Preventing a Repeat

About a month before last year’s election, I wrote a blog entry in which I argued that Donald Trump was the least deserving of being elected president than any other candidate with a legitimate shot at the title, in American history. Looking back on that essay through the lens of hindsight, I may have been too charitable and kind to the man.

Since he took the oath of office, he has carried out petty grudges against anyone who might dare to challenge him, made disaster recovery all about him, engaged in an ongoing attempt to erase the legacy of his predecessor, and generally has been presiding over a degree of corruption in government that could challenge the corrupt legacies of the Grant, Harding, Nixon, and Reagan administrations. And that’s not even getting into the evangelical Christians / theocrats who have been the base of the Republican Party since the Reagan administration and are the primary reason why I can’t vote republican in good conscience and who are the only people applauding his moves.

I sincerely doubt he would pass a middle school-level civics test.

Although there have been rumblings about impeachment and/or the 25th Amendment almost since the day he came into power, that talk has grown in the last week. I want to talk about what happens after that. I think a series of law changes — if not amendments to the constitution — are warranted here.

When the constitution was written, the only requirements surrounding eligibility for the position of president, were being a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and having lived in the country for at least 14 years. The only real change to this since then, was when the 22nd Amendment was passed, limiting the total time in office to ten years. (Although the definition of a natural-born citizen has evolved…)

It seems to me as though these rules need to be modified. Here are some possible modifications we ought to consider:

1. Remove the natural-born citizen requirement. Immigrants who want to become citizens must pass a test, which arguably means they understand the workings of the government and American history better than some natural-born citizens. I see no harm in requiring that naturalized citizens have resided here for a minimum time period (which could easily be two decades or more and which could still restrict which immigrants would even consider running for president) but this rule, which was designed to prevent foreign attempts to manipulate our government from within, seems outdated, especially given the growing evidence that it didn’t really work.

2. Test the candidates. Design an exam that covers the facts of how the constitution operates, facts of American history, and an ability to state matters of current events factually (not solutions to current problems as those would be more subjective but, for example, if a candidate wants to criticize a law or a treaty, he or she needs to be able to explain exactly what that law or treaty does or does not do. A candidate who fails the exam would not be eligible to run during that election cycle.

3. Require the release of candidates’ tax returns. A law like this recently passed the California state assembly, only to be vetoed by California Governor Jerry Brown. Brown’s official argument against it was a slippery slope argument that, quite frankly, if we accept it on face value, should render this entire blog entry moot. I’m not saying there can’t be unintended consequences to this, or any other suggestion I’m making here, but I would like to see future presidents to be culled from the best of the best in this country. I often say that I don’t care for the pledge of allegiance and argue that everything after the word “stands” is factually incorrect. I’m open to debate on whether the USA qualifies as a republic, since the leaders of a republic are generally chosen from amongst the most deserving. Unless you count the ability to raise large sums of campaign cash as a condition of “most deserving”, it could use a little more honing.

4. Require candidates to fully divest themselves of their business interests. This should be self-evident, given that the emoluments clause covers foreign investment. But Trump is making money off of the government without violating the emoluments clause by having republican fundraisers and events at his hotels and by housing the secret service in Trump properties when he or his family are there.

5. Empower fact-checkers to declare official winners and losers of debates. Kind of like the test I mentioned above, but if a candidate proposes a new program without saying how they’d pay for it, or if they say a law or treaty is awful, they’d better be prepared to take a dinging from the fact checkers. Right now, the debates don’t do anything since both sides will argue that they won the debate as soon as it’s over.

There are some other ideas that, if implemented, hypothetically could have prevented Trump’s election but on a higher level won’t necessarily fix the problems in our electoral process that could still be exploited in the future. These ideas include abolishing the electoral college, eliminating the gerrymander, and requiring a maximum number of constituents per representative in the house. (That last one won’t give Wyoming’s electors more per-voter clout than California’s.)

There may be others but this is at least a start.

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Opening the flood-gates

I was born in March of 1972. If you’re a student of American history, then you should know that the first major historical event of my lifetime occurred about three months later, although at the time, hardly anyone would have known or predicted that a “botched, third rate burglary attempt” would have been so consequential.

