come down hard on the offenders; after all they knew the rules. But they didn’t. The verbalized rule had been there, while all along our behavior—that wink and nod—said we didn’t mean it after all.

2

Some Mexican men brought their families, then more did, slowly increasing the size of the undocumented population in the U.S. From time to time Americans got upset over this uncontrolled immigration. Our consternation was intermittent though, due to occasional distraction over other issues or the fact that Mexican workers became increasingly useful in the American employment market. We needed them even more than in the earlier, limited employment. Then and now individual American citizens used Mexican labor for their lawn care, carpentry, horse farms, and in other facets of their growing integration into American society. Minimal action to deport significant numbers of undocumented Mexicans continued, but we were caught in an embarrassment of our own making more comfortable to disregard than to confront.

3

At various times, public sentiment in its intermittent way, grew then subsided. Trump in running for the presidency capitalized on the recent realization that about 13,000,000 persons live in the U. S. without benefit of legal legitimacy, most of them thought to be of Mexican descent. These undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than legal immigrants and American citizens by birth. Also, they do not contribute to an increase in drug overdoses, DUI deaths, murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. In other words, with the exception of having entered the country illegally, undocumented immigrants are more peaceful and law-abiding than “real” Americans.

Still, with his pathological disregard for the niceties of facts and truth, Trump continually proclaimed there to be grave danger from these illegal immigrants, particularly from Mexicans crossing America’s southern border. He publicized their law-breaking, especially in acts of physical damage to legal residents and citizens. When he became president he set up a committee to gather all cases of reprehensible crime by undocumented persons. These actions convinced Trump and his supporters, most of whose understanding of statistical inquiry is at best minimal, that the country was being overrun by alien criminals. For example, hearing of this or that actual instance of crime is taken as a useful indication of the criminality of the group. It is not. Whether the president is simply ignorant of that or just embellishes lies by collecting a string of individual instances is not my concern here, but untruths they definitely are.)

4

What they decidedly are not, however, is a national emergency. Federal employees, their families, the persons they purchase from, and the small contractors who depend on their government contract are greatly damaged by a shut-down. (The same people are now vulnerable to Trump’s choice to do it again.) I don’t know how many persons were cruelly damaged by this president who thinks that failing to get his way by argument and persuasion justifies his harsh treatment of millions who played no role in issues pertaining to the decision.

A legally defined National Emergency is available to Trump if he declares it. Most of both political parties hope that does not occur, even those Republicans who will not stand up to the president’s unscrupulous hostage-taking. The president’s once and (possibly) future government shut-down is accompanied by his bullying lie that the Congress was and will be responsible for his dishonorable behavior—though he normally blames Democrats alone. As to a National Emergency about a nonexistent emergency, massive new authority would be thereby transferred to the Executive Branch. Trump has shown himself to be untrustworthy without that infusion of extra power, so to contemplate what he would be like if supercharged is terrifying. Stoking fears in the populace which only the president can resolve is alarmingly like the beginnings of history’s previous despots. That we would take even a slim chance of that is reckless in the extreme.

5

A feature of communication among individuals is language. The importance of accuracy in language is even more critical when large numbers of persons are involved. Perhaps you have noticed that we speak of The Wall and also of border security as if they are interchangeable. They are not. The Wall is one possible component of border security; border security would have numerous components, one part of which—possibly a critical part of which—might well be a physical barrier of some sort. Trump demanded The Wall with no more than an excited amateur’s amount of study. Democrats have resisted this rush to a single component without first studying the entire border security situation. Trump, somehow missing that point, then accused Democrats of not being for border security, therefore they are guilty of loosing horrid criminals upon Americans. Later, Trump adds some components to his demand, but at best he’d arrived at the whole by beginning at a single part. Trump and Democrats themselves then started using border security and The Wall as interchangeable terms, wondering why they are not connecting!

