A good thing about the Trump presidency

In the movie JFK, Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, the real-life lawyer who brought the only criminal case to trial in the assassination of our 35th president (and namesake of the movie).  While the movie’s faults are legion (not the least of which is the credibility it lent to some of the more absurd conspiracy theories about the assassination), there’s an interesting — and valid — point made when Costner gives his closing argument in the trial: the moment you have two or more people involved in something, that is by definition a conspiracy.  

When you look around in today’s media-saturated world, conspiracy theories abound.  By the expansive definition of “conspiracy” used in the movie, conspiracies absolutely do exist.  I’m not trying to make an argument that the official version of any event is necessarily the whole truth, and I readily concede that there are times when skepticism of the official version (or at least portions of the official version) of events is absolutely warranted.  

Modern conspiracy theories generally involve arguing that some group of powerful, wealthy, connected people with a vested interest in covering up the “truth” put out an official story that we shouldn’t believe.   The motivations of the conspirators — depending upon the event — range from maintaining the status quo or upending some rule they don’t like.  The conspiracy theorists argue that mass shootings, for example, are really just false flags planted to get people motivated enough to allow the government to take away guns from law abiding citizens while the anti-vaccination movement maintains that they’re being silenced because too many people (pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, doctors and nurses) make too much money off of the vaccines to look at the supposedly harmful side effects truthfully.  

I’ll grant you that the proponents of the conspiracy theories about mass shootings and vaccinations are quite harmful.  There are no shortage of stories from either survivors or grieving families of the deceased who have found themselves being harassed and threatened by people who believe that their trauma is just an act.   The health risks of vaccines are minimal compared to the overall health benefits of those same vaccines.  (And I’m saying that knowing that I can’t rule out the possibility that my father might be alive today had he not gotten a particular vaccine about 2.5 years before he died.  But that’s the stuff of another entry.  

I’ll even concede that some conspiracy theories can be tempting.  When George W Bush ascended to the presidency in 2001, he definitely wanted to help rehabilitate his father’s legacy as presidency and taking out Saddam Hussein was definitely a part of that agenda.  The September 11 attacks provided more than enough popular support for that goal.   (And, when you consider that there were nineteen hijackers, that definitely meets the definition of “conspiracy” from the Oliver Stone movie.)  That doesn’t mean Bush (or any other member of the US government at any level) was in on it.  

One fatal flaw of modern conspiracy theories, is the size and scope of the hypothesized conspiracy itself.   As more people are “in the know” about the truth, the harder it becomes to conceal it.   There is, for example, an entire industry dedicated to revealing rumors about the next big product releases from Apple despite the company’s best efforts to keep their product plans quiet.  And Apple’s stock price is at least partially dependent upon those rumors.  

Which brings me to the train wreck that is the White House under Donald Trump.  I think there are fewer leaks in the lean-tos built by the contestants on the TV show Survivor than there are in this administration.   And Trump isn’t exactly wrong for not appreciating the fact that the press is getting information not necessarily intended for public consumption.  There’s even a recent story in The Onion that’s poking fun at the leaks.  

The issues Trump is facing in maintaining an efficient, smoothly working operation are identical to any issues that a sufficiently wide-ranging conspiracy would have to deal with.   Keeping people silent, especially when they don’t have some massive motivation to be quiet, is quite difficult if not impossible.   

I’m not seeing much coming out of the White House that I can honestly say is a good thing.  But the more I think about it, maybe the leaks should help us put to rest the notion that these conspiracy theories are anything other than an occasionally amusing distraction


The Johnson Amendment

Since 1954, it has officially been a law on the books that states that a church or nonprofit organization risks losing its tax exempt status if they openly campaign for or against particular political candidates.   This is one of the few laws that push back against what was the slow creep of religion into public policies in the 1950s.  After all, this was the time of the rise of Billy Graham, creating a national motto of “in god we trust“, and adding the phrase “under god” into the pledge of allegiance (one of my first entries on this blogging site talks about that point).  

