Donald John’s Despotic Mindmeld

Television coverage of Trump’s rallies in recent days repeatedly brought to mind what a creepy, disdainful character he is, but it was followed by bewilderment: What on earth attracts persons who appear to be angry, childish adults to Trump’s stream of incoherence? Can they not see that he offers no solutions to whatever concerns them, nothing but inanities and whatever gets the louder cheers?

Most persons with an authentic interest in governance improvement are reluctant to express their prescriptions incased in simplistic shouting. Trump’s crowds, on the other hand, seem untroubled by the bizarre verbal torrent that issues without end from their mendacious authoritarian. It is as if they really don’t care that he can never be counted on for either truth or decency.

However, we can make an educated guess that Trumpers’ fascination for conspiracy theories is a good match for Trump’s own. Neither you nor I can know at a distance whether that is true, but we all too frequently are treated to Trump’s setting about his proud portrayal as Mr. Conspiracy Theorist, jumping from one unsubstantiated story to another, intentionally bestowing validation by virtue of the office we foolishly gave him. He seems naturally to exude an enticement for personality characteristics that match his own (or better, that match what they wish were their own), a powerful attraction not to sincerity, authenticity, modesty, or accuracy, but to bloviation, vanity, blaming, irresponsibility, and self-aggrandizement.

In other words, Trumpers may like Trump because they are like him or want to be. But there are better sources about this matter beyond my retired psychologist top-of-the-head reflections. You can find far greater understanding from writers (referenced below) whose command of autocracies, democracies-becoming-autocracies, and authoritarians who seize autocratic power while you and I slumber with pleasant dreams of “it can’t happen here.”

“It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.”  —James Madison, fourth U.S. president (1751-1836), “A Memorial and Remonstrance,” 1785

 

Unlike my recent posts on this topic, I will simply extract a number of points (not presented with the exactness of quotations unless so marked) from three authors relevant to this post, to wit:

Beware the one party state . . . “human nature is such that American democracy must be defended from Americans who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end.” [OT, p.27]

A would-be autocrat is more likely to become an autocrat depending in part on how firmly the established politicians oppose it. [HDD, p.8]

Citizens who are resentful or unsuccessful are more likely to feel attracted to authoritarianism than those who are not. [TOD, p.24]

Be wary of paramilitaries. “When men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh.” [OT, p.42]

America raised the likelihood of autocracy when in November 2016, it elected a president with a dubious allegiance to democratic norms.  Trump’s surprise victory was made possible not only by public disaffection but also by the Republican Party’s failure to keep an extremist demagogue within its own ranks from gaining the nomination. [HDD, p.8]

He/she rejects the constitution or expresses a willingness to violate it, or suggests a need for antidemocratic behaviors such as cancelling elections.

A politician is more likely to adopt authoritarian behaviors if:  [HDD pp. 23-27]

  • He/she describes their rivals as subversive, opposed to the existing constitutional order; baselessly describes their partisan rivals as criminals whose supposed violation of the law disqualifies them from full participation in politics.
  • He/she has any ties to armed gangs, paramilitary forces, militias, guerillas or other illicit violence; tacitly endorse violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it and punish it; supported laws or policies that restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation laws, or laws restricting protests.
  • He/she praised repressive measures taken by other governments in the past or elsewhere in the world; if extremist parties emerge as contenders.

 

Abbreviations used above refer to these books:

“HDD:” How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

“TD:” Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum.

“OT:” On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder.

(Additional books not referred to in this post may be found in recent posts concerned with autocracy.)

 

[JohnJustThinking is an irregular commentary by me (unless otherwise noted) on social, ethical, scientific, and non-partisan political, partisan political, and cultural interests. More than 230 essays have been posted since mid-2013, all accessible from any page. If you choose to be a Follower (there is no charge), you’ll be automatically notified with each new post.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

A vile man who falls ill is not less vile, he just then becomes a sick vile man

Few Americans wasted time hoping the coronavirus would finally catch up to President Invulnerable and his sizable number of recurring contacts. As to myself, neither will I devote any get-well wishes to the man whose moral recklessness has contributed to the virus’s ability to lead thus far to 7.5 million covid-19 cases, 4.9 million of whom recovered (fewer if we count the “long haulers”), .21 million deaths, and uncounted millions of persons whose economic pain has by no means been trivial. Almost certainly, he spread his virus-loaded breath even more on the very day he announced his first positive test.

Any worrying I do is reserved for persons who mistakenly assume their president has their best interests at heart. Many Americans are voluntarily wearing masks to protect others more than themselves. There’s no reason for the president to have less empathy than they. And with Trump’s faulty understanding about airborne viral transmission, many have been led toward practices that make them more vulnerable, not less. They’ve derisively laughed along with Trump in mockery of those who wear masks, treated distancing as silly and even dangerous, or were convinced their religion would save them. I’ve neither tears nor sympathy for Donald Trump, for his “strong flu” was self-imposed.

Even as late as a week ago I watched Mark Meadows, Chief of the White House Staff, say on camera the reason he didn’t have a mask on was that he’d tested negative that morning. I don’t for a minute think someone in his important position is unintelligent, though his statement was ridiculous. A test may be more or less accurate, but even if perfect, it isn’t remedial any more than a speedometer slows a vehicle’s speed. Consequently, making such an absurd remark reveals either a simple misunderstanding or some other factor, such as pleasing the boss. When other White House staff frequently make the same mistake, it appears more as if they’ve been admonished to do so. In any normal setting, I’d not arrive at so suspicious a conclusion. But we’ve learned that the White House is a setting where everything is played by Trumpian rules, such as minimal disagreement with  Trump’s decisions and using words more to obscure reality than to clarify it.

We’ve observed repeatedly that White House staff seem to consider wearing a mask to be burdensome if not a symbol of weakness. If asked why they are not wearing a mask, they pull one out of a pocket or purse and say proudly they have one “if needed.” I assume that means when in in close proximity with others or in the presence of persons known to have tested positive. When not normally wearing a mask, to do so hurriedly at these times is better than not. But it isn’t always possible to know these conditions quickly enough or to make safe assumptions about others, such as when a person walks into someone’s small office unannounced. I have been on maskless strolls through a park, for example, when surprised by a couple quietly overtaking me in a narrow walking area. I’m not meaning to advocate masks in the shower here, just pointing out that when a risk is great, the value of caution becomes even greater.

Those in Trump’s camp who slavishly seek to please him have for almost four years gone to extremes to rearrange reality to fit his egotistical construction of it. Even after the advent of Covid-19, they are expected to endanger their lives to fulfill his political wishes. Republicans not directly dependent on Trump have little or no excuse, for ostensibly they have the freedom to think for themselves. Unfortunately, Trump’s rallies exert a social pressure to leave one’s mask at home. Pretty clearly, disciples’ decibels at rallies indicate that they to exercise their freedom sparingly. As to Trump’s side of the equation, the screams of adoring fans shower him with too large a narcissistic drug for any other pleasure to compete; not even the best ice cream can lure an addict away from his heroin.

So I’ll not be sending a get-well card, nor praying for Trump’s speedy recovery. Those hopes I’ll reserve for persons with decency, caring, honesty, and a detectible caring for the United States and its people, not to mention seven billion human beings trying to help each other live in this often difficult world.

 

[JohnJustThinking is an irregular commentary by me (unless otherwise noted) on social, ethical, scientific, and non-partisan political, partisan political, and cultural interests. More than 230 essays have been posted since mid-2013, all accessible from any page. If you choose to be a Follower, you’ll be automatically notified with each new post.]

 

Posted in Politics | 15 Comments

What hath GoP wrought?

America’s Loser-in-Chief renders the challenge to whoever surpasses him as worst president in U. S. history insurmountable. His collection of scrambled oratory, stupidities, cruelties, mismanagement, international embarrassment, creative medical interventions, and simple meanness grow by the day. But what became his greatest goal—converting America from democratic republic to autocracy—is only steps away, virtually certain if he is still president on the afternoon of January 20.

Unfit to Serve

This month Bob Woodward adds yet another book to the list of  lies, cheating, and crimes. Accurately adding still more derogatory descriptions is easy, but I—who’ve  has erred as much as anyone in this regard—will make greater effort to minimize criticizing Donald Trump, for he is now and has been an ethically lost cause all along. In more than 35 essays in this blog (of 232 total) I’ve argued that Donald Trump is not only pathologically narcissistic and thoroughly unethical, but a material danger to the United States, the strength of democracy, and America’s place in the world. Perhaps his psychopathology forgivably drives him far beyond conscious purpose.

Viewed more broadly, there is little damage he has inflicted on this republic without the aid and comfort of the Republican Party. Most Republican Senators and Members of the House have gone so far as to violate their oaths of office in order to stay on Trump’s good side. They could have—and still could—rein him in multiple ways, though they continue to ignore or, worse, to join his treachery. After Trump exits the stage, look for their righteous conversion, resembling ex-leaders of post-communist Europe.

As I was preparing this post, columnist Jennifer Rubin beat me to the following numbing charges words with which I fully agree: “There are no innocent Republicans running for reelection to the House or Senate [italics mine; JC]. Their grievous misdeeds . . . were intentional. Their desire to maintain their good standing in the Trumpified Republican Party and avoid the wrath of President Trump’s deeply dishonest right-wing media allies overrode all considerations of decency, honesty and constitutional probity. ”Even when the House Impeachment Committee (majority Democrats) handed the Senate an easy choice between cowering and governing, all Republican Senators save one ducked behind their desks and voted for acquittal. Had Trump not shown everyone but the senate how crooked he is? I suppose not, for Mitch McConnell and the rest sheepishly granted Trump cover for whatever illegal, traitorous actions he might later commit. My, what brave patriots they were!

Trump’s further opportunity for misuse of his office came soon after Mitch McConnell and his colleagues—by acquitting Trump—got their opportunity to do likewise, thereby confirming that Trump could do whatever he wished (ready for that shot on Fifth Avenue?). The coronavirus arrived within days, furnishing fresh opportunities in the next few months for the Senators and Trump to demonstrate how many coronavirus deaths can be shrouded by the expression, “unfit for office,” both his and theirs.

Accountability for that and four years of misgovernment includes a significant amount of pandemic culpability. When the US coronavirus performance is compared to more effective countries, Trump and therefore his Republican protectors are obviously responsible for the many unnecessary deaths. Trump tried to protect himself by a constant coverup about how the US was doing a better job than anyone else. Trump is directly responsible for a confused and feckless federal/state effort that makes America look (and be) amateurish. Further, he contaminates expert opinion with political factors and partisanship, causing the country to suffer a worse economic condition, widespread illness, and unnecessary deaths.

I need to make clear that I don’t think the Republicans I’m shaming ran for office with intent to endure, much less cause, an unprecedented degree of White House sleaziness, or to be accessories to presidential desires for autocracy. Yet, they accept a subservience to Trump at the expense of their own constitutional responsibilities. Misgovernance cannot but cause even further mismanagement, miring governance in culpability under current conditions for a significant amount of our pandemic failure.

And pandemic death. The coronavirus deaths—beyond 200,000; possibly twice that by January—occurred while elected Republicans at the Congressional level were either silent or actively loyal . . . not to the United States, not even to the Republican Party, but to Donald Trump. President Nero fiddled with crank treatments, played political favorites among governors, and complained unendingly that Covid-19’s source being in China proves definitively that he is not responsible.

Except that he is.

As are Republicans who eulogize him in return for electoral morsels from his table.

 

 

 

[JohnJustThinking is an irregular commentary by me (unless otherwise noted) on social, ethical, scientific, and non-partisan political, partisan political, and cultural interests. More than 230 essays have been posted since mid-2013, all accessible from any page. If you choose to be a Follower, you’ll be automatically notified with each new post.]

 

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Handing a gun to a fool 2

The topic of “Handing a gun to a fool“ was published as my post of January 8, 2019. It is republished here as “Handing a gun to a fool 2” with no changes except the addition of new coverage on the same issue by a CBS/Ted Koppel interview today. That interview, titled by CBS “Limits of Presidential Power” is a timely (and more informed!) continuation of my post of from 18 months ago, I chose to include it for the benefit of anyone who wishes to see the more resourced an updated comments a Kopple interview could include. Consequently, what begins immediately below is the 2019 post, then followed as a final piece by the Koppel interview.

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.

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.

 

Alarming secrecy of unchecked presidential powers

This is a remarkably pertinent and timely Ted Koppel interview presented today by CBS Sunday Morning titled “Rewriting the Limits of Presidential Powers,” [https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rewriting-the-limits-of-presidential-powers/.] I found CBS’s choice of topic and Ted Koppel’s interview so impressively on target that I repeated my watching/reading until the audio ‘jammed.’ I tried to fix what I thought might be my problem rather than CBS’s, and I found the program could now not be accessed. Thinking that to be puzzling led me to save the written version in case it, too, were to be lost or deleted. Access did later return. (For the unusual flicker of paranoia, I apologize!) I am indebted both to CBS News and Mr. Koppel for the competence and integrity of each.

  •  “Rewriting the Limits of Presidential Powers”
  • Interviews led by Ted Koppel
  • The power of the president is enormous – and this president is not bashful in describing powers that go well beyond simple declarations. There are, it’s true, some restraints on most presidential authority, but those might not apply to all the president’s powers. We can’t know for sure, but what the president appears to have been referring to are his presidential emergency action documents, often referred to as PEADs.
  • “Sunday Morning” special contributor Ted Koppel asked, “Do you know what they are, now that you’ve heard of them? “The Brennan Center research that Senator Hart referred to has been spearheaded by Elizabeth Goitein, the co-director of its national security program, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.
  • “These are essentially presidential orders that are drafted in anticipation of a range of hypothetical, worst-case scenarios,” Goitein said.
  • “Only vaguely, due to research done at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School,” Hart said. “What these secret powers are, apparently, based on the research, is suspension of the Constitution, basically. And that’s what’s worrying, particularly on the eve of a national election.”
  • “Even though I’ve had security clearances for the better part of 50 years and been in and out of national security matters during that half-century, I had never heard of these ‘secret powers,'” said former Senator Gary Hart.
  • As Mr. Trump stated in March, “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.”
  • In April, when discussing guidelines to be issued to governors about reopening states during the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump said, “When somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be – it’s total.”
  • The alarming scope of the president’s emergency powers (“The Atlantic)”Well, not exactly,” Goitein replied. “And what’s alarming about that is that no one really knows what the limits of those claimed authorities might be, because they are often developed and kept in secret.”
  • “They originated in the Eisenhower administration as part of an effort to try to plan for a potential Soviet nuclear attack,” Goitein said. “But since then, they’ve expanded to address other types of emergencies as well. No presidential emergency action document has even been released, or even leaked. Not even Congress has access to them, which is really pretty extraordinary when you consider that even the most highly-classified covert military and intelligence operations have to be reported to at least eight Members of Congress, the ‘Gang of Eight.’ “
  • “Exactly,” said Goitein. “Congress is not aware of these documents, and from public sources we know that at least in the past these documents have purported to do things that are not permitted by the Constitution – things like martial law and the suspension of habeas corpus and the roundup and detention of people not suspected of any crime.”  “Every administration, including Democratic administrations, has revised and updated these powers. I started contacting friends of mine, of both parties, who had been in senior positions, and I got two responses, or one response which is, ‘I’ve never heard of these powers’ (and these are people in senior cabinet positions), or, I got no response at all. And it was the no-response-at-all from people I knew that began to worry me. Because there not only is secrecy around these powers, there is mystery around the secrecy. “Under the National Emergencies Act of 1976 alone, the president can declare a national emergency just by signing a proclamation.” And most recently, [he] has declared that he may need to delay the election, which would be an emergency authority that doesn’t even exist. So, I think you have to be very concerned.
  • “John Yoo is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. While serving at the Justice Department after 9/11, Yoo drafted the memo that justified the use of “enhanced interrogation” of terrorism suspects. “I am not allowed to say whether I have or not,” he laughed. “Yes, that’s fair to say,” Yoo replied. “The Justice Department and the office I worked in would review the legality of the PEADs because they would draw on presidential powers and Congressional powers delegated to them.” “‘Cause you never know what the emergency is gonna be,” said Yoo. “So, these PEADs and similar contingency planning documents, when we look back historically at them, sometimes they seem comic.” “Oh, forgive me. I don’t mean this whole question is comic,” Yoo said. “And you are right, Ted.  There’s dangers to that, and we’ve seen in our history where presidents have gone too far. I guess there’s a balance, and I guess the founders, they balanced in favor of giving the president that kind of ability to face emergencies, even understanding that a badly-intentioned president might abuse those powers.”
  • Yoo said, “That’s why the framers created the presidency, because it could act quickly. I would want President Obama or President Biden to have the power to respond quickly to a hurricane or a terrorist attack, just as I would want President Trump to.” “I’d be the first to admit that, in emergencies, the executive branch can make mistakes, and that’s sometimes the price of swift action,” Yoo replied.
  • “Congress is more likely to get things right. The founders thought that. But Congress is too large and too slow to act decisively.”
  • Gary Hart doesn’t think that goes far enough: “I want them public, because they affect the freedom and liberty and rights of every American citizen,” he said.
  • “I can’t say it any better. This is a blueprint for dictatorship. Now, I think the more attention it gets, the less likely those in power are going to use them,” Hart replied. “This goes to the core of our country and our founding. And if there is what amounts to the capability to suspend our Constitution, that’s not just another issue. That’s serious.
  • “Keep in mind, the current, incumbent president has declared seven national emergencies. And he has stated repeatedly that he has more power than most people know about.”
  • Koppel said, “We have so much publicity, Senator Hart, we have so many different voices being raised in anger, in outrage, in fury, I’m not sure what a few more voices raising an issue like this, what impact that’s going to have.” Having said that, Yoo would be comfortable giving a few select Members of Congress classified access to the secret PEADs.
  • “That’s fairly benign, John,” said Koppel. “But what if what the president was planning to do was the suspension of habeas corpus? How would you feel about it then?”
  • Goitein said, “These PEADs undergo periodic revision. And we know that the Department of Justice is in the middle of one of these periodic reviews and revisions. So, we have to imagine what the Trump administration might be doing with these documents and what authorities this administration might be trying to give itself.”
  • “The notion that there are executive powers based on something that has never been vetted by Congress, giving the president almost limitless powers to do what he needs to do in the event of a crisis, that’s not funny to me; that’s scary,” Koppel said.
  • Just a couple of weeks ago, Yoo was at the White House discussing executive power with President Trump. “Let me put it this way: You were at the Justice Department. Presumably the Justice Department would’ve had to deal with these PEADs if a president wanted to implement one?”
  • Yoo was asked by Koppel, “Just to reassure our viewers a little bit, John, you’ve seen these PEADs?”
  • Which brings us back to those mysterious Presidential Emergency Action Documents:
  • Cole said, “We’ve got a president who, in his first week in office, essentially declared an emergency to ban Muslims from coming into the country. More recently, [he] declared a widely understood to be a fake emergency in order to build a border wall when Congress told him they would not give him the funds to create a border wall.
  • “I think I know as much about the PEADs as any other American citizen, which is almost nothing at all,” said David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union – and he is concerned about the vast array of presidential emergency powers that we do know about.
  • Hart said, “The reason these documents are secret is, for 11 administrations, people in power did not want to frighten the American people, or to demonstrate what might happen to their constitutional rights and liberties.
  • A 1967 memo from William Cornelius Sullivan of the FBI alludes to a PEAD which authorizes the suspension of habeas corpus. “This is a drastic program set up under the assumption that drastic steps will be necessary to protect the national security of this country so that efforts can be made to remove from circulation individuals determined to be potentially dangerous to the national defense and public safety of the United States by engaging in espionage, sabotage and/or subversion in the event an attack is launched against this country,” Sullivan wrote.  
  • “You’re saying they are not consulting with Congress?” Koppel asked.
  • Goitein says what little we do know about PEADs comes from references to them in other documents, some of which are now declassified.
  • Koppel asked, “Several times during his administration, President Trump has made allusions to secret powers that he has that we don’t know about. Is he making that up?”

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

American autocracy?

In a number of previous posts I’ve lamented that America has begun a grievous transformation from democratic republic toward an unplanned, largely unnoticed autocracy. My reason for concern about the deterioration of our 132 year old republic has built up during the Trump administration, the two year Republican hegemony of Senate and House, followed by a majority in the Senate for most of an additional two years. Inasmuch as this post concerns momentous damage to America, I need to state a proviso: I have no reason to believe that Republicans in the Senate and House or in the Republican Party more broadly had or have any intention to reorder American politics into an autocratic state. Further, I do not mean to cast aspersions on anyone’s fidelity to the United States with the exception of President Trump. Short of such explicit intent, however, I do allege that most elected Republicans at the national level are guilty of political negligence and inordinate careerism, repeatedly choosing the president’s favor over the good of the country. Presidential historian Jon Meacham said it better than I: “Republicans sold their soul to President Trump . . . and the check bounced.”

I promised in my last post (August 2) to examine where we are now, what may be next, and how can it be avoided. To do so, I’ve been obligated to go beyond my limited knowledge in order to learn from others. I sought authors whose wide international knowledge of autocracy aborning might shed light on the American experience and where it might head. My task was to read about that deterioration at different times and locations. I sought insights that might inform us in the here and now, more-or-less in the way a scientific theory can enlighten the understanding of specific events. Books that helped me are listed at the end of this post. Because various authors shared similar findings, I have only identified quotations when findings specific to one author or a particularly meaningful wording helped make understanding easier. This is an opinion post, though—I hope—with reasonably chosen substantiation; it is not intended to have the exhaustive treatment of of either publishing or graduate school standards.

Theory

I found very little that qualifies scientifically as a “theory” of encroaching autocracy. One important aim of fields of study is to discover whether there are similarities among them despite differing circumstances. The closest to theory I found may come from the work of Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, Carl Schmitt, who conceptualized a phenomenon he called a “state of exception.” When an emergency, “a singular event that shakes up the accepted order of things,” the would-be autocrat, to save the day or exhibit leadership, “creates new, extralegal rules, addressing the emergency. The leader thereby amasses enough power to declare a ‘state of exception,’ gaining even greater, unchecked power. The change becomes irreversible and, in effect, makes the state of exception permanent,” and the autocrat firmly entrenched. The German example stretched from the 27 February 1933 Reichstag fire until Hitler’ death.

