Dishonorable presidency, disgraceful enablers

Like most readers of this blog, I grew up with a strong interest in U. S. government, a youthful patriotism, and a whole-hearted belief in American democracy. That democracy, I believed, was not only reliable but permanently established. I brought that confidence with me into military service. When I was discharged several years later my conviction remained just as robust, undimmed by military experience. As a civilian, although I became less credulous my basic trust in America was not damaged until the presidency of Donald Trump. Politicians I’d once trusted were willing to give him free range to strip the country of its greatest asset.

This blog (JohnJustThinking), begun in mid-2013, didn’t initially focus on presidential politics but on religious liberty, origins of morality, and church/state issues. Foreseeing what has by now become obvious, however, in September and October of 2016 I published two posts pointing out Trump’s despotic danger to America. Why? This was no regular presidential candidate—not just an instance of Republican versus Democrat—but one so unfit for office as to endanger the republic. His fitness did not improve following the November election. He did not become more “presidential,” nor did he become more truthful, more knowledgeable about, or committed to the Constitution. He was uninterested in the rule of law except as an impediment that deserved only to be kicked aside.

Many Republicans, though not all, saw through Trump’s pathological narcissism, realizing a tragic mistake had been made by the electorate. They continued for a while to see Trump with the same disgust as they did in pre-election debates. For some Trumpists, Hillary Clinton’s phrase “deplorables” was as apt as it was politically unwise. Actually, of course, most Republicans understood the Constitution, the rule of law, and the damage of forsaking truth, quite unlike the shallow, unthoughtful way Trump did, that is, if he ever considered them at all.

But Republican leaders in increasingly shameful, risky increments decided to compromise, ignoring Ben Franklin’s adaptation of a Latin phrase, “if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” After all, this ignorant, unprincipled man had been honestly elected to the same office as George Washington, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. Clearly, Trump was not a Republican, but he could be real Republicans’ instrument for transforming the judiciary and reaching other conservative aspirations despite his egregious flaws, fleas be damned.

But the would-be masters became the servants, as often happens when compromisers think they have the upper hand. Republicans in the House and Senate (the majority party in both for two years at that time) would be able to educate the loutish but unexperienced newcomer. Therefore, real Republicans with the strength of greater numbers and more skilled understanding of parliamentary maneuvers could keep him in line. But they underestimated Trump’s dogged determination and his disregard for the rules they knew by heart.

His was not a proficiency like theirs, but more a raw, undisciplined law of the jungle that recognizes no norms. Thus it was that Trump did not become more like real Republicans except in a few self-serving ways. Real Republicans became more like him, not just in abandoning truth, but in attitudes about deficits, trade, domestic free markets, rule of law, limited presidential power, checks and balances, and the vaunted Constitution itself. The Republican party was no more, having become in all but name, the Trump Party.

But recognition that a new party has developed from the ashes of the old was by no means the worst part. The gravest aspect of all these phenomena is the chipping away of America’s status as a long-established democratic republic. Trump and those who’ve become his minions have ushered in a sequence of changes that dangerously mimics an irreversible slip toward autocracy.

Consider the personalization of the presidency (a la Louis XIV’s “l’etat, c’est moi”). Observe his acting as if the majesty of the office is his, not the people’s. Cringe as he treats employees of the nation as if they are day laborers holding jobs due to his twisted definition of loyalty to himself. Be ashamed that we disrespect America’s patriots by empowering a presidency driven by personal revenge, loss of political safeguards, one man’s pathological narcissism, a despicably weak Republican Senate and, for two years, Republican House.

Am I comparing Donald to Adolf? No; things haven’t gone that far and, I trust, never will, though taking even a small risk of such disaster goes far beyond unwise. Useful comparisons can be made, however, to changes that typically precede loss of respected norms and rule of law, even in minor ways toward unbridled misuse of power, weakening of the free press, control of information, and berating (and threatening) individuals who use Congressionally established whistle blower laws, a useful managerial tool especially in very large organizations though Trump construe them as personal disloyalty.

Needless to say and particularly evident in the recent impeachment proceedings, Trump’s sycophants—seeking to escape his wrath or earn his favor—defended and protected him in ways that with their own pre-Trump values they’d have scorned. Senate Republicans demonstrated how far Trump has crushed their previous civic morality. Their craven behavior now would have severely embarrassed, even mortified those pre-Trump selves.

The president emerged spewing vengeance, reprisal, misunderstanding of democracy, bullying, disregard for the Constitution, and undisciplined conduct of his office. Yet we cannot overlook that Trump might be a negligible problem if his malevolence had not been protected and even adopted by most of the Republican Party. Republicans in the Senate and House dirtied themselves by neglecting their obligation to the nation, leaving Trump to abuse power as he wished. During Trump’s post-acquittal display of childish anger, high level officials, eager to enable his behavior, supported him with their adolescent laughter, cheering the reckless remarks delivered more like an authoritarian strongman than an American president.

