A Legitimately Elected President

Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Michele Obama, and Jill Biden among dignitaries on inauguration dias.
The conclusion of the Mueller investigation presents leading Democrats with a fateful choice: whether to continue digging into the past in hopes of hobbling or delegitimizing Trump’s presidency, or to concentrate on the present and the future, when all their ingenuity will be needed to beat Trump and deny him a second term.

Though the latter would be better for the party and nation, turning away from the special investigation requires fortitude.  The Mueller report hasn’t been made public, and the pundits and pols who are against Trump aren’t satisfied with Attorney General William Barr’s disclosures and conclusions.  The Democrats want more information.  This desire, as reasonable as it is, distinguishes them from the mass of American citizens who are really tired of this subtle affair and who are dying for evidence that the government is still capable of . . . . GOVERNING.

If the Democrats want someone new in the White House in 2020, they need to persuade voters that their nominee and their vision will be better for the nation than what Trump offers.  Yet they are so far from presenting this impression that one can scarcely imagine their unifying around a tenable candidate and winning.

Democrats are procrastinating.  They are shirking the hard work that follows from acknowledging that Trump won office legitimately.  He enjoys an authority that is foolish to argue with: In 2016, he understood the rules of the electoral game and exploited them more effectively than did Hillary Clinton.  He won the electoral votes he needed by persuading enough citizens to go to the polls and vote for him in key states.  Two years later, most of the president’s opponents have yet to reckon with this reality, even though any political strategy leading to Trump’s defeat must be designed with this geography in mind.  To defeat Trump, Democrats must peel away moderate and independent voters in states fed up with stale Democratic memes.  The Dems face an uphill battle, even with teamwork, ideological innovation, and the right nominee.

And where is Democratic rage when it comes to the real bogeyman, Russia–the real villain who prejudiced American voters against Hillary by waging a campaign of misinformation, who smeared her and deployed assets to promote Trump, a candidate who, for various reasons, Russia wanted instead?  What is Congress doing to ensure that foreign nations don’t infiltrate and corrupt American political discourse in the future?

While real danger looms over American democracy, one wonders whether the Democrats will ever look up from their game of Clue and do something.

Image: Screen shot of leading Democrats attending Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
© 2019 American Inguiry

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Senator Flake

The former Senator from Arizona speaking at the Union League Club of Chicago's George Washington's Birthday Celebration.
Over the weekend, I went to hear Senator Jeff Flake at the Union League Club. Every February, the club hosts a big dinner to celebrate George Washington’s birthday and invites a guest speaker. This year, Jeff Flake of Arizona spoke. This was the 131st first year the dinner was held.

I believe that whenever one has a chance to see a major public figure, one should take the opportunity.   Flake has just left the Senate after one term but he is definitely presidential material, and I will be surprised if he fails to run for president one day. He faces one major impediment to his ambition, however: at the moment he is very nearly a man without a party.

Flake comes across as a very poised, articulate, and thoughtful conservative. He describes himself as having fallen in love with politics at an early age. He served twelve years in the House of Representatives prior to his elevation to the Senate. Then along came Trump, the game changer who has cast Flake into a sea of difficulty.  Flake is one of the few Republicans in Congress to have broken openly with the president instead of going along with him in a sheepish and cowardly way.

Most Republican senators have tried to “find common ground” with the president as though doing so does not compromise their dignity. They have chosen to collaborate with him, even though it cheapens them by association. Trump treats the Senate in a high-handed and condescending manner. The Republican-led Senate has permitted itself to be humiliated. Republican senators endure Trump for the sake of party domination.

In the rare cases when the Republican majority finds that it cannot comply with Trump, its opposition to the president is tacit, as was true last week when Trump was shut out of the budget negotiations and told afterward that he must accept the negotiated deal. By and large, Republican senators have watched silently, however, as Trump has destroyed the soul of the “Grand Old Party.” It’s a peculiar situation, because it’s not clear whether most leading Republicans genuinely endorse Trump’s ideas. What they see is that Trump is charismatic and that his charisma is pumping up Republican power. Perhaps they believe they can outlast Trump, then return to what they were before.