Other histories that exhibit all or part of Schmitt’s state of exception theory include the December 1934 murder of the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, then used as a pretext for a state of exception. Another was Putin’s reliance on “a succession of catastrophic events to create irreversible exceptions, for example, a 1999 series of apartment bombings in Moscow and cities in southern Russia, the tragedy that enabled Putin to proclaim that he could summarily execute those deemed ‘terrorists’” and also becoming an excuse for a new war in Chechnya. Happily, though, Schmitt’s prediction of events in Russia were not as catastrophic as World War II.

“Insurance” against evolving autocracy

“We like to believe the fate of government lies in the hands of its citizens. If the people hold democratic values, we think, democracy will be safe. This view is wrong. It assumes too much from a democracy”—to Arendt “the people’ cannot change at will the kind of government they oppose.” For example, it’s hard to find any evidence of majority support for authoritarianism in recent Venezuela. Adjudged by the 1998 Latinobarómetro Survey, 60% of Venezuelans signified agreement with “Democracy is always the best form of government” versus 25% who chose “Under some circumtances, an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one.” Yet Hugo Chávez was elected by a majority vote. Even more telling was the 1920 experience in Germany and Italy. Before the Nazis and Fascists seized power, less than 2 percent of the population were party members, and neither party achieved anything close to a majority vote in free and fair elections. Rather, solid electoral majorities opposed Hitler and Mussolini—before both men achieved power with the support of political insiders blind to the danger of their own ambition.”

Not only is the democracy-to-autocracy sequence found widely, it is obvious that the “it can’t happen here” syndrome is merely faux consolation. It happened in otherwise satisfied democracies around the world where citizens’ uninformed blindness sought not solutions but comforting assurance. Example countries other than those above include Brazil, Peru, Hungary, and others. Unfortunately, having been accustomed to democracy does not protect from a decline into autocracy. “Given the right condition,” summarized Arendt, “any society can turn against democracy.” There is no reason to think the United States is exempt from that conclusion, much as we believe our exceptionalism protects us—a hope as fleeting as that Trump would become “presidential” or our hopeful reassurance to each other that American institutions are stronger than any one candidate or even any one president.

The autocrat him or herself

Many authoritarians can be easily recognized before they come to power. Hitler led a failed putsch; Chávez led a failed military uprising; Mussolini’s Blackshirts engaged in paramilitary violence; Peron helped lead a successful coup two years before running for president. Of course, not every strong leader is bound to become an autocrat. Various authors cited these characteristics: disdain for excellence even to the extreme of kakistocracy (government by the least qualified); failure to distinguish the difference between fact and personally generated fiction, referred to by Gessen as “unmoored from lived reality;” use of absurd lies not as reflections of idiocy but demonstration of power over others; a monomaniacal focus on being seen as unerring and all-powerful; and disregard for human life.

However, there is continued work at finding more organized and insightful conceptual framing. On this, Juan Linz seems to have led the way. Building on his work, Levitsky and Ziblatt developed four key indicators of authoritarian behavior: We should worry when a politician: (1) rejects in word or action the democratic rules of the game, (2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, (3) tolerates or encourages violence, 4) is willing to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Within each of those categories are further subcategories with more specificity. Here are a selected few: (a) attempts to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example, by refusing to accept credible electoral results; (b) baselessly describes partisan rivals as criminals, whose supposed violation of the law—or potential to do so—disqualifies them from full participation in the political arena; (c) tacitly endorses violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it and punish it; (d) threatens to take legal action against critics in rival parties, civil society, or the media.

Apart from the personal characteristics of someone who is, has been, or is likely to be an autocrat (or any one of its synonyms), the process by which a country risks autocracy, becomes a candidate for autocracy, and finally becomes a full-fledged autocracy should be made more clear. Gessen “coined the term ‘mafia state,’ and described it as a specific, clan-like system in which one man distributes money and power to all other members.” More to the point here, Gessen developed the concept of “autocratic transformation, a process that proceeds in three stages: [1st] autocratic attempt, [2nd] autocratic breakthrough, and [3rd] autocratic consolidation.”

Existing leaders’ influence

It would be hard to identify influencers more guilty in our current state than the McConnel-led U.S. Senate. In fact, the Republican Party in general fits the description. I will not say more than I already have in multiple posts about their complicit behavior in terms of allowing, enabling, and actively supporting America’s own chief executive-cum-autocrat. Finally, after backing Trump through many iterations of his terrible behavior and incompetence, Republicans—after basically patting him on the back with an impeachment aquittal—reacted appropriately when Trump floated the proposal that this November’s election should be postponed (and, of course, extending his presidency). Even the worst of Trump’s enablers in Congress dismissed out of hand the idea of delaying the election. But Trump’s suggestion was more than just imbecilic. Steven G. Calabresi, a founder of the Federalist Society, a conservative national lawyers’ group of which he’s long been a member, nailed it: “Trump’s suggestion was ‘fascist.’ It was the ploy of a would-be dictator, albeit an inept one.” George T. Conway, Republican opinion writer and organizer of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump lobbying group, added that Trump “should have been removed [from office] already twice over, for obstructing the Russia investigation and extorting Ukraine. His effort to sabotage a democratic system he swore to protect only confirms his unfitness for the job.”

 Readings

This post is the result of further inquiry into the general nature of tyranny, totalitarianism, dictatorship, and autocracy, specifically to examine the transformation into one of these forms from previous democratic republics such as the United States. I had promised further comment on such transformations in my August 2, 2020, post. I obtained and read, in no particular order: How Democracies Die (2018) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt; Surviving Autocracy (2020) by Masha Gessen; On Tyranny (2017) by Timothy Snyder; The Captive Mind (1951) by Czeslaw Milosz; The Origins of Totalitarianism (1978) by Hannah Arendt; Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020) by Anne Applebaum; The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (1978) by Juan Linz.

I recommend these books as extensive sources of what accompanies democracies as they begin to weaken and teeter on the precipice that marks an almost irretrievable decline into autocracy. I regret that time and space prevent me from utilizing as much richness as these volumes contain.

May the United States of America avoid this sequence.

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

Batshit crazy, the stupid party (correction of previous post)

This post begins by reaching back to March 15, 2016. My post in this blog that day was “Batshit crazy, the stupid party.” The quote that became my title was an indelicate criticism of the state to which the Republican Party had fallen, a phrase uttered not by Democrats, but by prominent Republicans including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Gov. Bobby Jindal. Conservative political historian Matt K. Lewis lamented that although conservatism used to have “big, thoughtful ideas,” it had “lost its intellectual bearings.” Former conservative political historian later Max Boot said the Trump surge “proves every bad thing Democrats have ever said about the GOP is basically true.”

In this post, Part One  is what I published in 2016, approaching five years ago. Trump was not a factor in GOP behavior then. But Republicans’ behavior (and regrettably, some of Democrats’) was quite enough to weaken our republic in bits and pieces, loosening its commitment to roles and responsibilities demanded by the Constitution. The very brief Part Two looks at what Constitutional irresponsibility has brought us to and, in general, where America should go next.

Part One

I don’t think deterioration is unique to the Republican party, nor even the combination of the party and its tethered television outlet, Fox News. I don’t revere everything Pres. Obama has done, nor do I criticize everything Pres. George Bush did. Somewhat allied with Lewis, however, I do consider that the Republican party has been in decline since possibly the 1960s and surely since the 1980s, with a further marked descent since 2000. It is not the first political party to get lots of mileage out of untruths. Esteemed Democrat JFK won the presidency due in part to his damning, though inaccurate charge that that his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, had allowed a terrifying missile disadvantage vis-a-vis the USSR.

But I have additional motivation with respect to the Republican party: I fear that the US without a competent opposition to Democrats is a less robust, less philosophically muscular country. However, to my great regret, the current Republican party has forfeited that role by increasingly allying itself with the influences of xenophobia, bigotry, paranoia, and anti-science. (On a given issue, I might agree or disagree with a Republican position.) We can find small mindedness, short-term focus, careerism, fudging, and spinning, along with problems of agency in politicians of both parties. Each party condemns the other about actions for which it itself is guilty, for example, in recent years we’ve seen the reversal of which party is on which side of the Senate’s cloture rule.

Both parties stoop to intentionally quoting statements out of context in their arguments. For years Republicans have kept up an incessant drum beat of lies about Obama’s Democratic administration despite their being simply untrue, such as Obama’s “apology tour” or Obamacare’s inclusion of death panels. Neither was true, but the drum beat was too energizing to sacrifice to mere truth. In my opinion, however, while I’d not proclaim the Democratic party blameless, for the past fifteen years Republican conduct has been the most shameful.

Of course, bad things happen in every administration. It’s never difficult to find things to criticize and well-deserved aspersions to cast. Unfortunately, it is hard to assess those aspersions, since the honesty of both parties may be in question and any issue’s importance may be misrepresented. As to importance, the rule seems to be that any act of the opposition that can be shown to be shady or questionable becomes important regardless of how trivial it is. What we can know is that choosing which charges to make and how crucial to say they are can never be trusted as unbiased and proportional.

Democrats, for example, would charge that the unending Benghazi investigations may have revealed unfortunate or unacceptable behaviors, but compared to George Bush’s plunging the Middle East into a complex, extensive, and costly war is like comparing a skin rash to cancer. But whatever the wrongdoings that might be discovered about Benghazi, is it not curious that Republican elected officials have investigated the skin rash with a righteous fervor they never exhibited with respect to the cancer? They apparently value their role in making partisan points greater than their obligation as public servants, the role to which they were elected and for which they took an oath. All taken together, there is nothing done by the Obama administration or the Democratic party since the start of the century that comes close to Republican misdeeds.

Republicans have evolved into the anti-science party (see my post “Scientists (that’s plural!) define science,” August 19, 2013), substituting political judgment for scientific consensus whenever ignorance might be courted. They have reduced biology and climate science to political issues. Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin would have been right at home, having their highly disciplined truth-finding judged by magistrates and priests. Federal scientific advisory committees have been diluted with non-scientist Republicans beginning as early as the George Bush administration, in an attempt to avoid any “unacceptable facts,” hardly the action of a party interested foremost in facts rather than dogma. Congressional hearings carefully select outlier scientists to corroborate political positions instead of the reverse.

The party has dishonored an earlier history of substantive concepts and those “intellectual bearings” Matt Lewis mentioned: its mistaken belief that blocking ideas constitutes producing ideas, to risking the country’s financial health for small partisan victories, to treating compromise and playing by the rules as unnecessary, to outright lies and deception, and recently to conducting “debates” as if reruns of the Jerry Springer Show. Pity. The Republican party (along with unaffiliated conservatives) was at one time a party of political concepts that gave us William F. Buckley, Morton Blackwell, and—to go back further in the history of conservative thought—Edmund Burke and a number of America’s Founders themselves. It is not necessary for either Republicans or Democrats to agree with these thinkers, but it is important to recognize what is lost when the lowest common denominator of judgment and intellect replaces them. Today’s Republican party has given us George Bush, Sarah Palin, and Fox News clown Glenn Beck among other intellectual leaders.

Disinformation is a political strategy, one that hampers citizens’ ability to make rational decisions in complex matters. Millions of conservatives, sustained and abetted by the party, carried the torch of disinformation by spreading preposterous claims about Barack Obama and Democrat officials. I have reviewed many of these, often taking time to check their authenticity, sometimes engaging the senders. If anything was more pronounced than the implausible rumors, it was the attitude of senders that seemed to be if the farfetched claims aided their cause, then accuracy mattered little or none.

Did Democrats act as if everything George Bush did was wrong? Unwilling to limit their criticisms to only the obvious and massive mistakes, some Democrats did just that. It is a human characteristic to slip into unfair criticisms and can be found in any party and about any party. I have known Democrats, for example, to act as if Bush’s time at his ranch was a dereliction of duty, just as inconsequential as similar charges Republicans have made about Obama. The difference is that in the past seven years, the Republican party raised unwarranted criticism and counterfactual deceptions to an art form. When I watch the angry, shouting, sometimes violent behavior at a Donald Trump rally, I see people understandably angry due to their own real pain and fear, but also misinformed by the Republican falsehoods. Obama is a Muslim. Obama wasn’t really born a citizen. Obama is ripping American apart. Obama is a socialist. Obama is responsible for divisions in the country. Obama ignores the Constitution.

Although the Fox News faithful have been shown to be less informed about national and international events, you can be sure they are certain about where blame lies for any problem that comes up. No one seems to care whether the stories are accurate or “fair and balanced,” just that they fit fans’ brain receptors like a drug. Years of such aided ignorance brought the nation almost far enough to pave the way for Obama’s defeat four years ago. We shall see if doubling down on similar disinformation and innuendo will usher a Republican into the White House this year. And that brings me to this year’s debates.

The unbelievable antics of Republican party candidates for president are, well, beyond belief. Continued descent into Jerry Springer Show politics brings us closer to its becoming the new normal. We have already developed an inability to grasp how disastrous it could be for the globe’s most powerful country to toy with political psychosis. Observers outside the US have reason to worry about so powerful a nation exhibiting paranoia and anti-intellectualism. While the Democratic contenders fight it out almost totally on policy issues, their Republican counterparts conduct a verbal slugfest. At times, they’ve seemed to be trying to out-Christian each other (see my post “Democrats vs. theocrats,” January 30, 2016), to out-condemn “political correctness” in each other (see my post “Political correctness,” April 20, 2014), and to out-shout each other with sins of Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Do they debate policies? Yes, somewhat, though there is a tendency only to bring up issues that enable an anti-Obama political point to be made. In any event, grownups are in short supply. I wonder if the candidates, if asked, would say their performance adds to the vaunted American exceptionalism or detracts from it (see my post “American exceptionalism, American bloviation,” November 11, 2015).

Let’s turn to another drama I call “A Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.” Due to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the Republican party has to deal with more than its embarrassing primaries behavior. A less conservative justice than Scalia will change the tilt of the court for years. Understandably irritating to Republicans is that the sitting president has the job of nominating a replacement and the job of the Senate is to “advise and consent.” There is no Constitution provision that excuses assigned duties just because a party doesn’t care to perform. The country was titillated or shocked (depending on party), by the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announcement that, despite the Constitutional obligation, the Senate would simply not do its job; that is, even if Obama faithfully performs, the Senate will not. This irresponsible action—supported by most Republicans in Congress—is not just a matter of disagreement on some policy decision, but far worse. It is an intentional change in the Constitutional rules, as if a football team unilaterally changes the rules to its benefit during the game.

(McConnell, as Republican leader, famously declared at the beginning of Obama’s first term that the “number one goal” of Republicans was to make Obama a “one-term president.” Funny, one would think any party’s main goal would have something to do with fulfilling the responsibilities of governing, in fact to perform so well that its political chances are increased honestly. (What happened to the concept of “loyal opposition”? Republican Congressional behavior after that point was, in fact, consistent with its less-than-patriotic goal.)

Republicans’ stated justification for this kind of contemptable action varies, but is often rather transparent. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley compared Obama to King George III—for his ostensible “executive overreach,” in any event also a tactic of Bush. Grassley hadn’t noticed that. Senator John Cornyn said that if Obama nominates someone, Senate Republicans will make “a piñata” of the nominee—that said with no idea who the nominee will be! Moreover, said Cornyn, “I don’t think the voters are really interested in seeing the ideological balance of the court changed for the next 30 years by a lame duck president.” Of course, it is not “voters,” but Republicans who might feel that way. Cornyn has no idea what voters want and doesn’t care. Nor does it matter. McConnell and his colleagues have decided that no president—no, this president—should be allowed a nominee in the last year of his (or her) term.

Compounding the dishonor, the Republican establishment began a rumor that refraining from nomination in a president’s final year is a time-honored practice. It is not. This tactic should not surprise us, for the right wing of House Republicans has acted that way since early victories of the Tea Party. Lying and obstructionism, not governing, have become an acceptable theme of political leadership. Authoritative repetition substitutes for truthfulness until the lie is believed as truth; that is closer to 1984 than is comfortable.

We’re at a dangerous and embarrassing position. It is dangerous because the political machinery, at least on the Republican side, is more engaged in its hyper-partisanship than doing its job for the country. It is embarrassing because the United States, the self-described indispensable country, is disgracing itself at the highest levels with uncivil and childish antics, wallowing in incompetence at facing and resolving diverse opinions, and shunning the science which has contributed to our ascent. This may turn out just to be a bad period, one in which we recover from humiliating political freefall as actually has happened before (e.g., the Jefferson/Adams campaign). But leaving that recovery to chance is excruciating [END OF 2016 POST HERE], frightening, and irresponsible.

Part Two

Two years later, on June 16, 2015 Donald John Trump, host of an NBC reality show, “The Apprentice,” memorably descended an escalator in his New York Fifth Avenue tower to announce his candidacy for the 2016 Republican nomination for president. He had considered that long-shot move for 27 years. His winning would be impossible . . . until the unexpected happened.

Fewer than 43 months have gone by since January 20, 2017 when Donald Trump became president—though never became presidential. The Republican party dismissed one clue after another as Trump distorted the presidency, overlooked the equality of Constitutional Branches, misrepresented and lied about facts, and bullied the Senate into impotence. Month by month Republican senators became his cheering chorus, forsaking their vows and dishonoring their Constitutional responsibilities. This formerly proud “greatest deliberative body in the world”—symbolically the “First Branch of American government” due to its placement in the Constitution—turned much of its lawful authority over to the unfit president who would use their constituents against them. The august, 232 year old office of President of the United States has been tainted, its integrity sapped by a hollow man and his accomplices who despite their vows espoused and defended his many perfidies (see my post “Trying an impeached president,” January 20, 2020). The office that formerly could “make the man,” this internationally respected office has become at least for now—with Republican blessing—diminished to the level of a single incompetent, narcissistic, unethical, nonempathetic, and autocratic man in only 3½ years. Indeed, this man has “made the office” to his liking. The United States Presidency has been egregiously cheapened.

Next

The nation is gripped in the tragedies of a runaway pandemic, tropical storm Isaias, economic disaster, and civil unrest over racial injustice (confronted by armed, Trump-ordered forces). This post has dealt with how I saw circumstances in the United States three to four years ago, circumstances that set the stage for what I wish to address briefly in my next post. Where are we now? What may be next? How can it be avoided? I’ll not cover those questions in detail nor with informed, predictive accuracy, being perfectly prophetic is far beyond me. However, I can assure you that my next post will be far shorter than this one, but much more important.

 

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

John Lewis: character matters

My wife and I awoke to news that Congressman John Robert Lewis, a hero of the Civil Rights movement, had died in the night. An indefatigable warrior for racial equality and common decency, John Lewis had kept up his struggle through many adversities until cancer decided he’d given enough. Dignitaries and regular people from around the globe quickly responded with earnestly couched appreciation more than petty condolences. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany sent White House condolences by mid-morning; Trump, who was not at the White House, sent a briefer one in late morning: “Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he [sic] and his family.”

The White House flag had been lowered to half staff. (He’s learned some since Senator McCain’s death.) The content and timing of Trump’s condolence message compared to others was obvious. Trump had been offended by Lewis, I understand, not long after his November 2016 win. That got us to thinking about the vast differences between the two men, both in personal attributes and in how unlike the differences they made in their country and internationally. 

One is driven by seeking and collecting personal grievances. One was driven by the race-related grievances of others. 

One is frequently angry with and hurtfully demeaning of others. One was driven by unacknowledged systemic racism in America.

One has an extreme need for personal affirmation and recognition. One focused not on credit, but on relief of others’ suffering.

One was born on 3rd base, pretending he’d hit a home run. One began life literally in cotton fields, scratching for survival.

One is unconcerned about being truthful, just being believed. One spoke the truth, even when difficult, as a way of life.

One is not prone to close, interpersonal relationships. One connected sincerely and flexibly with others.

One is haughty and self-centered, “knowing” more than anyone. One had deep expertise in racial justice with no need to brag.

One sees the world as zero-sum and he must win. One sought cooperation, strong but often gentle and reserve.

One is stiff, can’t let his hair down lest his mask drop. One had a sense of humor and fun “happy dance” without concern.

One often exhibits anger and “putdowns.” One more often exhibited love even to his antagonists.

When a person with the characterological integrity of John Lewis walks in a world of smallness, fear, and animosity, the rest of us have the opportunity to rise above ourselves, borrowing from his or her depth. Not just American blacks or Americans in general, but human beings everywhere. We are profoundly privileged to have known him.

Thanks to my wife, Miriam Carver, who helped me this morning to translate some of our sadness into examination of these thoughts and some of our experience in short conversations with John Lewis that we’ve been so honored to have had. 

 

Posted in Morality, Politics | 2 Comments

Trusting a paranoid presidency

President Trump, predictably paranoid, predictably crazy, predictably narcissistic, continues to grow more bizarre as he fears a loss November 3. His in-bred dread of being seen as “a loser” may be so powerful that his disastrous effect on America may exceed what he has already wrought. Given the extent of his malfeasance in office, peppered with inaccuracies and deceptions, even greater malperformance is more likely than not. Making the risk of long term damage to the country more grave, of course, is that Republicans in the Senate chose three years ago to abdicate their check-and-balance constitutional role.

Whatever further destruction to America he is to cause, their oversight provides negligible assurance that he—and therefore they—can be counted on to maintain appropriate international relations, safeguard national security, lead our way out of civic unrest, organize a national response to coronavirus, strengthen the rule of law, and achieve as much economic vitality as possible.

So far Trump, and therefore the Senate, have failed on each of these; so he stumbles on with his dangerous mixture of civic evil and incompetence. Thus are they locked together, but not in ways the Constitution prescribes. Their dysfunctional interlinking requires that neither fulfill their legal obligations. Therefore, Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans are guilty as accessories to Trump’s disloyalty, betrayal, and shameful conduct of office.

So far Trump, and therefore the Senate, have failed on each of these, as he stumbles on with his dangerous mixture of evil and incompetence. Thus are they locked together, but not in ways the Constitution prescribes. Their dysfunctional interlinking requires that neither fulfill their legal obligations. So it is that Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans are guiltily as accessories to Trump’s disloyalty, betrayal, and shameful conduct of office.

Four years of unending exposure to Trump’s pathological conduct has inured us to his frequent flaws and dizzy language; we simply fail to react as we once did to gross indecencies and stupid conclusions. Sometimes it is virtually impossible to tell his lying from his absurdity. Consequently, one must assume every time he opens his mouth, yet another untruth is going to be ejected. Whether his gushing verbal discharge arises from either lack of integrity or mental ability is moot. We don’t need to know the intricacies of his fevered brain to reject his impulse about putting bleach in our bodies, his prescription of hydroxychloroquine, or to extract whatever might accidentally make sense in his wacky verbal wanderings through mixed topics like this week’s campaign rally posing as a press conference.

