These are sad days for the United States. A petulant, willfully ignorant, bigoted man-child has encouraged the most bigoted, ugliest, vulgar and intolerant among us to wave their racist flag high, knowing they have support from the White House. It is significant that the violence in Charlottesville originated as citizens gathered to defend a statue celebrating a traitorous regime that sought to destroy the union more than 150 years ago. If the US surveys this current crisis, it is likely that is how historians will view the Trump administration as well.
That Trump wants his most effective cabinet member to resign because he was insufficiently protective of the President himself suggests that Trump is moving the country not towards the authoritarian white nationalist regime that Steve Bannon would like, but towards being a more straightforward kleptocracy. In that model, the role of the government is to enrich the President and those around him, rather than to remake the country based on an ideological vision. This does not mean that Trump is not racist-he is. However, his racism is less central to his governing philosophy than his desire to use government for his personal advantage.
The primary fault line in American society, and therefore its politics, are between those who see the American future of being increasingly less Christian, less white, more tolerant and more integrated with global economics, culture and technology as a source of excitement, pride and happiness and those who see this same future with apprehension, anxiety and frustration. This division cleaves the country into those who embrace change and feel hope and those who resist change and are fearful of it. The reasons why people feel one way or the other about this issue vary, and are often reinforced by age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. However, the division is real and will be extremely difficult to overcome. Neither side can win quickly; and, as the world was shown last November, neither side is going away. This division is not entirely clean. There are many people who feel a pull from some aspects of both views, but in general, this is the major cleavage in the US today.
This scandal is much bigger than the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, or even than the subsequent efforts to cover that up. A larger problem, one that will have a more enduring impact on our democracy, is that the Republican Party, other than a few individual comments here and there, refuses to recognize that the gravity of this. Our system may be strong enough to limit the damage of a venal, dishonest and possibly treasonous administration, but it cannot do that when the majority party in congress continues to deliberately live in a world of increasingly absurd denial. A Republican Party that continues to see the ties between Trump and Russia as essentially unimportant is the biggest threat to our democracy. This policy of denial has made the Republican leadership in congress complicit in the misdoings of the Trump campaign and demonstrated the extraordinary moral cowardice of the rest of the GOP.
Tragically, although perhaps not irrevocably, the key to accurately analyzing the state of our politics today is to begin with the acceptance that this is no longer a democracy and that the questions, speculation and assumptions that have been central to our analysis and political punditry for decades are less helpful now. That assertion may seem alarmist, but it explains our current politics much better than simply saying a Republican won the election and what we are seeing is to be expected when the White House switches from one party to the other, or that our political institutions continue to work.
The Trump administration has ushered in a period of democratic rollback. It is not clear where it will lead or how it will end, but every day we see our democratic institutions being undermined and attacked by this administration.
Political violence in America has taken many forms, but in contemporary America left wing violence has not been a major problem. The days of the Weather Underground, for example, have now receded into history. State sponsored killing of innocent African Americans, on the other hand, continues to be a major problem. Just last week, we saw this ugly phenomenon once again as, Jeronimo Yanez, the killer of Philando Castile, was acquitted. The word for being concerned about left wing violence but not the killing of innocent African Americans is racism.
Comey’s remarks have led to a spate of discussions about what constitutes obstruction of justice, whether the President obstructed justice and how this concept applies to a sitting president. These are questions with which better legal minds than mine should wrestle. However, they are not important at the moment because with regards to Donald Trump, the definition of obstruction of justice is very clear. Obstruction of justice, or any other abuse of power or illegal contact with Russia, are what Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell say it is. That is good news for the President as Congress continues to be very loyal to the President with whom they share a party affiliation.
As the Trump administration descends further into paroxysms of corruption, obstruction of justice, shady ties to Moscow and authoritarian tendencies, it still has one major strategic advantage. Too much of the punditry, Congress, the media and even people in the resistance continue to underestimate the extent to which the old rules of politics, constitutionality and even rule of law no longer apply. This has made it possible for the Trump administration despite its many ethical, legal, strategic and tactical missteps to stay at least one step ahead of its many critics.
While the Trump presidency, desperately tries to present itself as normal, advocates of restoring democracy must recognize that this struggle is going to be difficult, and potentially take a long time. No special counsel, even one with Robert Mueller’s impressive credentials, is going to bring this presidency to a premature end absent political pressure from Republicans in Congress. Similarly, while the 25th amendment solution is attractive, simple and neat, it is very unlikely to happen until the political climate changes significantly. For these, or any other approaches, to reign in the excesses of the Trump presidency, and perhaps the presidency itself, extreme vigilance is essential even when there is a shiny object in the Middle East or elsewhere.