Jeff Flake has no such illusions. He cannot stand with a president whose followers chant, “Lock her up.” During Flake’s tenure in Congress, he witnessed the gradual erosion of comity on Capitol Hill. When he began, it was still the custom of senators and representatives to move their families to Washington. Political differences tended to evaporate when members on either side of the aisle knew one another’s children by name. On weekends, representatives worshipped together and watched their kids play sports, developing friendships that softened the edges of partisan conflict.

That changed, Flake recalled, with Newt Gingrich’s speakership.  Gingrich told House Republicans to leave their families at home, because, on the weekends, he expected them to be back in their districts campaigning. As a result, the US now has “a commuter Congress,” with members flying in to work a few days a week.

Reluctant to treat Democrats as “the enemy” and unwilling to stand with the president, Flake has learned that Republicans in his state increasingly demand this very thing. Whereas “the economy” or “jobs” used to top the list of Republican voters’ concerns, “Where do you stand on Trump?” has displaced them, according to recent polls. Out of sync with both his base and GOP leadership, Flake saw re-election was futile.  He left the Senate last month.  In retirement, he seems to have embraced the philosophy of the first president we had gathered to honor. For, as that great man once observed,

If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The rest is in the hands of God.

Ralph Northam’s Virginia

The national flap over Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page demonstrates how the affairs of states and localities are subject to external pressures that they were more free from formerly.  There is something to be said for the “nationalization” of political sentiment, in that it tends to make the states more like one another–something that the United States resists but needs.  Yet citizens can only be citizens of a particular place, and they above all others are entitled to decide who their leaders should be.  That Democrats outside Virginia have opined so freely on how Ralph Northam should behave at this point betrays an uneasiness about self-government that should be anathema in US society.

It’s doubly ironic that the Democratic Party, which is banking on its “zero tolerance” policy to distinguish it from the dog-whistle variety of Republicanism, should have gone so quickly for the bait that a right-wing website, Big League Politics, dangled.  According to Mother Jones, Big League Politics is “a young media outlet best known for defending white nationalists.”  The site is run by disgruntled Breitbart News staffers who view Breitbart as having gotten “too moderate.”  BLP represents an element of Virginia’s electorate that lost out when Republican Ed Gillespie beat their favored candidate, Trump enthusiast Corey Stewart, in the gubernatorial primary.

In publicizing an old photo from Northam’s yearbook, BLP  bet that Democrats would immediately throw Northam under the bus, no questions asked.  How right they were.  Many influential Democrats, responding almost viscerally to the “evidence” of a single old photograph (in which the governor is not identifiable), immediately called on Northam to resign.  Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, DNC chair Tom Perez, and presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Julian Castro all fell into the trap, needing no further information to declare Northam suddenly and completely disqualified.  The absolutism and self-righteousness of “zero tolerance” bid fair to destroy Northam, who gained office with the support of the more moderate and forward-looking part of Virginia’s population.

The Democratic vote in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial primary by county. Northam (blue) v. Perriello (green). Source: Wikipedia.

Though a distant observer, I followed Northam’s run for governor rather closely.  A relative who lives in Virginia decided early on to canvass for Northam, as a way to work for positive politics in the wake of Trump’s election.  Through her letters, I followed Northam through his primary battle with the Sanders-backed insurgent Tom Perriello, whose effort was seen as a bellwether for progressive Democrats nationally.  Despite Perriello’s losing, The Nation declared that Northam had “moved left in the course of the primary and is likely the most progressive Democratic nominee in the history of Virginia.”  Northam repeatedly denounced President Trump on the campaign trail, declaring that “we’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia.”

The Republican vote in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial primary by county. Gillespie the victor (red) v. Stewart (gold).  Source: Wikipedia.