What may be important to know, however, is whether his madness is increasing due to his being stressed into possible breakdown by the coming electoral threat. All indicators appear to show it is probable that former Vice President Biden will win. But Trump’s own behavior and the behavior of his seamier acolytes, make tampering with the election process a possibility. I can’t say Trump would do that or conspire with his minions to do so—though frankly I feel quite comfortable saying he would if he could.

Peter Navarro Ph.D.

It is more likely, I think, that he will continue disabling good government in relatively small bites interspersed with occasional larger ones. For example, consider what he’s done this week. The White House announced it is replacing the CDC’s dominant role in gathering and analyzing coronavirus data as it is reported to a central point from medical sources all over the country. The new hub is to be either in the White House or the Department of Health and Human Sources. DHHS is located in D.C. near the White House and headed by Secretary Alex Azar II, former pharmaceutical industry lobbyist and executive. The CDC, located in Atlanta more distant from Trump, is a world leader in public health, populated by eminent researchers of both medical and epidemiologist fame.

This move, I submit, is motivated to centralize information about the pandemic and what it means in a way that is under closer Trump control, and to reduce CDC’s ability to outshine Trump. It’s an unexpected (perhaps unjustified) organizational move to make Trump’s previous politicization of the pandemic less obvious than when he is juxtaposed with scientists. Trump and his staff have recently sought to quiet Anthony Fauci. Disagreeing with Trump is not acceptable, but Fauci’s popularity is hard to disable, causing Trump to reduce Fauci’s stage presence without appearing to do so. Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade advisor, published an op-ed yesterday in USA Today titled “Anthony Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on: When you ask me whether I listen to his advice, my answer is only with skepticism and caution.” Interestingly, the White House claimed Navarro had not gotten clearance to submit the article.

These changes—the Azar responsibility and the ostensibly “uncleared” Navarro article—might well result in the press finding it harder to get pandemic facts to readers free from the daily Trumpian revisions of history.

The Trump Administration is the underside of the United States of America at the age of a slightly worn 232 years old.

 

 

 

Don’t give up.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Mr. Trump’s American pandemic

The world struggles with the new coronavirus China’s President Ji learned of in late 2019, and that America’s President Trump learned of in the opening days of 2020. More than six months later, many countries of the world have conducted themselves impressively. The country that has long fancied itself the most advanced finds it’s no more to be envied than Russia and Brazil. In fact, according to Statistica, of countries over 4 million population and over 5 thousand confirmed cases, only Chile, Kuwait, and Peru exceed the United States in Covid-19 cases per million inhabitants. Welcome to Trump’s America.

In China and the United States, the instinctive choice for each national leader was to cover up, minimize, or ignore what their scientists knew could become a threatening dark cloud over earth’s 7.8 billion human beings. Mr. Trump, after first praising, then castigating Mr. Ji, then chastised the World Health Organization for being “soft on China.” Eager to avoid any responsibility, thus maintaining his handy, defensive victim status, Trump and his far-right cheerleaders authored a new conspiracy theory, to wit: the virus was a hoax spread by Democrats. The lyrics of that song were getting a little old, though, so he conceded the virus but minimized the danger.

That enabled him to demonstrate both his calm control of the fearsome bug and his ability to take prompt action to deal with it, thereby leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Well, you know the story, that is, if you don’t rely on White House releases or perhaps Fox News. Needless to say, it’s been hard to miss Trump’s bragging about his wise choices, frequently against everyone else’s less beautiful ones. He still can’t stop talking about blocking air passengers arriving from China, seen as minimally useful by virus-spread specialists. As would be expected from past performances, Trump continued with a sequence of uninformed and sometimes idiotic statements, all seemingly with one aim: to show he knew more about viruses than the generals…(ahem)…the physicians, virologists, and epidemiologists.

Life is tough for a stable genius. It would be embarrassing not to know all the answers. So you’d assume even your conjectures are better than years of study by so-called “experts.” Question: When will this deadly calamity go away? A: By spring when weather warms up. Q: When will we no longer have fifteen cases? A: Very soon it will be near zero. Q: What about our first confirmed case in Washington state? A: We do have a plan and we think it’s going to be handled very well, we’ve already handled it very well [sic]. Spoken from Olympus makes such speculations no less amateur than would have a oiji board.

That list of Trump guesses is informative, not to mention lengthy, but they’ve little to do with truth. They are about Trump choosing what to guess. His slipshod practice regarding reality demands making this point: When a source that inquirers have a reasonable expectation of being authoritative and trustworthy—let’s say, the President of the United States—a shoot from the hip or mere hope constitutes a lie.

This morning, for example, Trump commented that he disagrees with Dr. Fauci (on what basis, one wonders!), after all, as circulated by Trumpists, “first Dr. Fauci said “don’t wear masks,” now he says to “wear them.” Only news geeks who follow closely, can see that is a poorly informed “gotcha.” Trump repeated the misinformation as if it makes sense, although it is true. Aha, see? The vaunted expert should be unvaunted! We trust our president, not some sawbones we never elected. To his discredit, Trump chose not to clarify that Fauci’s earlier proposal occurred months before when sufficient masks were unavailable, therefore should be reserved for vulnerable healthcare workers. Fauci changed his recommendation when masks became plentiful, available to all Americans. When an authoritative source that Americans have a reasonable expectation of being quoted accurately—let’s say, by the President of the United States—a failure to clarify factors relevant to that accuracy constitutes a lie.

This post is titled “Trump’s American pandemic” to make clear I am not blaming him for China’s or WHO’s errors, but I do blame him for most of the shambles he has caused in America’s handling of Covid-19, including most of its deaths and suffering, and for both the substance and the appearance of America’s incompetence in the world even prior to viral assistance.

Had he been able in intelligence and managerial understanding—now he is incompetent in both—to actually be the wartime president he grandiosely claims to be, he would have called upon Fauci and others for a rapid tutoring in virology and epidemiology, addressed the federal vs. state Constitutional impasse right away, assigned responsibilities for segments of the whole while not shedding his accountability for the total, assigned White House and Departmental roles to experienced, capable persons rather than choices like Jared and others not big enough for the job, shared all these actions openly and without secrecy, forbid on pain of banishment any “political games” that threaten the overall mission.

Leadership is greatly needed, yet impossible from this president.  in life or death terms to hundreds of thousands. He is no leader and is incapable of becoming one in a few months. He is not alone, of course, but his announced irresponsibility, his ignorance cloaked in certainty, his demand of reverence from others, his political bullying of Republican office holders, his usual self-flattery, and other actions that consistently reveal his motivation comes not from what is best for American’s health, but from the day to day aggrandizement of Donald Trump.

Now this shallow, authoritarian pretender to the presidency has the audacity to request re-election, for the despotism he’s begun is not yet complete.

The fish does, indeed, rot from the head.

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

American carnage: Trump’s opinion or Trump’s intent?

When I was a child my mother called bad behavior “ugly.” The word can imply bad appearance, but she usually meant improper conduct (mine). On January 20, 2016 Donald Trump’s inaugural speech portrayed an America of disorder, shambles, and ruination. To me, his dystopian reference conveyed ugliness of the physical kind, like unsightly streets, dirty factories, run-down schools, and deteriorating public buildings. But as his presidency unfolded, Trump’s most obvious influence was not on unsafe dams and bridges, urban rot, and decay of roadways, the carnage I thought he criticized.

He might have had a better record if he’d really known how to diagnose and “drain the swamp,” “hire only the best people,” realize he might not actually “know more than the generals,” and prepare national leadership for unlikely but catastrophic possibilities. Trump’s failures are shockingly obvious unless you’ve years ago decided he is god’s anointed, therefore must be believed and protected . . . as do large segments of evangelical Christianity, Republican officials, and Republicans in general (minus those millions who at long last traded their veneration for reality).

Leaders can have another kind of success or failure—in role modelling rather than in material job performance. (Performance failure and modelling failure are not so distinctly separated as that suggests. But perfect dissimilarity is not required to discuss the differences.) In a democracy, for example, it is not enough for a leader to produce economic satisfaction, military preparedness, and trains running on time. There’s a vacuity if he or she is not also trustworthy, considerate, encouraging, and altruistic in character. These are not specific products or achievements, and perhaps not easily calibrated. But without them, no matter the objective achievements of a leader, a soulless gap is left, one only addressed by the earnest touch of an authentic human sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.

This post differs from others I’ve written, my having chosen to emphasize Trump’s incompetence, totalitarian ambitions, and the reckless damage he’s wrought. His “l’état, c’est moi” narcissism motivates his attempts not to lead the United States, so much as to be the United States. Note how often he equates America and Trump. It is no wonder that he brings out the worst in us, not our best. The result is a country wherein otherwise miniscule amounts of undesirable characteristics—for we all have some—are incited and roused. America has become a harsher, cruder, coarser country. We are less inclined to respect each other, more able to countenance mistreatment of children at our southern border, and unconcerned by bullying a small country that trusted us to assist its growth of democracy. He has criticized female lawmakers’ appearance, regularly ‘punches down’ against persons of less power, rants at journalists for simply doing their jobs, unilaterally discards Inspectors General. He has not only botched Americans’ Coronavirus-19 response, throwing all responsibility on others, but due to his malfeasance wantonly caused deaths.

I’m sure my late mother’s words would not have come to mind if Trump had turned out to be kind, thoughtful, honest, and competent. But his personality, conduct, and character are simply ugly. His unkindness, cheating, mocking, and bullying have become increasingly vile. His endless self-references hijack any conversation ostensibly about national issues. He was and remains an unpleasant person, a dreadful role model though it seems he doesn’t understand other-directed responsibility. He’s well versed in “look at me,” though “how are you?” is useful only for redirection to the former. He is ugly in both ways my mother meant. We the electorate made the egregious error in 2016 of entrusting a person with such odious features with the highest position in the land.

Donald Trump is an ugly man and an ugly president . . . without commitment to America or Americans or worldwide humanity, without thoughtfulness, without character, without ethics, without integrity, without empathy, without decency, and without honor. And perhaps most toxic, these attributes are spreading across America like a virus.

Posted in Politics | 6 Comments

America’s birthday is TODAY!

Not July 4, 1776? Right. Not. A group of nine relatively friendly, independent former colonies of England became the United States of America on June 21, 1788—22 years later!

Into the world was born a new country (as I wrote in two posts on this blog—June 17, 2013 and June 12, 2016), historically unique in its extraordinary confidence in “we, the people” and its groundbreaking secular framework able to embrace people of all faiths and none. (I tend to pay little attention to my own birthday, but I’m persnickety about the country’s. Besides, this matter provides me the entertainment of a hobbyhorse of frankly scant philosophical importance.)

Well, maybe this year deserves more honor than that. This might be the year America avoids its slide toward autocracy, the re-emergence of the kind of democracy the Founders sought to create and perpetuate. If so, it will have been a depressingly close call.

There’s no doubt, of course, that July 4, 1776 was monumentally important. The Declaration of Independence was a necessary precursor to the founding of this new country. But it did not establish the USA and wasn’t meant to. It was a compact of rebellion among colonies seeking to be independent states, announcing the shedding of their galling status as colonies, violently if necessary. But the follow up to that successful revolution—trying to make a confederation of independent states work—did not go so well, leading to the exciting but dicey notion of joining themselves into a single, brand-new country. In a manner of speaking, the former colonies had declared their respective independence, only to soon renounce all (or most) of it by pledging to a combined United States.

Establishing a new nation is a rather different business than jointly going to war as even a cursory examination of all the new problems can confirm. The Declaration was not a blueprint, nor did it help directly in the new task. After formation of the new country, it retained its historical value, but it now has no legal value. The new country was not founded on the Constitution plus the Declaration, but the Constitution alone.

The issues to be confronted were not the same as those facing writers of the Declaration. Now they included how large states and small states could be accommodated. How “royal” should a chief executive be? How heritable will the leadership be? What is to be done by potential deal breakers like slavery? In what way can we prevent a growing hegemony of a powerful religious denomination, yet assure religious freedom? What will be the role and structure of a court system? How much state sovereignty is to be forfeited, signed over to the new government (as it turned out: all or virtually all of it!)? These new problems and more were the challenges of nation building, not war-making. They were no less perplexing.

Finally, the work of Constitution-drafting was finished and submitted to the states for consideration and, most of the founders hoped, ratification. One of the provisions of the Constitution draft was that it would become the official and exclusive charter of the United States of America when as many as nine states ratified it. (Article VII: “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.”) For those nine states, the USA would then be automatically created, leaving others out unless and until they, too, ratified.

In fact, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island were left out. They were not part of the initial United States of America, though these four joined soon thereafter. Still, to be absolutely accurate, we must recognize that the United States of America as a legal entity among the nations began with nine—not thirteen—original states! And its beginning was unrelated to July 4th!

So enjoy July 4th. But revere June 21st!

Posted in History, Politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Escaping America’s banana republic

There’s no end it seems to Donald Trump’s perfidy. That also means there’s no end to the perfidy of Republicans—virtually all Republicans in the Senate and House who consciously participate in his guilt. In varying degrees, it testifies to the … Continue reading

Gallery | 1 Comment

. . . . with freedom and justice for all

Included below are the words of the next-highest official both authorized and sufficiently informed to speak for the Confederate States of America (CSA), Vice President Alexander Stephens. It may strike you as contrary to the picture of a noble southern society that had a certain beauty, treated its slaves well, and most of all displayed a vaunted graciousness. The current national reexamination that Black Lives Matter painfully reveals how thin has our been  our commitment to “justice for all.” Can any of us claim exception to our boastfulness about America’s world leadership in creating a just society, even sometimes inaccurately? We are still plagued with wishful claims that the Confederacy did not exist to preserve slavery. It merely sought to conserve an accustomed way of life, maintain a lucrative export trade, and most of all validate the political doctrine of State’s Rights.

As a son of the South, I was taught that slavery was indeed evil. But that the Confederate States of America was not formed to defend slavery; it was formed to defend the principle of State’s Rights. Not until adulthood did I learn that creation of the United States of America occurred by each state freely choosing to join as a full partner in the Constitution, thereby transferring its sovereignty to the emerging new country, the indivisible USA. Within a few decades the CSA was formed in the South as in essence a compact of rebellion against southern states’ own earlier pledge of allegiance to the United States.

That is all I have to say in this post. The rest is the truly important part, a speech by the Vice President of the Confederate States of America in which the foundation of the CSA is stated in stunning clarity. To set the stage, the American Yawp Reader explained what CSA faced at that time: “Confederates had to quickly create not only a government, but also a nation, including all of the cultural values required to foster patriotism. In this speech Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, proclaims that slavery and white supremacy were not only the cause for secession, but also the “cornerstone” of the Confederate nation. Now, Stephens’s speech:

 

CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens

on Slavery and the Confederate Constitution

The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions-African slavery as it exists among us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.

The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the Constitution, was the prevailing idea at the time.

The Constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly used against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it-when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It is so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago.

Those at the North who still cling to these errors with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind; from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is, forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics: their conclusions are right if their premises are. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights, with the white man…. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the Northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery; that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle-a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of man.

The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds we should succeed, and that he and his associates in their crusade against our institutions would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as well as in physics and mechanics, I admitted, but told him it was he and those acting with him who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are, and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo-it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not therefore look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first Government ever instituted upon principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society.

Many Governments have been founded upon the principles of certain classes; but the classes thus enslaved, were of the same race, and in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. The negro by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite-then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is the best, not only for the superior but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances or to question them. For His own purposes He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another in glory.”

The great objects of humanity are best attained, when conformed to his laws and degrees, in the formation of Governments as well as in all things else. Our Confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief stone of the corner” in our new edifice.

 

    *     *     *     *

My thanks to The American Yawp Reader-for this 1861 speech by CSA Vice President Alexander. H. Stephens, more properly footnoted as “Speech of A. H. Stephens,” Frank Moore, ed., Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, etc. Volume I, (New York: 1861), 45-46.”

Posted in History, Morality, Politics | 18 Comments

Xi for president?

I wonder if anyone sees the similarity between Trump and Xi. Nutty idea? How could that be? After all, Trump is the elected leader of a democracy, albeit a declining one. Xi is the Communist Party’s chosen leader of a Communist country, one rapidly growing stronger. What could be more different than that? Is the United States not the shining city on a hill proudly characterized by President Nixon (borrowed from Puritan John Winthrop)? Could there be any serious comparison of the men in this uncanny bromance?

We are told with plausible intelligence of China’s earliest Coronavirus actions—a rapidly imposed, strong-arm coverup in Wuhan. As 2019 ended, for the sake of politically-driven secrecy, the world was presented with a virus that had been given avoidable extra time to proliferate. Even to speak of the terrifying bug was criminalized, muzzling Chinese scientists. Was Xi involved? Maybe not directly. But whatever level of government was directly involved, arresting viral spread was deemed less imperative than arresting scientists who spoke out.

Frankly, in an autocratic system that takes up arms against facts, where truth and fiction are made intentionally hard to distinguish, the highest authority can reasonably be blamed for what that system allows quite as much as what it directly causes. In that way, Xi was not only involved, but instrumental in and therefore accountable for whatever unnecessary damage came about by treating whistle-blowing like treason rather than like a fire alarm.

There’s another similarity, one where facts are negotiable and inspectors general, if they exist, take their jobs seriously, and who inform on superiors are pointedly ordered to fuhgeddaboudit. The higher on the chain a person is, the more blame is aimed downward, much like Trump’s refusal to accept responsibility for any of America’s Covid19 tragedy.

Constricted public access to knowledge embarrassing to high officials covers a lot more, of course, than emergent viruses. Investigative journalism consists in part of making public what government officials want kept from the public. Freedom of the press is unknown. Consequently, Xi’s power is virtually absolute, rather than hampered by the impediments of free press, Constitutional law, independent judiciary, and an independent legislative body. Though Xi and Trump similarly wish to control public knowledge and their own accountability, features of American open society make it more difficult for Trump. He can’t get away with it completely yet. To be considerate, we might have to lament, “Poor Donald. Jinping has it easy.”

See how great the differences are between Xi and Trump?

OK, but perhaps we should take another look. There are ways in which Trump is not only different from Xi, but from most persons I’ve ever known. Xi appears—in spite of his political persuasion—to be intelligent and capable of the mental discipline to make present choices that are consistent with long term choices, unlike Trump’s transactional approach to life. Trump has made it clear that he admires dictators’ strong control, but while he has a strong-man self image of common street-level thuggery, he does not exhibit sufficient understanding of large system management, nor does he have the consistency to carry the weight that tricking a free society toward autocracy requires.

Further, America has a longer history of constitutional government, citizen engagement, and individual rights that any would-be dictator must overcome, an ingrained resistance other strong-men don’t face. Our population is not homogeneous, forcing Trump to face a majority against his intentions. Moreover, most Americans do not want to endure his indecency, immaturity, antipathy to science, transactional decision-making, unending lies, alternative facts, and generally flawed judgment.

President Donald Trump, left, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Saturday, June 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Since his inauguration in early 2017, Trump has been on a campaign to remake presidential politics in his image. One of his methods was to build personal power by permanently campaigning for president even after inauguration, thereby maintaining and building his political base. That effort—unlike other presidents—was made possible in part due to his neglect of the responsibilities he had just acquired. His strategy included building stronger Republican strength in House districts and the Senate. If local voters could be caused to develop more loyalty to him than to their own senator or congressman/woman, it would become in Congressional Republicans’ interests to support whatever Trump wished to do. This worked so well that Trump acquired power over them, so much that even an otherwise damning impeachment could not succeed. Souls were in the market; Trump was willing to pay.

Success as a bully paved his way to become increasingly coercive, unethical, and frankly illegal. Even though the painstaking Mueller investigation found him to have broken the law, prosecution was blocked by a Department of Justice technicality and a friendly Attorney General. Clearly illegal action by Trump toward Ukraine and toward Joe Biden, whom he expected to be his opposition for president, led to articles of impeachment by the Democratic House. But that failed to remove him from office due to the decision of the Senate’s Republican majority to add one more discredit to its string of dishonorable actions, to wit, acquitting a criminal president simply to avoid his disfavor.

To conclude this post, I’ll concede that even Trump’s conversion of the Republican Party to his own ends may show signs of weakening. On this, though, my love of country and commitment to the ending of Trump’s destructive presidency are in no way objective. The Liberal publication The Hill in the past few days ran an opinion that Trump is “strengthening his grip on the Republican Party” even greater than before, and quoted Vin Weber, a GOP strategist, that “He’s gotten increasingly bold in asserting his will in the Republican Party . . . The party is dominated by the president and his supporters and his backers and his organization.” The important message in that opinion is that the squeeze is growing too bullying to maintain. The price may be getting too high even for Republican office holders for whom shame has thus far been an unknown emotion. Trump’s terrible and inept misbehavior as president might finally catch up with him. Maybe so; maybe not. America and other democracies worldwide can only hope.

There is nothing new about the disgrace of Republican elected officials being not just the president’s allies, but his lapdogs to the point of disregarding the job they swore to do. The Republican party has become a shadow of itself—the party I knew more personally, the party of Howard Baker and other ethical, conservative senators. It is not impossible for it to change for the better. But this aspiration calls for an incredibly extensive, overdue reform of Republicans’ dishonorable subservience to Trump’s mixture of incompetence and evil. November 2020 will determine our future and affect much of the world.

America doesn’t need a Xi for president.

We already have him.

 

Posted in Liberty, Politics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Covid19 goes to church

St. Paul, in urging more-or-less faithful Jewish Christians, reminded them (Hebrews 10:25) “to stir up each other in love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.” That’s evolved in practice to mean no less frequently than on Sundays. In a Biblical “book” written later, the apostle/tax collector Mathew quoted Jesus defining a quasi-judicial process that ended by assuring the faithful that (Matthew 18:20) “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

It is no wonder, then, that Christian churches are quite serious about at least one “worship service” on Sunday (some meet for other reasons and times as well). But the opportunity—symbolically—to be with Jesus is losing its charm. Religion has weakened, as reflected in the 2007-2018/19 survey of the U.S. by the Pew Research Center. Pew’s analysis found that 63% of Americans identified as either Protestant or Catholic (down from 75% in 2007), while 26% identified as atheists, agnostics, or just non-religious (up from 16%). However, although these data reveal a drop in religious versus secular identification, they do not reveal the degree of personal engagement in the chosen identification.