The Johnson Amendment, so named because it was proposed and written by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, has been the bane of religious conservatives ever since.  They argue that having this law on the books somehow infringes on the freedom of speech of their pastors and have, for years, promoted what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday in open defiance of the law.  

Their arguments are ridiculous on their surface.  Freedom of speech does not equate to the freedom to have a platform to speak as you wish and your desired audience is under no obligation to listen or take you seriously.  The Johnson Amendment is one of the few checks on the undeserved power already wielded by some churches on their gullible parishioners.   

And it’s quite toothless if you think about it.  A minister can’t stand in front of his church and make a sermon that says that “candidate A is against abortion while candidate B is for it, so you’re going to hell if you vote for candidate B.”  They can (and often do) make sermons talking about how evil abortion is and how god would send you straight to hell if you even think about taking the life of an innocent unborn baby…

I sometimes wonder how they reconcile this position against both Leviticus 27:6 and Numbers 3:15-16, both of which argue that someone isn’t even human until a month after they’re born.   I’ve got to admit that I’d love to see a candidate for political office use one or both of those bible verses when asked the question of “when does life begin?”

The Republican Party has long been allied with forces that seek to weaken, if not eliminate, the constitutional separation of church and state.  The constitution grants people the right to worship as they please.   They twist this right into claiming they have the freedom to impose their religious beliefs on others and then claim persecution when people push back.  

A few years ago in the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby vs Burwell, this argument went beyond the ridiculous when the court, expanding on a prior decision regarding corporate personhood, said that corporations can actually have their own religious beliefs and that those beliefs can be completely devoid of any factual basis or evidence because they had a “deeply held belief” that contraceptives are abortofascents and therefore shouldn’t be covered by employer insurance.   

The rational response to the Hobby Lobby ruling ought to be the repeal of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and negotiating a constitutional amendment that specifies the limits of corporate personhood.  (As taxpayers, corporations should be treated like people. In other arenas of life, such as actually having a birth and a death, they shouldn’t…)

But the less-than-rational modern incarnation of the GOP is eager to eliminate the Johnson Amendment now that they have control over both the legislative and executive branches of government.   While I think this is a bad idea — the amendment needs strengthening, not eliminating — part of me wants to encourage it.  

A repeal would free up the liberal churches too, from the same restraints.  Imagine if Martin Luther King had done overt politicking from his pulpit?  Or Jesse Jackson?  For every baptist or Pentecostal church preaching about fire and brimstone for voting the wrong way, imagine an AME, Methodist, or UCC church preaching about love and voting the right way.

Imagine an imam or a rabbi sermonizing about how to improve the American political process by breaking the stranglehold Christianity has on contemporary discourse.  

And it gets even more interesting than that.  Remember that the Johnson amendment applies to all non-profits, not just churches.  What would happen if the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Planned Parenthood or any of the scores of scientific educational foundations started doing this?   I think the only conservative non-church nonprofit that could come close to this level of clout, would be the NRA.

So it’s a double-edged sword.  I most definitely do not want to see the Johnson Amendment repealed unless it’s replaced with something with more teeth.   But if it is, I look forward to creating a “be careful what you wish for” mentality in the evangelicals who so vehemently want to see it go away entirely.  

The non-linear nature of history

The name Charles Guiteau is probably not the best known name in American history.  Over at Wikipedia, there’s one category that his entry belongs to, which contains exactly three other names, including Leon Czolgosz (another not exactly well known name to people who aren’t students of American history).   

But Guiteau ought to be more than just a footnote to history.   He was definitely delusional and probably a textbook example of a psychopath.   In 1880, he gave an impassioned speech at the republican national convention in favor of the man who would go on to win the general election, James Garfield.   

And he felt that Garfield won because of that speech.  As a result of more than a half century of patronage, first introduced by Andrew Jackson in the election of 1828, Guiteau felt he was entitled to a position within the cabinet of President Garfield.   When he didn’t get the ambassadorship he wanted, he decided to assassinate the president.   