Was it, in fact, because of Trump that Virginia’s own home-grown strain of hate flared so dangerously in the middle of the gubernatorial campaign?  In the Republican primary, George Zornick writes, “Corey Stewart ran an offensive campaign based heavily on Confederate nostalgia and almost knocked off former RNC chair Ed Gillespie for the nomination.”  Gillespie staved off Stewart by less than 45,000 votes.  Various publications report that Stewart’s campaign consultants, Reilly O’Neal and Noel Fritsch, became the owners of BLP soon afterward.   Both men had also worked on Alabaman Roy Moore‘s US Senate campaign, which failed amid allegations that he stalked and molested underage girls.  Fritsch and O’Neal are wide-ranging political troublemakers, who help the alt-right by casting aspersions on liberals and other proponents of racial and sexual equality.

The dangers of inflaming such divisions became clear at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, when a mêlée broke out between white-supremacist groups and their opponents, culminating in an act of domestic terrorism in which at least forty people were wounded and one person was killed.  (See this Wikipedia page for details and videos of the event.)  The assembly of so many extremists, armed and rallying around a symbol of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, left many Virginians (and the nation) painfully uneasy about the extent of militant intolerance in the state.  Where was Virginia heading?

The vote in Virginia’s November 2017 gubernatorial election by county. Northam (the victor) in blue; Gillespie in red. Source: Wikipedia.

Northam’s solid victory in November 2017 represented a general rebuke to factions stoking divisiveness and hatred.  On Election Day, Democrats and others opposed to Trump and alt-right extremism went to the polls in remarkably high numbers.  Turnout was the highest it had been in twenty years.  Nonetheless, the campaign exposed a thick sediment of bitterness over race and emancipation that had lain unresolved for many years, arguably since the time of the Civil War.

As Donald Trump joined with leading Democrats in condemning Northam as a racist, the alt-right nearly succeeded in making Northam indistinguishable from the very extremists he battled and triumphed over in the campaign.  When politics makes such strange bedfellows, be wary indeed.

The Nature of Our Political Crisis

Low-angle shot of Trump and smiling lawmakers.
Perhaps you, my reader, feel as I do, that it’s a challenge to act meaningfully in response to the present political situation—despite recognizing that, as the federal government shows signs of veering off course, all citizens have a responsibility to promote stability and work together to avert an all-out crisis.

So many Americans are unhappy—worried—distressed—alarmed—embarrassed—about the state of the union.  We doubt our president’s sanity, and we fear the real destruction that could follow from having entrusted the entire executive branch to someone who is vicious, immoderate, unenlightened.  We are unhappy and disappointed in the condition and posture of the political parties–both the Republicans and the Democrats lack unity, ideological clarity, and discipline.

Trump gained power partly by destroying many Republican reputations; and, since, as president, he has pushed the GOP to support his style of politics and ideological viewpoint, the influence of many moderate Republicans has been checked.  This has further weakened what was formerly the most effective and palatable element of that party, an element that far-right zeal has gradually eclipsed.  Many formerly respected Republicans have disgraced themselves by collaborating with Trump or, by their silence and inaction in the face of his outrageous condescension toward them, have shown themselves to be terrible cowards.  The hearings that placed a maudlin Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court displayed the moral bankruptcy of Trump’s Senate collaborators.

The condition of the GOP is highly worrisome because it is the nationally dominant party.  For nearly three years, Trump has been cannibalizing it, eating its heart out, and injecting it with a virulent moral rot.

Meanwhile, the Democrats remain riven; not only do they remain too weak to determine the direction of national politics, but they have yet to unite around a figure or an approach capable of undermining Trump’s popular appeal.

The condition of the parties and their inability to advance a legislative agenda that could rally the nation behind a set of positive political goals, demonstrates to the nation that Trump is in fact unchecked and unchallenged.  Congress can’t counter the president’s power.  Watching this bizarre situation unfold every day leads many of us to perceive the federal government, and hence the entire republic of the United States, to be dangerously near a breakdown of an unpredictable kind.

That there is no leadership—that there is no coalition mobilizing and unifying an opposition—is perhaps because, though we all perceive the political actions of the president to be highly abnormal, and we all perceive the relations between the president and Congress to be in near-paralysis—what danger we are on the brink of is very unclear.  Personally, I doubt the president can be impeached (that is, I don’t think the Senate has the will to convict him and throw him out–please see the post I have written on this subject), so even if we agree our affairs are in a critical state, the most constructive course is to concentrate on positive politics, on mobilizing opposition to Trump across party lines, and defeating Trump at the ballot box. 