The location of the break-in has become shorthand for the political scandal that rocked the US government to its core: Watergate. A little more than two years after the initial event, amid talk of impeachment and an almost certain conviction by the US Senate, president Richard Nixon became the first (and to date, the only) president to resign from office.

There are a few points that bear mentioning here. The actual break-in not only failed to gain any usable information on Nixon’s general election opponent, George McGovern, but it was completely unnecessary. Nixon was popular enough within the electorate, that he didn’t need to resort to dirty tricks to secure re-election. I doubt that his lopsided victory would have been much different had the break-in not been attempted.

But Nixon’s crimes and his corruption were far greater than the break-in. There is an old adage about how, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. It’s a political town and everyone is looking out for him- or herself. And if that means taking down people who are powerful, so be it.

One of the key figures who helped to bring Nixon down, was known for more than thirty years under the alias of “Deep Throat” (an homage to a then-popular porno movie) and was only revealed to be Deputy FBI director Mark Felt after his death. He fed information to the Washington Post reporters who did their research and found all of the information that would eventually lead to the resignations not only of Vice President Spiro Agnew but also of Nixon himself.

There is a new movie out about Mark Felt, and I am curious to see it, especially after Movieguide penned an opinion piece that makes Nixon look like the victim of overzealous prosecutors, and how Mark Felt’s personal agenda made him conduct his personal witch hunt. See above about getting a dog. There’s no evidence that his party affiliation made him any more or less dutiful an FBI agent.

The Movieguide article alleges — without even a citation much less evidence — that John Dean ordered The Watergate break-in to cover up his wife’s affiliation with a prostitution ring. If this is true, I couldn’t find a single credible source on this point. Perhaps that’s why they said it once and never returned to this point later in the article, without so much as an attempt to connect the dots from his wife to the break-in. This sounds like, at best, an attempt at deflection from the reality.

Towards the end of the Movieguide article, they make reference to a book by one-time White House staffer Geoff Shepard that I readily concede I haven’t read. All reviews of this book, are on conservative websites that have an interest in furthering their hypothesis that Nixon was an innocent victim. And it may be one of the few published works that offers an alternative view to an extremely complicated moment in American history. I’m not saying that this book likely plays fast and loose with the facts, but Mr Shepard is hardly an unbiased observer here, since his own ambitions were scuttled by the way the scandal played out.

In my lifetime, I have seen a total of nine different presidents. Six republicans and three democrats. I think it’s interesting that the six republicans, in chronological order as they served, also go, in my opinion, from best to worst. I consider Nixon to be the best Republican President in my lifetime (starting the EPA, entente with the Russians and the Chinese, and laying the groundwork for getting out of Vietnam are all positives about his greater legacy…) He was better than Ford, who was light years ahead of Reagan, who was better than Bush, Sr., who was better than his son. And I didn’t think anyone could be worse than Bush, Jr, until Trump came to Washington.

Donald Trump is facing scandals that dwarf the scope of Watergate, and he doesn’t have a dog. He’s damaging the United States domestically and abroad. If he’s doing anything, he’s padding his bank account and those bank accounts of his children. He has made the country and the world a considerably more unsafe place many times over. It’s only a matter of time before he is relieved of his duties, either through impeachment or coup involving the 25th amendment.

I just wonder what kinds of movies and books will be made about this era forty years from now…

Rex Appeal

Oliver Stone’s 2008 movie W. portrays the 43rd president as somewhat of a tragic persona, a person who might want to do the right thing despite his own inabilities and shortcomings. It’s an interesting movie to watch, regardless of your opinion of the subject matter.

I say this because there’s some interesting drama playing out in Washington these days, and I can easily envision Stone or some other filmmaker making a similar movie about the embattled Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.

It doesn’t take a political scientist to look back at the process leading up to Tillerson’s nomination to the post — for which he would have to leave his role as CEO of ExxonMobil — and see that the nomination was mostly (if not entirely) an effort to undo the sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Those sanctions have prevented Exxon from inking a lucrative deal with Russian oil firms.