 6

Non-citizens in the United States who hold no documentation permitting their presence here is almost universally denounced by citizens. Virtually all Americans support lawful control over who enters the country. One of Trump’s lies to excite his base is that Democrats want open borders and would permit criminal entry. (While there may be some Americans who disdain any borders anywhere, the number is vanishingly small.) Thus, no matter how otherwise law-abiding, peacefully behaving, or needy, non-citizens are, they must still respect the border. Almost without exception, Americans of all political views want it that way. By international agreement, there’s a right to enter a country in order to apply for refugee status. However, as the Democratic spokesperson, Stacey Abrams, put it this week after Trump’s State of the Union address, strict border control does not excuse inhumane border control.

7

So where does that leave The Wall? Trump has now told us he no longer means a concrete wall, an iron wall, or necessarily any man-made barrier at all in certain places. In fact, a number of physical barrier compositions, lengths, and heights stated since The Wall has been in our national conversation. I possess no special information, competence, or sources with which to comment on the probable effectiveness of any given barrier. But neither does anyone else, including border control officials, the U.S. Congress, or Trump and his administration. I can say that with confidence because wall characteristics are not the only issue in deciding—if there is to be a wall at all—its characteristics, placement, and size.

Problem solving should begin at the broadest level of the matter or issue being examined. It is folly to begin at a miniscule level when the largest level is undecided. For example, no subsidiary issues should be solved when America’s philosophical position on immigration is unclear. Do we want immigration? Certain kinds of immigration? Certain immigrant skills? In what amounts? There are many more matters of public policy, “neighborhood“ effects, technology issues and dozens of further decisions of what immigration should produce over coming decades.

Where do current immigrants come from? By what routes and through what portals? Are there points that produce particularly dangerous entries? Are there different types of immigration sources (e.g., walkers across the desert, boats from Cuba? overstayed visas? snow skiing Canadians?) that call for varieties of control devices? Does any one source yield a substantially larger number of persons desiring to enter? Are third-level entries (such as from Central America but through Mexico) involved? None of these issues make sense if we have left unclarified what level and type of new residents or citizens are desired or what will be the extent and type of our humanitarian intent.

At some point going step by step down a sequence of describing what we really want, we may get to specifics of physical barriers along the border of northern Mexico. Easy? No, but neither were sending astronauts to the moon, space probes completely out of the solar system, and the first nuclear submarine, along with an unending list of scientific discoveries and conquests of human achievement. But it makes sense . . . far more sense than being incidentally enthralled with a shiny decoration pretending to be the, the, solution to questions for which we, like children, have not done the work of unambiguous conceptualization at the broadest level.

 

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A plea to my United States Senator

David Perdue, one of Georgia’s two U.S. Senators has along with almost all Republican senators excused and coddled Donald Trump. Among other travesties, that includes refusal to protect America from Trump’s ruthless shutdown and the Mueller investigation from a possible Trump frenzy. To my knowledge, Perdue has never bucked Senator Mitch McConnell’s almost dictatorial control about what bills senators will be allowed to vote on. McConnell has insisted on the Senate’s indulging Trump repeatedly. Still, every senator is responsible for his or her own behavior, though bucking the leadership can be politically costly. The following were my remarks to Senator Perdue earlier today.

Dear Senator Perdue:

I grew up in the south, served in the U.S. Air Force, voted both Republican and Democrat, and have been acquainted with senators, representatives, and governors of both parties—in some cases in actual working relationships. Having returned to the south, I’ve been a Georgian again for a quarter century. I’m aware of your years of corporate leadership and salute you for assuming the personal costs and strains of political life.

This letter is to convey my disappointment and distress over the character and actions of our president. Let me make clear I am not speaking of partisan matters, but ones central to the function of the republic, such as the rule of law, judicial independence, Constitutional roles, and freedom of the press. Mr. Trump has taken the Republican party and, more importantly, the presidency, to depths of disgrace and indignity I could never have imagined in any of my 80 years. Worse, he has bullied much of America including his expecting the Senate and House to forfeit their important joint role as an independent branch of government. Our country—my pride in and out of uniform—has deteriorated, sacrificing international leadership and trust among allies and rivals alike.