I hope we will see a resurgence of party control and even deal-making among rival candidates—this is the only way to achieve the necessary degree of unity in either party. If the Democrats have a long slug fest like they did last time, there won’t be enough time before the general to get everyone behind the chosen nominee. The challenge is even greater on the Republican side, where I hope we will see some more conventional players (like Romney and Flake) perhaps teaming up to try to rob Trump of the nomination.

The prospect of a unified opposition isn’t too bright, however.  Presidential hopefuls who aren’t equipped to beat Trump or run the country are already throwing their hats in the ring.  If the national parties can’t exercise discipline over such narcissistic candidates, divisions will increase, allowing Trump to retain his ascendancy.  The lost art of pulling together is all-important now.

Janus Faces 2019

Full length figure of the Roman god Janus, showing his two faces in profile. The god of beginnings is holding a key and a vine.

Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings; of gates, doors, and seasons; and all sorts of metaphorical passages.  Associated with the movement of time and change, the two-faced god, whose gaze apprehends both past and future, presides over all transitions, “whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.”  He opens and shuts doors with his key, his staff (depicted above as a living branch heavy with fruit) symbolizing his power to determine what prospers.  From this architect of the new, the month of January takes its name.

Where the past and future meet, Americans stand, wondering how “happy” or “new” 2019 can be.  Given the dismal character of national politics, cries of “Happy New Year!” have a hollow ring.  No need to be blithe, given that, in the manner of Janus, the new year will proceed from the year we’ve just had.  An impotent Congress, two parties captive to an unproductive quest for partisan dominance, a president whose vulgarity and viciousness are infecting civil society: these conditions, in combination, are weakening and destabilizing one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world.

Underlying all these problems is a decline in social leadership and the dying off of what was formerly an effectively unifying civic culture.  In 2018, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Senator John McCain, and the late President George H.W. Bush all pleaded for a renewal of civility, comity, and patriotic service, exhorting a new generation to assume the burdens of enlightened and disinterested leadership, in some cases pleading to us from beyond the grave.  To my mind, motivating America’s “natural leaders” to resume their traditional role in promoting communal well-being and an enlightened politics is one of the crucial tasks that will determine whether this year improves upon a politically dismal 2018.

Image: from this source.

Dislodging the President

US map showing partisan voting inclinations by county.

Donald Trump will remain in the presidency until we dislodge him.  No matter how many millions of citizens want him gone, the means of achieving this goal before 2020 are narrow and few, and most depend on the inclination of other major government officials.  In this review of the options, I conclude that Donald Trump is unlikely to be removed from office until his opponents become better organized and gain control of both the House and Senate.

Click here for the audio version.

1. Impeaching the president

Whether or not there are grounds for impeaching President Trump, impeachment depends on Congress’s will.  As the US House website puts it: “The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power to impeach an official, and it makes the Senate the sole court for impeachment trials.”  Whereas initially I imagined that an anti-Trump coalition might emerge among Capitol Hill Republicans, that hope has died.  A few Republican senators have criticized the president, but their opposition remains personal, episodic, isolated.  Recent events show that Republicans have decided to collaborate with Trump rather than try to get rid of him.  Were Congress composed differently, it would be another story.  For now, though, Democratic efforts to have Trump impeached or censured are pointless, for the simple reason that Democrats are in the minority.

2. The special prosecutor

Will the investigations of special prosecutor Robert Mueller—the so-called “Russia probe”—yield information sufficient to remove Trump from office?  If Trump were himself a tool of the Russian government, I believe he would have persisted in trying to fire Mueller or constrain the investigation.*  Trump has (reluctantly) foregone this route, even though his inaction leaves open the possibility that Mueller will eventually press criminal charges against Trump’s children.

Information already made public shows how aggressively agents of the Russian government pursued contacts with members of Trump’s inner circle, testing how many ways they could succeed in corrupting and compromising Trump’s relatives, associates, and administration, and, with them, the American political system.  While the Russians have reason to be satisfied with the success of their audacious experiment, the evidence so far available to the public falls short of establishing that Trump was personally involved.