Consequently, Pew questioned those who claimed religious participation thusly: “Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services? More than once a week, once a week, once or twice a month, a few times a year, seldom, or never?” The results were telling. The proportion of U.S. adults who said they attend religious services a net monthly or more was 45% (down from 54% in 2007). The proportion who claimed to attend no more than a few times a year was 54% (up from 45%). Those who profess Christianity had become less invested in religious services. Interestingly, “born again/evangelicals” constituted 59% of all Protestants (up from 56%), whereas not born again/evangelicals made up 41% (down from 44%). In summary, though, during the 2007 to 2018-2019 period, those who attended religious services infrequently had begun to outnumber those who attended regularly, though the more fundamentalists among Protestants held their own or rose slightly.

I note these things now due to 2020’s extreme, worldwide jeopardy from a deadly virus. Mere propinquity threatens any but the smallest groups, far more if they are touching, speaking, or singing. Not only are these actions to be found in abundance in religious gatherings like church or mosque services, but the age distribution therein is tilted toward the most vulnerable older adults, therefore overlapping those with poor health. Further, fundamentalist churches are likely not only to justify their meetings with literally interpreted scriptural references, but even as tests of their faith that heaven will protect them from illness or death.

Because of what we know about the exponential rate of spread of Covid19, participants’ danger to themselves is only the start of a multiplying spread of the virus. Thus, large groups are choosing not just to increase their own susceptibility but that of their fellow Americans as well. While others not of their faith might accept the free choice of self-endangerment, it is hardly our duty to allow them to imperil the health or even life of others. (Less fundamentalist churches deserve credit for their willingness to suspend in-person gathering by using creative tactics like Zoom™, outdoor meetings, and other variants of traditional, in-person togetherness that fundamentalists seem more inclined to find unacceptable.)

As of a few days ago, churches and churchgoers have filed legal challenges against stay-at-home orders in at least 19 states despite the tragic record already obvious. Here are just a few reports from various sources: “One worshipper later found to have the coronavirus, who had defied California’s order to attend a religious service on Mother’s Day, exposed 180 other people.” “In Sacramento County in April, 71 people connected to a single church were infected.” “Two persons with COVID-19 unknowingly spread the virus to more than 30 people during church gatherings in early March in Arkansas before any case was diagnosed in that state.” “On March 17, a member of a church choir in Skagit County, Wash., spread the coronavirus, resulting in 32 confirmed cases, 20 other likely infections, three hospitalizations and two deaths.” And on and on.

Foreign experience is similar. We’ve heard glowingly about South Korea’s rapid response to the virus, but less about, for example, 51 Covid19 cases at River of Grace Church in Seongnam, more than 24 cases tied to a separate pair of churches in the same province, and others related to large religious gatherings in cramped spaces.

It is not difficult to make the case that despite religion’s assumed social benefits, churches have no more claim to others’ safety than do groups of reckless merrymaking by either young revelers at large pool parties or a politician choosing to pack an enormous conference center for his own aggrandizement. Largely, though, as to the acceptability of large groups, the relevant variable appears to be whether piety is used as justification. The motivation to gather and spread their viral load is excused based on the longstanding philosophical hegemony this country has granted religion. That preferred treatment occurs even in small ways—e.g., Sunday traffic and parking of church crowds tends to be less strictly policed than that unrelated to religious services.

That last item is trivial, to be sure, but is indicative of the “get out of jail free” attitude wherein we’ve countenanced illegal or unethical instances of the profane when it’s juxtaposed with the “sacred,” like we coddled priests and clergy who not only broke laws but offended common decency. Another such halo effect has frequently led to slack enforcement of, say, child safety requirements for Protestant church-sponsored children’s day care or harsh discipline in Catholic orphanages. I’ll not list more of the abundant further instances, but will point out that equating church, religion, religious service or even piety itself with “good,” “humane,” or “benevolent” can actually be—and frequently has been—damaging, even deadly. What someone or some group believes to be theological truth or error is neither validation nor invalidation for receiving exceptional protection at the cost to others from their viral spread.

Muddying the matter is an argument that religious services should not be subjected to the same limits imposed on nonreligious persons and organizations, for that would be a violation of their Constitutional rights to freedom of religion. Yet freedom of religion has never been unlimited. Never has it meant people can in the name of religious liberty do anything they want to do. Court decisions, including those of the U. S. Supreme Court, have established that there are other matters that can trump unbridled liberty of religion. I will not address those limits here. A particularly relevant summary, however, in one sentence addresses the encompassing issue: The government may limit religious liberty when it has a “compelling interest” to do so in order to protect the common good and limit people’s ability to harm others. That powerful phrasing is pointedly relevant to the issues I’ve raised.

Within the last few days, President Trump declared churches “essential,” and ordered governors to exempt them from state requirements to keep their doors closed. He justified his order by explaining that states “need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now.” The Justice Department, in accord with Attorney General Barr, voiced official support for church gatherings during the pandemic shutdown. Trump, as is his wont, shows no evident understanding of the Constitutional First Amendment with regard to the relationship between religion and government. A major feat of America’s founders, the Constitutional framework, can be expounded simply, to wit: Politics and Government should stay out of Religion and Churches. Religion and Churches should stay out of Politics and Government.

President Trump earlier decided to leave shutdowns to governors. Confounding prearranged roles by a change of mind is de facto aimed largely for the benefit of fundamentalist Christians, who not incidentally, are the most committed and energetic of his base. That renders President Trump’s unexpected move impulsive on its face, not only discombobulating, but more driven by politics than by public health.

[This post underemphasizes Muslim, Hebrew, Baha’i, and other religious groups due to insufficient access to relevant information.]

Posted in Atheism and other freethought, Church and state, Liberty | 2 Comments

Our *Toddler-in-Chief embarrasses America . . . again

We Americans are often accused of being uninterested in anything outside our borders except vacation travel. Curiously, though, our “citizens of the world” credentials may be enhanced by the global nature of Covid-19. However much we botch our pandemic response, we can’t help but be largely in the same boat as most of the world. Our behavior in the boat, though, may also demonstrate our discomfort in being there, partly due to the current spat between us and the World Health Organization. WHO has its problems including bureaucratic inflexibility, but still is a significant international actor against disease and poverty. If WHO is more favorable to China than the U.S. president finds acceptable, that is regrettable. Still, WHO is a major source of help for countries around the world.

Against that backdrop, President Trump withdrew American revenues—said to be about half of WHO’s budget, claiming that WHO has been “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” that “the organization is overly influenced by China, and was too trusting of China, particularly in the early phase of the outbreak,” and that “it had delayed raising the alarm on the threat posed by the new coronavirus.” WHO claims, however, the virus was “identified on January 7th” and “shared [with the world] on the 12th.”

Some—this includes me—say by attacking WHO, Trump is seeking to deflect blame away from his own administration’s problems in containing the virus. We the general public don’t know the truth yet. We know statements by Trump can never be assumed to be true, and his paranoia can be overwhelming, with or without supportive facts. We know he engages his schoolyard vengeance even at the cost of inattention to more important issues. We know he’s proud of punching back harder than he’s been punched. Any Trump engagement must be scanned for these distractions.

Of course, those childish characteristics do not mean that what he contends is untrue, just that we can’t tell until later, if we ever know at all. If he is right, there’s time later to take whatever action is called for. But if he is wrong, his angry, toddler-ish thoughtlessness would make America look not only like overreacting idiots but show once again—in bullying Trumpian fashion—that America has little use for the rest of the world.

 

*I am indebted to Daniel W. Drezner for borrowing part of the title of his March 2020 book, The Toddler in Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us about the Modern Presidency.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Narcissistic sociopath in the White House

Millions of Americans are deluded enough—for either political or religious reasons—to have decided Donald Trump is a gift from God, though a gift unhampered by ethics, logic, lawfulness, and competence. The disconcerting topic I chose for this post has been with us for some time, though persons licensed to render a diagnosis generally refrain due to rules of ethics and licensing. Recognizing the combination of narcissism and sociopathy are consistent with insights I learned in doctoral training (then later as a licensed clinical psychologist prior to retiring). Donald Trump’s behavior, however, is so starkly associated with these conditions that even lay observers can see him clearly in numerous Google descriptions.

There are a number of publications by qualified mental health professionals that lay out the pathology behind Trump’s bizarre behavior: incessant lying, mean-spiritedness, vengeance, blaming, reckless handling of crucial information, irresponsibility, abusive definition (and demands) of personal loyalty, and cowardly “punching down.” A longer discussion of Trump’s behavior and its underlying psychopathy was published in The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, edited 2017 by Bandy X. Lee, MD, MDiv, Organizer of the Yale “Duty to Warn” Conference.

While his devotees will disagree, Trump’s conduct concerning rule of law, lack of a sense of justice, and bullying other officials constitute severe damage to interpersonal functioning and even American constitutional government. I recommend reading the various depictions of narcissistic sociopathy. Be prepared for parallel terms such as “malignant narcissist with sociopathic tendencies,” one of those used in The Dangerous Case . . .

Just a few excerpted sentences from several of the co-authors: “Delusional levels of grandiosity, impulsivity, and the compulsions of mental impairment, when combined with an authoritarian cult of personality and contempt for the rule of law, are a toxic mix.” “[We are required] to recognize the urgency of the situation in which the most powerful man in the world is also the bearer of profound instability and untruth.” “Power not only corrupts but also magnifies existing psychopathologies, even as it creates new ones. Fostered by the flattery of underlings and the chants of crowds, a political leader’s grandiosity may morph into grotesque delusions of grandeur.” “Sociopathic traits may be amplified as the leader discovers that he can violate the norms of civil society and even commit crimes with impunity.” “His presidency is a grave risk to our country.”

The authors explain their reasons for deviating from Section 7.3, page 6, of the 2013 American Psychiatric Association code of ethics, citing and defending “a duty to warn.” The relevant APA rule states: “It is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion [on a public figure] unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.” Although the foregoing code applies only to psychiatrists, ethics of clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, and analogous professions are similar.

Recently, Donald Trump decided to claim he is a wartime president, though it’s unclear whose side he’s own. At times, it seems that he and the federal stockpiles are at war against states. He enigmatically claims that crucial Covid-19 equipment is “ours” (federal vs states), that anti-virus strategy is best pursued in fifty parts instead of one. His political favoritism repeats itself, appalling under the current emergency conditions. Others who dare must continually push him away from his short term horizon. Further, woe to the subordinate or associate who forgets to render sufficient sycophantic pandering or, far worse, disagrees. Not new, of course, since we’ve watched this man-child for a long time, but now national health is on the line and prospects for economic recovery as well. Behavior not to his liking might engender a rebuke, a sharp criticism, or firing.

That’s enough for this post. It’s time to relax; I must get back to 1984.

 

Stay safe. Explore new ways to redefine togetherness.

 

Posted in Life, living, and death, Politics | Leave a comment

Fighting COVID-19 with prayer

About three weeks ago President Trump appeared at a campaign event in a Miami megachurch where congregants had been urged to attend by their “Apostle” Guillermo Maldonado. Like a number of fundamentalist churches across America, official White House warnings against gathering in large groups were not only ignored but defied. Apostle Maldonado challenged, “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house [in person] to be contagious with the virus? Of course not.” Such gatherings and such arousing expressions of faith are not uncommon. They occur even in unconstitutional pronouncements from officials representing government, like governors, legislators, and school boards. Although the Constitution prohibits governments from taking sides on matters of religious faith, protection of public safety is a legitimate governmental power. When religious groups protest that their “freedom of religion” is thus violated, they misunderstand—sometimes intentionally—what Constitutional religious liberty covers.

When a judge, police officer, or public school teacher identifies officially with a specific religion or religion in general, he or she is violating others’ Constitutional rights in that governmental support is thus being differentially bestowed. Religionists often wrongly reverse that point by complaining that, e.g., it is actually the teacher’s religious freedom being violated. (They, especially those in relatively lowly positions forget that each of them is an arm of the governmental unit they work for.) Consider a photo like that below, clearly linking with a specific sect not a private citizen, but a sitting president and candidate for continued office. How would Christians react if that sect were Muslim or atheist? That official’s behavior—as is this one—would be the “taking sides” that courts have ruled unconstitutional. In fact, a president or teacher can openly and loudly stand for freedom of religion (constitutional) but not endorse as part of his or her public role a specific religion or religion in general (unconstitutional).

With a virus spread pattern like that of coronavirus, we all risk damage to others, hence our behavior is subject to governmental control, as long as it is no more stringent than necessary to achieve the government’s obligation of protection. For example, this might allow a large group like Maldonado’s, no matter how large, to worship via electronic togetherness or with clever individual spacing. In fact, quite a few religious groups have found creative ways to do just that.

It may lend clarity to such arrangements and in general the limits to religious freedom to consider the “rights” that religion and specific religions do not have. They do not have a right of access to the public purse or to special governmental favors. They do not have claim on public resources or endorsement carried on public property including police cars, sheriff’s offices, courtrooms, and public land. They do not have a right to freedom from peaceful and non-disruptive opposition. They do not have freedom from taxation beyond what is available to non-religious nonprofits. There is much in this issue to sustain a long argument, of course. But for now, I want to consider how religion began as a useful paradigm for how the world works, then became a danger to thoughtful discourse and even a danger to injury and life.

Since time immemorial, planning, problem-solving, and finding truth involved belief, coincidence, astronomical events, ghosts, revered men, and inspiration. That began to be surpassed only a few centuries ago. A highly disciplined way of thinking emerged that allowed a high bar to be declared between facts and beliefs, no matter what the subject matter. For example, does blood letting cause faster recovery from illness than praying, does the sun revolve around the earth, is there a god who distinguishes one “holy” book from another, does prayer protect us from drought or lightning?

You can settle such quandaries either way—by using the newly developed methods or not, e.g., by math and geometry or by the teachings of a historic figure whose reputed wisdom is considered proof enough. Guided by philosophers, the former won out in increasing subject areas. The latter came to be seen as the problem-solving of children, the former of intelligent adults. A similar advance was used to examine and decide upon systems of government, prediction of weather, and calming of epidemics, every step along the way replacing decisions and plans with those yet to be improved with the newer truth-finding principles. Emerging from emotion and ancient beliefs to reason and what came to be called science produced the Age of Enlightenment and with it, new freedoms. It became OK to question the divine right of kings, the doctrinal purity of unquestioned Catholic hegemony, and the separation of state and church. We are still learning how to separate reason from faith.

When the coronavirus came along, most people in the developed world turned to the tools of science (including medicine and epidemiology) with very little sidetracking to amulets, talismans, rosaries, and prayer (each leftovers from pre-Enlightenment with its gods, psalms, witches, and signs of faith). Much of the world came to understand that further is the best remedy for science too immature to have yet brought results. That was most of the first world, though not all. Apostle Maldonado believes God protects believers from Covid-19. President Trump believes or pretends to believe the same…maybe. Historian and author Jon Meacham finds pre-science thinking in this case to be a waste of valuable time.

One effect of Enlightenment is that Maldonado and Jon Meacham have rights to their beliefs. But neither Maldonado, his flock, nor Meacham has the right to speak for the rest of us, for except in specific ways our Constitution took that right from “whole of us” and left it to the “you and I” of us as individuals. Meacham points out, and I agree, that in the present United States “the Enlightenment is on trial.” We are living, he argues, in “a partisan pandemic” in which one’s understanding of this threat “depends on which television channels you watch.” He laments that useful understanding must be communicated “coherently and truthfully.” Picture President Trump trying to explain federal handling of the pandemic: guesses presented as facts, lies presented as truth, with hypersensitivity and narcissism clouding every judgment. Consequently, worries Meacham, a focus on “facts and data that shape human decisions [that are] objectively true are under assault.” “And that begins at the top [italics mine, JC].”

Trump has a need to constantly remind us he has done everything right (on a scale from 1 to 10, he grades himself a 10), that he bears no responsibility for anything that comes out wrong, and he always knows who is to blame for those that fail (viz., Obama, Democrats, Schumer, Clinton, the Times and Post). His vengeance against those who disagree with him creates yes-men/women from journalists, to White House staff, to Department Secretaries, to almost the entire Senate. He has piece by piece taken over the highest decision system in a way that clearly approaches despotism, a path protected and endorsed by the former Republican Party. Meanwhile his ranting seduction of his base mixes “fact, fiction, and hyperbole” (James Carville’s words), though less of the fact portion. He has taught Americans who cannot or choose not to think intelligently to believe and cheer anything he says, including about loyalty to Trump rather than country. Thus is democracy lost and authoritarianism/dictatorship installed as the new normal.

I actually don’t mean to single out the Apostle for endangering his congregation. I is not actually so rare that persons and organizations, religious or otherwise, seeking exemption from social distancing requesting to risk the health and lives of every other member of the community. Just a few examples: Florida’s Gov. DeSantis exempted those “attending religious services conducted in churches” from protective measures against the pandemic, even though doing so endangered the lives of many. By the way, his action unconstitutionally privileged either one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

In Sacramento County (California) Reuters reported “Around one-third of confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been tied to church gatherings.” In South Korea, announced Reuters, a surge of thousands of coronavirus cases in only a few days in late February “centered mostly around one main cluster from a church in Daegu.” In the U.S., Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for violating local COVID-19 orders. He’d called the pandemic a “phantom plague” and claimed that the virus could be killed by 13 machines available in his church. Finally, a similar assembly occurred just north of my wife’s and my home in North Georgia within the past few months, causing an extensive spread of coronavirus. In each case that the faithful were unwittingly exposed, just think of all the others whom they then infected.

   –     –     –     –     –     –     –

My position with regard to religious liberty is actually more supportive of persons’ freedom of philosophy and religion than that of a great many religious people. Individuals are and should be free to believe anything they think right. However, religious people are frequently unwilling to extend that consideration to persons in religions other than their own. But being committed to that that liberty does not include allowing it to controlling others’ beliefs and practices; freedom of religion does not mean freedom to tell others what to do. Further, freedom of religion does not extend to appropriating either the power or the approbation of government, whether that action is by a mayor, police officer, public school teacher . . . or national president.

In closing, this post is not intended to focus on President Trump himself, though I’ve used some of his behaviors to make the larger points. Out of 218 posts (essays) since mid-2013, there have already been 41 chiefly aimed at Trump and his erratic, mean-spirited, untruthful, incompetent behavior. Those 41 can be accessed by month or by topic using the lists to the right and below. [As a further note, I am not an attorney. Nothing in this or any JohnJustThinking posts or other material is to be construed as legal advice.]

 

Posts that more specifically deal with Donald Trump:

  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.
  38. “Dishonorable presidency, disgraceful enablers,” Feb. 11, 2020.
  39. When large problems meet small minds,” Feb. 28, 2020.
  40. “Saving Americans despite their president,” Mar. 7, 2020.
  41. “Trump’s viral alternate facts,” Mar. 19, 2020.
Posted in Church and state, Liberty | Leave a comment

Trump’s viral alternate facts

Before our very eyes, America’s would-be “Dear Leader” has again demonstrated how one “truth” can be replaced by another, though there are no data to explain the gap’s jump. His secret, of course, is that it wasn’t data that supported the first, nor for him is it data that support the second. Some alternative facts are simply more conducive to his needs than others. It was his need, not facts, that made COVID-19 just a hoax perpetrated by Democrats and “experts” (the latter being untrustworthy, of course, as experts are). His base understood how right he was to start with, a type of evidence that in itself proved him right.

But unlike his inauguration crowd, things were changing fast. Most Americans became convinced and worried about the experts’ facts but Trump’s base was also attracted to Trump’s comforting variation on those facts (Yes, he said, the pandemic is real, but it’s under control and will likely vanish in warmer weather.) But Trump’s self-praised concoctions and make-believe solutions stood up less and less to experts’ fact-based explanations. Consequently, the personal needs on which Trump needed to focus began to shift. Reality—which is to say in Trump’s world the more personally fulfilling set of alternative facts—could be changed, for the first set of alternative facts was no longer serving his needs as well.

There was an embarrassing period when he bellowed one version of reality at excited disciples attending the we’ll-believe-anything rallies and his emerging new version when face to face with scientists. His demeanor and language in the first matched “hoaxes,” and “fake news,” while in the second appeared words like “social distancing,” “epidemiology,” and “risk analysis.” Two factors made that incompatibility easy for him. First, Trump’s embarrassment gene is as nonexistent as his empathy and consistency genes. Second, alternative facts can be exchanged for other alternative facts with little effort, as I said above.

He doesn’t even necessarily have to believe what scientists say, but his brand new perception of facts can be aligned with the experts, particularly if the needs he focuses on could be the newly proclaimed, heroic wartime presidency. This new role and persona called for getting in front of the parade and leading—or seeming to lead—the experts, at least those on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force (look who started leading the sessions)!

Granted, it would be difficult for most of us to pull off such a shift in realities. It more often suits us to keep belief systems consistent. Except for those deluded enough—for either political or religious reasons—to have decided Trump is a gift from God, most of us expect ourselves and other humans to have difficulty being faithful to one reality Monday and its opposite Tuesday.

For example, on January 22, Trump was asked, “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” His reply was, “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” Then, among other claims, he changed history to this: “I’ve always known this is real—this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” It was so declared by WHO on March 11. Any number of such denials are scattered throughout Trump’s history, so we can expect it to be repeated, a reason no one should ever trust his “facts” or his promises, for he lies so routinely as to be frightening.

One Trump incompetence that is shared with other presidents in American history is the distinction between “I didn’t do that” and “I’m accountable for everything.” Truman’s phrase, “The Buck Stops Here,” captures only part of the managerial principles involved. Few presidents (or CEOs in other settings) would be so irresponsible about where the buck stops as Trump is regularly.

Within the past week, Trump was asked by a reporter if he took responsibility for disbanding the White House pandemic team as early as 2016. That small team had been established by Obama after lessons learned from the H1N1 virus experience. It had been charged with monitoring and reacting to potential pandemics including our readiness for national action should one appear. American readiness is still coming up short even this week with further news of virus exam kits, hospital bed availability, and so on.

Trump could have easily left that function in office to keep the country and appropriate parts of government up to date on possible pandemics, status of available beds, readiness of kits, and whatever else is appropriate (all altered as needed by the Trump Administration). It was a holdover from Obama (that may be the reason for discarding it—a stupid reason, but one not out of keeping with other Trump childishness.) One wonders if we would be in an entirely different and happier place now. I’m not blaming the virus on Trump, but I am saying he has definitely extended the social pain of this virus.