I often use the case of Charles Guiteau as an example of how you can never tell when some decisions might have horrible, unforeseen consequences.   In hindsight, we can probably argue that there’s a degree of luck that Garfield was the only victim of a disappointed office seeker during the era of the “spoils system”.

There are countless other examples.  I’m torn about whether whether the blame for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 belongs more on decisions made by Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan.  Probably a little bit of both.   It was on Truman’s watch that we had our failed incursion into Korea under the notion of the “domino theory” that if one country became communist, then other countries would fall.   This, in turn, was Reagan’s justification for funding the mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets in the 1980s.   And who got a lot of American money for that war?   Osama bin Laden.   Without that money, he wouldn’t have had the resources or the knowledge to train his followers…

Some decisions have consequences that don’t make themselves known for a long time, without regard to whether we might agonize over them for a long time or whether they seemed like no-brainers at the time.  Bill Clinton’s impeachment was only made possible after the Supreme Court rejected his argument that a civil lawsuit would detract from his ability to perform the duties of the president.   The court ruled (correctly) that there was no historical precedent for a civil lawsuit having the net result of harm to the presidency.   Well, that precedent surely is there now…..

You can draw an almost direct line from both Presidents Bush to the recent Russian incursion into Ukraine.   Bush 41 set the stage by not intervening when Saddam Hussein, his country harmed by a nearly decade long war with neighboring Iran, asked for help when Kuwait made oil sales even harder.   So Hussein invaded Kuwait and Bush intervened to drive the Iraqi army back.  Then Bush 43, hoping to salvage his father’s legacy, waged an ill-advised war to depose Hussein after he had gained some political capital in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.  Vladimir Putin, watching this aspect of history can make a valid argument that if Bush could do that, why can’t he do pretty much the same thing in Ukraine, where a fair amount of the local population might prefer to be subjects of Moscow rather than Kyiv….

It’s too soon to know what the consequences of some of the tumult of 2016 will be.   Between Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen next, much less the longer term impacts.   Time will certainly tell on that one, but whatever it is, that’ll only mean that future leaders will have to deal with it when it does finally happen.   

Whither the GOP and the country?

In the past couple of months I’ve been thinking a lot about both American history and what portends for the next four years under a President Donald Trump.   I have often said that I have not been able, in good conscience, to pull any levers in the voting booth for someone with “Republican” next to their name since I watched then-Senator Arlen Specter hew dangerously rightward to fend off a primary challenge from then-Representative Pat Toomey in 2004.   

At the time,  my other senator was Rick Santorum.  When Toomey — whose worldview closely resembles that of Santorum — came in claiming the mantle of the future of the Republican Party, I lost the ability to vote for the GOP.  

I was (and still am) quick to point out to pollsters, this statement is not, in and of itself, a giveaway to the Democratic Party.   

Donald Trump ran on an openly racist, sexist, bigoted platform sprinkled with some economic populism that appealed to those who have felt left behind by a changing economy.   The racism, sexism, bigotry, and general xenophobia he spouted aren’t anything new in either this country or humanity in general.   It’s just disheartening how much he has emboldened them.  

In looking at the posturings of the president elect, I wonder if I have been misjudging things.   Thirteen years ago, I thought the downfall of the Republican Party would be the influence of the religious right, and that in order for the party to become remotely palatable to me, they’d have to rid themselves of the influence of the theocrats in their midst.  

Say what you will about Donald Trump himself, but he is not a theocrat.   He may have surrounded himself with the likes of Franklin Graham and other modern religious hypocrites but he himself has little use for the teachings and trappings of religion.   I might tongue-in-cheek question why someone like Trump hasn’t founded his own church as he seems quite comfortable preaching similar bullshit to gullible supporters, but I’m sure that, as a con man he recognizes similar people.  

I am not, by nature, a pessimistic person.  And I do recognize that sometimes, in order to move forward we must occasionally step back.  Looking at Trump’s nominees for important positions in his cabinet, there are only a handful of people who can competently execute the duties of the position without raising the specter of corruption, conflict of interest, or historical opposition to the goals and expectations of the agency they would lead.  Add in Trump’s very public disregard for our intelligence agencies, and it’s easy to see how our enemies can be emboldened to find ways to attack us while the wolves guard the proverbial hen house.  