No surprise. Donald Trump is not chastened. He is not bowed. He is, in fact, strengthened. His supporters disgracefully continue to foist his presidency upon the America to which they swore an empty allegiance. Their honor is as besmirched as is his to whom we as a people in grave error granted the presidency and stewardship over not only civic decency but whatever American exceptionalism and goodness we have left.

 

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Of 214 essays that I have written and posted to this blog since launching it in mid-2013, the following 37 are largely or exclusively focused on Donald Trump. All 214 posts can be accessed by month or by topic using the lists to the right.

  1. “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016.
  2. “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016.
  3. “Please, Mr. President Elect,” Nov. 15, 2016.
  4. “What does a proto despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016.
  5. “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017.
  6. “Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017.
  7. “Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017.
  8. “Congratulations, Trump voters,” Mar. 6, 2017.
  9. “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017.
  10. “Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017.
  11. “Our republic…if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017.
  12. “Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017.
  13. “Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017.
  14. “Aiding and abetting injury to America,” Jan. 6, 2018.
  15. “A disgraceful leader implicates all,” June 19, 2018.
  16. “Trusting our leaker-in-chief in Russia,” June 22, 2018.
  17. “Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve,” July 18, 2018.
  18. “Trump is NOT America’s problem,” Sep 10, 2018.
  19. “Enemies of the people,” Nov. 1, 2018.
  20. “Risking America,” Jan. 3, 2019.
  21. “The great wall of Cyrus,” Jan. 10, 2019.
  22. A plea to my United States Senator,” Jan 26, 2019.
  23. That wall between us,” Feb. 7, 2019.
  24. Political philosophy, political behavior,” Mar. 18, 2019.
  25. Mueller and beyond,” Mar. 25th, 2019.
  26. “The shaming of America,” Apr. 18, 2019.
  27. “Republicans light just one little candle,” Apr. 21, 2019.
  28. “Vehicle versus destination,” May 22, 2019.
  29. “America’s risk of autocracy,” May 27, 2019.
  30. “America after Trump,” July 19, 2019.
  31. “The Republican conspiracy,” Aug. 27, 2019.
  32. “Red caps to tin pot,” Oct. 17, 2019.
  33. “Lying for god and party,” Sep. 1, 2019.
  34. “Lemmings, not leaders,” Oct. 24, 2019.
  35. “The president is above the law,” Dec. 19, 2020.
  36. “Decline of American governance and homo sapiens,” Jan. 13, 2020.
  37. “The Senate has failed,” Feb. 3, 2020.

 

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The Senate has failed

If you’ve spent hours watching Mitch McConnell’s pathetic impeachment trial as have my wife and I, I send condolences. A measure of relief is on the way with Wednesday’s Senate vote when the Trump Party (formerly GOP) majority in the Senate will acquit Donald Trump, a result they announced before the trial began. (Hmmm; who mislaid the oaths?) Oh, well, one upside of a sham trial is an assured outcome, even leaving room for superficial stateliness.

All the president’s men and women steadfastly avoided direct testimony of even one relevant witness unavailable during the impeachment inquiry. They even argued that the House, not having access to useful testimony, performed poorly enough to excuse Republicans from seeking sensitive testimony it when became available. Net outcome: The Senate’s mockery of the Constitution will effortlessly authorize Trump’s right to Make America Grovel (to him) Again.

The House’s impeachment investigation of Trump’s duplicity may have had errors, though for the most part those errors were due to Trump’s having made critical information either unavailable or difficult and time-consuming to attain. “What’s the rush?” one might ask? The impeachment turned in part on election cheating by Trump in his 2020 election bid, cheating he began at least as early as mid-2019. Awaiting court action, even if achieved, would likely have given him longer to continue the practice. Senate errors, however, consist of supporting Trump’s lawyers instead of acting like an honest jury. Individual senators, as did the lawyers, kept up a running display of confused logic.

Because the House due to Trump’s stonewalling could not complete all desirable work on its preparation for Senate trial, the Senate complained that it is “not its job to do the House’s work,” a ludicrous position. As far as I know, it is correct that the Senate doesn’t have to do the House’s work for it. But there was nothing stopping the Senate from issuing subpoenas itself if it were actually seeking to fulfill its responsibility to have a fair trial. (The term “fair trial” was used repeatedly in these past several days. No problem there as long as we remember that “fair” means fair to the country as well as fair to Trump.)

The president’s lawyers often claimed points that were more drama than logic. One example is that senators and Trump’s lawyers frequently pointed out that removing Trump from office would be tantamount to reversing a legitimate election. Silly phrasing was used, for example, to blame House managers for wanting to “tear up voters’ ballots.” The implication was that elections should never be reversed. No one seemed to notice that the Constitutional option for removal always reverses a president’s most recent election; it cannot be otherwise.

It was clear from the beginning that most senators agreed to participate in McConnell’s sham, repeatedly refusing to deal with flaws in Trump’s actions, often making either amateur or illogical excuses. There have even been avowals of the “it’s just politics” sort, that expecting Republican senators to harshly judge a Republican president is just too much to ask. Perhaps the Founders were naïve to think that being in the same party would not make honest service to the country impossible.