Were Mueller to bring out evidence that Trump colluded with or was compromised by the Russians, what would happen?  Such evidence could compel the House to impeach, but, as long as Trump is a sitting president, he is largely immune from being charged with a crime.  According to Cass Sunstein, writing in Bloomberg News, a sitting president can only be charged with crimes committed prior to taking his office or unrelated to his presidential role.  In the unlikely event of Trump’s being impeached and convicted, only after being removed from office would he face trial for criminal wrongdoing.  And never has a special prosecution produced such spectacular results.

Impeachment is a serious drag on a presidency, but it’s a clumsy tool, in that Congress has never come to the point of kicking a president out.  In the case of Watergate, Nixon preempted the process by resigning when the threat of impeachment loomed.  Kenneth Starr’s lengthy special investigation prompted Bill Clinton’s impeachment, but ultimately the Senate acquitted Clinton, leaving him to serve out his second term.  Because impeachment is a political but not a criminal proceeding, its outcome is highly discretionary and dependent on political factors.  The only other president to be impeached was Andrew Johnson back in 1868; the Senate acquitted him, too.

3. The 25th Amendment

The 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967, allows the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to declare a president unable to perform his duties, whereupon the vice president shall assume the president’s role.  Dissatisfaction with Trump has led to increased discussion of the 25th Amendment, as if it were designed to remedy a president’s poor judgment or incompetence.  Michael Wolff, in promoting his sensational new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, has encouraged this misconception by claiming that the 25th Amendment is under discussion in the West Wing “all the time.”  A quick read of the amendment establishes that it applies only to fairly extreme conditions of physical incapacity, for it allows the President to reverse its effects by notifying leaders of Congress that he is again able to discharge his duties.  Last week, the president’s first official physical exam concluded with Dr. Ronny L. Johnson, the physician in charge, proclaiming the 71-year-old Trump to be in “excellent health.”  So wake up, America: unless the President is physically incapacitated, the 25th Amendment won’t be invoked.

4. Shaming the president

The president’s extraordinary behavior following the publication of Wolff’s blistering expose shows his sensitivity to embarrassment of a certain kind.  Yes, Trump has a tough skin, but he hates it when people he respects, whose approval he craves, look down on him.  He hates being confronted with evidence that he is anathema to others who are powerful and celebrated.  Trump looks down on reporters and many of his political rivals, but he is sensitive to criticism that leaves him feeling one-down.  Leading activists have yet to zero in on what symbols can be used to dog Trump and effectively heighten his sense of shame.  Protests against Trump should be orchestrated around the goal of making the president miserable.  Could a strategy of social shaming drive him from office?  It might, if it eats away at his sense of self and robs him of the pleasure he derives from his job.  Nixon resigned from office mainly because he had been disgraced.  The stigma was a punishment that never went away.

5. Winning back Congressional majorities in 2018

The uncertainty of these options suggests how important it is that Trump’s opponents direct their all toward ousting Trump’s Republican collaborators from the US House and Senate.  The GOP is in a weak and troubled condition, and Republicans in Congress, still loyal to their party, have concluded with good reason that if they do not collaborate with the mercurial Trump, their party will fail.  Their numerical supremacy can’t palliate the ideological fissures and Faustian compromises eroding their party’s integrity.  As Democrats lay plans to defeat incumbent Republicans in November, they should remember the millions of moderate Republicans and independents who are looking for a new reason to go to the polls.  Whereas a tilt to the left will not strengthen the Democrats’ alarmingly weak share of political power, with a fresh, moderate ideology, the party could attract thousands of new voters and prevail.

Image: The map by SpeedMcCool from Wikimedia Commons
shows party leanings by congressional district,
using
Cook Partisan Voting Index scores for the (current) 115th Congress.

* This sentence, the subject of discussion in the comments section, has been modified from its original version.

From a Person without a Party

Dawn under a cloud in Minneapolis.