I abhor the damage the president has done and continues to do to our reputation on the world stage, to our basic institutions of government, and to our commitment to facts and authenticity. In short, his lack of integrity besmirches the integrity of you, the Senate, and America. I need not list the string of adjectives used to characterize his incompetence and unfit character. You are fully aware of them. I would wager you have yourself used some of them in private.

I do not believe your character matches the repugnance of Trump’s. But in your position of trust for Georgia and the United States, I do believe you have for two years, along with other Republican Senators and Representatives, failed to protect the country from an Executive Branch gone awry. (The mid-20th century term “fellow traveler” comes to mind with respect to otherwise responsible Republicans’ fealty to Trump.) Along with your colleagues, you have enabled the behavior of a dangerous, unethical, mendacious man as if you have no accountability in the matter.

Senator, you have allowed partisan loyalty—not unacceptable in itself—to outweigh duty and patriotism. I wonder when on some sweet day—when America and the world have recovered from Trump’s madness and Republicans’ impotence—how you will find words to account.

John Carver, Atlanta

 

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Trump: Let them eat cake!

Let’s be clear: This is Donald Trump’s shutdown. Totally Donnie’s; no one else’s. Not even partially Chuck’s or Nancy’s. Not Mitch’s either . . . well, not directly, though he is culpable for clearing the way for Trump; more on him later. Trump himself considers this travesty simply to be demonstration of his vaunted negotiating skill. His way of negotiating, however, means creating enough unwarranted pain for Americans that Congress will happily forego its ethical obligation to use its own judgment—especially about the border wall. For their part, House and Senate Republicans surrendered two years ago; fawning’s a hard habit to beat.

This shutdown is a Trump tantrum; he just doesn’t understand Congress’s audacity in not bailing him out of his beautiful wall showboating during the campaign. (Though bizarre, he’s still formally campaigning and still exercising the same poor judgment.) He seems to think otherwise, but Congress does not owe him whatever he wants, certainly not $5 billion. But this is The Donald, so not getting his way means someone must be punished. Enter government employees, just trying to do their jobs.

Voters who selected Trump in November 2016 knew what kind of man he is. No one with high school intelligence could have missed the proof that nothing he says can be trusted. Why did they then, and why do they still not understand that his promises are not something you can take to the bank. By the way, the president treats his promise to build a wall as sacrosanct, but not his promise that taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay for it. His interest is not in that fantasy wall. His interest is in how many uninformed and easily duped fans he can convince to look like a fundamentalist revival, then go vote for him. And yet most Americans keep treating his superficial seriousness about protecting the country as we would a reality-based and ethical politician, i.e., as if he really means it.

We’ve seen movies in which a criminal threatens to hurt a relative of the person being intimidated. We’ve not seen a president of that persuasion until now, to wit, give me my wall or I’ll shoot your mother. Trump—the criminal—inflicts pain on government workers, contractors, their families, all those who rely on them and the purchases they would have made. That larger number goes way past the reported 800,000 (which includes a close relative of mine) to millions of individuals, to America’s economic performance, and to our faith in stability. No matter, Trump sees that ruthlessness to be the fault of those who’ve not given him what he wants. His tantrums and his uncaring treatment of people is never his fault, but always that of others . . . others who don’t understand he is remarkedly intelligent, knows more than the generals, and needs only his gut for complicated decisions.

Trump took an oath of office that obligated him to put the good of the country ahead of personal gain, and to protect the Constitution including institutions that together virtually define America. That promise is paramount, exceeding all promises to his base when they conflict with what is best for the country. The fact that a wild promise was injudicious does not remove the obligation. Nor in Trump’s case, does a president’s dilemma justify the shutdown we are now in. Trump has shown he is willing to be cruel to get his way. He has shown repeatedly he is too unethical, too irresponsible, and too psychotically egocentric to deserve to lead even a banana republic.