Senators Howard Baker, Barry Goldwater, and other Republican senators convinced President Nixon to resign his office ahead of impeachment proceedings. (I was more-or-less Republican at the time and knew Senator Baker, whose ethics in putting the country first made him a hero to me, a Tennessean.) Pardon my unsophisticated expectation, but no candidate who fails to meet that test should ever be elected or re-elected to the Senate. Is that a harsh test met by few? Yes, it is. But would anyone contend that the country doesn’t deserve it? Oh, my mistake; the Senate Republicans just did!

The president’s lawyers regularly shaded the truth, hoping no doubt to fool the TV audience and perhaps some of the Republican senators, many of whom then parroted the dodgy claims. One such notion was that you surely can’t remove a president over a phone call. Senators not intelligent enough to see its absurdity or who considered voters too stupid to see through the claim would then repeat it to journalists.

Other weak points with similarly devious phrasing were part of the usual attorneys’ set of tricks, so it is missing the point to blame them rather than their clients. Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt in The New York Times last week pointed out Pat Cipollone’s presence in the infamous Mulvaney, Bolton, Giuliani strategy meeting with Trump in May. Cipollone, as counsel, couldn’t also be a witness like Bolton, et al., of course, as even non-lawyers know. Although I don’t know the way, but there certainly is the will to cheat the system if possible.

We did learn a lot from Trump’s defense lawyers in this make-believe trial, including Wednesday last week when Alan Dershowitz stunned us all with a gem suitably weird enough for Trump himself: “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” To consider the implications of that position, I recommend Dana Milbank’s January 30th Washington Post op-ed, “The impeachment trial hurtles toward its worst-case conclusion.”

What the president has on Republican senators must be powerful stuff. It’s no surprise that, for example, Marsha Blackburn sounds dimwitted when she explains her vote. Ditto for Lindsay Graham who hasn’t even tried to sound either judicious or honest. But it is a waste of time to understand almost all other Republican senators who decided party means far more to them than patriotism. By now, though, Republican senators have had plenty of practice at making Trump happy while pretending to honor their oaths to the country. In fact, the constitutional duties of the Senate have been ignored and pretty much replaced with the care and feeding of Trump. Oh, that’s just politics.

No, it isn’t. And if it is, shame on us, all of us, the American electorate for putting up with it for decades as part of our folk wisdom, then are unprepared to oppose it when big dilemmas come along. We’ve been fortunate not to have lost this great democratic experiment long ago, for happily most presidents have not had Trump’s level of ignorance, incompetence, dishonesty, and downright evil.

Trump’s unfit personal characteristics have been known since years before 2016. But there have been events making the performance of his presidency even more dangerous. Consider these items with their possible effects in mind (I’ve borrowed this sequence from Senator Kamala Harris):

Nixon said “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Prior to his election, Trump said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” After his election, Trump said the Constitution’s Article II gives him “the right to do whatever [he] want[s] as president.” After the Mueller investigation found Trump’s otherwise prosecutable crimes, he could not be indicted due to an internal Department of Justice quirk that exempts sitting presidents from indictment. Then as Trump’s “inappropriate” action toward Ukraine began to fall apart, Republicans protected him at each shameful stage of “it didn’t happen,” all the way to “it happened but isn’t impeachable.” Finally, Alan Dershowitz presented Trump the ultimate get out of jail free card. Wouldn’t any of us, especially if our own ethics were weak, by now have legitimately gotten the point that when partisanship of this type and degree rules the day, in fact the president actually can do anything he wants.

Most Republican senators finally began to risk offending Trump by agreeing that his conduct was “inappropriate,” “wrong,” or whatever spineless wrist slap they could find just so that their coddling of Trump would enable him to define his win as being “not impeachable” or anything he liked. (Sorry, but he had already been impeached. The issue is whether he’d need a change-of-address card from wherever he’d launch his next real estate scam. Remember, Trump is constantly on the look for cookie jars to stick his hands into, whatever the dimensions they may be.) We may need to wait only a few days before he will define the Senate’s coming acquittal as exoneration or perhaps proof that his phone call was “perfect.”

But, very, very seriously, is there a single senator worth his or her salt who thinks Trump, now chastened by the House impeachment, will become a model president, never tell a lie, stop inflaming half the electorate, cease offending America’s allies, avoid taking impulsive actions that risk war, and other perfidies he’s not yet learned? Of course not. After all, “Trump will be Trump” has been just another way of saying “The personal characteristics that comprise his unfitness are what we have had and what we will have.

So tell me why that near certainty does not put a different spin on what justifies his “removability; he is now emboldened more than ever before.” If anything, we have reason to be alarmed that Trump’s future in the White House will bring more horrors. Has the Senate never heard, as Senator Murkowski quoted recently, “If you attack a king, be sure you kill him…you don’t want an injured king.” We have reason to believe that this president’s paranoia and vengeance have cost America greatly already and will go still further in ways not yet imagined.