Then two things happened. First, Tillerson was actually approved as Secretary of State, and second, congress passed a law preventing the sanctions from being lifted without their approval.

With regard to the former event, Tillerson clearly knew going into the position, that there were things about the job that he wasn’t prepared to handle. Despite a bumpy start to things, he does seem to have at least been trying to lead the State Department the way it ought to be run.

With regard to the latter event, it actually freed him a little bit. Knowing he can’t really do anything about Russia, he seems to have sought out things that he can do that might be best for the entire country and not just his former company.

And that freedom has enabled him to speak more freely, including the reports that he called Donald Trump a “fucking moron”. His non-denial of using those words (and I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment) only angered Trump more.

That’s not to say he’s been an effective Secretary. His tenure in the government is likely to be quite short (I’m guessing he’ll stay until January or so) and if it’s remembered at all, it will be as a footnote or a cautionary tale about the proper sources of cabinet-level positions.

But I do kind of feel sorry for the man. He’s out of his league and he knows it. He’s trying to do the right things but is hampered by his inexperience, attrition within his department, and, of course, the fucking moron he reports to.

Sounds like the makings of a somewhat engaging movie. Where’s Oliver Stone these days?

Belligerent talk

I’d like to engage in a little bit of revisionist history, or more accurately, contemplating how things would be different today if some major historical event had gone differently than the way it was recorded in history.

I have repeatedly said that, as a nation, the United States should be embarrassed by the fact that it was actually necessary to go to war to end slavery. Furthermore, many of the systemic racism that endures today is at least partially attributable to the fact that we more or less botched the peace during the reconstruction era. (Indeed, the only reason why we are having any debates at all over whether or not the confederate battle flag qualifies as “heritage” is because the losing side of the war was allowed to maintain their symbols through the peace.)

So let’s contemplate something: how would things be different today if, following the election of 1860 and Abraham Lincoln’s victory, the southern states seceded from the union and instead of engaging in a protracted military effort, the northern states effectively said, “Okay. Go. We’re banning slavery here now so if you ever want to come back, you’re going to have to be fine with that.”

Now before I continue, I want to make it clear that in this hypothetical scenario, there would still be animosity on both sides, and likely bloodshed, as incidents like Bleeding Kansas and the raid on Harper’s Ferry from the decade before the war started will attest. As a result, I can’t rule out the possibility, in this alternate timeline, of some isolated fighting and violence — especially on open waters — over slavery. I’m just saying that the war itself doesn’t happen.

Earlier this year I traced the evolution of the Republican Party from its abolitionist roots to its modern racism. In that entry, I noted that what helped the Union win the war had little to do with the moral high ground and everything to do with economics and how the north was better positioned to twist the arms of our allies to favor it over the south in trade and maybe even economic sanctions. I see no reason why this would be any different.

With this in mind, it’s probably reasonable to think that in this alternate timeline, Lincoln wouldn’t have been assassinated, Andrew Johnson would never have been president, reconstruction wouldn’t have happened (and therefore wouldn’t have been messed up), the election of 1876 wouldn’t have been so contentious, and I would hazard a guess that sometime between 1890 and 1910, the southern states would have been in such dire financial straits, they would have begged the north to be readmitted into the union (on the condition, as stated above, that they ratify the 13th amendment banning slavery).

Let’s not contemplate the implications of not having the 14th amendment in this essay… What I’m saying is that the intended result of banning slavery would have been achieved by the time William Howard Taft left office anyway.

So there’s a trade-off: war with all of its pain, suffering, and sorrow, or allowing slavery and the dehumanization of human beings to persist for longer, at least in parts of the country. In 1860, I probably would have said that war was the preferable path. In the hindsight of how badly reconstruction went, I’m not so sure.

That was an interesting thought experiment, to say the least. Feel free to criticize me for taking an overly simplistic view of the way history might have played out (up to and including the assumption that William Howard Taft actually became president) but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that Lincoln and his successors could have done some arm twisting with our allies not to engage the south, economically. Especially those that already had a distaste for the institution of slavery. Maybe the southern resentment would still be there.

