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.

Will #MeToo Be The Senate’s Waterloo?

Something decisive will occur in the Senate this week.  Not just a nomination hearing, but a political drama crystallizing in the minds of Americans the nature of a political party, and an institution.

In a hearing set for Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a person of respectable character.  They will hear from a California psychology professor, Christine Blasey-Ford, who has come out of nowhere with a believable claim that in 1982 Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15.  Kavanaugh denies it.  Despite the perturbation the allegations are causing, Senate Republicans are intent on shielding the nominee.  Determined to treat whatever is disclosed in tomorrow’s hearing as irrelevant to his confirmation, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell anticipates that, after hearing from the two parties in a non-judicial setting, the committee will vote on the confirmation the very next day.

On the way to that vote, America will see how its leaders behave.  How do senators treat a woman whose personal story threatens the plans of President Trump and the Republican Party?  How considerate are they in sorting out this very unsavory #MeToo story, which the recent openness of women in discussing sexual assault is empowering?  To what extent have senators reckoned with the implications of sexual equality, or how badly are they out of step with the times?

President Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have dug in their heels, exploiting their every institutional advantage in an effort to mute a damning social narrative and push Kavanaugh through.  Trump’s White House has become Kavanaugh’s sanctuary.  He has been holed up there like a wanted man, arming himself with the latest in dis-ingenuity.  Kavanaugh’s proxies have spread out on the news circuit, broadcasting doe-eyed astonishment that anyone could fail to see Judge Kavanaugh as squeaky-clean.  Meanwhile, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the judiciary committee, has announced that an outside interlocutor, Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, will spare Republicans members the embarrassment of figuring out how to talk with Dr. Ford.  A brilliant fix for a hearing where the goal is to avoid hearing anything she says.

Ultimately—and this is what the president and Senate don’t seem to get—, Dr. Ford’s challenge to Kavanaugh’s confirmation isn’t about legalities.  It’s about whether Kavanaugh is acceptable to society.   It’s about whether Brett Kavanaugh, who is rumored to have put his hand over a girl’s mouth while attempting to overpower her, is a socially respectable being.  Is he a gentleman?  Today, American society is ostracizing harassers of women because their behavior is anathema to equality.  The buzz surrounding Kavanaugh is alarmingly loud.

Over the centuries, the Senate has often exemplified dignity.  It has upheld courtesy as an ideal, as a source of inner order, as the secret of its prestige.  Tomorrow, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be called on to receive “an inconvenient rememberer” courteously.  Yet, as #MeToo comes knocking, a blinkered and insensitive Senate cowers.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Caitlin Flanagan, “I Believe Her,” The Atlantic.
Caitlin Flanagan, “The Abandoned World of 1982,” The Altantic.

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.

A Noteworthy Day in Politics

Tuesday, January 9, was a noteworthy day in politics, particularly if viewed with the question of Trump’s re-electability in mind.  On three different fronts, events cautioned against writing off or underestimating the president, whose manners and morals Americans rightly revile.  In other eras, the president’s lack of virtue would have posed an insuperable obstacle to his attaining office, but this is a more easy-going time, when Americans temporize more and cut others more slack when it comes to low and disreputable behavior.  Indeed, the cynicism that has prompted many formerly disapproving GOP party stalwarts to support and collaborate with Trump, has given him a boost and a shot at political viability, that’s disturbing.  That Trump’s leading detractors within the GOP would be so willing to make common cause with him would have been difficult to foresee just one year ago.  Yet this cynicism is the cornerstone on which the GOP establishment will build its Trump-era achievements.

Click here for the audio version.

1. The market is booming

The Democrats have every reason to be afraid.  For what if, despite Mr. Trump’s bigotry and ineptitude, his White House ends up being associated with prosperity and peace?  Since his inauguration, the stock market has climbed.  On Tuesday, stock indexes again closed at or near all-time highs.  The major indices rose about 20 percent in 2017, meaning that everyone with money invested in the market is significantly richer than when Mr. Trump took office just one year ago.