He will persist in attacking the rule of law, disregarding Constitutional roles of courts and legislators, preparing for global climate change, and even weaning the country off truth itself. I fear Republicans, thoroughly ensnared by Trump, will continue to endorse this unethical man-child’s jeopardizing of our country and its institutions.

As Murkowski also accurately said, “As an institution, the Congress has failed.”

 

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Trying an impeached president

As the impeachment trial of Donald Trump gets underway in earnest, those who are not following the fine points of the process and the roles of the various actors may find the goings-on confusing. On the other hand, those who’ve been following the process, re-reading Article 2 of the Constitution, and watching untold hours of television news may themselves also find the goings-on confusing. One reason is that there is variation in how impeachment and the trial that follows it are carried out even though specifics of the Constitution haven’t changed.

Just to clarify a couple of definitions: The process going on this week is not to determine impeachment. Trump was impeached last month, though he is yet to be tried by the Senate. However, whatever turns out to be the Senate action does not erase the fact and indignity of impeachment. Nothing ever removes an impeachment decision; it stands on its own. Be watchful as spokespersons or journalists on either side sometimes misuse the terms. I’ve heard persons who should know better using impeachment to describe impeachment plus trial. The term “impeachment trial” will also be heard occasionally, seemingly to mean only the trial itself.

The Constitution gives the House of Representatives “the sole Power of Impeachment” (Article I, Section 2) of federal officers and gives the Senate “the sole Power to try all Impeachments” (Article I, Section 3), thus the constitutional sequence is (first) impeachment and (second) a trial followed by exoneration or removal from office. Using terms as they are used in criminal cases, House action is like a grand jury bringing charges and Senate action decides guilt, much like a jury. There are differences, however, in that there is no judge equivalent, though the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has some similar functions, but not all. (Even the Chief Justice’s decisions can be reversed by the Senate.) The charges by the House must be “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” (Article II, Section 4). The Senate, upon conducting a trial, determines a verdict that rules whether the president should be removed from office, that is, has the House made its case about those charges. If so, the president is removed from office forthwith. If not, the process stops and the president remains in office. Nothing, by the way, prohibits the House from launching another impeachment inquiry.

As you can see, the president is not the only officer of the United States who can be impeached; lesser officers can be as well. You likely noted the term federal officers above. Except for those who follow such things in detail, the only person you’ll ever hear about being impeached is the president. Even then, impeachment of a president is a rare event (3 times in history: Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and Andrew Johnson). If you missed the Clinton impeachment (his subsequent trial did not result in removal), it’s quite possible this is the only one you will ever see. President Nixon would have been impeached, but he saw the writing on the wall in time to resign before the House could pass an impeachment vote. If he had been impeached, on a scale of seriousness his case would have fallen between Clinton’s and Trump’s.

As I’ve pointed out in a number of previous posts, the Constitution was adopted at a time when no political parties existed in the sense they do now. That is relevant to the 2020 trial in that elected officials in the House and Senate identify quite as much with their party as with their chamber. The Constitution describes the role of the House and of the Senate, not the roles of parties. Hence, Republican Senators and House members are more politically linked to the president if he or she is Republican than if not. Of course, Democrats fall into the opposing trench. At this time, party bonds are extremely strong, so much so that the Senate since January 2017 has gone to great lengths to forfeit its constitutional independence in favor of pleasing the Republican president. The American political doctrine of separation of powers is on life support.

So we begin a trial tomorrow morning in which Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already declared victory for the president. McConnell has applied considerable pressure to Republican Senators not to break ranks, while Democratic Senators are largely ignored (though they do vote). For a naïve observer of this process, it must look quite strange. Trust your gut; it is. Logic seems out the window in a number of ways. For example, Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about Monica Lewinsky, while Trump was impeached for immensely more important behaviors dealing with national security, bribing a foreign power with a delay of almost $400,000,000 to get help in his election later this year, and blocking relevant Executive Branch documents subpoenaed by the House for its impeachment process.

I have strong opinions about this process and about taking the Constitution seriously, as I’ve made clear in previous posts in this blog. I fear that Trump gravely endangers the rule of law, the separation of powers, and other matters of leadership and Constitution. But I also abhor Trump’s non-impeachable yet despicable behaviors and statements in ways that make the country coarser, less democratic, more shameful on the world stage, less committed to truth, and other loathsome elements of his presidency. Republican Senators and Representatives, the Republican Party nationally, and Trump supporters personally bear massive blame for allowing, even inciting, characteristics that destroy any hope for America to a model for the world. That City on a Hill, perhaps wearing a red cap, has passed us by.

We’ve all heard politicians and political commentators arguing that the impeachment itself was not fair (or it was fair). We will hear that the Senate trial is not fair (or it is fair). We may be adult enough to recognize that either judgment is suspect, dependent a great deal on whose ox is gored and who had prior allegiances going in. But the greater issue is not whether the current Senate trial is fair to President Trump.

The greater issue is whether it is fair to America.