Even as late as today, he issued information that had not been considered by the expert task force. I see no reason to think he was lying, but he does jump too quickly often enough that his recommendations unless validated through those familiar with the medical/scientific issues. One expert had to correct Trump’s statement. For anyone in the employ of the federal government, that is a good way to get fired. Trump is more interested in being the fount of all truth than that Americans get the scientifically valid information.

Trump’s excuse for having insufficient personnel to prepare for COVID-19 was that he doesn’t “want thousands of people around when you don’t need them,” an absolutely ridiculous point for him to make inasmuch as he had been asked if he takes responsibility for discarding the pandemic office, a handful of persons addressing ongoing pandemic possibilities and government readiness. Having received no discernable answer to her question about accountability, the journalist continued, “You said you don’t want people around when you don’t need them, but you did disband the White House pandemic office.

Trump dressed her down, charging in a snarky voice, that she had raised a “nasty” question, leaving no doubt he should not be held accountable. He said he didn’t personally close the office and get rid of the pandemic personnel. “I didn’t do it. I don’t know anything about it. . . . and what we’ve done is to…save thousands of lives because of the [quick . . . results].” The CEO’s thin skin and childish refusal to be responsible has a terrible effect in any organization.

In Trump’s flawed version of managing through many layers of organization, the “buck” seems not to stop with him, though he is quick to claim successes. Whatever his real estate or debt skills, Trump is not a skilled manager, is thoroughly incompetent in the art of multi-tiered management, nor does he have the first idea of how to incorporate a sense of responsibility. He should—as he likes to say of others—go back to school.

If enough American voters find Trump’s attitude and performance to be acceptable, we deserve what we get.

 

Posted in Politics, Science and society | 1 Comment

Saving Americans despite their president

Our uncanny, national experience with Donald Trump and his indulgent supporters has subjected Americans to an inside view of how autocracy can grow from deterioration of a constitutional democracy. There are ways to describe the disturbing phenomenon, many of which I’ve cited in previous posts. A simple query occurred to me last week as the coronavirus threatened our health while enlightening us in the way Trump behaves. It is this: is there anything Trump supporters would find embarrassing about this unfit president?

Anything? Apparently, his uninformed statements, mean-spirited pronouncements, trigger-happy reactions, trust of hunches over science, mistreatment of long time friends and allies, and disregard for the Constitution seem not to bother them. Like parents who coddle whatever misbehavior their unruly child inflicts on the neighbors, all Republican senators except one openly exhibited their irresponsibility in the impeachment acquittal. Unspoken was American senators’ sacrifice of the country to avoid Trump’s vengeance by tweets and payback in the next election.

On a happier note, I’ve carefully watched the daily presentations of the Pence task force and found it to have a more refreshingly credible, professional, and careful voice to come out of the White House in some time. Except for Pence’s obligatory slavish praise for Trump, this competent group seems focused on coronavirus facts rather than ways to blame Obama, on precision in what is conveyed, and on the backbone to contradict Trump’s continual misinformation. How encouraging it is to have grownups around the table!

They appear to know the secret to keeping their concentration on expertise, facts, and solutions rather than hunches and political blaming. Unlike Trump and most of the rest of us, they have a deep knowledge of the science and logistics involved. Further, they seem to have minimized how much the president makes the complicated matter more difficult and Americans more confused. Their best tactic going forward might be to keep Trump out of the room, away from microphones, and mute on giving advice.

His presidency is well-suited for the largely fact-free rallies that subject his equally fact-free bellowing base to unending campaigning. In that setting, he needn’t attend to facts, difficult decisions, or a presidential base that extends to an entire country, just simply to those more angry than informed. His type of campaigning offers him latitude for his untruthful and often frankly stupid behavior. It does not require the thoughtfulness so critical in his day job, so even massive disinformation in a rally ostensibly does less damage than if he were speaking from what he’s transformed into his Offal Office (forgive me; that’s not a typo).

Donald Trump, with the backing and protection of Mitch McConnell, Bill Barr, and most Republicans is not just a foolish and temporary irritant to the country and its carefully designed systems. As long as Trump is in office, he is already and will remain an existential threat to what most Americans want to preserve about America. The time is growing shorter for his supporters—particularly the elected officials among them—to reverse the appalling risks they’ve been enabling. The monster Republicans have birthed and developed is already winning.

Their own behavior, as is his, is not remotely ethical, much less patriotic, for it is devastatingly injurious to America and is, therefore, unambiguously un-American.

 

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

When large problems meet small minds

Medical and public health authorities warn that America is destined to join worldwide exposure to COVID-19 (one of several coronaviruses). For years we’ve been told that the future holds any number of viral and other disease outbreaks. Pandemics call for widespread, expensive group action that transcends borders, disciplines, and politics, a forced engagement with socialism whether we like it or not. Individual actions alone are necessary but totally insufficient; the leadership of government is an essential component.

All levels of government will be involved, as will voluntary organizations like churches, companies, universities, nonprofits, and independent government agencies. The federal establishment has access to funds, enjoys a lawful reach, and maintains relationships with all levels. That means the White House and Congress are not only prominent, but ascendant in their respective realms. It would be unlikely that both these federal branches are operating perfectly at any given time, but we’ve much reason to believe the Executive Branch now is, to say the least, bungling, and the Senate inept or, at least, unpracticed at any serious governing activity.

Except for the Legislative Branch’s provision of funds and helpful alteration of laws as needed, we are left with the White House as the center of whatever national response is to be generated. Grave pity, for America is plagued with a White House known neither for competence nor candor.

Our president values employees’ loyalty to him, personally, more than to the country. Our president has stripped out layers of expertise, explaining that specialists and professionals can be rehired if needed, as if they are untrained day workers. Our president is pathologically narcissistic with no patience for correcting errors because doing so would acknowledge having made mistakes. Our president with regard to ethical standards and treatment of others has proven to be a moral midget. Our president is quick to rely on revenge and punishment rather than informed leadership to make corrections when they cannot be just covered up. Our president is so convinced of his professed perfection that even slight reference to an error he may have made brings denunciation of those he holds responsible.

The results of these proclivities and distressingly many others are legion and crucial. Information he dispenses and promises he makes can never be trusted. He repeatedly hires with effusive pride and fires with feigned righteous vengeance. He strips layers of personnel from vital governmental functions, celebrating the minimal cost savings while disregarding the skills lost, as if there is no cost of those losses. In terms of professional delegation skills, he exhibits less grasp than does a new first-line supervisor. He avoids deep bench development of competence in favor of his “deep state” paranoia. He has a need to play tough guy internationally and to approach even time-tested allies as if they are enemies. He has already destroyed faith in the United States where once was respect and trust.

His treatment even of his own party has taken advantage of its spinelessness, enabling him to run rough-shod over Constitutional roles and authority. The vaunted rule of law means nothing to him except as an impediment to his desires. His behavior has increasingly displayed the foreboding progress of dictatorship-in-the-making. Meanwhile, the weakened Republican Senate, indeed the whole Republican party, has evidently decided that autocracies aren’t such a bad form of government after all.

There is nothing new or overstated about the portrayals I’ve cited above, extreme as they would have seemed to all of us merely four years ago. But there is something new about COVID-19 and its anticipated rapid spread around the globe. And such a president and such an administration don’t automatically become more moral, more competent, nor more wise because the challenges have ballooned.

Nations are called to protect the human race from a deadly virus and to master the necessary defenses against its deadly attacks. That adds international political complexity to the difficulties of getting the science and implementation right. That science and accompanying strategies for fighting pandemics, the US has—or had—one of those deep bench capacities I referred to earlier. But the president thought he knew better, so has cut away some of our accumulated capability, most obviously in the CDC.

The characteristics I’ve noted risk interfering with marshalling appropriate resources, mounting a professional delegation process with its attendant accountability, avoiding the distraction of Trump’s ego needs, keeping Americans informed with facts not sifted through political considerations (as in Wuhan), and harnessing America’s immense power of scientific inquiry along with similar strengths of managerial and technical proficiency. (It’s a sad aside to note Trump chose now to punish the HHS whistle-blower and seems more interested in stock market effect on his campaign than on the potential illness of millions.)

Given the current, disturbing predictions, COVID-19 has either more pain in store for the world in general and America in particular, or perhaps less if we are fortunate. Which it is depends greatly on our management of scientific and political capabilities. We need the best understandings, tools, and wisdom—all often in short supply. Chance alone may impede the expected downsides, however we do know that when large, complex problems (think climate change) meet small, self-centered minds, we need all the solutions we can acquire and all the hope we can get.

 

Posted in Politics, Science and society | 3 Comments

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.

 

 *    *    *    *    *    *

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.

 

Posted in Politics | 6 Comments

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.”

 

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Americans trade lives for hobbies

The half-life of American horror over mass shootings begins—and largely ends—with profuse thoughts and prayers, neither ever shown to have any effect. Politicians’ superficial slogans of mourning, frightened Americans’ pleas of “something must be done,” and a quickly exhausted round of discussions about background checks enable a great nation to go back to sleep and political campaigns to continue accepting NRA bribes.

After each mass shooting, scores of opinion-writers, experts on television news, and faith leaders come forth to warn us that the loud outcry will soon be forgotten. At any rate, it’ll be forgotten until this plague of projectiles returns, announced by the staccato sounds of automatic weapons and plaintive cries of those who’ve sacrificed family and friends due to somebody’s “gun rights.”

I’ve published on this blog several posts (essays) dealing with gun rights (see below). There is no doubt about the 2nd Amendment wording, “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” In 2008 the Supreme Court interpreted (District of Columbia v. Heller) which individuals, which rights, and which arms. Pertinent to this post, the ruling stated that “it is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” Unless there is a serious legal flaw in my commonsense reasoning (I am not a lawyer), there is no Constitutional right to have an AK47, oversize magazines, access to guns in the absence of background checks, or other expansion the Supreme Court has decreed.

It is as if this country has a death wish. We manufacture these weapons. We import them as well. We bestow on them more statutory protection than we give their victims. And we honor their owners’ entitlement to buy more and carry them about. We currently control guns, it is said by those who believe we’ve controlled quite enough already. They actually do have compelling arguments. First, guns don’t kill people, people do. Second, a gun doesn’t pull its own trigger. Besides, nothing can be done, gun rights are forever, after all, there’s the vaunted 2nd Amendment. To question it is to question Americanism.

These straightforward, simple assertions have two characteristics in common—first, each seems quite logical; second, each is entirely useless. So if you don’t want to face living in a country seemingly satisfied with recurring mass shootings, turn off the news and don’t read the paper. Let the shooters and the shot work it out.

It’s undemanding and amateurish to approach a problem with more energy than understanding, for oversimplification is ever with us. Yet we can also be petrified, convinced by complexity that the objective is undoable. The former can look uninformed or even stupid, but the latter is arguably the greater blunder inasmuch as going in circles may be worse than not going at all. In that spirit, I wonder why we seem unable even to consider that the dilemma of mass shootings facing America cannot be approached successfully by these actions:

  1. Congress and state legislatures make the buying, importing, and owning of all firearms above the minimal level already suggested in relevant Supreme Court rulings. The criteria for those “minimal levels” focus on characteristics of the weapon such as magazine size, ammunition features, firing rate, etc., but not owner characteristics.
  2. Congress and state legislatures establish whatever requirements must be met in properly researched background checks and personality traits to control ownership and use of the guns that remain legal (shotguns, small caliber handguns, etc.). Criteria for the remaining legal guns would be chosen by law to satisfy the 2nd Amendment as interpreted as judicially interpreted, though below the criteria established in action #1.
  3. Congress and state legislatures fund scientific research by CDC into all issues of gun ownership, gun characteristics, gun prevalence, and all aspects that might increase available relevant knowledge (as well as possibly alter some of the foregoing actions), allowing the sharing of findings by researchers, though not lobbying.
  4. Congress and state legislatures establish “buy back” programs to prevent owners of unacceptable firearms, as defined in action #1, from suffering financial loss due to their previously owned firearms having become illegal. Australia (though with a smaller population) overcame the complexity and opposition to mount a similar challenge. Our situation would be different in size though likely not in concept.

This approach to gun ownership and use focuses on the weapons rather than the users as is now the case. The latter (background checks, convictions, and problematic, often changing life circumstances) has been—and can be expected to stay—unsuccessful due to the inaccuracy of psychiatric predictions and the hesitancy of family and other persons to give testimony for anything less than frankly psychotic behavior. Moreover, if the focus remains on gun users rather than the guns themselves, what is the logic to prevent pressure to expand weapon availability to include RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] or, for that matter, tanks. After all, a person psychologically “clean” enough to have passed a stiff background check would also be unlikely to endanger public safety by discharging his RPG in a shopping mall.

The argument that gun manufacturers, importers, and sellers would lose a source of revenue would be true, though the needs of public safety have often caused income loss for dangerous substances and mechanisms. The argument would also be true that the National Rifle Association (NRA) would lose its powerful control over Congress and state legislatures, along with its deceptive disinformation about what the 2nd Amendment demands. The argument that “good guys,” through no fault of their own, would lose a source of pleasure and weaponry competence would, of course, be true as well.

Like many Americans, I have honestly tried to discover a motivation for advocating that military weapons be spread across the land. They are not needed for self-protection, target practice, or for hunting. They are needed only for military action, a use that most Americans consider to be without merit in this country, that is, unless one is willing to adopt the necessary conspiracy thinking with regard to white nationalists. Consequently, in the absence of that kind of civil deterioration, these are weapons for which there is no civilian utility. However, though I am not convinced that armed revolt is actually in the plans of such groups, it would be beyond foolish for American law to allow a growing cache of military weaponry in the hands of professed revolutionaries.

Allow me, then, to make the following assumption: Public safety from guns larger, faster, and more quickly rearmed than ones sufficient for minimally meeting the level of Constitutional assurance would be a public policy valued more than the profits of what are now legitimate trading in guns and the NRA’s anti-democratic power over legislators If those assumptions are warranted, they compel us to consider this question of our time:

Do American voters choose to continue subjecting persons in the United States to mass murder in order to protect the hobby of gun owners?

.    .    .    .    .    .

I have published previous posts on gun issues in this blog: “Are we crazy? October 3, 2017; “America has too few dead kids,” February 16, 2018; “The lethal cost of playing with guns,” March 4, 2018; “America and its gun culture,” August 8, 2019.

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Lying for god and party

The antics and lies of President Trump have for three years distracted Americans—including me—from better use of our time. I established this blog in the pre-Trump bliss of mid-2013 chiefly to address church/state issues and the immorality of religion. The 2016 Trump invasion of lies, errors of fact, mean-spirited politics, and assault on American rule of law jarred me into political commentary, resulting in a little more than 14% of the 207 posts (essays) so far being Trump-related. “Sad.”

Last week I became aware of an incident combining Trumpian lies and religious dishonesty. Frankly, religious fraudulence and deceit occur with stunning frequency, so they aren’t hard to find. I plan to write a post demonstrating that widespread condition soon, but this one got my attention just last week. The matter concerned Vice President Pence’s statements during an August 28, 2019 speech at the American Legion National Convention. It regarded a Veterans Administration issue, about which VP Pence said:

“This administration will always make room for the spiritual needs of our heroes at the VA as well. You might’ve heard even today that there’s a lawsuit to remove a bible that was carried in World War II from a missing man table at a VA hospital in New Hampshire. There’s a lawsuit underway. It’s really no surprise because under the last administration, VA hospitals were removing bibles, and even banning Christmas carols in an effort to be politically correct. But let me be clear: Under this administration, VA hospitals will not be religion-free zones. We will always respect the freedom of religion of every veteran of every faith, and my message to the New Hampshire VA Hospital is: The bible stays!”

That evening, Pence sent the following tweet, thereby carrying his remarks to a far, far larger group:

Mike Pence‏Verified account @mike_pence       During the last Administration the VA was removing Bibles & even banning Christmas carols to be politically correct, but under President @realDonaldTrump, VA hospitals will NOT be religion-free zones.      Message to the New Hampshire VA: the Bible STAYS!     1.31M views      9:31 PM      28 Aug 2019

I learned of the Pence messages when they were reported by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a well-established, nationwide nonprofit dedicated to the Constitutional requirement that keeps religion out of government and government out of religion. FFRF found Pence’s statements to be “troubling on several counts,” as presented in the following five paragraphs [numbering mine, JBC] of the FFRF release:

  1. “First, he [Pence] misrepresented the lawsuit that he referenced. Actually, an Air Force veteran is suing to remove a bible from the POW/MIA table at the Manchester VA Medical Center in New Hampshire. In the lawsuit itself, the veteran explains that he is ‘a devout Christian,’ and ‘as a Christian, he respects and loves all his military brothers and sisters and does not want to be exclusionary by the placement of the Christian Bible.’ In other words, this is not an anti-Christian attack. It’s simply one patriot’s admirable attempt to uphold the Constitution.
  2. “Second, the tradition of POW/MIA tables was started by Vietnam combat pilots as a memorial to all who have served, regardless of religious belief, and did not ‘customarily include a bible. The original POW/MIA table at the Manchester VA Medical Center did not contain a bible; it was added later. The VA has secured a special place of prominence for this bible while denying other religious groups equal opportunity to place their own texts on the table. To defend the Manchester VA Medical Center’s actions is to defend Christian privilege, not religious freedom.
  3. “Third, contrary to Pence’s claims, the previous administration did not ban Christmas carols. In reality, a VA center in Augusta, Ga., asked high school carolers not to sing overtly religious Christmas carols in the public areas of the hospital. This VA hospital should be commended; instead, Pence distorted the hospital’s honorable intentions in an effort to fearmonger and peddle a Christian persecution narrative that is demonstrably false.
  4. “Finally, the VA policy that Pence complained about was most recently revised in July 2008, not during the Obama administration, as Pence implies, but actually under George W. Bush’s administration. The VA’s 2008 policy reflects the mandates of our godless Constitution. VA hospitals are not, and never have been, ‘religion-free zones,’ as Pence claimed. Veterans are free to practice their own religions in their own ways; the VA respects that freedom by not endorsing any religion. The 2008 policy drew the line in the correct place, but even the new policy states that passive displays should respect and tolerate differing views and should not elevate one belief system over others. The bible display at the Manchester VAMC fails even under this newly watered-down policy, because it elevates Christianity above all other belief systems.
  5. “No Christian is prevented from the free exercise of their religion when a bible is not displayed on a public table or religious carols are not sung in a public space,’ FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel concludes his letter to the vice president. ‘Those Christians can still read their bible and hear those carols, it’s just that the VA is not imposing the bible and carols on everyone else. Sadly, it seems that the lack of imposition, which is required by our Constitution, is precisely what upsets you. And for that, you should be ashamed.’”

Ashamed, indeed, Andrew Seidel [author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, 2019], though don’t hold your breath. Pence, having merged fundamentalist arrogance with Trumpian refusal to admit errors, is unlikely to exhibit or confess to shame, at least publicly.

The most advantageous environment for religious persons and groups (churches and other organizations of believers) is that government be required to stay out of their theology and religious practices. The necessary swap, though, is that religions are not to call upon government for funds, backing, or other supportive interactions. That is what Thomas Jefferson meant by a “wall of separation.” However, as U.S. history shows repeatedly, religions have a habit of accepting the freedom while demanding government endorsement or aid, resulting in blurring of the distinction laid out in Article 1 of the Constitution.

Further, individual politicians make it worse by currying favor from religious voters. Religionists routinely expect politicians to pay homage to religion or, more accurately, to their specific religion. Enough national self-discipline to maintain a respectful separation has not been easy to maintain. It has been made even more difficult by the unfounded claims that the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” so that not only is government to give favorable treatment to religion, but to do so for Christianity above other religions. Indeed, a number of Christian writers have gone so far as to argue that freedom of religion applies only to Christians, even then perhaps only to specific denominations of Christians.

I’m indebted to the Freedom from Religion Foundation for its report of Pence’s spreading misinformation. FFRF is a nationwide nonprofit dedicated, in its words, “to fighting Christian Nationalism and its push to undermine the religious freedoms of all Americans, including the more than 110 million who either practice a minority religion or no religion at all.”

Disclosure: I have long been a Life Member of FFRF and have great respect for the years of dedication by its founders and staff. It is a foremost organization in the struggle to respect and defend the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Posted in Church and state, Politics | 2 Comments

The Republican conspiracy

If there’s anything enigmatic about America’s experience of Donald Trump that is shared by both Republicans and non-Republicans, it must be the baffling nature of each side’s conception of the other side’s reasoning. Human beings have a great store of understanding, even empathy for each other’s thinking. Yet our advanced “theory of mind” capability seems in this case to fail us. I am not untouched; I’ve a frequently recurring quandary: what on earth are Republicans thinking?

I realize Republicans must think things just as unflattering about some of my views. But before I go further, I need to point out a difficulty about using the term Republican. I know they have to call themselves something, but Libertarian is already taken and National Socialist has an unpleasant reputation (due to the loathed S word?). Perhaps I should stop being so picky and just stick with Republican after all, though it does confuse me.

I’ve known Republicans. They stood for low or no deficits. They stood for free trade. They stood against “picking winners and losers” in the market. They stood for keeping government out of our personal choices. They stood for standing tall among the nations, representing stability, reliability, and being an international force for democracy. They stood—as did arriving Puritans—to make America a “city upon a hill.” On the other hand, maybe I just wasn’t paying close attention.

I used to agree with a good portion of Republican political philosophy. And whether I like the outcome or not, I’m a sucker for propositions based on truth and precisely reasoned, no matter their origins or results. Almost everything I hear from Trump fails on those scores and, increasingly, much of what I hear from his sycophants is similarly tainted. For example, here are a few comments that have come my way straight out of the Republican playbook within the past few weeks.

[1] Regarding Trump’s continual lying: “Politicians lie, including Presidents of the U.S., for example, (a) ‘I did not have sex with that woman’ and (b) ‘If you like your [current] health care plan, you can keep your health care plan, period.’” The Republican position is that these Democrat lies or purported lies are equivalent to Trump’s lies, and overlook that Trump’s lying occurs with dizzying frequency. But let me focus on these two instances cited by Republicans.

[1a] “I did not have sex with that woman.” That was definitely a lie and must be admitted to be so. Yet if all partisan identities are removed from the story, do Republicans really believe Americans—Republicans or Democrats—would argue that the severity of impeachment is justified for a behavior so common it likely occurs by Americans millions of time each day by persons considered upright, maybe even blameless?