Republicans in the House and even more so in the Senate are showing a slight bit of backbone in recent days, though the Senate Leader is not among them, wed as he is to partisan political considerations and Trump toadyism more than the national interest. McConnell’s “hey, don’t look at me” surrender of his obligatory role, an unmistakable mark of his sycophancy, was evident in his recent refusal to call a vote on a bipartisan bill that would have put Trump squarely on the spot.

If Kentucky voters are still able to experience shame, McConnell’s political punishment can be left for later. The historic shutdown itself continues to be imposed by Trump and Trump alone. His vicious cold-heartedness is currently working for him, for the shutdown goes on.

Thanks to Republicans in House and Senate and the continuing Trump supporters. You think maybe it’s time to drop our increasingly empty “greatest country in the world” pretense?

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The Great Wall of Cyrus…uh, Donald

Why isn’t Donald Trump’s unfitness obvious to everyone? A majority of Americans have found his approval ratings, though low, still persistently higher than his competence, personality, and truthfulness would seem to support. Can it really be that one of every three Americans is easily duped, blindly partisan, confused by anger or fear, or stands to profit from Trump’s actions (including the blatant political toadying of Republican officials). Like many, I have struggled to understand the Trump phenomenon. And I’ve challenged my own bias in the matter; for maybe I’ve gotten Trump all wrong myself.

Like many of you, I’ve long been aware of Trump’s support from white evangelicals, but have minimized its overall effect. I was wrong. While many blue collar white Republicans abandoned Trump in the 2018 mid-terms, white evangelicals stood firm, exhibiting something akin to the “Lost Cause” theology that followed the Civil War. Moreover, a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that most white evangelical Christians favor Trump’s wall, having increased from 58% in April 2016, to 62% in September 2016, and 67% now.

Of course, despite these figures, all white evangelicals do not think alike. But evangelical leader John Fae attests to widespread “racial and religious fear” among white evangelicals worried about demographic changes going on in America, along with growing secularization. That fear had shown up in Trump’s 2016 election, wherein 28,000,000—81%!—of white evangelicals voted for him. Supporting the magnitude of these numbers is that there were enough evangelicals to swell sales of Lance Wallnau’s evangelical book, God’s Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and the American Unraveling, pushing it to #19 on Amazon’s bestseller list shortly before the election.

Wallnau claimed God communicated directly to him regarding Trump and the “Cyrus prophesy.” OK; who’s Cyrus anyway?

Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, in the 6th century not only freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity, but according to Jewish history even generously funded a new temple for them in Jerusalem. To Jews, Cyrus became a Gentile hero who—despite his not being a fan of the Jews’ god—was seen by Jews as quite literally a godsend. And they never forgot. Cyrus lived on in Jewish lore, famed as a nonbeliever whom God nevertheless used as a vessel for Jewish benefit as recounted in the 45th chapter of Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and gird the loins of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed . . . I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I gird you though you do not know me.” Isaiah (KJV) 45:1-5.

Then eight hundred years later along came Donald John Trump. Donald was clearly no Jew, no Christian, and by most measures not even a decent human being. But evangelical leaders in the United States—distressed by increasing secularization of their country—saw a dim light at the end of their darkening tunnel. Perhaps God had sent another Cyrus, this time in the form of a crude, rich, shallow narcissist whose only interest in religion seemed to be using it for desperately needed political points, for shoring up his minority presidency. It mattered not how unfit, ungenerous, even cruel Donald was, the lesson of Cyrus taught that God could send such a man as “a vessel for the faithful.”

To an increasing number of fundamentalists, a 21st century Cyrus was not only possible, but no less than God’s plan. Lance Wallnau—who was first to notice the parallel between the 45th chapter of Isaiah and the 45th president of the United States (!)—led the way. He was joined by prominent evangelicals like Curt Landry, Derek Thomas, Mike Evans, John Fae, and Creation Museum founder Ken Hamm. Wallnau has been quoted as saying “I believe the 45th president is meant to be an Isaiah 45 Cyrus, who will restore the crumbling walls that separate us from cultural collapse.”