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Decline of American governance and homo sapiens

All Republicans and other conservatives would no doubt be wise enough never to hand the keys of their new muscle car to their unruly 14-year-old. Republican Senators, however, have proven willing to prostitute themselves to the president, delegating virtually unchecked power to earn favors or to avoid political punishment. One might legitimately question their wisdom or even their patriotism in vesting the president with such extraordinary authority, especially an erratic or untrustworthy president. With the spineless attitude of GOP legislators, customary safeguards have been laid aside, effectively discarding our previously proud American assertion that no one is above the law.

These are politicians who’ve enjoyed a lifetime preaching patriotism and other important values that conservatives have often implied are theirs alone. Each time Republican officials give away more of the Senate’s or House’s Constitutional obligations, their behavior—even if treated as only a one-off lending of those car keys—sets a new normal which this president is eager to nudge to the next level.

I’ll not enumerate frightening, even indecent presidential actions here. They are many and obvious, all covered in daily news, editorials, and op-eds (plus my previous posts). Any voter unable to list Trump’s totalitarian moves by heart merely reveals he or she has decided that taking such risks with what the Founders bequeathed us just doesn’t matter. Time for Republicans to shut up about patriotism, deficits, low tariffs, and “fair” hearings, for they’ve lost the ability to evangelize on or even to discern such concepts.

Let me turn to one aspect of the recent Soleimani action: So far Americans have no explanation of what constitutes “imminent.” Congress has long made a reasonable judgment that the president should have more latitude to take actions he or she might otherwise not have if a dangerous situation is imminent. A president with no commitment to truth and fact might fudge on this distinction. Characteristically, Trump’s assurance to Congress and the nation was meaningless and suspect—meaningless due largely to his perpetual lying and his disdainment of any limits on executive authority—just as was his consolation that the assassination would make the Middle East safer.

That may eventually be proven accurate. I’m not qualified to judge that calculation. What we can be certain of is that throwing a rock at a hornet’s nest will bring on a flurry of unhappy and, given Trump’s transactionalism, unconsidered side effects. What I am qualified to judge is this: it is risky to trust Trump, anyone who works directly for him, or supportive Senators.

Trump lies consistently and unceasingly about small and large matters alike. Especially when events are moving fast and the fog of conflict multiplies life or death matters, surely it would be important to trust our president. Senate Republicans are aware of these things (some have personally felt the president’s sting) but have simply decided not to acknowledge awareness even to themselves. Thus does Trump’s duplicity regularly determine the dishonesty of officials who choose to honor their relationship with Trump more than obligation to the nation.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .

In the face of those things, let us consider an even larger issue than they. Although it is clear that Trump’s misbehavior and that of those closely around him do grave damage to our country almost daily, we regularly overlook that much of that same behavior harms the world at large. It is painful to consider the damage we’ve done to America’s world leadership, a role of which most Americans have been proud and which much of the world has welcomed. No small amount of it, in fact, has been to the credit of responsible conservatives.

Pity, for the world loses as America becomes more intimate with anti-democratic regimes, shows that our treaties can’t be trusted, spreads amateurish conspiracy theories, worries about the growth of our zero-sum mental smallness, and makes a laughingstock of our international posture and competence. This corrosion of our country is not due to “conservative values,” but in part to loss of prudence and wisdom that improved national governance in earlier decades by the Republican party.

We squander our ability to influence the world for good as if we’ve no recognition of national noblesse oblige. The United States is failing to lead the world morally, technically, and economically, as its capability would once have enabled and its awareness would once have motivated. But more than any of these degeneracies is one that will finally overwhelm everything else.

It’s as if we mistakenly and carelessly think we’d given that hazardous son a plastic toy Ferrari, but it had turned out to be the dangerous real one. To examine the consequences, however, we must think even beyond misuse of national authority in America. For even more challenging than what I’ve discussed above is the massive and deadly matter of climate change that threatens to devastate the human race, yet is officially ignored and thereby worsened, not just by America, but by the world at large. Under Trump’s imitation leadership and in general the pettiness of American party politics, the power of the United States is largely unavailable to address increasing threats to humanity’s future.

Allow me to deviate for a bit: We know for a person’s ability to address physical challenges requires basic skills and strengths to aid him or her often as much as knowledge of the specific challenge. For example, consider spending a week by yourself on a mountain trail. Having broadly applicable strength, problem-solving skills, and good health will make your adventure a more pleasant experience. A nation among nations is more capable of seeing to its defense and to helpfully aid other nations if it deals well with its public systems, educational preparation of citizens, fair administration of justice, and other necessities.

Then consider how America’s helpfulness to Ukraine’s path toward democracy has been gravely damaged by America’s own inability to get it right at home. It is in this way that the current American conduct of federal government at the highest level including workable immigration, treatment of health care, political dysfunction in the presidency and Congress, and inattention to well developed norms can render the country inadequate to pursue its own perfection and to contribute to he world as much as it can.