[1b] “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan, period.” As it turned out, this intention of Obama did fail. A Republican could honestly say Obama was ineffective, didn’t try hard enough, or broke a promise. But no way is a campaign plank a lie in the normal way the word lie is used, even by Republicans. If, for example, despite trying as hard as possible, Trump’s great wall just cannot overcome opposition, does failing to build it constitute a lie? Of course not. We could establish a new standard of what counts as a lie, for example, anything a politician promised but can’t accomplish will be called a lie. But what you will have established is that every time a politician, no matter how honest, doesn’t achieve what he or she sets out to achieve constitutes lying. That’s a pretty useless redefinition of “lie.”

[2] “Because of my [Trump’s] policies, Black Unemployment has just been reported to be at the LOWEST RATE EVER RECORDED!” Nothing Trump says can be trusted as truth (I mean that literally), but as in this case the Republican reaction is to do just that, swallowing the Cool Aid on a regular basis. (If there were no Fox News, I wonder if Trump fans would have nothing to say.) Since Trump’s fans care little about reality, others are continually distracted by having to unearth the truth. Actually, black unemployment had been falling since March of 2010! Characteristic of Trump, he woke up on third base and claimed he hit a triple. Trump took full credit for “his” achievement of that falling black unemployment. Further, even then the rate was not the lowest ever recorded as he said, but the lowest in decades. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart below illustrates, the black unemployment rate has been in a years-long downward trend that continued under Trump.

Black Unemployment Rate
Years 2009 – 2017

The black unemployment rate at Trump’s inauguration was 7.8 percent, the lowest it had been in nearly 10 years (not the lowest ever recorded, as Trump claimed) according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By the end of 1917, it dropped to 6.8 percent in December, the lowest rate since 1972 when regular tracing of unemployment by race began. However, the rate in the year before Trump’s presidency had dropped the same amount, and in each of the three years earlier fell 1.9% (2015), 1.5% (2014), and 1.8% (2013). Yes, the downward trend continued under Trump, but as a continuation of the previous fall and not due to anything Trump caused, a phenomenon hardly reflected in his tweet announcing the lowest rate ever recorded and due to Trump’s policies! Keep in mind that even if we can find similar self-serving misstatements by other presidents, the extensive number that Trump treats us to sets him apart from all others.

[3] “There was no collusion with Russia that affected the results of the 2016 presidential election (except by the Clinton campaign).” These Republican claims serve, I assume, to protect Trump from having to face the possibility that Russia won the presidency for him. But let’s look at them more closely.

[3a] It is possible—maybe even probable unless Russians were just ineffectively throwing their money away—to argue that thousands of Facebook (and other?) messages meant to stimulate Trump votes made a difference in the election (I have no evidence to make that claim). Maybe there was no effect of Russian actions. But to assert as fact that there was “no collusion” is to allege as a certainty that which is only an undemonstrated claim. Doing that is the moral equivalent of lying.

[3b] Notice the unrelated charge slipped in, muted by parentheses, that Clinton colluded with Russia. Where did this claim come from and why? Was it to have made any Trump campaigners’ collusion, if found, look less reprehensible? Frankly, I don’t know. (Trump’s has a quasi-paranoia habit of charging or blaming others with offences he himself has committed. Republicans pick up his drift and adopt it for themselves.) There is no collusion by the Clinton campaign supported by evidence. But this is the kind of slippery construction that shows up repeatedly in Trump’s and Trumpists’ speech, much like making an allegation without actually making an allegation, like the old saw, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

The futility of having an untrustworthy president

I began this post by marveling at Republicans’ bizarre thinking during this presidency. I’ve never thought Republicans were evil or unintelligent. (I’m overlooking Newt Gingrich’s 1990s conversion of his party from dutiful governing to intra-congressional warfare, clearly damaging my commitment to internal bipartisanship!) I’ve spoken in this post to a few of many actual Republican contentions. Obviously, they are not exhaustive, though a much longer list easily gathered are quite exhausting.

Such pure craziness in a president and in a president’s followers first looks shameful and disgraceful, but as more craziness occurs becomes not just pathetic and risible, but boring and occasionally (out of desperation) something to make fun of, like announcing that the United States now has “the best economy in history” and “the greatest we ever had” just as another announcement restated America’s “highest debt since shortly after WW2” (as a % of GDP).”

Chasing all the daily, self-serving lies of this president as well as those of his followers (as the examples above), many of whom are or were otherwise intelligent, even judicious persons squanders considerable resources. The pursuit to see through dishonesty is a boring and wasteful engagement of millions. They (we) continue because it is not inconsequential that a president can seem determined to explore how low he can sink in integrity, thoughtfulness, and common truthfulness. It is vital to scrutinize a powerful man-child dragging our country down to his despicable level toward weakening the rule of law and the growth of authoritarianism.

I began today’s rant with a quandary: To be behaving so corruptly, so hell-bent on taking America to at least the frightening border of tyranny, what on earth are Republicans thinking? The state of this nation could not be so endangered or the republic’s stabilizing framework so challenged without Republican complacency and endorsement. Americans who are not Trump’s sycophants are at a disadvantage so far due to a Trump bootlicker Senate and fourteen months until a possible turnover in the White House. It troubles me that we—or more personally, I—have so little to offer except to put a name to the dark clouds over America with what will seem at first to be amateurish hyperbole, though not words without meaning, to wit:

 

Republicans have entered into a conspiracy with Donald J. Trump, a written, spoken, or implied conspiracy. . . . .

  • to adopt Trump’s foolish statements and conclusions as their own.
  • to blame whom Trump blames for damage and failures of his own making.
  • to deny that Trumps lies are lies and his intimations intended.
  • to avoid criticism of Trump’s treatment of allies.
  • to minimize attention to climate change and any natural phenomena Trump denies.
  • to minimize check-and-balance instances that would expose or thwart Trump
  • to accept anything Trump does as acceptable and to be emulated.

 

Posted in Politics | 6 Comments

Republican leaders on church-state separation

Politicians and individual voters change their views over time. Seeking consistency in any party is certain to be a confusing search even from year to year, much less over a few decades. For example, in the 1930s there was great resistance to social legislation like social security by Republicans and conservative Democrats. It was widely seen as socialism and the “Sovietizing” of America, strongly opposed by the American Bar Association and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. Yet by late 1954 Republican President Eisenhower said, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

Citing Eisenhower is only to illustrate that sweeping changes in views about governmental matters occur in the natural order of things. I’m not making a point that they are either good or bad. Rather than political issues like those Eisenhower mentioned, the changes over time can be viewed with respect to any topic in the Constitution (for example, attitudes and practices toward bearing arms). With respect to the interaction of religion and government, we can trace changes or stability as the years progress. Because we are currently in a Republican administration, I have chosen to sample Republican attitudes for the period the GOP has been in existence. Interestingly, I found attitudes expressed by a sampling of party leaders since Lincoln to be remarkably stable on the church-state matter.

As would be expected with any subject, however, the actual, fine-tuned interpretation of what church-state means is not as stable. Despite the similar wording through decades, questions still exist about whether religious liberty is only for Christians, whether “voluntary” prayer for minors in public schools can really be voluntary, whether there are exceptions to religious freedom (e.g., Mormon polygamy, Jewish circumcision, child care licensing), and whether the religion of a state employee is grounds for refusing to honor a proper citizen request. It is no surprise that slight variations since the 18th century call for further refinement, particularly since the whole idea of church-state separation was unique to begin with, so that interpretation problems had not had long to rise to attention. Separation had not been established in law until the 1st Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1791. In most other countries, of course, there was hardly any attempt to disentangle religion and politics at all.

One of the specifics Americans had to learn was that the singular word religion, while useful, can overlook the fact that critical differences separate one religion from another. In fact, in some cases, the only similarity between two religions might simply be belief in a supernatural god or gods and nothing else. Further, religious freedom must be construed as freedom from other religions even of the same denominational name. As I have pointed out in previous posts, religions very rarely have little to fear from atheists, but a great deal to fear from other religions.

An early example of that occurred with the Danbury Baptist Association (church) in Connecticut. Religious freedom of the Danbury Baptists had been under the thumb of majority Christian churches in league with the Connecticut Legislature. In answer to their fears, Thomas Jefferson provided comforting assurance in 1801 that the new federal Constitution would protect Danbury Baptists from such religious oppression. In so doing so, he used the analogy of a wall separating church and state, giving rise to the term still used. That wall guarantees religious freedom from any government that threatens it, even if the government is acting in concert with members of the same or similar faith.

In the present context, the Trump administration identifies far more with fundamentalist Christian religion than other branches of Christian belief. Those “others” differ not only from fundamentalist Christians, but from each other. They are not necessarily pleased with President Trump’s camaraderie with one religion above all others, for he thereby immerses government in various religions’ passionate theological arguments with themselves. That is not only a blatant violation of the church-state barrier, but illustrates the Founders’ good sense to keep religion and government separate. Previous administrations had not completely avoided such an error, but none in a long time has done it in so wholesale a manner.

The advent of Christian Nationalism (I’ll have more on that in a future post) along with the Trump administration’s courting of fundamentalist leaders, has raised the stakes concerning the mixing of government and religion. While many (though not all) fundamentalist Christians seek greater involvement, others are more worried that having a favored religion can’t help but pit one version of religious faith against others, a phenomenon already underway. The demands on government are sufficiently complex that its choosing to engage with so fraught a subject as religion would be unnecessarily taking on the riding of yet another tiger.

There is much more to be said about these matters, but in this post I want only to underscore how leaders in the Republican party have considered the matter of church-state separation since the party began 165 years ago. In the quotes listed below, Republican leaders from the beginning have been remarkably (though not totally) consistent in their support of strong church-state separation.

The party, growing out of anti-slavery Whigs, was founded in March 1854. By 1860 the party had fielded and won the presidency with Midwest lawyer Abraham Lincoln. As one would expect—especially with the Civil War and Reconstruction—the Republican party dealt with changes due to time and various shifts in the political environment. To illustrate the level of consistency, you’ll find quotations in the relatively random list below of Republican leaders—mostly presidents—from 1862 to 2016.

I will treat the 2016 candidacy and administration of Donald Trump separately, likely in a future post on Christian Nationalism. I have not sought to focus on either strong or weak attitudes toward church-state separation. I do not propose that the historically random Republican quotes prove anything in any concrete way. For me they are best seen as educational and perhaps entertaining.

Comments of Republican Leaders 1864 – 2016

“My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.” And “The United States government must not undertake to run the Churches. When an individual, in the Church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest he must be checked.” President Abraham Lincoln, 1862.

“The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community.” Congressman (later President) James A. Garfield, 1874.

“I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation.” And “Leave the matter of religion [religious teaching] to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contribution. Keep the church and state forever separated.” President Ulysses S. Grant, 1875.

“We all agree that neither the Government nor political parties ought to interfere with religious sects. It is equally true that religious sects ought not to interfere with the Government or with political parties. We believe that the cause of good government and the cause of religion suffer by all such interference.” President Rutherford B. Hayes (while Governor of Ohio), 1875.

“There is nothing so despicable as a secret society that is based upon religious prejudice and that will attempt to defeat a man because of his religious beliefs. Such a society is like a cockroach—it thrives in the dark. So do those who combine for such an end.” President William Howard Taft, 1914.

“I hold that in this country there must be complete severance of Church and State; that public moneys shall not be used for the purpose of advancing any particular creed; and therefore that the public schools shall be non-sectarian and no public moneys appropriated for sectarian schools.” President Theodore Roosevelt, 1915.

“In the experiences of a year of the Presidency, there has come to me no other such unwelcome impression as the manifest religious intolerance which exists among many of our citizens. I hold it to be a menace to the very liberties we boast and cherish.” President Warren Harding, 1922.

“The fundamental precept of liberty is toleration. We cannot permit any inquisition either from within or without the law or apply any religious test to the holding of office. The mind of America must be forever free.” President Calvin Coolidge, 1925.

“I come of Quaker stock. My ancestors were persecuted for their beliefs. Here they sought and found religious freedom. By blood and conviction, I stand for religious tolerance both in act and in spirit.” President Herbert Hoover, 1928.

“And I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are.” President Dwight Eisenhower, 1957.

“As you know, the separation of church and state is not subject to discussion or alteration. Under our Constitution no church or religion can be supported by the U.S. Government. We maintain freedom of religion so that an American can either worship in the church of his choice or choose to go to no church at all.” President Richard Nixon, 1960.

“I believe that prayer in public schools should be voluntary. It is difficult for me to see how religious exercises can be a requirement in public schools, given our Constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. I feel that the highly desirable goal of religious education must be principally the responsibility of church and home.” President Gerald R. Ford, 1976.

“We establish no religion in this country. We command no worship. We mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are and must remain separate.” President Ronald Reagan, 1984.

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater, 1994.

“I’m mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to or not. You’re equally an American if you choose to worship an almighty and if you choose not to.” President George W. Bush, 2004.

“What we end up with is the first example of the criminalization of a Christian for believing the traditional definition of marriage.” Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee, 2015.

My Thanks to Ed Buckner

Many thanks for the assistance of my valued friend, Ed Buckner, past president of American Atheists, Inc. It was his idea to match historical quotations with a roster of Republican speakers and writers, with an emphasis on presidents. Ed assembled these data into a clever game for persons who have an interest in what Thomas Jefferson in 1802 called a “wall of separation between church and state. ”From his list I selected almost all the quotes cited in this post. Ed graciously made his game and the information he’d collected for it available for my use.

 

Posted in Church and state, Politics | 3 Comments

America and its gun culture

Here we go again . . . last weekend of American right-wing terrorists misusing a fictional constitutional right to wreak deadly havoc on people just going peacefully about their lives. Yes, here we go again; a criminal and narcissistic President trying to impersonate decency. We have no more reason to believe his “act nice” remarks as we have had for any of the unceasing stream of lies and mean-spirited histrionics he emits.

Only days before, the National Rifle Association had held its convention of 5,000 or so enthusiasts in a Dallas arena. (For the president’s protection, the arena had been declared a gun free zone.) The governor of Texas, Gregg Abbott announced his solution to gun violence: religion and the Second Amendment! He argued that “The answer to gun violence is not to take guns away” from Americans, but “to strengthen the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.” Yes, you heard that right, he said “The problem isn’t guns, it’s hearts without God [italics mine, JC].”

Inspirational! Who knew? The solution is more guns and more religion, a ridiculous prescription anywhere else on earth. To my knowledge, no one questioned whether religion includes liberal Episcopalians, Jews, or even—God forbid—Muslims. Donald Trump, ever the logician, added “If we’re going to outlaw guns, like so many people want to do—Democrats—then we are going to have to outlaw immediately all vans and all trucks,” since they can be used to kill. By the way, what exactly does it mean to “strengthen” the Second Amendment?

Putting a finer touch on the “more guns” part of Abbott’s remedy, Trump added, “We want highly trained teachers to carry concealed weapons.” Why? Because, he said, “When [killers] know there are guns inside, they’re not going in.” OK, Trump’s conviction that would-be killers would be deterred is worth study (see below); it does seem to make sense. Further, as could have been expected, Trump and Pence moved on to the bigger issue, finding a way to connect mass killing to crazed immigrants.

When such remedies are so confidently touted by Abbott, Trump, the NRA, and your next door neighbor, it would be useful to ask what remarkable wisdom led to their certainty. Maybe more stringent background checks are not a good answer after all. Maybe guns on college campuses would make everyone safer. Maybe requiring all private homes to have a gun would help. Maybe good guys should be required to carry guns. Maybe enforced fundamentalist church attendance would cure the problem. Maybe tighter restrictions on rate of fire or magazine capacity is all we need. Possibly getting the president to refrain from malicious rants would help, after all such rants did have an effect in Germany in the 1930s; they worked even on regular folks. And we can link them to courage and patriotism as Trump bravely did in Dallas, saying, “We will never give up our freedom [ostensibly to carry military weapons into shopping centers; JC]. We will live free and die free!” If you can’t hear the muskets and see the galloping horses, you’re just not a patriot.

However, regardless of how all opinions about firearms are advocated by either Republicans or Democrats, we really don’t know much. “In the area of what works to prevent shootings, we know almost nothing,” said Mark Rosenberg, who supervised the CDC’s gun research efforts in the early1990s. How would Donald Trump know? How would your favorite pundit know? How would the most dedicated, honest observer know? I can guarantee you that I don’t know either. Even if the NRA and arms manufacturers knew, they are hardly disinterested so their findings and opinions are suspect. Consequently, we are all a bunch of amateurs stumbling in the dark about what has proven to be a life-or-death quandary.

But there are ways to discover relevant facts in the matter of reducing gun violence. To use them, we’d have to understand that a vote of senators and representatives in Congress won’t do it. In fact, a perfectly run referendum of citizens cannot settle it. Opinions do not matter, not Trump’s, not the NRA’s. Nobody’s opinions matter about, e.g., magazine size, firing rate, or similar factors help; they serve only to clutter a legitimate search for truth. That is what we have now, our options solidified because each faction has already decided that its opinions are the facts.

We need facts first. Only then do opinions matter, for the second question is what to do with the facts we’ve discovered. The NRA has less interest in facts than in pleasing gun manufacturers. Many Republican elected officials have less interest in facts than in pleasing the NRA. Pity, for research using the scientific method when applied to tough quandaries has yielded countless breakthroughs in understanding otherwise unsolvable mysteries for almost three centuries. (Careful though, all research, even honest research, is not constructed with the scientific method’s rigor.) We are a nation that has frequently put scientific research to work to enlighten teaching methods, rocketry, power production, drug efficacy, and a host of issues in all fields of endeavor.

Why, then, can true scientific research not be applied to the use of our deadly devices? Fact is, it can if we do not choose to stay in the dark. We have done, and continue to do, just that, throwing up our hands with inane statements about gun control like that of Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s “You can’t regulate evil.” Or we blame mental illness. (A pundit recently observed that Republicans rarely concern themselves with mental illness except to bring it up as the reason for mass murders.) The real stopper, however, is the belief that Americans have an absolute constitutional right to have and carry firearms. Statements by the NRA, elected officials, and uninformed citizens expose an assumption that this right applies to any size or any lethality of firearm.

But according to the Supreme Court, there is no such right (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008) as discussed in The lethal cost of playing with guns,” my post of March 4, 2018. Of course, we somehow know the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to howitzers and surface-to-air missiles, but the Court’s interpretation clarified more than that about which individuals, which rights, and which arms, thereby establishing a “floor” under individuals’ rights to “keep and bear Arms.” Whenever gun rights are brought up, Americans should carefully inspect what is being said. You will find inferences that such rights apply in such a generalized way that an uninformed listener could reasonably conclude that guns of all sorts are available to anyone. Hence I found Governor Abbott’s prescription to “strengthen” the Second Amendment strange; do we not mean to enforce all parts of the Constitution.

It is permissible for lawmakers at state or federal levels to impose whatever gun restrictions they wish as long as Court-determined minimum rights are protected. As expressed in the Court’s decision, rights guaranteed are “not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. Moreover, in United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, the Court held that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”

So how might legislatures and Congress go about establishing what leads certain perpetrators to violence against certain persons in certain settings with certain guns? What are the characteristics of those persons and their experiences, and what are the characteristics of weapons themselves and current efforts to control them? The former leads toward psychological considerations, mental illness, and so forth. The latter leads toward mechanical distinctions in gun manufacture, sale, characteristics, and disposition, as well as various control methods. Here arises a great problem in finding a reasonable solution, a problem created inside the walls of the Capitol itself.

Consider Jay Dickey. Dickey was a Republican congressman from Arkansas who crusaded in the mid-1990s to stop the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from funding gun violence research. Every year the Congress reauthorized what came to be known as the Dickey Amendment. However, Dickey (now deceased) later changed his mind after multiple waves of mass shooting. NRA had not changed its mind, however, and still accused the CDC of promoting gun control. So in 1996, the Republican-majority Congress threatened to strip funding from CDC if it continued research into firearm injuries and deaths. (In such matters, the chilling effect on others can depress research nationwide beyond the researchers directly affected.) Gun control research in 1996 came to a standstill.

It is not that in 2019, there is no firearms research going on, though likely not nearly enough to match the importance and apparently growing incidence of gun violence. One example is the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, a multi-disciplinary program of research and policy development. Another example is the National Institute of Justice (an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice) in its funding of gun-related studies 1993 to 1999 then 2009 to 2012, though it resumed in 2013.

Further, in 2013 the prestigious National Academies, Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine, became home to the “Committee on Priorities for a Public Health Research Agenda to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence.” The multi-disciplinary research products would be comprehensive and extensive, not capable of being concluded quickly, even if adequately funded. It is important to understand that although the formidable and professional task of prescribing research goals (not research results) is a time-consuming activity, for naught unless there are sufficient appropriations.

Unfortunately, I could not complete a more extensive look into the ostensibly broader research that might have been funded. I did find that Congress, while not continuing to prohibit CDC research, achieved the same effect by passing federal budgets in which such research went unfunded. More-or-less, that amounts to “you don’t have to refrain from researching firearm matters, we just won’t give you any money to do it.” I cannot judge whether that was due to political oversight or to a budgetary “intentional accident,” though my own direct experience in the ways of Congress would not find deceit out of the question.

Meanwhile, the NRA has stated its position is that “tax dollars should not be used to take sides in a policy debate.” That is ludicrous. Tax dollars are regularly used to pay for policy debate or facts useful to enlighten that debate. What must be avoided are claims that unbiased facts are not needed and that preconceived notions of either Republicans or Democrats constitute facts.

 

An excerpt as an addendum

A preparatory statement of the Priorities for a Public Health Research Agenda

to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence

Fatal and nonfatal firearm violence1 poses a serious threat to the safety and welfare of the American public. Although violent crime rates have declined in recent years, the U.S. rate of firearm-related deaths is the highest among industrialized countries. In 2010, incidents in the United States involving firearms injured or killed more than 105,000 individuals; there were twice as many nonfatal firearm-related injuries (73,505) than deaths. Nonfatal violence often has significant physical and psychological impacts, including psychological outcomes for those in proximity to individuals who are injured or die from gun violence. The recent, highly publicized, tragic mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and Tucson, Arizona, have sharpened the public’s interest in protecting our children and communities from the effects of firearm violence.

In January 2013, [the president] issued 23 executive orders directing federal agencies to improve knowledge of the causes of firearm violence, the interventions that might prevent it, and strategies to minimize its public health burden. One of these executive orders noted that “in addition to being a law enforcement challenge, firearm violence is also a serious public health issue that affects thousands of individuals, families, and communities across the Nation,” and directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with other relevant federal agencies, to immediately begin identifying the most pressing firearm-related violence research problems.