I mention this because we are at a similar threshold now. It’s much more complicated than it was 150-plus years ago because it is an international, rather than a domestic issue, and nuclear weapons are not off the table. Donald Trump did a lot of sabre-rattling when he spoke to the UN, most of it aimed at North Korea.

His speech was angry, and filled with red meat for his base. He claimed to represent America but he sure as hell didn’t represent me as an American in his speech. Some of his rhetoric was downright embarrassing. But what I want to focus on is the very real threats he aimed at North Korea (and to a lesser extent, Iran and Venezuela).

Kim Jong-Un is not a stupid person. He has seen, under the previous two US presidents, dictators we deposed, and he doesn’t want to go down the same road previously trod by Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. Without defending those dictators and their actions, they were the victims of American aggression. And it’s not a coincidence that surveys after surveys around the world view the US as the greatest threats to world peace. Kim’s actions clearly demonstrate that he’s unwilling to be to Trump, what those other dictators were to George W Bush and Barack Obama.

There is a truth to the observation that, in the past 60 years, we haven’t really been able to get North Korea in line with, well, the rest of the world, the threat posed by North Korea to the USA and the rest of the world has increased since Barack Obama left office. So I don’t know if negotiations and entente are the correct solution, as that’s how we got here in the first place. But if we launch a strike aimed at Pyongyang, the North Korean military will retaliate. The casualty rate, military and civilian, would be appalling. It will affect both Koreas, China, Japan, possibly Russia, and many US territories in the Pacific Ocean.

There is evidence that the current sanctions against North Korea are working, albeit slowly. And the sanctions are stricter now than they have been at any time since the cessation of hostilities almost 70 years ago. And with a nod to my alternative history, Donald Trump is no Abraham Lincoln. Recent pronouncements of his have demonstrated that, like most bullies, he’s more words than actions. (Is he repealing DACA or isn’t he? Are we pulling out of the Paris Accords or not?)

Donald Trump is playing a dangerous game of chicken. We can debate whether or not letting the southern states secede after the election of an abolitionist president might have been a preferable alternative to war. There are no good arguments for going to war with North Korea, though. I’m not saying the status quo is working, but let’s at least try not to blow up the planet as an alternative.

This shouldn’t even qualify as an opinion piece

I admit it. I stopped paying attention to Lou Dobbs years ago. Before he left CNN for Fox News, actually. According to Wikipedia, that was in 1999. And he was starting to go off the rails back then, seeing immigration as being the biggest scourge of this nation. Late last year, I wrote up some of my thoughts on immigration.

He’s got a new “opinion” piece on Fox Business that’s been trending for reasons I’m honestly not sure I understand. I put the word “opinion” in quotes here because I’m not entirely sure it qualifies as such. You can read it for yourself if you’d like. I’ll wait.

In this article, Dobbs rattles off a laundry list of things that are moving their way through the California state legislature that he clearly doesn’t approve of: the move to declare the entire state a “sanctuary state”, to efforts to protect climate change research, to the requirement that presidential candidates release at least five years worth of tax returns in order to be eligible to appear on the ballots. Once he’s done with that list of things the state is doing, he just ends with “California is simply a mess, and not getting any better at all.”

Everything California is doing, is in response or reaction to overreach by Donald Trump and his administration. And I approve of it all, although I do hope they don’t secede from the union.

Take the sanctuary state. There are reasons to deport immigrants and when they happen, they should be deported. But if the states do what Trump is asking, it will creates a class of people who are afraid to reveal themselves as either crime victims or as in need of health care for fear of deportation.

The global warming efforts are to defend valid science. There are two things you can do in any scientific endeavor when the evidence doesn’t match the hypothesis: you can change the hypothesis (which is what good science does) or you can change the evidence (which is what Trump wants to do with climate change).

Take the tax returns. It’s a relatively recent development in American history that candidates have released their tax returns and there has never been a legal requirement to do so. I think it’s a great idea. Without them, how can we possibly know if a person is seeking power for their own gain or if they want to serve? Every state ought to do this, since they can control who gets to appear on a ballot.

Dobbs gave no reason why these acts of the California legislature are bad things. Indeed, I see them all as good things. The kinds of things that make me cheer for states’ rights.