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, certainly no evangelical, brought up Cyrus in connection to Trump’s 2018 relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem. Similarly, some ultra-orthodox Jews like Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson, while not necessarily signing on to evangelicals’ interpretations, embraced the Cyrus prophesy. Pleased by Trump’s moving the embassy to Jerusalem, the Israeli Mikdash Educational Center minted a “Trump Coin” showing Trump and King Cyrus together on its face.

Trump, in a characteristic dog whistle, quoted King Cyrus recently on the Persian new year, a greeting that went largely unnoticed except in evangelical circles. Trump has welcomed fundamentalist leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffries, Paula White, Ralph Drollinger, and Mike Huckabee to the White House. Further, while Vice President Mike Pence is not known to be evangelical, he is clearly fundamentalist. Others who are include Tony Perkins (Family Research Council), James Dobson (Focus on the Family), and John Fea (Messiah College).

You can see how Trump can boast he’d maintain his robust following even if he shot someone on New York’s 5th Avenue. At least for the evangelical base, it seems he is correct. Donald Trump is invincible, no mere president but part of God’s plan, faulty in himself but in his historic role God’s vessel for the faithful to restore evangelical Christianity in what was meant, they believe, to be God’s country.

As a nonbeliever, I can’t shed much light on Isaiah’s intriguing Biblical tale nor on its application 26 centuries later. Yet I can’t help but notice that there’s at least one obvious fly in this carefully constructed parallel:

The government of King Cyrus was said to be well organized and stable.

 

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Handing a gun to a fool

This evening President Trump speaks to the nation (uncharacteristically, other than by twitter!). He is expected to expound on his threat to invoke a “national emergency” to clear the way for his acting unilaterally to build a physical wall on the US/Mexico border. Americans are accustomed to the president’s “alternative facts” and repetitive lying, but are not accustomed to the nature of national emergencies. Such familiarity has become crucially important. At least on a short term basis, though possibly for a limited topic, this involves temporary suspension of the federal separation of powers. Yes; this is heady stuff in the hands of a fool.

In the January/February issue of The Atlantic, Elizabeth Goitein, author of The New Era of Secret Law, publishedWhat the President Could Do if He Declares a State of Emergency.” As co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, Goitein is thoroughly acquainted with American presidents’ access to otherwise prohibited powers simply by their declaring a national emergency. There are others qualified to explain, criticize, and defend the Emergency Powers Act and related legislation, of course, so I encourage your Google pursuit of opposing views, such as recently that of Bruce Ackerman (see the footnote reference below). As to Goitein’s article, the one I recommend that you read in its entirety, it can be found at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/01/presidential-emergency-powers/576418/.

There is purpose, of course, in a disastrous, unforeseen emergency for overriding the usual constraints on the president, thereby removing barriers to swift and unilateral presidential action. Of course, that carries its own dangers, for the customary restrictions on executive power are not in place without reason themselves. Traditionally the fall-back safeguard is that Congress will assume that a given president will act in the country’s best interest when he or she is proceeding with negligible oversight.

Obviously, the provision—intended only for emergency conditions for which Congressional action would be insufficiently agile—could be disastrous if that assumption were to be wrong. It is not intended for use just because a president cannot otherwise be politically successful. It is not meant to be a political tool in the executive toolbox for overriding Congressional action or its intentional inaction. It is for real emergencies only.

Problematically, however, the president does not have to get Congressional approval to declare an emergency or to use it once declared. It takes little imagination to consider the danger to the country if the president were to be unhinged, narcissistic, misinformed, or otherwise impaired.

Consider, as Goitein warns, that a presidential declaration of a national emergency opens up more than 100 special provisions enabling increased presidential power. As she puts it, “while many of these tee up reasonable responses to genuine emergencies, some appear dangerously suited to a leader bent on amassing or retaining power. For instance, the president can, with the flick of his pen, activate laws allowing him to shut down many kinds of electronic communications inside the United States or freeze Americans’ bank accounts . . . But what if a president, backed into a corner and facing electoral defeat or impeachment, were to declare an emergency for the sake of holding on to power?” In that scenario, our laws and institutions might not save us from a president seemingly eager to be the top branch of government rather than one-third of it.