Trump has taken other actions on the economic front that will become “credits” for him if “good times” continue.  He opted for continuity and moderation at the Fed in choosing Jerome Powell to succeed outgoing Fed chair Janet Yellin.  Trump can also take credit for the poorly crafted “tax reform” bill that Congress has passed, which will lower taxes for many Americans, at least through the next election cycle, after which many of the benefits will expire.  (Note the cynicism again.)

2. Inter-Korean talks

Tuesday brought news of a positive break in the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula.  With little fanfare, representatives of North and South Korea met face-to-face and agreed that North Korea would participate in the Winter Olympic Games, which will open in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on February 8.  In the US, the evening news aired startling footage of delegations from the two sides, shaking hands and grinning after their meeting in the Demilitarized Zone.  It was the first such meeting since late 2015, breaking up a dynamic of deterioration that North Korea’s worrisome advances in proto-nuclear bomb testing had brought on.

Though North Korea’s desire to participate in the Olympics mainly prompted the meeting, it was symbolically and diplomatically important, resulting in “gains” for the Koreas and the Trump administration.  The sudden thaw in relations is a win for North Korea, in that it will be spared the humiliation and “invisibility” of being excluded from the international games (an exclusion that Russia, for example, will be suffering).  Inclusion is meaningful to all Koreans as a symbolic token of unification. It also allows the North to share in the gratification and global recognition that comes from South Korea’s hosting the games.  The South’s concession gives credence to the prospect of better North-South relations, which its new president, Moon Jae-in, has promised.

Amid the happy buzz of this inter-Korean detente, whom did President Moon credit but Donald J. Trump?  Moon connected the breakthrough to Trump’s blunt promise to wipe the North Korean regime off the face of the earth should it attempt a nuclear strike on the US or its allies.  For the past several months, Trump has engaged in nuclear brinkmanship.  Now, though, he can argue that it’s paid off.

3.  Cuing Congress on immigration reform

Above all, Tuesday’s unusual meeting on immigration reform, which brought Congressional leaders of both parties together at the White House, illustrates what makes the president so politically dangerous.  This meeting, which was novel in its conception and effects, was the lead story in a news-heavy day.  What made the meeting novel was that Trump instigated bipartisan discussion of the immigration issue right there on the spot.  Pledging to “take the heat” and sign whatever immigration reform bill Congress might come up with, he prompted a nearly one-hour discussion between Democrats and Republicans, who sparred back and forth as the television cameras rolled.  At the end of the meeting, participants emerged with consensus on the four broad topics that an acceptable bill must treat.  Mr. Trump looked presidential, in that he gave direction to his party and the legislature, while reminding the Congress that working out the details of legislation was its Constitutional role, not his.

Video of the event showed Republicans and Democrats in the same room, publicly and spontaneously working out a point of policy: just what is supposed to happen routinely in the House and Senate chambers, but which in fact has not happened there in decades.  The publicity that used to surround such spontaneous exchanges is the very thing that once gave serving in the US Congress such enormous prestige.  One can only hope that the ballyhoo surrounding Tuesday’s activities will inspire senators and representatives to revive their historic tradition of open and authentic deliberation.

Word has leaked out that, in the unrecorded portion of this meeting, Trump used vulgar language to demonize immigrants from Haiti and African countries.  The fact that Trump is both immoral and a nimble politician is precisely what his opponents must reckon with more aggressively.  He is inept, unacceptable, and embarrassing; he is also intent on transforming American trade and foreign policy and restoring American prosperity.  Trump’s opponents mustn’t be satisfied with denouncing his latest outrage: they must devote their attention to figuring out how to defeat this thick-skinned monster and his party at the polls.  Trump is a change-agent without a heart, and he will continue to hold power and rack up “successes” until those who oppose him figure out how to chip away at his base by offering viable alternative policies.