To paraphrase the headline and the depth of his “opinion” of the Lou Dobbs piece, he’s a mess and not getting any better.

An interesting contrast

I readily acknowledge that there isn’t a whole lot of overlap between my worldview and that of Movieguide. But there’s a recent article on their site that puts this difference in worldview into stark focus.

I’m sure most people are aware of the terrorist group that arose after the United States deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and which has sought to gain a stronghold in the power vacuum of Iraq and its neighbor, Syria, which is currently the focus of a brutal, multi-sided civil war. Their Wikipedia page provides a complex history of their actions and influence since they first organized in 1999.

Over and above the history, translations from Arabic into English have given this group multiple monikers and acronyms. Are they Daesh? The Islamic State? The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? (Note to those who don’t understand the geography and history, the nation of Levant and the nation of Syria are basically the same place and the preferred name of the nation varies depending on who you ask… So ISIL and ISIS are basically the same acronym.)

For some reason, the American news media have taken to calling this group ISIS. And I absolutely hate this fact. After all, in Egyptian mythology, Isis was a figure of beauty, the goddess of health, marriage, and wisdom. It sullies the literature and the mythology of this figure to equate her with a terrorist group. I should think that it would be roughly comparably offensive to Christians if a hate group ended up with the name Journey to Everyone’s Skintone with Unsullied Supremacy (JESUS).

So I’d like to see the name Isis reclaimed from the terrorist group. I think some media outlets have started to get the message as the group is now commonly referred to just as the “Islamic State”.

Which brings me back to Movieguide. In this recent article, they take the D.C. Comics show Legends of Tomorrow to task for having the audacity to name a character “Isis”, because that’s the same as the terrorist group.

Yeah, if that doesn’t illustrate the chasm between their worldview and mine, I don’t know what does.

Not my president

The first half of my blog entry on presidential greatness focuses on requests by surrogates for then President-Elect Trump to “give him a chance” to prove himself.

I have given him a chance. Whether you agree with someone politically or not, once they actually have access to the levers of power, it’s in your interest to hope he or she does well and acts wisely with that power, whether that interest orients itself towards finance, physical security, or something else.

Since taking the oath of office, Donald Trump’s achievements and public statements have almost universally been an appeasement to the people most strongly committed to him, acting with contempt, scorn, or ridicule towards literally everyone else.

The philosophy of the marketplace of ideas has been around for nearly 400 years, almost 200 of which have been grounded in purely economic terms. In theory, this is a good thing, like free speech. In reality, though, it’s not the best ideas that persist and thrive but instead it’s the ideas that have an appeal to some group of people with clout. In short, the problem with the marketplace of ideas is the fact that we need to have marketing to sell any idea.

You would think, for example, that white supremacy could not possibly thrive in a truly functional marketplace of ideas. There’s just too much out there that counters and contradicts the claims of the white supremacists. Whether we talk about the idiocy on display by the adherents to that thesis, or the disgust at their overall methods (see Charlottesville), or the legions of evidence from genetics that the more inbred a group is, the greater the risk of allowing harmful mutations to thrive, or even the fact that children of mixed-race parents are almost universally quite attractive. As a marketing tool, though, fear and anger do sell product.

So why are we even talking about white supremacy in terms that are anything other than the butt of jokes?

The short answer is Donald Trump. If he represents anyone other than himself, it’s the basket of deplorables that Hillary Clinton spoke of last year. And nobody else. The people who deny the irrefutable evidence of climate change who cheered the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreements. The people who support his Muslim ban, his border wall with Mexico, the pardoning of unrepentant criminal Joe Arpaio, and now his proposal to end DACA. That last one is particularly cruel and myopic since you’re talking about sending people to a country they may have no active memory of (if they’ve even ever been there) at a huge cost to the economy they currently contribute to.

And I’m not even going to talk about the dangerous war of words he’s been waging with Kim Jong-Un.  Or his plan to ban transgender people from the military. 

Give Donald Trump a chance? Ha! At this point he needs to demonstrate that he has even an iota of compassion or competence. If he represents the modern Republican Party in any way, they need to be voted out of public office at every level as soon as possible.