Moreover, it is not clear that a president will refrain from expand his/her emergency power still further to include other matters than those used to justify the emergency to begin with. Goitein states, “the National Emergencies Act doesn’t require that the powers invoked relate to the nature of the emergency” [italics mine; JC]

Are there ways for a Congress to act such as to prevent this potential run-away power grab? As I understand Goitein’s article, the Congress would have to be far quicker and more resolute than the Senate has been now and that the House has normally been in the best of times. In other words, though there are Congressional safeguards available, they are leaky ones, on which the Congress has typically exercised minimal control.

However,

Please note this proviso that readers should carefully examine the specifics of what I’ve said here. My training and experience are neither authoritative nor even fully informed. Check what others have said about the emergency powers a president may unilaterally access. Trump has behaved erratically enough for any hint of his getting excessive power is to be checked out before it actually occurs. His lying makes everything he says suspect. This is not the time to take risks with this man, described by mental health professionals as “psychotically narcissistic” and by a majority of Americans as prone to make even critical things up, and to break agreements and promises as if he’d never uttered them.

President Trump has this month already begun threatening that a “national emergency” on our southern border—an “emergency” that the Republican Senate, the former Republican House, and the current Democratic House do not recognize as even close to an emergency—will call for a formal presidential emergency declaration if he doesn’t get his way. Such a declaration might occur as early as this evening. More chilling is that once the nation has been put on an emergency footing with expanded powers vested in Trump, it may be difficult or impossible to predict to what topics and degrees that uncontrolled power might be extended.

 

Note

An opposing view: A less well-reasoned argument in my opinion, though it is from an authoritative source, is “No, Trump Cannot Declare an ‘Emergency’ to Build His Wall” by Bruce Ackerman, January 5 in the New York Times. Ackerman is professor of law at Yale and author of The Decline and Fall of the American Republic.

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Risking America

Donald Trump’s propensity to mess everything up is boundless, enough to soil anyone and anything he touches. Given what we’ve seen of this empty, foolish man for more than two years, it’s only to be expected that his ignorance-laced narcissism is integral to his presidency as much as to his personality.

But enumerating Trump’s defects is not my intention here. He is what he is. He is what he’s shown us for years. His is an authoritarian personality, fatal to democracy if allowed to run its natural course. For years past and certainly during 2016, Americans had ample warning of what was to come. The party he handily usurped saw what he was until it became to their political advantage to don their red caps.

This month we embark on a third year of his despotism-prone presidency. The percentage of American voters still supporting him is frightening large. The number of Republican elected officials willing to put the country before his authoritarianism is frighteningly small. Because American voters chose him and Republican senators and representatives protect him means they are all responsible for the damage to America that he and his sycophants produce. It can therefore be said that Trump voters and Trump-backing elected officials chose and continue to choose to put the American Constitutional system at grave risk.

It is important to understand that the problem with Trump is not just another instance of partisan politics. Voters and their representatives will always have disagreements, some easily resolved, some not. I’m not referring in this essay to issues politicians normally struggle with, like agriculture subsidies, military budgets, social security benefits, and a host of other “normal” matters. That process can be visualized as a sport wherein teams of differing approaches compete within fixed rules. Exercising the strengths and methods can be vigorous. Violating the rules, however, destroys the game.

For America, those rules consist of the Constitution as augmented by whatever additional rules to which both teams have agreed. Weakening the rule of law, disregarding the boundaries of authority, or politicizing the court system are ways in which we threaten or trash the rules of the game. Consequently, while rigorous political competition is safe and can be healthy, impairing the rules of the game threatens the country. It is the latter type of damage that voters and a scary proportion of their representatives have chosen to allow and even cheer from Donald Trump.