The “indispensable country”—whether we ever deserved the title or not—should be standing with the world in taking wise actions to address humans’ next and perhaps greatest predicament. We are naïvely coasting along with little sense of the enormity of the issue. To take aim at the really critical threats, we must not only get past little political fights, pleasing the offended, insufficient legal practices, and even international hegemony struggles. We must grow wiser as a species than to clutter our ability to distinguish big matters from small. Hotly contested niggling matters command our time and commitments and misdirect the evolving necessities of life on this planet . . . if later there is to be human life on this planet. To repeat, America not only disregards the threat of climate change, it intentionally denies it.

I do not believe it to be an overstatement to say that behavior of our species may well doom us to remain appallingly on the wrong side of history—insipidly working against humanity rather than for it. In this worldwide challenge in which even strong, wise leadership may be insufficient,

America has decided not to lead.

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The president is above the law

My most recent essay in this blog was two months ago, the unusual delay due in part to time spent on impeachment issues. Like a substantial number of you, I’ve read lengthy reports and watched many hours of impeachment arguments. There is reason to be concerned about America’s worrying descent toward authoritarianism. That is due, at least initially, to the president’s character and behavior, though then supported by Republican Senators.

Our Constitution was designed as the supreme owners’ manual for our new country, its philosophy painstakingly argued and its words carefully expressed. Of course, even perfect inscription of the founders’ wisdom into a written record would result in naught if actions of the electorate and their politicians are not judiciously disciplined by those words. Among other knotty issues, they dealt with the chief executive role, struggling with wanting a powerful presidency while simultaneously fearing it. Americans have been exposed in recent weeks to at least some parts of the founders’ solution to keep these competitive forces in balance. We’ve learned that political personalities and circumstances can make the Constitutional discipline difficult to maintain.

Every citizen should demand that an unhampered Constitutional balance of authority among executive, legislative, and judicial branches be maintained (the oft stated “checks and balances”), regardless of their representatives’ parties or their own. Thus, when President Trump acts as if he has absolute power (“the right to do whatever I want as president”) and the Senate consents to carte blanche approval of executive actions or plans, they are both challenging if not violating the Constitution. In the case of impeachment and Senate trial, if the Senate Majority Leader is more committed to the political link with the president, he is mocking the Constitution.

The Constitution assigns certain job responsibilities and authorities to the Senate and House that might—and sometimes must—thwart the president’s wishes. For example, the Senate’s accepting its Constitutional duties necessarily means from time to time that the Senate must take issue or even oppose the president. True, this makes it harder for Senators, but faithfully maintains the Constitution’s clarity of roles.

However, in the first years of the Constitution, political parties as we know them did not exist. It was possible to speak of the president’s relationship to the Senate or House as distinct political bodies. But as parties came to create semi-permanent components of the Senate and of the House, that clear distinction became complicated, in many instances making reference to the Senate’s or House’s position on an issue a two part (or more) matter, that is, designation of each party’s vote totals. But having parties created even further difficulties.

Consider a minority party in the Senate that is in the same party as the president. The minority party, of course, cannot speak as the Senate (though the majority party can). Although the Constitution establishes the relationship of Senate to president, a disclarity will have arisen if party alliances in practice extend to the relationship between president and Senate minority, thereby cluttering the link.

To make my point more actual than hypothetical, it is easier to visualize the reverse situation, that is, if the president is politically linked by party alliance to the Senate majority. Consider that a president has been impeached, thereby triggering a Senate obligation to render judgment whether the president should be vindicated or removed from office. That is the duty that fell to the U. S. Senate beginning last evening. Because of the current party attachment, Senate Majority Leader McConnell wasted no time announcing that his and his majority’s duty will intentionally not be fulfilled.

There are other situations in which this same Senate has failed to fulfill its role since President Trump began his term. “Babysitting” this president impeded its Constitutional and statutory duties. I’ve referred to a few instances in previous posts so I’ll not repeat them here. They illustrate that, while the Senate actually has its own job to do, it has been burdened by dealing with the president’s inadequacies, feeling protective of this nonperforming president of the Senate majority’s own party.

Such sycophancy has become commonplace for Republican senators and representatives since early 2017 due in part to the forceful and unscrupulous personality of President Trump. It may be tempting to pity Republican office holders who must balance daily between their personal convictions and the president’s threats. Still, surrendering to his guileful brand of pressure is a violation of senators’ and representatives’ oaths of office. The current Republican mixture of political intrigue, slippery explanations, and carrying the president’s water is tantamount to a distressing confirmation that despite a phrase Americans dearly love to chant, the American president is indeed above the law.

 

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Lemmings, not leaders

There was a time that when abroad I never conceived of being ashamed of America. It wasn’t that the country was ever free of racial discrimination and other grave errors. It was that efforts were afoot to heal at least some of our civic sins. Political parties skirmished over their differences and politics could get dicey. Largely, however, we believed that “politics stop at the water’s edge” and that in the end, it was the country’s benefit that mattered, not politicians’ or their party’s. Please forgive my emotional worship of the past here, but it is true that we respected the flag and sang the anthem at baseball games (we actually knew the lyrics). This all seems unsophisticated now—enough for me to be self-conscious about these words—but it was our reality then.