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.

Rename and Repair “Affordable Care”


The struggle over the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as Obamacare, ended a crucial round last month, when, in the Senate, three Republicans–Susan Collins, John McCain, and Lisa Murkowski–joined Democrats in voting down the so-called “skinny repeal.”  Despite Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and despite the president’s scornful goading, the GOP has at long last stopped in its tracks: it has heard, from far off in the hinterland, the howl of the people.  To repeal the Affordable Care Act, to discontinue its hallmark features, has become politically unacceptable in the US.

Partisan representations of the bill notwithstanding, the guarantee of affordable medical coverage for all, which is at the heart of “Obamacare,” has become a grail to the American people.  Kate Zernike and Abby Goodnough of the New York Times co-authored a fascinating article describing how a sea-change in popular sentiment, running increasingly in support of the ACA, has occurred along with its threatened repeal.  First-hand understanding of the bill’s provisions and benefits are driving Americans to an acceptance of universal coverage that makes the GOP’s top-down rhetoric a tougher sell.  Americans do not want to return to the “bad old days” when insurers could turn sick or at-risk customers away.  They do not want millions of Americans who are now insured to lose the benefits guaranteed them under the ACA.

Politically, then, the President and the GOP face the issue of how to Affordable Care their own.  (After all, it has the makings of a smashing success!)  During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump wasn’t at the forefront of those calling for the ACA’s repeal.  He was the reasonable candidate then, wanting to find solutions that would remedy the defects of the legislation.  During the debates, he suggested eliminating state-level restrictions to allow insurers to create pools across state lines.  Ironically, President Trump has since decided that scapegoating others is essential to his popularity, a conviction that has led him away from an approach to health care that was more constructive and reasoned.  Has the President never heard the saying, “Revenge is a dish that is best served cold”?

Were I a Republican, I would vow never to utter the word “Obamacare” again.  Members of the Republican Party stand to become heroes by repairing the Affordable Care Act and re-branding it to heighten its associations with compassion and inclusion.  Forget about wreaking revenge on Obama.  Listen to the people.  Collaborate with Democrats.  Deliver a shared triumph to the nation.  It will matter far more than any partisan loss.

Image: from this source.
“The National Dime Museum” by Bernhard Gillam
is a send-up of leading American politicians circa 1884.

Green America Will Prevail

Two cosmic figures regard the Earth, framed in a proscenium arch.
President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord embarrasses us all, partly because it makes no sense politically, but also because it reveals Trump to be shockingly out of touch with the direction of the country he supposedly leads.  In the end, his failure to support his own nation’s movement toward clean energy and environmental responsibility will matter mainly as another proof justifying those who view him as a laughingstock.  Far from halting the nation’s progress toward reducing carbon emissions, Trump’s decision will likely accelerate it.

Over the past few decades, green capitalism—that triumvirate of forces combining consumer demand, emergent technology, and corporate leadership—has gradually matured and gone mainstream.  Regardless of government action, green capitalism will soon be a determining force in the US economy.  It will transform Americans’ sensibilities and requirements as surely and completely as the Industrial and Digital Revolutions have.  Among the parties vainly urging the president to hew to the Paris accord were many large corporations who recognize that accommodating green values makes good business sense.  President Trump’s harebrained decision to cling to the past instead makes him look benighted and irrelevant.

The silver lining is the galvanizing effect his retrograde action will have.  In the US, major technological revolutions (with the exception of space aeronautics) typically begin in the private sector, generating new synergies between innovators and consumers.  American government is often many paces behind, facilitating and regulating change only after new technologies and ways of doing have taken hold.  Some sources of greenhouse-gas emissions in the US will decline only if subject to tougher state or federal regulation; others are highly responsive to consumer choice.  Ultimately, the Trump administration’s intention to sit out the fight for clean energy opens up a field where many more forward-looking actors will contend to prevail.  The work of easing the nation’s transition to a green future will fall to other and wiser American leaders.