I find it lonely, not being able to identify with either the Republican or the Democratic party.  I regret that they have left me behind.  Each is hurtling forward along on an increasingly weird and alienating rhetorical arc, becoming ever more oriented toward the constituencies who still find the establishment line urgent and interesting.  Both parties are curiously bereft of talent, of true leadership and direction.  I see no one I want to follow.  For the first time in my life, I feel that there is no one out ahead of the rest of us, articulating what we need to be doing, where we should be going now.  I look at the strange pass that the two parties have come to, at their increasingly desperate struggle for supremacy, and I wonder how much more time will pass before they collapse and fail.

What do I mean by a “weird and alienating rhetorical arc”?  In the case of the Republicans, I mean an opportunism and a style of revenge politics that is ignoble, unchristian, unpatriotic, and downright damaging to the nation.  Trump is too small a man to leave the sound policies of his predecessor in place, while Republicans in Congress, determined to destroy the Affordable Care Act, have shown a callousness toward ordinary citizens that few initiatives in American politics can match.  (Remember the heat Reagan took when he went after school lunches?)  In Alabama, voters for Roy Moore showed the same willingness to throw moral scruples aside for the sake of partisan advantage.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, doubling down on the very points that doomed them in 2016, are blazing a weirdly alienating arc of their own.  Democratic-leaning commentators are back to reading poll-numbers like tea-leaves.  They have not gone out to get to know the “fly-over zone.”  They are back in their privileged haunts, pontificating.  In the face of Trump’s victory, and given the many heinous aspects of the President’s behavior, the Democrats have found an excuse to ignore the legitimate frustrations of Trump’s voter base.  That Democrats need to win over some of these voters hasn’t kept them from behaving like patronizing snobs.  Democrats who believe they can write off the white vote, or the rural vote, or the vote of people who are working-class and uneducated, are as callous and provincial as their Republican foes.  Circumstances have thrust Democrats in a defensive posture.  If they can’t break out of it and review what America needs, they’ll be in big trouble in 2018.

Personally, I expect to remain ambivalent about the parties until I hear someone articulating a politics that is plausible, efficient, and broadly humane.  I want to hear from candidates whose interests are truly national: who have fresh ideas about wringing prosperity from our own resources while mitigating the degradation of the natural world.  I want to hear from candidates who want to beautify and uplift local economies, who care about bridging the urban-rural divide.  I want to hear from candidates about bringing immigrants out of the shadows, giving every inhabitant of our country a legal status, and controlling our borders in ways that are smart and modern.  I want to hear from candidates with new ideas about public schooling and work, who believe the US can become a new kind of “maker nation,” one whose future is more creditable and peaceable than its past.  Bring on a capacious and inclusive vision, and save us from the desiccated remnants ruling the republic now.

Unseen Fires

Flying west, I looked down on hundreds of miles of gauzy blue haze wreathing the mountains, which in time I recognized as smoke from forest fires.  Down there, something was raging: a cataclysmic process was underway, but from my vantage the details of the drama were lost, and what we classify as “a natural disaster” impressed me mainly as a profound, impersonal phenomenon, caused by forces of an epic scale.  Even after becoming aware that “something was wrong,” my primary response was awe, which, true to Burke’s famous observations on “the sublime,” was tinged with fear—appropriate given the danger and destruction unseen fires were generating below.

These were not the widely publicized forest fires sweeping Southern California, but spontaneous conflagrations in the northern Rockies, obscure fires that didn’t make the national news.  The sight of these unseen fires has stayed with me, supplying a metaphor for the state of the nation in 2017.  Despite the outwardly smooth operation of the federal government, political fires have periodically sprung up here and there, fires which must burn no matter how much Americans want to suppress them, no matter how much we tell ourselves these fires should not be.  These popular outbreaks, periodically rupturing the conventional veneer of the political order, point up a disconnect between our decrepit yet monopolistic party system and what ordinary Americans want and need.  Reckoning with the stunted and demeaning character of much of American life (let alone acknowledging it) is not exactly a priority on Capitol Hill.