Wednesday this week we were treated to a group of out-of-control Republican Representatives storming against House rules into an otherwise secure meeting, each a Donald Trump mini-me out to demonstrate his or her allegiance. Their fidelity was not to the country, not to the flag, not even to a semblance of Congressional order, decades in the making. (White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham was quoted saying that Trump was pleased with the Republicans’ “bold stand.”) Theirs was loyalty to a pompous, emerging tin pot dictator who’d not only disgraced the presidency in three short years, but had demanded that they descend to his level of ignorance and treachery. In fact, this president—separated only by a technicality from being under criminal indictment—we have vacuously called “leader of the free world.”

Appearing more juvenile than Members of Congress are normally expected to be, they brought no new facts to disprove Trump’s serious misbehaviors. They came only with distraction and the silly claim that the hearing should be public, an invalid point that may have seemed sensible to citizens who don’t follow these political shows. Republicans already had a fair proportion of members in the hearing, but their share of questions to witnesses was as if they constituted 50%. This was preparation, it must be remembered, for a possible impeachment (like an indictment) of the president, not a decision as to his guilt.

It is true that in the Clinton impeachment, a “special counsel” method was used to prepare the indictment, which is why a similarly closed-door process is being used now, parallel to the special counsel’s privacy. All testimony will be open to the public at the impeachment if there is one. Besides, Republicans, who became masters of interminable find-the-dirt investigations, kept their Benghazi hearings closed throughout, leaving them able to cite the investigation qua investigation—as if it had unveiled misbehavior simply by existing. Interestingly, the Republicans’ outlandish, quasi-mob interruption of the Wednesday meeting brought to mind a Trump-like flailing, disregard for both facts and decorum.

Trump and Lenin

And so goes the deterioration of America’s democracy, an advanced form of government in world history, to be sure, yet one that requires constant tending. Our many decades of pride in the American experiment has been comforting, productive, and of benefit to the world as well as to us. But it cannot be preserved by political theater, weakened rule of law, manufactured “facts,” substitution of demonstrations for the hard work of government, or—worst of all—following a despotic leader to please the least knowledgeable among us.

Whether the federal government of the United States is becoming more amateurish or more attracted to despotism is hard to say, but neither enhances democracy. What is clear is that these matters and the substance of every day’s news are not politics as usual from which we safely bounce back after another election. They are an alarming threat to our Founders’ dream, America’s global leadership, and a peaceful world. The threat is embodied in Donald Trump and increasingly those devotees willing to protect him against what decreasingly remains of a stable, powerful, humane, and trustworthy America.

 

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Red caps to tin pot

Having been sidelined by despondency over America’s unraveling present and conceivably dystopic future, this is my first post in just over six weeks. My gloom—not to mention that which you’ve endured—is, of course, only an infinitesimal bit of what Donald Trump and his Republican collaborators have wrought. High crimes and misdemeanors are an exhausting mix, even beyond reading tweets, counting lies, or comprehending clumsy, unprofessional actions. His slapdash and amateurish behavior even when dealing with critical circumstances include transactional decision-making in the absence of strategy, harshly criticizing and judging subordinates upon criteria only ambiguously given if at all, and failure to integrate available expert knowledge into decisions.

Most if not all senators and representatives of the president’s party would in normal times find his behavior deplorable and intolerable, creating an unacceptable endangerment of the republic. But that same party has been willing to carry Trump’s water all the way to the edge of autocracy, an edge that beckons Trump daily. I charge Republicans not with unpatriotic intent but with recklessness and political protectionism that together have the same worrisome effect.

The presidency requires proficiency in hiring and laying out performance expectations of numerous high-level managers who themselves must further delegate and set expectations. The number of levels in the federal government are far greater than in the largest of corporations, further complicated by entanglement of matters both political and managerial. Yet Trump’s managerial competence would be insufficient in even a very small organization. This has been true, of course, of other new presidents. However, in this case a self-professed claim to need no education (he knows “more than the generals”) renders his ignorance especially alarming. Further, he is a wellspring of blunders due to pathological narcissism, inability to admit mistakes, and being frequently unhinged over even slight opposition and personal challenges. Moreover, he fails to exhibit a moral center, an ethical base to palliate his otherwise deficient self-control and strained dealings with subordinates.

Voters often mistakenly assume that experience as a “business person” automatically includes managerial expertise. It does not. It does not particularly if management is exercised through several levels of organization (the Trump companies did not). Although managing even one level of subordinates is improved by skilled delegation ability, further levels demand it. That is reflected in the emphasis given by many management scholars to summarize management so similarly, to wit: “The art of getting things done through people”—Mary Parker Follet. “The art of getting things done through others and with formally organised [sic] groups.”—Harold Koontz. “I look for people who can get things done through other people.”—Sam Wyly.

