A time for courage and for antacids

The Thinker by Rodin

Five months from today we are likely to wake up and find that Joe Biden is our president elect. Donald Trump’s reelection seems increasingly unlikely, given that many polls now show Biden has a ten-point lead over Trump. Or maybe we won’t know. One factor in this election is that there may be a crush of absentee ballots that will take days to tabulate. But hopefully we are less than five months away before we can begin to return to some semblance of normalcy.

But can anything go back to normal after such a disruptive president as Donald Trump? Trump has been our gorilla in the china shop president, gleeful in breaking norms and rules. Given his advanced case of narcissism, as I speculated in an earlier post, he is unlikely to go quietly. In fact, he will go kicking and screaming, and will do his best to initiate a fascist state before then.

This week’s events alarmed most of us, which were preceded by last week’s alarming events with the death of George Floyd, unquestionably murdered by three officers of the Minneapolis police. You can watch all 8:46 seconds of it online, if you have the stomach for it. The murder caused predictable demonstrations followed by some looting and violence. Never one to miss an opportunity, Trump used the event to move us more dangerously close to fascism. He threatened to deploy active duty troops wherever needed, supposedly to restore order. There is a law called Posse Comitatus that prohibits just this, but of course Trump never seems to be concerned about his law breaking. He may use the Insurrection Act instead which other presidents have used, for example, to force integration in Alabama public schools but which most scholars agree is out of line for these events.

Chances are if it is even a fig leaf excuse, he will use it, which suggests dark days ahead. It was brought out on Monday when he ordered the Secret Service and Park Police to clear Lafayette Square of protestors who were peacefully demonstrating, all in order to stage a photo op in front of nearby St. John’s Church holding a Bible held upside down. To show what a man he was, the forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and a dangerously low helicopter hovering over protestors.

Clearly Trump hasn’t read the Bible, but even if he were a Christian he wouldn’t be the first Christian to ignore Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek. In pursuit of the Christian evangelical voters, his forces also pushed out a pastor of the church. All this was made much worse because the order apparently given by our Attorney General supplicant Bill Barr and endorsed by our Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Esper later seemed to walk remarks that active duty troops should be used to quell unrest.

The next day Trump engaged in another obscenity by staging himself next to a statue of Pope John Paul II, who must be turning in his grave in the Vatican. Meanwhile, protests continue. Even our little city of Northampton, Massachusetts had more than a thousand people protested in front of the police department. Our chief of police took a knee with protestors. A huge dance is underway nationally and there’s really no way to know how this will all turn out. For most of us with a lick of common sense, we know it’s likely to get much worse, not better.

Trump is feeling the heat, of course, but all he knows how to do is double down. None of this actually helps him get reelected, so it’s counterproductive. He and the Republican Party are hoping with enough voter suppression they will eke out a win somehow. Trump didn’t win in 2016 with his base; he just managed to convince enough other voters in a few swing states (just 80,000) to pull off his unlikely victory. To win he will have to persuade more than his base, but it’s clear he won’t bother. From the day of his election he’s believed that he can win reelection with just his base, which is slowly diminishing.

All this plus a COVID-19 pandemic. It has officially caused more than 100,000 deaths in the United States. Just his handling (or rather lack of handling) of that is enough to doom his reelection, but it only gets worse from here on. A country that has five percent of the population and 30% of its deaths is obviously doing things catastrophically wrong. A twenty percent unemployment rate won’t help either. As the deaths mount up, it will just shrink his base, which are disproportionately old and white. Many seniors seem to have woken up and Biden now leads among them, perhaps because the sense Trump would go after Social Security and Medicare if reelected.

But of course the election won’t matter if you can neatly create a dictatorship before then. Trump realizes he can’t stop the election and he is likely to lose it, but that doesn’t mean he can’t claim it was rigged and see if he can use the armed forces to ensure that he retains power. He seems to be doing all the things that wannabee dictators are doing, just ineptly. It remains to be seen whether the military would be true to the people or Trump. It sure looks like these demonstrations are being used by Trump to see what he can get away with.

In any event, if you’re not having trouble sleeping and you aren’t reaching for the antacids, you should be. There are some signs of hope, but it’s hard to know how much to read into them. George W. Bush, for example, spoke up for protestors without actually criticizing Donald Trump. Any Republicans left who are looking for cover for mildly rebuking Trump can site Bush. Barack Obama doesn’t seem to be staying on the sidelines either. We haven’t heard from our only other living ex-president, Bill Clinton, but hopefully he will pile on the criticism too.