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has shown his true colors in wanting to rush the most controversial nominees through the confirmation process without thoroughly vetting them.  (Note that there is nothing wrong with holding the hearings before the president elect assumes the office; it’s the lack of interest in compiling the necessary documentation on their backgrounds that is a problem.)  Considering the sheer amount of wealth all of these nominees have, both individually and collectively, their backgrounds should be investigated more thoroughly, not less.  

I have pointed out before that, depending on how you measure it, three historical presidencies vie for the title of “most corrupt.”  The way Trump is starting out, it seems as though he wants to surpass Grant, Harding, and Reagan and earn the mantle of most corrupt on his own, eliminating any ambiguity from the various possible definitions.  

And yes, that can and will damage the country in scores of ways, both direct (bankrupting the government) and indirect (leaving vulnerabilities in our defenses and infrastructure).   And that, in turn, could be the motivation of an otherwise reluctant congress to grant more powers to a president who is already excessively power hungry.  

During the campaign I was unable to answer the simple question of why Donald Trump wanted to be president.   Most people who enter politics — liberal and conservative alike — do so because they feel compelled to serve the public and think that they can effect positive changes for the country.   There is nothing in Donald Trump’s public statements or his past history that indicates that he wants to serve anyone other than himself.  

But there is cause for hope.  Whatever damage he does, can be easily undone by an electorate that watches in disgust, starting with a new congress designed to hold him accountable for his lies and actions in two years and then a new president in four.  

What I’d like to see in this process is the Republican Party waking up and realizing how much of a mistake they made by having him as their standard bearer.  The country will survive.  Will the republicans? 

I think it’s a warning shot

There still remains a month before Barack Obama and his family vacate the White House.  Our allies and our enemies know this.  To that end, this was planned as a part of the drafting of the constitution and reinforced by the 22nd amendment.  

From the perspective of other nations, it is something they all must abide: how to deal with the planned transition time when you know someone new will be in charge (but not yet).  I imagine that before the 20th amendment moved the date the new president was sworn in from March to January, it was even harder.  

Yesterday, all of the (legitimate) news sites were abuzz over the assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey.  I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve seen, where the author questioned whether this is a spark that might trigger the next world war, not unlike the assassination of Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 triggering World War I.  

(Note that the assassination more than a century ago really wasn’t the cause of the war; it was the excuse for it…)

I’m not trying to argue that this particular killing — it should be noted that Russia and Turkey are not allies — won’t lead to war (it certainly could).  But I am arguing that this seems more like a strategic warning to Donald Trump that couldn’t be more than that while Obama is still in charge.  

Officially, Turkey is an ally to the US through NATO.  Prime Minister Erdogan, though, has been making some very undemocratic moves in the past couple of years.  President Putin may be happier than most world leaders with the results of this election.  Among other things, he wants to see the sanctions against his country lifted.  

And Donald Trump has business interests in both countries.  I expect to see him at least try to get Russia and Turkey to be less belligerent to each other.  It’s in his interest, as well as being in the interests of many people he has nominated to his cabinet.  

And in and of itself, less belligerence is a good thing.  

So I regard the assassin’s motive as having less to do with political sovereignty and more to test the incoming Trump administration.  A warning shot, if you would.  

The world has become a more dangerous place in the past fifteen years than it was in the previous fifty.  We can’t close ourselves off to it and we’d be naive to even try.   Alliances do shift over time.  

I just hope we don’t give up on our friends because someone might make more money from others.  I suspect that some people in Turkey might be thinking the same thing.  

Immigration and Hypocrisy 

Like many American children, my early civic education taught me that the United States has always been a melting pot: a place where people from diverse backgrounds and cultures can come together as a single unit.   And there is a certain appeal to this picture.  