Like you perhaps, I’ve been engaged in trying to understand Trump, to grasp his propensity for childish narcissism, to wonder how to separate stupidity from calculated craftiness. Does he not know coal isn’t coming back, or is the hope of unemployed miners just another malicious tool? Is he stupid about global warming, or are his dimwitted comments that confound climate and weather meant to show his base he’s as confused as they? Does he really think citing crimes by individual undocumented immigrants represents any proof that immigrant crime is rampant?

Recently a friend suggested I read the ideas promoted by Bob Altemeyer in The Authoritarians and in his shorter publications. Altemeyer is a psychologist who did extensive work on the psychology of both authoritarians and persons prone to follow authoritarians. His concentration was on the latter, which in 1986 earned him the American Association for the Advancement of Science Prize for Behavioral Science Research. It is his specialization in the psychological aspects of authoritarian followers that I’m hoping will offer insights into why generally intelligent voters can accept illogic, believe lies, be blind to non sequiturs, and overlook cruelties as long as they come from an authoritarian they’ve adopted or whom they fear.

Whether Altemeyer’s or others’ research—or for that matter, further thoughtful philosophical considerations—can help us understand the grievous Trump phenomenon, it is a dynamic we must confront, for it threatens democratic government. Moreover, will we emerge more able to deal with a subsequent Trump-like character, or will we have accepted the new normal so thoroughly that a later despotic president will be welcomed to the White House? While it is easy to blame Trump for what amounts to anti-Americanism in sheep’s clothing, the most productive analysis will be the study of how you and I, along with our fellow citizens recklessly, even passionately, choose to imperil American democracy.

 

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How do you say Merry Christmas to an atheist?

Recently President Trump triumphantly announced that Americans “can say Merry Christmas” again! Apparently, he or his devotees thought they couldn’t. (Seems a little silly to me, but every little bit of education helps.) However, his permission did set me to thinking about how uptight we get over allowing each other some room. That said, here are a few disclosures, but skipping the usual warning that I don’t and can’t speak for more atheists than one (me).

If you wish to greet me with Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, or any other of the Winter Solstice salutations tied to one faith or another, please do so! I will smile in the comfort of being recognized no matter what your faith and the words that symbolize it. In fact, though I’m inclined in December to think more of earth’s axial tilt than mangers, I may slip in a Merry Christmas myself from time to time. And I won’t even stop to apologize. Just to be sure you know, though, if that occurs it’ll not be due to losing faith in my non-faith, but to the childhood I spent in the bells, whistles, Yuletide songs, and virgin pregnancy of Christianity.

Still, communicating well-intended messages across lines that too-often divide us can get dicey. When I had an illness once, a kind acquaintance asked if I’d be offended if she prayed for my recovery. To me that made no sense until I recognized how close I came to treating her expression of good will as a joke, for I at first thought she was kidding. Turned out she genuinely thought that praying for an atheist would be perceived as offensive instead of supportive. I was horrified that I came so close to being such an ass, clearly I would have been the offensive one, not she.

So what did reversing my ignorant close call teach me? Just this. With or without religion, we human beings wish many times to say words of comfort, peace, and acceptance . . . well, not just to say the words, but to have the intentions of those words felt by someone. If everyone’s values and practices are the same, that isn’t too difficult (though even then it can be tricky). Religious English speakers are accustomed to phrases like “sorry for your loss,” “God bless you,” “you must be so proud,” “she’s in heaven now,” and, of course, “Merry Christmas.” But in a world where huge language and cultural differences exist, we can unintentionally send messages not at all like what we meant. Some of us don’t even try rather than take the chance of annoying someone. More grievous and happily less frequent, some expressions meant benignly can be perceived by others as actual blasphemy.

Distinctions we choose to make among greetings, special words, and creeds are distinctions not everyone accepts, nor are the words and symbols used to express them. But as different as beliefs and greetings are, what is flowing within us is pain, sadness, joy, and good will—feelings of value too great to sacrifice to squabbles over petty disagreements about the words chosen to express them.

Merry Christmas!*

*Or any expressions or even gestures that communicate kind wishes, human camaraderie, affection, or just plain good will.

 

 

 

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