The CDC and the CDC Foundation2 requested that the Institute of Medicine (IOM), in collaboration with the National Research Council (NRC), convene a committee of experts to develop a potential research agenda focusing on the public health aspects of firearm-related violence—its causes, approaches to interventions that could prevent it, and strategies to minimize its health burden. In accordance with the CDC’s charge, the committee did not focus on public health surveillance and potentially related behavioral/mental health issues, as these will be addressed separately. The research program envisioned by the committee, which is designed to produce impacts in 3-5 years, focuses on

  • the characteristics of firearm violence,
  • risk and protective factors,
  • interventions and strategies,
  • gun safety technology, and
  • the influence of video games and other media.

The committee identified potential research topics by conducting a survey of previous relevant research, considering input received during the workshop, and using its expert judgment. The committee was not asked to consider funding for the research agenda, and in addition to the CDC, it is likely that other agencies and private foundations will also implement the research agenda. Consequently, the committee identified a full range of high-priority topics that could be explored with significant progress made in 3-5 years. Research on these topics will improve current knowledge of the causes of firearm violence, the interventions that prevent firearm violence, and strategies to minimize the public health burden of firearm violence. To allow the research community flexibility in designing the research protocols, the report does not specify the methodologies that should be used to address the research topics.

The evidence generated by implementing a public health research agenda can enable the development of sound policies that support both the rights and the responsibilities central to gun ownership in the United States. In the absence of this research, policy makers will be left to debate controversial policies without scientifically sound evidence about their potential effects.

 

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

America after Trump

“The rule of law will survive those who violate it,

but will not survive those who fail to defend it.” [No citation]

Millions of Americans have given President Donald Trump a chance, though wondering whether his bizarre behavior is evidence of stupidity, mental illness, or simple indecency and malice. Now two years since his election, this president has proven to be the most damaging to America in our history. Solving the riddle of Trump matters little at this stage, but saving the republic from the demise he brings is crucial.

Americans have endured bad times, including ones we are not proud of. Generally, however, we’ve not had to worry about survival of our great experiment in democracy. We have maintained much of the government philosophy of the Enlightenment that we introduced to the world. Our history covered the Civil War, Japanese internment, mistreatment of Native Americans, and dishonest politicians. Not even access to presidential authority enables Trump acting alone to destroy what America has—albeit irregularly—tried to be. The danger comes from the electorate’s blindness to his menace and from his sycophants’ self-interested protection of his treachery.

To observe the former, one only need watch one of Trump’s many personal “Nürnberg Rallies” (“Lock her up!” “Send her back!”) or the toadying of Fox News minions, happy to call his lies reality and to furnish him further deceptions. (Americans have died to protect this country from similar anti-democratic, fact-free biases to be found in Trump’s rants, his rallies’ crazed displays, and unremitting untrustworthiness. Trump’s despotic intentions, contempt for the rule of law, and brazen fabrications took us step by step into a new normal that once would have been called unAmerican. Racism is only one example, but it is of note that last week large numbers of Americans who must’ve been sleeping through news reports finally noticed the president’s stark racism. It had been obvious for years in Trump’s pre-political as well his as political life.

To observe the latter, consider the maudlin, cloying loyalty pledges of even high government officials, the fawning Republican “fellow travelers” who eagerly massaged the ego of the world’s most powerful man, and most of all Republicans in Congressional seats who, to avoid offending Trump, willingly countenance encroaching authoritarianism though each had sworn to defend the Constitution. (Republicans’ distaste of servitude to Trump seems to come alive as they retire!) Senators McConnell and Graham, e.g., eagerly champion Trumpian duplicity and betrayal despite having mouthed great principles a couple of years earlier. Again, using racism as but one example, Republican explanations last week for why racist comments and actions are not, in fact, racist have been startlingly creative, but there is no honorable excuse. Coddling a president’s childishly weak ego, discomfort with facts, and political vengeance are ethical failures of the legislative branch. What can be said of the cowardice of elected senators who not only allow but promote a president who exemplifies l’etat c’est moi (though he likely doesn’t understand it) and that trashes the sacred creed that “no one is above the law.” Our president surely is.

Meanwhile, the world goes on without our leadership. How can America be a force for worldwide democracy and planetary climate care while we tangle ourselves in ridiculous squabbles and tin-horn dictatorship behavior? Is it really acceptable to Americans that we not only fail to lead but make things worse? How can we bring the world the moral leadership we once did when we pamper a president who is a stranger to moral leadership of any sort, whose extraordinary level of narcissism has already sacrificed much of America’s place in the world, and who has ill-treated countries that have been our best friends on earth?

Make America Great Again does not have to oppose Help the World Be Great Again, in fact, for a major power it may well be a necessary component. And though we’ve never completed either aim, each has been important to us in the past and could be again. But it cannot be while handicapped with a president who brings out the worst in us, whose meanness of spirit has no room for dedication to the rule of law, civic morality, country above party, science, or facts.

We were once proud of our aspiration for America as a moral force in the world, as expressed in the words of pilgrim John Winthrop’s (later President Ronald Reagan’s) phrase “shining city upon on a hill.” But to pursue either a “more perfect union” for ourselves or to breathe substance and fairness into our leadership for the world is—until we’ve reversed our sad decline—merely poppycock wrapped in the delusion that leadership consists of economic and military might dressed up in win-lose arrogance and strongman bluffs.

America can have—and indeed has had—bigger hopes, purer motivation, and a larger heart. While these characteristics are immensely worth recapturing and preserving, it will require difficult political restructuring, not business-as-usual partisan politics. We will need commitment to building a responsible conservative party (replacing the failed Republican Party) and sufficient discipline in the Democratic Party to avoid its taking advantage of the interim fluidity. It is not entirely clear that either is possible. That’s what is to be proven. The Founders may have had the easier task.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

My schedule this summer, including foreign travel in June, has led to reduced production. Foreign travel in June and later impediments may continue to impede my previous pace.

This post is the 203rd in this blog since I began it in April 2013. Various topics have included atheism, secular humanism, religious liberty, science, ethics, morality, gun control, and sex. Of the 203, the 27 posts listed below are concerned with Donald Trump:

“America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016. “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016. “Please, Mr. President Elect,” Nov. 15, 2016. “What does a proto despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016. “Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017. “Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017. “Congratulations, Trump voters,” Mar. 6, 2017. “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017. “Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017. “Our republic…if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017. “Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017. “Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017. “Aiding and abetting injury to America,” Jan. 6, 2018. “A disgraceful leader implicates all,” June 19, 2018. “Trusting our leaker-in-chief in Russia,” June 22, 2018. “Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve,” July 18, 2018. “Trump is NOT America’s problem,” Sep 10, 2018. “Enemies of the people,” Nov. 1, 2018. “Risking America,” Jan. 3, 2019. “The great wall of Cyrus,” Jan. 10, 2019. “A plea to my United States Senator,” Jan 26, 2019. “That wall between us,” Feb. 7, 2019. “Political philosophy, political behavior,” Mar. 18, 2019. “Mueller and beyond,” Mar. 25th, 2019. “The shaming of America,” Apr. 18, 2019.  “Republicans light just one little candle,” Apr. 21, 2019. “America’s risk of autocracy,” May 27, 2019.

 

 

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

America’s risk of autocracy

America’s worrisome step by step slide toward authoritarianism continues with each news cycle. Trump’s paranoia and mendacity are reasons, as is Americans’ vulnerability to any frog-in-heating-water gradualism. There is plenty of blame to go around, as my reading the entire Mueller Report confirmed. Trump’s employees protect him, lie for him, and ludicrously “testify” for him, but they are adults. Each top level appointment, as a hopeful mini-Trump, mouths lies and preposterous arguments to cover for him. Republicans—at least those in the Senate—prostrate themselves for his approval. And voters by the millions choose blithely to risk the republic, neither noticing nor caring.

From my teens, to military service, through decades of working for improvements at the board level in the country’s companies and institutions, I’ve considered myself a patriotic citizen. That includes recognizing that our nation needs many improvements, which is simply realism in calling for more work to be done. Changes must continue, even while differing about what is to be done. That is not a stain on democracy or patriotism, but a sign of it. To be sure, it is crucial that we distinguish among various paths toward a “more perfect union,” guarding against changes that make us less democratic, less humane, less valuing of competence, and less courageous in honoring truth and truthfulness. We need not suppose that our Founders’ product was perfect, only that it is a precious gift to be honored, not squandered.

From the end of the 18th century to yesterday’s news, America has done enough of each to call for both celebration and shame. Unparalleled economic and military power have given us cover to shout our achievements to the point of pomposity, while on our dark side espousing racial mistreatment, devising gerrymandering to defeat democratic elections, and adding the prefix crony to our potent capitalism. For over two centuries, we have both built on and wasted the inheritance handed us from the Age of Enlightenment.

Much of the electorate has come not only to accept Donald Trump, despite his characterological dishonesty and proto-despot qualities, along with his challenged intellect and narcissism-driven ambition. Almost all Republican Senators are ready, even happy to do his bidding, often in opposition to political positions they’ve vehemently held for years. It is no secret that his actions and plans are nakedly for his personal benefit and only secondarily for the nation’s. Trump has been consistent about that since he arrived on the scene with one surprise after another that violated hard-won norms.

Now we are confronted with the precursors of what history may well later define as a massive deterioration in the American story. The president expresses and pursues undisguised authoritarian characteristics: Organs of government are increasingly adjusted to the president’s egotistic version of reality. The rule of law shows signs of deterioration. The Constitutionally prescribed function and potency of the Congress have declined. The free press has been under constant attack and is squelched further daily. For news and opinion, an increasing proportion of the electorate has been drawn to White House tweets and to the president’s “captive” television company. The frequency and boldness of White House pronouncements overflow with audacity.

Going on, the central bank’s independence is under attack, thereby to enable Trump’s boasts of presidential performance. The country can scarcely brag as it once proudly did that it is a “nation of laws not of men.” More and more, voices contrary to the president’s are silenced, even those publishing scientific findings. Compared to most of the past, America’s international behavior is shameful. His word means little or nothing, for his norm is lying, not honesty. The country’s face to the world leans increasingly toward despots and away from liberal democracies that once expected and still deserve our waning leadership. This is not just a president with different policies from his predecessors—that would be merely the ebb and flow of honest political discourse—but one whose lack of character and his disrespect for American civic values and norms differs not just in degree, but in kind.

Of America’s 45 presidents, some have been not so bright, some have been not so honest. Some have been poor students of the art of governing. They have differed in extreme ways, often taking the country through great political struggles, ones in which you and I have had some hand during our adult lives. As implied above, I’m not speaking here of mere political differences like health care, immigration, military budgets, national debt, and the host of policy choices about normal, ongoing political issues. I am speaking of the Constitutionality, excellence, and fairness of America as a moral force as well as an economic and military one.

Among the 45, there’s been no shortage of flaws, faults, and extensive political strife in our 203 years. Our country has undergone depressions, wars both internal and international, issues of suffrage, and boundaries of liberty. Presidents’ records are a mixture of helping and harming that painful and costly process. Some have brought out the worst in us, some the best. Most disliked Constitutional constraints, fought with the press, and exhausted themselves dealing with Congress. Each wished to alter these aspects of government, but they were duty-bound not only to respect, but to obey the Constitution. They faithfully did so with almost no system-devastating exceptions, including even Richard Nixon.

Normally, American patriots who’ve been entrusted with the presidency would almost certainly take care that the Constitution is as strong when they leave as when they arrived. It is an obligation that exceeds partisan victories that this be so. Because an enduring, Constitutionally sound America is of grave consequence, not just marginal. No risk of losing it can responsibly be tolerated. The calculus to guide us is that overkill in our concern is acceptable; even if it risks being criticized as exaggeration. Underkill, on the other hand, risks too much even to contemplate. A small degree of this kind of damage to America is not the sort easily turned around after once lost in even partial devastation. In fact, there is some possibility that restoring it to former health and strength would be impossible.

It is my sincere and careful judgment that not one of our 45 presidents since April 30, 1789 has been so great a threat to the nature, excellence, civic morality, and fairness of the republic as Donald Trump. Even escaping so thorough a debacle as I’ve intimated, there is still the lesser risk that Donald Trump—with the aid of his party and approaching half the electorate—will leave America indefinitely harsh, base, and dishonorable.

 

Posted in History, Politics | 4 Comments

Vehicle versus destination

In January 2017 the Trump White House bizarrely declared the largest inauguration crowd in history. Americans got accustomed to the new president’s lies, occasionally finding them amusing—rather like a misbehaving child of an appallingly indulgent parent getting near your crystal. It is frightening to consider a hollow man like him near your secrets, your Constitution, or your wealth. Trump had even claimed he could shoot someone on New York’s 5th Avenue and suffer no loss of supporters. We still don’t know how that would come out in real life. But after 16 months of Trump’s presidency, it’s reasonably certain that he could get away with just about any crime on the floor of the United States Senate.

The Senate majority and its chosen Leader McConnell respect their oaths of office, to be sure, though those oaths have become “to protect and defend Donald Trump,” not the Constitution. Of course, it’s customary for senators and representatives of each party to support most wishes of a same-party president. Given a Constitution constructed in a time of virtually no political parties, elected officials over two millennia have developed procedures and traditions to function in what is largely a four-way division, namely House/Democrat, House/Republican, Senate/Democrat, and Senate/Republican, for the Constitution had countenanced only a two-way legislative division: House and Senate.

It is hard for any group to be as diligent and precise as an individual. (Your city council, school board, or association board frequently exemplify how competent individuals can be incompetent as a group.) Our federal executive branch—headed by an individual—can quickly decide and mobilize while the legislative branch is still arguing over rules of debate. Thus, the Senate and House are composed of more authoritative “moving parts,” requiring them to maintain a strong allegiance to a centralizing authority while simultaneously promoting rich, wide-ranging debate. That “centralizing authority”—the point from which all functions must be derived and to which all parts must owe allegiance—is the Constitution . . . . largely Article 1 and relevant amendments.

Senators and House Members each individually owe that same allegiance. Fidelity to their political parties, their specific religions, their personal aggrandizements, or other interests—if in any way weakening or interfering with that loyalty—is a failure of duty, an unlawful violation of their oaths. So it is that neither partisanship nor individual dissent is not bad. But fulfillment of the body’s Constitutional role must be sufficiently paramount to outweigh both party concerns and individuals’ idiosyncrasies. Failure of the House or Senate to understand, plan for, and perform successfully on its Constitutional role is to imbalance the checks-and-balance architecture and to invite intrusion of the executive branch into the legislative, whether due to intent or simply filling gaps thereby left unaddressed.

If at that time the president is inclined to expand his or her influence or ignore Congressional decisions, the stage is set for severe damage to the Constitutional arrangement, a grievous harm for which both Legislative and Executive Branches are morally and legalistically culpable.

These factors are the case at this time: A president who wants prerogatives not given him Constitutionally or in law, thereby failing to take care that the law be faithfully executed. A Senate that willingly bends to the president’s every whim, thereby failing to protect the role charged to it by the Constitution. An electorate that, in substantial part, naïvely believes it has no role to play in this charade of civic responsibility, for example, to understand our Constitution and to vote thoughtfully. Elected officials and voters who fail to distinguish between (a) normal, ongoing political issues and (b) protections or threats to the rule of law and other components of American Constitutional government.

This last item will be addressed in my next post—for misidentifying the critical difference is, to a great extent, what turns healthy political struggles (about matters like budget, health care, and immigration) into dysfunctional arguments that threaten to weaken or even dismantle the healthy system within which these more conventional political arguments can safely exist, no matter how vehemently they are pursued.

 

[My schedule led unexpectedly to fewer posts in recent months. Due to impending foreign travel in June, that schedule interference will likely continue through the next few months.]

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Republicans light just one little candle

Appearing this week on FoxNews is a 54 second video clip by Republicans for the Rule of Law (https://www.ruleoflawrepublicans.com/). It offers a long overdue sign that maybe, just maybe organized Republican voices will finally argue against valuing party over country with regard to the Trump Administration. In a message signed by 191 House (and former House) Republicans for full release of the Mueller Report, ostensibly without the curious interpretive work of Bill Barr, who as it turned out, met no high bar.

There have been a few lights of truth lately showing through the heavily biased FoxNews, but in general those who get their “news” totally from FoxNews are not accustomed to meaningful, strong Republican truth-telling. Using the Trumpian tactic of blaming others for one’s own shortcomings, FoxNews championed fake news before it helped popularize the term as applied to anything that didn’t agree with or support Trump. That is understandable, of course, for FoxNews has been a faithful arm of the White House.

For a blogger who has decried the shame of Republicans for acting like Trump’s lap dogs, I find the video ad to be an encouraging development. There have been previous Republicans with enough integrity to stand against The Donald, for example, Max Boot, George Will, and Bret Stephens. But this is a group effort, and that’s important. It’s as if a substantial number of Republicans finally decided decency is not determined by party, though party might be determined by decency. To their credit, they’ve argued that “President Trump lied to the American people, including his supporters, and encouraged others to cover for him. It was wrong when the Clintons lied and it’s wrong when Trump lies.“

Granted, it is shameful that this statement is remarkable at all. And admittedly, the choice of words to feign equivalence between the volume, frequency, and gravity of Trump’s lies compared to those that can be “the Clintons’” even at a stretch is disingenuous. However, I am so impressed by the elevating message as a whole that I’m happy to overlook that. Maybe I’ll just focus on another phrase of theirs, one for which I’ve no reservation:

“Republicans stood up for the Rule of Law then.

We should stand up for the Rule of Law now.”

 

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

The shaming of America

“People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” said President Nixon when a rot less than today’s was upon the presidency. Then, unlike now, the president’s own party was not complacent in his crimes, but (eventually) chose to protect the republic rather than the rot. Nixon was a crook, though he was not judged guilty by a court. Donald J. Trump, too, is an unindicted crook.

It takes a stupefying degree of willful ignorance for one out of three Americans to tolerate, even praise Donald Trump’s sociopathic presidency and his weak, corruptible Senate. Politicians of the late 1700s wisely vested important roles in the House and Senate, in part to save the country from an authoritarian executive. Since a majority of the senate now—beyond being just policy allies of the president—have become his slavish devotees, that protection has all but disappeared. Only the Democratic wins in the 2018 mid-term election saved the country from having an entirely sycophantic, weak Congress.

I have made the case that it is never smart to believe anything Trump says; he lies even to his allies. He is as uninformed and unethical as any president ever to demean the White House. His choice of personnel has been abysmal (remember when he was going to have the best people?), often incompetent or criminal. (Just a week ago, he proudly announced, “I even thought of Ivanka for the World Bank. She would’ve been great at that because she’s very good with numbers.”)

Turnover among Secretaries of federal Departments has been enough by itself to brand Trump an unqualified manager, as does his focusing on bits and pieces rather than the big view and long term. He evaluates persons based on whether they admire him sufficiently, then “manages” them on the same basis, seemingly at no time like a competent manager. And, with only a few exceptions, he then blames them for his mistakes. The bully pulpit since his election has lost any pretense of “pulpit,” yet has clearly become more “bully.”

This post is not meant to be a list of major, damaging characteristics of Trump and his appointees. Observers who’ve not been blind to his reprehensible behavior already know. Those who remain blind to the effects of his psychotic narcissism are determined not to see, whether due to partisanship, obliviousness, or personal gain. In a future post, I wish to take up subjects demonstrating his appalling amateurism about critical principles of management, his “day trader” decision-making unhinged from strategic thought, his focus on himself and inability to render non-personal judgements, his opposition to the rule of law, his near total inattention to the significant Russian attack on the 2016 election, his inhumane treatment of immigrants seeking asylum, his disgraceful treatment of global warming, and so on—all caused, then further complicated by his reckless personality….all demonstrating that our president is a fool.

Now comes the Mueller Report or, perhaps more accurately, the William Barr Report on the Mueller Report. Bill Barr had become Attorney General (AG) because the Trump White House was attracted to his legal position. He argued that the president cannot be guilty of obstruction of justice because, as head magistrate of the land, he is technically in charge of what at any time is the definition of obstruction. It may be that we, not even Congress, will never see the Mueller Report because it would be too embarrassing to Trump. So far, Trump is determined never to let Americans see that report, though true to his character (or lack of it) he continues to say he wants them to see it.

Barr has testified to Congress and is today scheduled to release his own redacted report of what the Mueller report reveals. Days ago, as if an afterthought, he said to a Congressional committee that he believes the Obama Administration was “spying” on the Trump campaign in 2016, admitting though that he has no evidence. Note that the Department of Justice (DoJ) has a rule against revealing the names of persons who might have been guilty of a crime, but with insufficient evidence to obtain a conviction. A prosecutorial decision not to indict therefore protects potentially innocent persons (since no court will have found them guilty).

I find that rationale convincing; it is only fair. It is ironic, however, that it was FBI violation of that rule that gave Trump the presidency to begin with. Hillary Clinton was not indicted for the email debacle, but FBI Director James Comey chastised her openly for, in his word, “carelessness.” Clinton deserved the protection of that rule as much as Trump apparently does, but she didn’t get it. Similarly, the AG’s stated opinion that the Obama Administration “spied” amounts to a charge against Obama or the FBI during his presidency without evidence and certainly with no indictment.

Americans have long been very supportive of the FBI and DoJ, but these institutions along with a number of others might be on their way toward increasing loss of respect along with other functions of government in what would be just one more instance of Rick Wilson’s recent book, Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever.

I cannot think of a better ending for this post.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

 

The post (essay) above is the 198th I’ve written in this blog since I began it in April 2013. The various topics have covered atheism, secular humanism, religious liberty, science, ethics, morality, gun control, and sex. Of those, the 25 listed below are concerned with Donald Trump:

 “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016.

“October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016.

“Please, Mr. President Elect,” Nov. 15, 2016.

“What does a proto despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016.

“Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017.

“Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017.

“Congratulations, Trump voters,” Mar. 6, 2017.

“You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017.

“Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017.

“Our republic…if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017.

“Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017.

“Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017.

“Aiding and abetting injury to America,” Jan. 6, 2018.

“A disgraceful leader implicates all,” June 19, 2018.

“Trusting our leaker-in-chief in Russia,” June 22, 2018.

“Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve,” July 18, 2018.

“Trump is NOT America’s problem,” Sep 10, 2018.

“Enemies of the people,” Nov. 1, 2018.