As I learned more about the history of this country, I started to think that maybe a salad bowl might be a better metaphor.   In a melting pot, the various ingredients all mix together and you can’t necessarily discern what went into it.  In a salad bowl, none of the ingredients lose their original nature.  Indeed, the act of becoming “American” has no requirement that you eschew what you previously were.  

It’s why we technically have no official language under the law, despite some people’s efforts to the contrary.  

The USA has always had a bizarre relationship with immigration.  Indeed, if you look at world history and events that have triggered large scale migrations, there was probably pushback against immigration from those areas into America.   Ireland in the 1840s thanks to the potato famine.   Russia in the early 1900s thanks to the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.   Germany in the 1930s thanks to the Nazis.   The Mexicans and middle easterners in recent years thanks to currency devaluation and the Arab spring respectively.  

I often talk about how there’s something truly special about becoming an “American”.   Imagine the range of emotions people must go through as a part of the decision making process.   To decide to give up your family, your friends, your home, your very way of life to make a journey to a place where, stylized imagery notwithstanding, the only certainty is uncertainty.  How bad must things be in your home country to even consider such a drastic change?

And that’s the big question.  Immigration on a large scale is always either a direct or indirect result of more people in a geographic region than there are resources to support that number of people.   What’s going on in Syria right now is an easy example of it: a drought, caused by global warming, took its toll on the nation’s farmers, who migrated to the cities in hopes of finding jobs and commodities.  The infrastructure of the cities wasn’t prepared to handle the influx of people and the people already in the cities started to resent this movement.   Tempers flared, fights broke out, and the next thing you know, the country became enmeshed in a three-way civil war.   So some of the immigration from Syria is a direct result of strained resources (the drought) and some is an indirect result (getting away from the war).  

I don’t want to give lip service to the objections of any country that is on the receiving end of large-scale immigration.   There are legitimate questions about the cost of providing goods and services to every new person crossing the border and it’s never an unfair question to ask, to wonder when the tipping point will be, when the cost outweighs the benefit.    (All too often, the knee-jerk reaction is just to the cost without regard to the benefits.)  For every new person who comes to the country, there is an added need both within the government and the private sector to provide for them: jobs, basic goods, health care, police, infrastructure, etc.   Is there a point where the availability of those things is outweighed by what they provide in return (taxes, spending on those goods, volunteer work, intangibles that occur simply by their presence — see the movie It’s a Wonderful Life for details…)?  Of course there is.   But I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to it.   

Now you’re free to disagree with me on that point.   Maybe we’re closer to that tipping point than I say.   Maybe we’ve already passed it.   It’s certainly possible, to be sure.  I certainly don’t have a magic formula to know one way or another.   Or maybe it’s because, as then-candidate Donald Trump put it, the countries from which immigration is a quote-unquote problem, “aren’t sending their best people”.   That could explain why you hear complaints about the Mexicans taking blue collar jobs but not Indian or Chinese immigrants taking white collar jobs.  

That’s where we see a ton of hypocrisy.   If you’re opposed to immigration while simultaneously denying the reality of climate change and/or restricting access to birth control/abortion services, you’re contributing to the immigration problems that you complain about.  

By denying climate change, you’re denying the strains on resources that will inevitably cause populations to relocate.  Remember that the scientists who have written about the consequences of climate change, have reported that it will cause natural weather phenomena to happen with greater intensity and in greater frequency.  Thus droughts will last longer, floods will happen more often, wildfires will burn for longer, there will be more hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, and other harsh weather events.  Crops will fail, animal migration will start following different patterns and times.  Arable, farm-worthy land will be reduced even more than they already are.  

By denying access to birth control and abortion, you’re setting the stage for more people to consume the foods that are already being farmed.   Population and population density will increase, and cities will be even harder pressed to meet the needs of its residents.  There was a report about ten years ago that said that the state of New Jersey was on track — given then-current growth rates — to run out of land for people to live on within 25 years. I haven’t heard anything about that report since then.   