The growing Republican support for AHCA, and for the Trump agenda generally, suggests that the GOP is transforming from a political party in a competitive system that advocates for its far right positions but that must also be aware of political considerations, into the ruling party of a government committing to restricting democracy. It also is more evidence that Republican Congress is comfortable ignoring Trump’s efforts to limit democracy if the administration supports their far right policies. If this continues not only will there be no rigorous congressional investigations or impeachment hearings, but very possibly elections in 2018 that will not meet international standards of democracy.
The revival of urban America over the last quarter century or so is one of the important and impressive changes in America during that period. There are many reasons for this ranging from demographic to technological, but also pubic policies for which both major parties can take credit. Trump’s new tax proposal could begin to reverse this. That would be bad the entire American economy as our cities are engines of economic growth, magnets for tourists and hubs of innovations, but this President, whose major goal is to consolidate his power, and restrict all other sources of power, apparently doesn’t care about that.
The problems with air travel today do not, however, originate with these employees. It is not hard to feel anger towards these people, but they are often overworked, underpaid and asked to take on more responsibilities so that the airlines can squeeze just a little more profit out of the rest of us. Threatening a harried flight attendant, even when he behaves terribly, may make passengers feel good, but it is not going to solve any problems.
Over the past few months, several different developments in the Trump administration, as well as statements and actions by the president and those around him, provide useful insight into the direction and nature of this White House. To understand this fully, it is necessary to take a bigger-picture view of what Donald Trump is doing and what that means for our political system.
There are many foundations underpinning the hawkish elements of mainstream American foreign policy, importantly an approach that Donald Trump appears to embracing with increased fervor with every passing day. One of these is the belief that the US has a unique role in the world. At its best, this view emboldens the US to provide assistance to people and need and even occasionally intervene in foreign conflicts to save lives. However, there is another side of this approach as well, one that we see in the rhetorical dance too many in the foreign policy establishment make. That is the view that is so deeply held that it is rarely noticed, let alone questioned-that the rules don’t apply to us. For example, it is much easier to feel righteous in our criticisms of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, if we make sure that our collective memory does not include our own use of those horrific and murderous weapons.
The Trump administration’s decision to launch a missile attack against Syria was, for the moment, a triumph of the President’s desire to appear tougher than his famously cautious predecessor over Trump’s wish to have the US less involved in the rest of the world and more sympathetic to Moscow. Since the early days of his campaign Trump’s foreign policy positions have reflected these two different, and seemingly contradictory ideas. The President’s belief that the US should focus on domestic concerns and no longer seek to be so deeply involved in politics, conflicts, crisis response and state building in virtually every corner of the world has long been in tension with his view that that the US should be stronger, less afraid to use force and should “win” more, whatever that means.
An administration that within its first three months in power, has become concerned largely about simply staying in power is capable of all kinds of things when a difficult election approaches. Based on what similar regimes have done, this likely does not mean overt election fraud, but a combination of misinformation, legal shenanigans and intimidation to ensure reelection. This may seem like an extraordinary assertion. However, given the enthusiasm with which this administration has already broken from many democratic norms, sought to undermine various institutions and question the veracity of any information that does not portray the President in a positive light, ignoring this concern altogether would be a mistake.
It is not hard to imagine a scenario where Trumpcare does not make it through congress and investigations continue on several fronts, leaving the administration frustrated, but still without the competence or expertise to pass new laws or even engage maturely in the legislative process. Should that happen, the administration will, metaphorically speaking, hunker down and rely on executive orders, administrative policy changes in various agencies and Trump’s madcap and dangerous words and Tweets to set policy and, for lack of a better word, govern. In the short run, that strategy will, given the current political environment, be enough to keep Trump and people in office and out of trouble with the law, but over the long term the impact on American democracy could be devastating.
It is important for universities to both expose students to a range of ideas and to be an arena where scholars can discuss their ideas freely. When I was a professor I frequently invited speakers with whose views I disagreed. I have appeared on many panels with other speakers who do not share my views. This is part of the give and take of academia that is beneficial for students and scholars alike. This also has very little to do with events at Middlebury because Charles Murray is not a conservative scholar or rigorous academic thinker. He is a discredited racial theorist who, most notably in The Bell Curve, sought to tart up 19th century racist thinking with flawed methodological pyrotechnics.
The biggest threat to Donald Trump for now will not come from the Democratic Party, as they simply do not have enough power in Congress or anywhere else at the moment. The President and his powerful supporters in Congress also have significant leverage over Republicans like Lindsay Graham who occasionally seem to be aware of the President’s conflicts of interests and disturbing relationship with Russia. The President is clearly rattled by critical media and massive demonstrations, but, at least for now, neither is going to bring him down. Instead, the biggest threat to the President could be the one person, any one person, who is both a senior figure in his administration and can plausibly claim to have not been involved with Russia.