“Risking America,” Jan. 3, 2019.

“The great wall of Cyrus,” Jan. 10, 2019.

A plea to my United States Senator,” Jan 26, 2019.

That wall between us,” Feb. 7, 2019.

Political philosophy, political behavior,” Mar. 18, 2019.

Mueller and beyond,” Mar. 25th, 2019.

“The shaming of America, Apr. 18, 2019.

 

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

This non-scientist and global warming

I’m a non-scientist. My Ph.D. (1968) was earned in factors of human personality, illness, evaluation, treatment, learning, intelligence, emotion, and psychotherapy. As a research degree, learning the research findings of others was augmented with training in conducting scientific studies myself. The science part of the training dealt with experimental design, statistical analysis, and the scientific method in general. I’ve been away from that life, however, for several decades, so I cannot now honestly claim expertise in either psychotherapy or research. That is why, for purposes of this post, I am a non-scientist. The most I can claim is an aptitude for the scientific method and an inclination to apply it when stymied by an epistemological quandary.

Even as a fresh Ph.D., however, I was not expert in meteorology or global climate, just as climate scientists know no more than the average person about measurement and treatment of hostility. Each would call for a great deal of background knowledge of the field. A few hundred years ago a single polymath might be acquainted with most of the world’s knowledge. Not only does one person now know more and more about less and less, polymath is a word virtually never used. So while the human race has become massively informed, a single human can be expert in only a tiny portion of that knowledge. That is why I cannot rely on my science background to understand and interpret studies and theories of global climate change.

So what do I have to suggest to others about their approach to the sensitive and critical matter of global climate change? I assume any intelligent person knows the simple parts. For example, climate and weather are not synonymous, and climate in world history has gone through massive changes, and is affected by a many influences. As the population of humans has increased enough to affect it, even human action exert an impact. (A world population of one million would likely have had no discernable effect.) We also know that human beings tend to react to large events in less than intelligent ways, like running from a bear. Life has evolved a long way from cyanobacteria about four billion years ago, and it has—that is, we have—achieved spectacular feats like space probes beyond our star system, radiometric dating, and organ replacement. But when confronted with alarming changes in the chemistry of our home planet, we retreat largely into denial.

Worse, the specter of global climate change sets us against each other, for political strife is a more familiar phenomenon than loss of polar ice, sea level rise, agricultural shifts, and a cascade of other unfamiliar effects. We become baffled whether to deny the changes, to blame them on our nemeses, or to retreat into our various religious comforts . . . reactions as predictable as they are futile, so inevitable that we attribute them all to “human nature” as, of course, they are.

When America sought an extreme weapon, we learned from Meitner and others of massive energy retrievable from subatomic forces too small to imagine, much less be seen. When humans sought alleviation from disease, we turned to biochemistry and germ theory. When we sought long distance transportation, we considered Bernoulli and fluid dynamics. When we sought far-flung communication, asked Maxwell and Marconi. In other words, though scientific pursuits and revelations have had a few hiccups along the way, the scientific method has proved the most powerful investigative tool we have to understand ourselves as well as our universe. But there are still human failings that complicate the process.

When the challenge is overwhelmingly deadly, when it requires us to dispense with our political small mindedness, when it calls for putting aside international hegemonic jockeying, when it entails understanding or at least trusting the most powerful tools we have, we foolishly make both the methods and the possible solutions of science into a political issue. Whether there is anthropogenic global warming and, if so, what drives it, and what might impede it are neither political nor religious questions. They are questions of facts—not alternative facts, not wishes, not hoaxes, but scientifically verifiable truth.

With the possible exception of nuclear winter, the matter of global warming is more perilous for human existence than previous dangers we have faced. Clearly, the need to appreciate the matter and to mobilize whatever genius we can bring to bear confronts us as a species. But the simple division of labor in doing that seems so far to have escaped vast portions of our bodies politic, from citizens with only rudimentary grasp of world climate to political leaders blind to the existential gravity of planetary warming.

  • Human effects on global climate are phenomena to which we must bring our most powerful tool, science . . . . not feelings, not politics, not uninformed opinions. In this endeavor, I am (and almost certainly you are as well) unqualified to help.
  • Humanity’s development of actions to forestall catastrophe is a challenge to both science and technology . . . . not feelings, not politics, not uninformed opinions. In this endeavor, I am (and likely you are as well) unqualified to help.
  • Whether counteractions are worth their cost is a political question; science and technology are not helpful in this endeavor. How much of what sort of sacrifice is acceptable to alleviate how much of what sort of solution? I am, you are, and the rest of humanity are the only sources of legitimate consideration and input.

In other words, the values, feelings, and opinions of our human population are relevant to the third point, but seeking them regarding the first two is sheer foolishness, if not deadly stupidity.

Posted in Politics, Science and society | Leave a comment

Mueller and beyond

Like millions of others, I am curious to see what we ordinary Americans will be allowed to read in the final report Mr. Mueller sent to the Attorney General last week. The AG has sent to House and Senate leadership the “primary conclusions” of that document, not the Mueller report itself. By intent or leakage, the rest of us might later get to see the document(s) (as redacted for reasons of national security and protection of unindicted persons). Department of Justice rules protect a sitting president from indictment, so we may learn little about President Trump’s behavior regardless of what he has done.

Fewer millions expect to be disappointed—in my case from three sources. (1) The report that emerges into the light of day will not produce a fly-on-the wall account of everything Trump or anyone in his campaign has done that is unlawful, unethical, untruthful, unpatriotic, injudicious, or reckless. (2) The report will not reach conclusions that Trump and persons in or linked to his campaign have acted lawfully, ethically, patriotically, judiciously, and thoughtfully.

After all, the charge to Mueller from Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was not to investigate Trump’s morality or amiability, but “Any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel’s investigation, including lying to authorities in the course of that investigation.”

However, I anticipate my most distressing disappointment will be (3) Trump’s deluge of lies about the report, claiming it as vindication from all charges, despite the report’s disclaimer that it is not to be taken as exoneration. His devotees seem to fall for whatever fabrication he comes up with, though others have learned to recognize and expect Trump’s clever misuse of language to deceive. (No, Mr. Trump, “border wall” and “border security” are not synonymous.) We can expect to hear him say the Special Counsel has proven he and the campaign are innocent of charges. But unless there is a radically different outcome of Mueller’s investigation than anything mentioned thus far, that is an outright lie, one already begun.

Further, the president is either too dim-witted or too conniving to communicate the difference between, among other examples, “failure to prove obstruction of justice” and “proof there was no obstruction of justice.” Maybe he believes they mean the same and, if so, the fear plaguing his presidency may have been prematurely reduced. Having in his own mind “won,” Trump—thus relieved of his fear—can get back to his crusade to weaken judicial independence, engage the Attorney General as his personal lawyer, undermine freedom of the press, and demand homage from Republicans in the Senate and House. Slackening any remaining self-restraints on his autocratic path promises more danger for the republic than he has already wrought, rather along the lines of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

Remember, too, that whatever emboldens Trump’s authoritarian streak further bonds his sycophants to him, for he’s not only their ticket to re-election, but their escape from blistering tweets. If the Senate, already a subsidiary of the White House, can find a way to suppress its role even further, expect Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham and others to find it. They seem little impressed with the role the Constitution laid out.

My case here is not for impeachment, certainly not under the current conditions of an obsequious Senate and overwhelmed House. Despite its Democratic majority, the House is struggling with a desire to impeach, but is faced with a surfeit of overdue investigations and the pressure of a looming presidential campaign. Even if there were not a lot on its plate, the House would face certain defeat in the Senate trial due to its Republican majority. Some observers have warned that impeaching, then losing the trial phase (as occurred with Bill Clinton) can easily make the president stronger, not weaker.

In other words, I want to see the House do the effective portion of its job, but forget impeachment, for the Senate’s adulation of Trump will not only doom the trial to defeat but subject the House to crippling distraction. As to the upcoming presidential primaries, Democratic candidates would do well to minimize ad hominem arguments among themselves, debating with knowledgeable rigor, moral strength, and common decency. If those things don’t yield a replacement of Trump, then perhaps we deserve him.

 

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Political philosophy, political behavior

After returning to civilian life from my time in the U. S. Air Force, I was closely linked to the Republican Party. My major professor for the degree in economics and business administration was Republican. The lobbying I did in later life involved close work with Senator Howard Baker and Congressman Bill Brock, both Tennessee Republicans, with fewer dealings with the Democrat Senator Al Gore the elder . In the 1980s I was invited by Indiana Republican Governor Robert Orr to be available for a cabinet position, which I turned down. In total, my personal acquaintance with the Republican Party consisted of office-holders I admired greatly. I voted for not-so-admired Nixon once and became a Life Member of the Libertarian Party a couple of decades later.

President Reagan, former Democrat, said he didn’t leave the Dems, they left him. I have much the same feeling about my earlier Republican involvement. Whatever doctrines a voter believes is best with regard to economics, government involvement, defense, taxation, and immigration, all sides are obligated to be truthful and factual. We are also duty-bound to respect whatever system has been created for dealing with our differences unless we choose democratically to change that system. In other words, honor demands common decency and playing by the rules, which means we can fight each other all we wish on choices within the rules as long as we remain loyal to the rules themselves.

It is unlikely that the political integrity a modern democracy requires is possible without these characteristics in the voters as well as in elected officials. Voters say what they want in demeanor as well as in policy objectives. Unfortunately, voters are not the most stable groups, being given as they are to creating factions, showing little discipline, and having little investment in system integrity compared to transactional and self-serving decisions. That, however, calls for elected officials in their several carefully designed roles to be the adults in the room. Anyone familiar with the Senate or House—federal and state, and also city councils—would know, though, that expecting rational, reasoned behavior in those settings may be several bridges too far.

But let me get back to the party that claims to be owner and protector of conservatism. It is usual to speak of Republican and conservative as if they’re synonymous. A model of conservatism would weave together a consistent mix of positions on governmental philosophy, that is, fulfill the requirement to be a theory of government. That differs greatly from a political party invested in partisan hegemony and slick parliamentary moves and tactics of near warfare. It is possible for philosophical integrity to co-exist with a party that lacks tangible integrity, but a claim by the latter to be standard bearer for the former must be seen as invalid.

My inclination toward the Republican Party in my early years was due less, I think, to its applied behavior than to the appeal of conservative thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and National Review magazine editor William F. Buckley. I can remember being glued to my radio (as a fawning free marketeer) as Buckley argued against liberal Kenneth Galbraith’s motion, “The Market Is a Snare and a Delusion.” At that time, and to a great extent now, I was as entranced by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as I was with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Alfred Wegener’s plate tectonics, and other trailblazing insights (OK, so I was a bit nerdish).

My excuse for the foregoing diversion is to point out that it is not conservatism’s reputation that is damaged by our current national psychosis, but the party that pretends to be the champion of authentic conservative philosophy. Although I do, in fact, lean generally toward liberal philosophy, it is not so much because of a waning conceptual argument against conservatism as it is an outright disgust with the Republican Party and with individual Republican senators and congresspersons unwilling or unable to be true to the obligations of one-third of the American government.

Here is an excerpt from my post, “Batshit crazy, the stupid party,” March 15, 2016, written during pre-Trump days that now seem naïve in the extreme:

[“Batshit crazy” and “the stupid party”] were uttered not by Democrats, but by prominent Republicans (Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Bobby Jindal). Conservative author Matt K. Lewis said that although conservatism used to have “big, thoughtful ideas,” it has “lost its intellectual bearings.” The decay has been developing for years, so is by no means just in current debate behavior. As to that behavior, conservative historian Max Boot concluded the Trump surge “proves every bad thing Democrats have ever said about the GOP is basically true.”

Well, a proviso. I don’t think deterioration is unique to the Republican party, nor even the combination of the party and its tethered television outlet, Fox News. . . I don’t revere everything Pres. Obama has done, nor do I criticize everything Pres. Bush did. Somewhat allied with Lewis, however, I do consider that the Republican party has been in decline since possibly the 1960s and surely since the 1980s, with a further marked descent since 2000. It is not the first political party to get lots of mileage out of untruths. Democrat JFK won the presidency due in part to his damning, though inaccurate charge that that his predecessor, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, had allowed a terrifying missile disadvantage vis-a-vis the USSR.

But I have additional motivation with respect to the Republican party: I fear that the US without a competent opposition to Democrats is a less robust, less philosophically muscular country. However, to my great regret, the current Republican party has forfeited that role by increasingly allying itself with the influences of xenophobia, bigotry, paranoia, and anti-science. (On a given issue, I might agree or disagree with the Republican position.) I find small mindedness, short-term focus, careerism, fudging, and spinning, along with problems of agency in politicians of both parties. Each party condemns the other about actions for which it itself is guilty. For example, in recent years we’ve seen the reversal of which party is on which side of the Senate’s cloture rule.

Both parties stoop to intentionally misquoting opponents’ positions in their arguments. For years Republicans have kept up an incessant drum beat of lies about Obama’s Democratic administration despite their being simply untrue, such as Obama’s “apology tour” or Obamacare’s inclusion of death panels. Neither was true, but the drum beat was too energizing to sacrifice to mere truth. In my opinion, however, while I’d not proclaim the Democratic party blameless, for the past fifteen years Republican conduct has been the most shameful.

The events of 2019 present so many instances of shameful Republican behavior that many have left the party rather than be associated with its lack of integrity. Consider that in the last weeks, a dozen Republican Senators took the Senate’s role seriously in defying their autocratic president and—lo and behold—it’s news! OK, I suppose shedding their role as Trump’s lapdogs even a little bit deserves kudos, for it is more than we’ve seen for two years. Senator McConnell, as Leader, has been foremost in escalating partisanship into frank irresponsibility, but despite presidential threats, that doesn’t let other senators off the hook. The novel idea of senators actually following their individual best judgment about Yemen and Trump’s magic wall is marvelous, but far too little—rather like Paul Manafort’s whining for judicial sympathy after a lifetime of crime. Political courage among most of these defiant Republicans seems to be related to whether they face retirement in the 2020 election, though bringing that up spoils my begrudging compliment.

But wait. Is it that a handful of GOP senators unexpectedly read the Constitution and found that the Senate has a real role? Is it unfair that we expect senators to buck an unusually punitive president? Do we think they won’t consider that he’ll penalize unruly senators by shutting down military construction in their states? After all, he is known to be looking around for funding already made by Congress that can be raided to find funds for his wall. Most Republicans in the Senate (and House, for that matter) are more committed to avoiding Trump’s wrath than fulfilling their oaths of office. They may have gotten religion, but I suspect they just remembered their constituents’ desire for the jobs Trump controls but may deny to them as punishment for their senators’ use of their own minds.

Let’s see. I think here is where I remind us all that the United States Senate has been proudly called “the greatest deliberative body in the world.”

 

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

 

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

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?

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Church and state, Politics | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

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.

 

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

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.

 

 

 

Posted in This blog, this blogger | 3 Comments

Happy anniversary, Bill of Rights!

Today, December 15, is the 227th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. The first of these ten began with the following words:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So simple, that long sentence, but such a breakthrough in world governmental history. As in the adoption of the Constitution in June 1788 (before which there’d been no new country called the United States, see “Happy Birthday, USA,” June 17, 2013; and “America’s birthday is next week,” June 12, 2016), Americans had shown their beautiful contrarian spirit to assume the risks of living in freedom. At the outset, that meant freedom from external domination, correction of which required force of arms, which itself needed an agreement among former colonies to enter into a compact of rebellion. That compact was announced to the world in the Declaration of Independence.

But with that freedom won and a new country established, Americans confronted the need to assure freedom from each other. They feared central government, they feared central religion; that is, they feared loss of freedom to their own creation as much as to forces from abroad. Theirs was a reasonable fear. It was addressed by expanding the Constitution by what came to be called the Bill of Rights, a new portion of the Constitution that does not describe the essentials of governance, but what government cannot do to individuals. Interestingly, these amendments were and still are the only collection of a part of the Constitution to have its own name, albeit an informal one.

All parts of the Bill of Rights are important, of course; all are responses to genuine concerns of Americans at that time. And they continue to live in practice. I think it is likely (I’ve not researched this) all these amendments—ever since Marbury v. Madison established the practice of judicial review—have been referred to by Supreme Court rulings down through the years. (Even relatively uninformed Americans know the phrase, “striking down,” that often denotes a SCOTUS decision enabled originally by Marbury.) Further amendments to the Constitution have occurred, some dealing with rights, some not, but the effect on Americans’ rights through the years have in total have increased freedom, not reduced it.

The first 16 words of the First Amendment—my focus in this post—protect our rights to believe or disbelieve what we choose, to worship or not as we please, to speak our minds as we wish, to gather peacefully in expression of that speech, and never to have our opinions and beliefs about religion have to stand against the weight of larger religions or even of government itself. [This informal rewording is mine, not that of the amendment nor of any Supreme Court interpretation. I contend, though, that its everyday vernacular is reasonable.] Just as in my earlier point that freedom includes freedom from each other, the First Amendment is the source of our crucial and historically vital freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is hollow, however, without freedom from religion. It therefore must logically be included as a necessary part of the meaning of religious freedom. While that phrase (freedom from) offends many Christians, even they when pressed believe their freedom of religion must be protected from the religious freedom of others. Episcopalians would not consider a society to be religiously free in which Evangelicals define proper dogma and worship. No Christian would consider a society to be religiously free in which Muslims, Jews, or Mormons defined proper dogma and worship.

Despite that logic, an organization like the Freedom from Religion Foundation (I’m a “Life Member”) is frequently castigated for its anti-religion sounding name. However, that name simply exhibits a natural and crucial consequence of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion. As I have mentioned above, as well as explained in detail in earlier posts (“Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion,” Apr. 16, 2014; “Freedom of religion requires freedom from religion,” Oct. 8, 2014) in the absence of freedom from religion, there cannot be freedom of religion.

My commitment is to religious freedom, the kind that passed in 1791, the kind that protects a very personal freedom, but with the proviso that freedom to tell others what to do with respect to religion is not part of the bargain. That is why it is important to guard the gates, so to speak, as religions continually threaten—by snuggling up to weak government officials in support of one religious viewpoint or another—to damage the very freedom the Founders established, one that we all have an ethical obligation to defend.

 

Posted in Church and state, History, Liberty | 4 Comments

Restoring America’s decency, dignity, and competence

In my most recent post, “Enemies of the People” (November 1),  I argued that President Trump’s denigration of the press is more than harmless expression of his paranoia. It’s a symptom of evolving despotism, one of many such precursors to which America and the world have been treated in these last years. You’d think that forebodings of this sort would make us increasingly aware of Trump’s grave threats not only to our republic but to a peaceful world order. But no; by painstaking repetition and an electorate more angry than wise, they’ve become just old news. We seem to have lost our ability to be warned.

Events and assertions that only a few years ago would have stunned us are now just another day’s tweets, schoolyard taunts, and blasé dismissals of democratic ideals. While the president himself stood out as the danger two years ago, his pollution of government  has spread further as Republican officials raced to see who can most shamelessly grovel before Trump, ignore their Constitutional responsibilities, or adopt Trump’s toxic, transitional manner of governance. To be sure, the carefully constructed Constitutional system he and they carelessly endanger is not perfect. But it was assembled with more thoughtfulness and more philosophical integrity than most elected officials ever exhibit in their numerous terms.

At this point, railing further against Trump’s incompetence and treachery may be a waste of time, for he is neither inclined to accept nor capable of understanding either Constitutional democracy or multi-level large management. He came to office due to a massive mistake by the electorate. He has been and still is promoted in office by Republican elected officials stripped by greed of their ability to discern between gamesmanship and statesmanship. It is they, as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, to whom we must turn our attention, for it is they who have let America down quite as much as the fool they’ve allowed to run amuck.

Let me suppose the American electorate retains some memory of proper government, one wherein we can have great disagreements over policy, yet can value each other and remember we are Americans, not merely pro- or anti-Trumpists. A population can forget those skills as has occurred elsewhere after a long experience of totalitarianism. Indeed, every year more of us forget the pre-Newt Gingrich days in which parties fought in the Capitol, but drank together in the bar. Our policy differences, after all, are worth struggling for, but not worth crippling the very system designed to safely contain and support the elucidation and resolution of those differences.

As long as preserving and improving the system itself is as valued as it should be, an influence like Trump minimizes and perhaps destroys the ability to approach politics productively. Sports provide a useful example. Playing as well as possible is encouraged, but has meaning only while respecting the rules. The current period in America is one in which basic rules of American democracy are ignored and even intentionally damaged, creating a bizarre game in which outmaneuvering those rules is treated as if it is the score.

It is not too early to turn attention to post-Trump America, with fervent hope there will be one. That requires studied thought and public debate about the restoration of values we’ve allowed to slip away. Our country cannot be expected to right itself simply because Trump is not around. Nor will the massive damage to American influence and international trust reconstitute itself just because we’re no longer continually exposed to Trump’s malicious brand of fake news. Such a rebirth requires far more than eliminating the negative; it requires a commitment to the positive.

We can expect, for example, that many Republican leaders will be ready to rewrite the history of their role in this horror, eager to claim their availability to lead the rebirth. A similar process unfolded in the former Soviet governments in Eastern Europe after the fall of the USSR. Old communist bosses were all too inclined to be the new capitalist bosses. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Democrat officials will be either as righteous or as effective in restoration as they might be in opposition. Similarly, it would be a mistake to think no Republican officials are fit for a role in renewal.

Less obvious, Democrats would be faced with the moral test of not pressing their partisan advantage to the injury of system regeneration. For example, the focus must be on saving and improving critical elements of the system, not winning a vote on building a wall. In like manner, whether to pass a certain tax legislation would not be the kind of system-saving action I refer to, but safeguarding the country from the time-bomb looseness of the National Emergencies Act would be. For the whole country this would be a new kind of task, one that cries out more for renaissance than course correction, and asks elected officials more for wisdom than parliamentary cleverness.

I’m not sure the United States, its citizenry, and its available leadership are up to this job. But it is certain we’ll not be its match without studied preliminary attention to the post-Trump era. It’s not even clear that we’ll have the opportunity. If we are fortunate, still sufficiently comfortable with democracy, and possessed with enough civic faith—perhaps there can be an American revival of political decency, dignity, and competence.

____________________

I am moved to quote two Republican presidents in connection with my possibly Pollyanna prescription, leaving the relevance of these words to your consideration:

  • President Gerald R. Ford: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
  • President George H. W. Bush: “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

 

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment