Opening Pandora’s box

The Thinker by Rodin

The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. After the constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government we were going to get. He famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Next Wednesday may be the end of our republic. That’s when the U.S. Senate is likely to acquit Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate is basically enshrining Richard Nixon’s assertion that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. Richard Nixon’s corpse would be smiling, if that were possible.

It will be an entirely predictable end to a trial in which no one seriously disagrees the president committed impeachable crimes, including the president’s lawyers. They just say that he has immunity from them. Republican senators seem to agree, setting the precedent that the president is above the law, or above any meaningful check by Congress. Senators can’t even be bothered to call witnesses. Many of them, rather than listening to the testimony presented, were caught reading books and doing crosswords instead.

So after his “exoneration”, it’s likely that if Trump wanted to arrest dissidents and deny them the right of a jury trial, he could get away with it. Because even if impeached again, the Senate won’t throw him out of office for offenses like this. There’s really nothing Trump won’t be able to get away with after Wednesday, and given his temperament you know he’s going to try. It’s likely to make all Republicans except the Never Trumpers giddy. It’s what they have been hoping for all along.

Oh, but there’s an election coming up! Voters will rectify things! Things aren’t so bleak after all! Since Trump’s election, Democrats have been on the upswing, winning the House, winning seats in the Senate and turning Virginia blue. But even if all of this happens, the precedent is now set. Congress has essentially voluntarily ceded power, allowing the Executive to become even more powerful, and itself more irrelevant. The script has now been tried and tested. Whether Republican or Democrat, the president can now simply refuses to respond to any congressional subpoenas. Unless two-thirds of the Senate agree to remove him from office, he or she has carte blanc.

A fair election in 2020 is problematic. There is the usual voter suppression and gerrymandering, which will be dialed up to 11 for November 3. The U.S. Senate is fine if other countries want to hack our election system or set up disinformation campaigns, even though it is explicitly against U.S. law. The U.S. Senate has effectively nullified lots of laws like this by simply refusing to hold accountable those charged with enforcing them. In short, the law means nothing to our senators, unless it can be used against their political enemies. Law is now meant to be applied selectively, and as a political weapon. Trump has an attorney general who agrees and who now states this as policy.

We are in a huge mess because our senators refused to do their job. Our system of checks and balances has proven able to be hacked. Our founders assumed that institutional forces would make these forces work. They did not want political parties, but we created them anyhow. As a consequence, 231 years later this system has proven fatally flawed.

The only chance of rectifying this is if Democrats win the trifecta in November: turning both houses of Congress and the executive blue. And even then there are institutional forces that make returning to a real republic problematic at best.

We can start with Donald Trump who you know will claim the election is rigged if he loses and will refuse to vacate the White House. Most likely he will see if he can affect a military coup to retain his hold on power. After all, if the election he is trying to rig goes against him, it must be illegitimate. Then it will be up to our military to resist the urge. I’d like to say I have faith they will resist, but we live in extraordinary times.

But even if Trump loses and goes, even if Democrats win a trifecta, there is a court system now full of cronies of Trump and Republicans designed to thwart any progress. You know the courts will find a reason to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Any universal health care plan that a President Sanders wants to put in place will be judged unconstitutional as well. A likely recession will weigh against a Democratic president and a Democratic congress, as the 2010 election showed.

Then there are the hosts of other issues that need addressing, with climate change at the top of the list. But since our constitution is now broken, it must be fixed too. That will require constitutional amendments that will be very hard to ratify. To start, the system of checks and balances needs to be changed. The impeachment and conviction process for presidents needs to change. The Justice Department must by statute and funding be under the supervision of the courts, not the executive.

It’s enough to make anyone despair. We cannot despair. Instead, we must get busy. We must reclaim our republic. Freedom is not free, and democracy is not free. We must fight for its return, with our blood if necessary.

Two tourists do Philadelphia

The Thinker by Rodin

Doubtless there are many not so nice places in Philadelphia. Happily, few of them are in downtown Philadelphia, which is good because that’s where tourists like my wife and I go when visiting Philadelphia. The city keeps the tourist district spic and span. There is no litter to speak of, the sidewalks seem power washed, the buildings are mostly modern and even Philadelphia’s dated City Hall, a few blocks from where we stayed, looked bright, shiny and impressive, this in spite of its diminished stature due to the very tall buildings around it.

Sometimes, like Longwood Gardens, the best travel destinations are reasonably close to home. Philadelphia is about a two and a half hour drive from our home, but we had only visited once before in the early 1990s. Back then we had to accommodate our two year old daughter, so we made it a half day trip and visited the Philadelphia Zoo. Now that same daughter is twenty years older and minding the needs of our feline at home, so we felt we could actually see Philadelphia proper. Unfortunately, we allocated just one full day to see Philadelphia, so we saw maybe twenty five percent of what we would see if we had a few days. The good news is that Philly whetted our appetite for more return visits.

In reality, Philly is a great tourist destination. Its bigger cousin New York City is ninety minutes away by car, but Philly has tons of things to see and do and is arguably less expensive. Granted hotel rooms are not exactly cheap, at least not in downtown Philly. But whereas a decent hotel in midtown Manhattan can cost three hundred dollars a night, two hundred a night is more the going rate in Philly. We paid quite a bit less than that, due to some diligent searching online. The Windsor Suites is a hotel in the heart of Philly’s museum district, a virtual but not quite four-star all-suite hotel that only the pickiest would complain about. Our fourteenth floor room was huge, with an enormous walk in closet, weird bathtub with separate faucets for the tub and shower, and a small kitchen, as well as a divinely comfortable king size bed. Our balcony looked down on the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul and Logan Square. We tried to get into it, but the Catholics had it shut tight.

Logan Square and nearby JFK Plaza are genuine places for city people to congregate. Some were obviously homeless, but most appeared to be regular Philadelphians just having a good time although perhaps some were exchanging money for drugs. Both parks sported impressive fountains. For us, JFK Plaza was useful because there was a tourist center that provided us with helpful information, particularly the downtown Phlash trolley which continuously loops around downtown Philly and was also not too expensive. It carried us quickly to historic sites like Independence Hall where our Declaration of Independence was signed and our constitution was created. The best show on Independence Mall is not the Liberty Bell, but actually the tour of Independence Hall, where the above documents were argued and eventually agreed to by delegates of the various states. Tour tickets are free at the information center, but you may have to wait an hour or two for your tour. The hall is kept pretty much the way it was nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, and is treated much like a church: no smoking, no gum, no drinks and hushed voices only please.

Independence Hall
Independence Hall

If you want a more in depth understanding of our constitution than you get from the tour guides at Independence Hall, the National Constitution Center is a few blocks north of Independence Hall. There you will get a live presentation on how our government was formed and extensive exhibits on the constitution and its various amendments, plus you can vote on the issues of the day. (Bad news for Romney supporters, NCC visitors are voting for Obama over Romney by about two to one.)

Seeing the Liberty Bell, like most of the museums on Independence Mall require you to be screened, but the screening is minimal. The Liberty Bell is surprisingly accessible once you make it past security, but is otherwise rather unimpressive. What I found more impressive was the nearby Christ Church Cemetery, particularly the grave of Benjamin Franklin contained inside. You can see his grave from the street without paying admission to the cemetery, although inside the cemetery are graves of four signers of the Declaration of Independence and lots of very faded gravestones. (Hint: make sure you gravestone is in granite, not marble.) Washington D.C. was named after our first president. Really, Philadelphia should have been named after Ben Franklin, its best known and most devoted resident, but very much the first patriot of the United States. I think it should be renamed Franklin City. Franklin was impressive and multidimensional: writer, scientist, inventor, postmaster general, diplomat, genius, author, frequent contrarian, passionate believer in freedom, likely agnostic and shameless womanizer.

Statue of Benjamin Franklin
Statue of Benjamin Franklin

By midafternoon we had hit all the highlights on Independence Mall, so we headed back to the museum district. We had time for only one more attraction, and it was irresistible. At the Franklin Institute there was an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was pricy, but it was well worth the cost to view artifacts from the Holy Land that went back in some cases more than five thousand years. Then there were fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves that you could view with your own eyes, priceless documents recording the history of Judaism, in script so small you were wondering how it could be read at all. There are no fragments of the original gospels, but there are these fragments of the Old Testament written on leather that you can see.

Except for eating some Chinese takeout, this was all that we could stuff into one day of site seeing in Philadelphia. The weather turned out to be spectacular on Monday: blue skies with puffy cumulus clouds, dry westerly breezes and warm but not hot temperatures that climbed into the eighties. By Tuesday morning rain had descended on Philly, so we beat it of town toward New York’s southern tier and for me, a visit home. More on that in my next post.