Of interest in the Trump context, the next sentence in the Wyly quote is, “The most important thing for a good manager is that the people on his team feel like he or she has integrity.” That sentiment was also emphasized by “the father of American management,” Peter Drucker, who warned that a corrupt boss produces corrupt subordinates. Trump’s personality is given to rapid changes in directives, blaming others for his mistakes, expecting subordinates to protect him from his own quirks, and frequent unbalanced rage, and mendacity—in short, a lack of interpersonal integrity that produces great organizational stress and further proliferation of that shortcoming throughout lower levels.

For a constitutional democracy to work, honorable men and women, when elected, must not only maintain their personal integrity, but the integrity of the constitutional system and rule of law as well. The most perfect and clearly written broad commitments on paper—like our Constitution—are necessary but not sufficient, for they are unable to survive on their own. Ben Franklin’s warning (“a republic, if you can keep it”) requires officials’ deeds to studiously fit those words.

Still, even more destructive than a president’s inability to administer with precision through multiple levels, the most crucial irresponsibility would be to jeopardize the Constitutional integrity of the United States—that which protects us from becoming the tin-pot tyranny our Founders feared. Thoughtlessness about our founding document yields damage to the very basis of governmental roles at the top end of government structure, an impairment shockingly perpetrated by the Senate during the Trump presidency. The guiding consideration should not be whether Trump deserves impeachment and removal from office, but whether America deserves to have the integrity, wisdom, and transparency of government that its Constitution—if not violated in word or deed—provides.

As I posted here nine months ago [“Risking America,” Jan. 3, 2019], political disagreements about normal partisan politics are the sort that politicians regularly struggle with—like agriculture subsidies and military budgets. I’ll call those “event decisions” to separate them from “system decisions.” The latter constitute the framework of authority, roles, values, and philosophy within which all event decisions are made. Some event decisions are crucially important. All system decisions are.

It is critical for any actor or body to recognize when he, she or it drifts into system decision territory, for otherwise the system may be modified without due care. For example, if senators come to be engaged more as the president’s apologists or even the president’s enablers than is their the proper (that is, Constitutional) role, they will have initiated an unspoken alteration of that role, making an implicit system change absent the recognition of having doing so and the care such awareness would stimulate. When such carelessness constitutes an abandonment or inattention to its proper role, some feature or Constitutional protection will have gone unfulfilled, an important obligation uncovered.

Consequently, maintaining a “government of laws, not of men” can only work if the “men” involved constantly act with self-imposed fidelity to those laws. Failure in that allegiance assaults the roots of the republic. Deterioration in one branch’s work affects more than its own performance, but that of at least one other branch. The greater the deficiency, the more the resulting deterioration of the system as a whole, for weakening one strut of government causes untoward strengthening of another strut. The more the Executive Branch acquires unconstitutional strength, the greater is the risk of totalitarianism. On a smaller scale, Republican senators and representatives who find their voice only when they near retirement are indicators of a severely cowed Legislative Branch.

I am not contending here that the United States will descend into an actual dictatorship, only that a number of pre-dictatorship behaviors have already occurred and continue to occur, with no clear curbing of the trend. I’m not charging that Republican apologists for Trump want a dictatorship. I am saying that during Trump’s administration the party has been willing to risk innumerable assaults on the rule of law and on established norms of protecting the integrity of American government. Is that just a slight risk? Perhaps. But even a slight risk carries massive weight when the downside would be catastrophic.

Trump’s behavior beginning with 2016 has degraded further with each month. Remember when most people found Trump’s not being “presidential” to be his chief flaw? My, what naïve children American voters have been . . . and to watch his televised campaign events, a few million still are. What will be the next of his steps toward despotism? At each stage we’ve thought he had gone toward madness as far as he would, but each step only promised the next.

As the calendar moves us closer to the 2020 election, expect even further of his attacks on the America whose trustworthiness and thoughtfulness we and the world had come to expect, even depend on. What form will America’s deterioration take in the coming months? Americans have no reason to believe the current state of affairs will right itself without major alterations, largely by Republicans. We may be seeing early signs of that now, though at this stage Republicans are showing only sporadic, weak moves to save America from its president. Fox News is showing small reductions in its slavishness and misrepresentations. These changes must occur soon lest we move even closer to the point of no return from authoritarianism and Constitutional deterioration.

*   *     *     *

President Donald Trump and his subordinates comprise the most corrupt administration in the history of the U.S. presidency. As to our vaunted “checks and balances,” in the Legislative Branch, the Republican Party has seemed to have no limits to how far it would go in denying and covering up inept, unethical, indecent, dishonest, and dishonorable behavior of that administration or of itself. In short, the Republican party in the House and Senate, and obviously the White House, has endangered American security, refused to protect integrity of the ballot, taken aim against science, failed to correct lies spread by the White House, lying about then ignoring the Mueller Report, and other misdeeds.

I am happy to assume Republican senators and representatives care about their country, but since January 2017 they have acted as if they do not. Now, for the first time in history the United States has leaned toward authoritarianism. While the country needs the balancing effects of a respectable conservative party like we have had in the past, it is not clear that the present Republican Party—as degraded as it is—can rise to the challenge of avoiding further deterioration of governmental integrity, nor can it be trusted with any role in the federal establishment for possibly years to come.

 

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