Rising populations and reduced crop yields set the stage for the most hard-hit to need to leave their homes.   This isn’t about the ones who want to leave.   It’s about the ones Trump sarcastically said aren’t “the best people”.  

And the evangelicals are the greatest hypocrites here.   They’re the ones most loudly denying climate change, railing against any form of sexuality that expresses itself when people have sex for reasons other than to make babies, and, of course, complaining about the immigrants.  Not the only place where they’re hypocrites but certainly one of the most outrageous.  

In this regard, I do have to give some credit to the Catholics.    At least they (or their current leader) is saying that climate change is a problem, and that we shouldn’t build walls to keep immigrants out.   They’re still being irresponsible with regard to the very real problem of overpopulation, but they’re not the hypocrites their conservative Protestant brethren have shown themselves to be, at least in this arena.  

States rights

I have a love/hate relationship with the phrase “state’s rights” (no matter where, if at all, the apostrophe in the first word is placed).  If you want to have an even remotely honest reading of the constitution, you must acknowledge that power really does lie with states and not the federal government.    Even if you don’t read the constitution, you have to acknowledge that the closer you are to an issue (both metaphorically and literally) the better positioned you will be to address it.  

That doesn’t mean you’ll do it right.  The 2005 Supreme Court case Kelo v City of New London is evidence of that.   This was a case involving eminent domain.   The defendants wanted to seize a local property that had nothing wrong with it but only because a WalMart wanted to move in.  The plaintiffs didn’t want their property seized.  A reasonable dispute. When the court sided with the defendants, they pointed out, accurately, that local officials are usually better suited to making decisions involving the local economy than anyone at the national scale.  It’s kind of hard to argue against the logic of this decision, at least as a matter of law and overall due process.  If the property owners hadn’t been properly compensated, that would be a different story.  

It’s easy to see how state’s rights can be a double-edged sword.   I wrestled with the proper way of describing when they’re a good thing and when they’re not.  I settled on the thought that all good ideas start out small and, with a little luck, hope, promise, and elbow grease, they’ll get bigger.  And with those same ingredients, bad ideas wither away and die out.   

So as a general rule, I support states’ rights as the breeding ground for ideas, and the good ones will eventually become more widespread.  In recent years, the most obviously visible example is how a 2004 court ruling in Massachusetts allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry.  Eleven years later, that’s the law of the land.  

Where I don’t support states’ rights, comes when the phrase is a euphemism or glossing over of an intent to discriminate.   To pass laws that are overtly or subtly racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or otherwise to enable some form of inequality under the law.   We see it in laws intended to keep any minority group down, including racially motivated gerrymandering, voter ID laws, bathroom bills, and TRAP laws.  

The irony about this euphemistic use of the phrase, is that the issue here is the end goal and not the stated point of curtailing federal overreach.    Indeed, since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, the federal government has been absolutely horrible with regard to upholding certain rights, particularly with regard to the 4th and 6th amendments.   (In a bipartisan manner.   Ample blame falls on both presidents Bush and Obama here…)

I am ashamed and embarrassed that my senator, Pat Toomey, is a vocal critic of what he calls “sanctuary cities”.  To listen to Sen. Toomey describe it, they’re bastions of lawlessness, with crime running rampant, the perpetrators getting no punishment and the victims getting no justice or even a mechanism for redress.  The reality is that all they are, is a set of rules governing when local law enforcement should and should not turn over undocumented immigrants to the federal authorities.   And Sen. Toomey has just introduced a blatantly unconstitutional bill that basically says that local authorities must turn them over, otherwise the city would risk losing federal funding.   

So yeah, I’m a full on advocate of states’ rights when it comes to government overreach in that regard.   

In fact, the only place where I never think it’s overreach is when you’re talking about anti-discrimination laws, as if somehow it’s a controversial opinion to treat other human beings as though they were, you know, human.  

So it’s heartening to see the phrase getting used for the active promotion of local activism.   This article in Vox is a great start.   Let’s see more of it.   And then we can finally take back the term “state’s rights” and the idea from the bigots and xenophobes.