Image: Wladyslaw T. Benda, “The Earth With the Milky Way and Moon” (1918),
from this source.

The Trump Years: Day 56

Ordinary Americans will soon learn how they are to figure in the grand story of the future the GOP is always telling.  It’s a story that sees America and Americans as trammeled by rules that bug them and taxes so onerous they can’t sleep at night, that sees happiness as a precipitate left over after “school choice” causes public schools to evaporate.  The Republican narrative promises to rescue Americans from a tyrannical government and recent policy “disasters.”  Long-term security will grow rather than decrease once the nation is liberated from the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and the tangible health benefits it guarantees.

This rhetoric is about to collide with physical reality.  Will a Republican-led Congress be so vain and rash as to abandon health guarantees that an entire nation has grown accustomed to?  Yes, Congress should act to constrain premium increases and restore competitive insurance options where they are lacking, but why deprive the nation of the happy consciousness that we’re all in it together, which is, at bottom, the signal benefit of Obamacare?  This is precisely what Republicans are most eager to destroy.

Under the present system, some well-off Americans are obliged to spend more for insurance than they would like; however, millions of Americans are newly insured, and hundreds of thousands are addressing health problems that have afflicted them for years.  Knowing that we are achieving something so gloriously humane makes the hassle and collective sacrifice worthwhile.  If Congress were wise, it would aim at enhancing this precious peace of mind.

Image: 80,000 miners listening to Theodore Roosevelt
(1905 daguerreotype by Underwood & Underwood),

from this source.

A Stress Test for the Constitution

Soon after the election, a friend envisioned Trump’s presidency as “a stress test for the Constitution and all of its institutions.”  This is proving to be the case, for reasons that are both collective and peculiar to Trump and his administration.

Collectively, his presidency has halted, and aspires to reverse, the direction American government took under President Obama, a direction decried in some quarters but one charted in careful accordance with the law.  The Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans so revile, was nonetheless “ratified” after a protracted but open struggle by both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In other areas, President Obama’s use of executive power, though politically unwise, was legally defensible.  His approach to reducing carbon emissions, so hated and feared in some quarters, took shape only after a long period of public comment and after his legal team was certain the new guidelines could withstand a Constitutional challenge.  President Obama exercised discretion in whether and how to enforce immigration laws, but, as Richard Lugar, a former US Senator from Indiana, has observed, every president has done the same, since all have lacked the means to see that the laws on the books were fully enforced.  Lugar, a moderate who was one of Capitol Hill’s most influential Republicans before a member of his own party “primaried” him from the right, driving him from office, wrote in the New York Times that, given the howls of outrage over Obama’s immigration policies, one would never guess that his administration had “vastly exceeded the deportations under President George W. Bush,” just as Bush’s had vastly exceeded those of President Clinton.

President Obama sought to move the nation and the Democratic Party in a new direction, but he was not a party leader, and he did not wait for a bipartisan consensus that he knew was never coming to emerge.  In his second term, he focused increasingly on what he could do without Congress–but to the extent that his victories lacked Congress’s active assent they were unsustainable.  They were simply too far ahead of the collective political will.  In the meantime, Obama’s dogged pursuit of his own grand vision hid the senescence of the Democratic Party.

As the first person of color to occupy the presidency, Barack Obama symbolized the America we are fitfully becoming–a nation that is truly inclusive and color-blind.  As a symbol and agent of that change, he aroused a lot of resentment and fear, emotions that candidate Trump and some other Republicans inflamed to their benefit in the campaign.

The stunning political triumph of a charismatic outsider, the shattered GOP’s success at hanging on to power, and the dangerous eclipse of the Democratic party: these are the three huge interrelated events whose consequences are shaking the political community, from the nation’s most powerful institutions to its polarized citizenry, united only in its demand for responsible governance.

Image: “Save yourself”
@2017 Susan Barsy