Yet Americans’ unfulfilled cravings for respect and incorporation fueled many of the year’s top stories, including such diverse phenomenon as the #MeToo movement and the Charlottesville riots.  Sadly, as our political system becomes ever more consolidated into a national bureaucracy, picking candidates from Washington and funding them with outsider money, the need is ever greater for leadership that originates in and is oriented mainly toward the interests and distinctive character of localities.  Democrats looking for redemption could do worse than recommit themselves to the “reddest” and most woe-begone parts of the nation.  For only with good leadership at the local level will the dangerously divisive character of local culture wane.

Image: Aerial photograph of smoke from an unseen fire
in the Western US, @ 2017 Susan Barsy

Russia’s Patsy

What Americans know without further investigation is that their president is a fool.  President Trump is a laughingstock in the eyes of global sophisticates and rival nations.  His vanity and naiveté combine to keep him from realizing how ridiculous he is.

What we know about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign is that Russians wanted to see if they could manipulate Trump and his people and found that they could.

Donald Trump is all the more a patsy if his protestations of innocence are true.  Given his vanity, he could well have failed to recognize how blatantly the Russians were playing his team.  He has yet to acknowledge the wrong he committed in surrounding himself with people willing to serve parochial or rival interests rather than those of the United States.  Whether Trump colluded with Putin’s hirelings has yet to be established, but, by leaving the nation open to a sort of embarrassment that amounts to a dangerous vulnerability, Donald T. Rump showed a gross incompetence that is incontrovertible.

What prompted Trump to select Michael Flynn, as his national security advisor?  Flynn was an embittered army general intent on getting even with the US by selling his services to dubious foreign clients.  Even after the acting head of the Justice Department warned Trump that the Russians could manipulate Flynn by threatening him with exposure, Trump postponed Flynn’s dismissal, leaving him in a highly privileged position for nearly a month.  Trump’s stubborn loyalty to a man who mattered far less than our security interests must have filled the Russian establishment with glee.  While the president ingenuously bragged to high-ranking Russians about the quality of American intel, their compatriots were probably busy hacking the NSA.

Which is worse: having a grandiose bumbler in the White House instead of a person who, as the Founders intended, represents the best of America; or knowing that the President is incapable of serving the nation in accordance with his oath?

Image: Screen shot of Russian officials laughing,
as Putin jokes at the Americans’ expense (May 2017).

A Dearth of Virtue

Allegorical engraving showing the arts memorializing George Washington

One of the slipperiest aspects of republican government is the requirement that the citizens of a republic be virtuous.  Their moral discernment and scruples come into play, whether in evaluating the claims of their leaders or when called to exercise political leadership themselves.  Without virtue, the Founders thought, the entire republican project is doomed, because the power vested in the government is there to be used for the common good.

Where virtue was to come from was a little fuzzy.  Some equated virtue with economic self-sufficiency; others thought it followed from a good education—from a familiarity with the past, particularly.  For a time early in our history, Americans counted on “republican mothers” to inculcate the necessary virtues in their young.  And, throughout the ages, many believed that the right religious spirit could give republican virtue a powerful assist.

Regardless of the specifics, the success of our form of government ultimately depends on something beyond politics.  It depends on a culture that encourages prudence and goodness.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, wholesomeness and moral restraint have become unfashionable.  Society has thrown off a centuries-old association between virtue and the principle of respectability.  Virtue, once the cornerstone of reputation, has become an attribute too embarrassingly square to endorse or require.

As a culture, we have no shame.  As consumers of news and culture, Americans must tolerate acquaintance with people who behave despicably.  We are forced to take an interest in criminals and lowlifes, their heinousness smothered in a blanket of journalistic “objectivity.”  To be informed, we explore what journalists and artists have to offer, though these offerings imbue evildoers with celebrity and prestige.  In a more intimate society, miscreants would be marginalized, their importance diminished to neutralize their potentially toxic influence on a healthy culture.

Under the circumstances, virtue in America has become a private and personal matter, where once our collective need for it was publicly avowed.

Image: “American Literature & Fine Arts, Rewarding Patriotism & Virtue,”
from this source.
The print, created between 1800 and 1815,
shows the arts working to immortalize George Washington (d. 1799).