None of this is likely to matter to Trump, but it is likely that whatever he attempts he may find himself hastily walking back. It may be that his ever-expanding line of privilege will finally make too many key Republicans turn against him. A bully’s power is actually very fragile. Republicans may be already sensing the electoral disaster likely to take many of them out now less than five months away. Some may be more scared of being voted out of office than hanging with a losing Trump.

As screwy as today’s events are, I know in my gut that the time between Trump’s defeat and the inauguration of his likely successor will be the most dangerous time for our country since the Civil War, or perhaps in our country’s entire history. It’s time to stock up on the antacids. It’s also time for many of us to show the backbone we haven’t, particularly many people of privilege, i.e. white and moneyed guys like me. This likely won’t be solved at the ballot box, or by liking someone’s tweets, but by uncomfortably personal, face-to-face, civic engagement likely happening tonight in a city near you.

Our constitutional crisis has arrived

The Thinker by Rodin

With the Senate’s “exoneration” of Donald Trump last week, and his subsequent but wholly predictable reaction to it, our constitutional crisis has now formally arrived.

I’ve been warning about it for years, twice in 2016 alone, but it’s now here. Unfortunately, there is no knight in shining armor to save us. Turmoil and a likely tainted election are ahead, with a good chance that Trump will try a constitutional coup before then.

You can see it in his increasingly unhinged tweets. He’s been posting over a hundred of these a day lately, but now that he feels he can govern with impunity, he’s off on a rampage. His rampage is likely to get much, much worse because we know what happens with narcissists with power. Arguably he’s got more power than any narcissist since Adolf Hitler. Like Richard Nixon, he’s got his enemies list, but unlike Richard Nixon he’s knows he can get away with pretty much anything now. In Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon got next in line Robert Bork to fire the special prosecutor investigating him, after his attorney general and deputy attorney general wouldn’t do as ordered, and resigned. Robert Bork, who later went up for an ill-fated Supreme Court seat, had no such scruples.

Trump already has his cabinet of sycophants, so he’s taking it out on those who testified against him. His Friday Night Massacre removed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland for testifying truthfully. Also gone, just out of spite, is Vindman’s brother and identical twin Yevgeny, who also happened to work in the White House.

This is likely just the start. An enraged Trump has a whole host of other targets including Mitt Romney who had the audacity to vote to convict him on one charge, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Adam Schiff. Moreover, he’s been combing government looking for ways to make others pay. All New Yorkers on the TSA’s Trusted Travelers program are being punished because its legislature made it a sanctuary state; they can’t use it. But that’s not all. Exports of New York titled vehicles have been put on hold until further notice.

Schiff’s life has been threatened. Threats are reported against Mitt Romney, who at least is independently wealthy to ensure his own safety is uncompromised. Doubtless Nancy Pelosi is getting threats too. This is probably not new for her, but the number of them is likely increasing. Trump is determined to make as many people hurt as possible for his mental illness.

With all but one Republican dutifully voting to acquit the president, the Senate obviously won’t hold him accountable should the House impeach Trump again. The election is supposed to straighten this all out, even though it will be an even more unfair and tilted election than the 2016 election. Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill Barr says he has to approve all political investigations now and is setting up a channel for wholly discredited “evidence” “uncovered” by Rudy Guiliani against Joe and Hunter Biden to be considered for prosecution.

All this is because no one can tell Trump that he is wearing no clothes. With the possible exception of Mitt Romney, there’s not one Republican in Congress who’s got the balls to stand up to Trump. Oh, and by the way, lots of Republicans, including Donald Trump Jr., want to kick Romney out of the Republican Party. At least one member of the Utah legislature wants the legislature to censure him for his vote, even though it doesn’t have the power. Like Donald Trump, this Utah legislator doesn’t seem inclined to let law get in the way.

All this amounts to a huge rage by Trump but also from all those who support him. Trump has not only proven that he has a raging case of malignant narcissism, but his supporters have one as well. Evidence does not matter in the least. The Senate will let Trump do what he wants. Bill Barr has forced the Justice Department to stop applying impartial justice. And our conservative leaning Supreme Court seems content to stand on the sidelines.

I expect Trump to keep pushing the envelope. When he discovers that no one will hold him accountable, he will keep upping the ante. It will get worse and worse; mark my words. Losing the election is his only fear. If he loses power, he can be held accountable for his crimes and he cannot let that happen. So if it comes to it, he will make sure the election system is corrupted, or Americans he doesn’t like simply don’t get to vote. Or institute some sort of coup, if he can get the military to do it. I can see him shutting down the Capitol.

Our constitutional system of checks and balances has been shredded. Republicans have proven that they will put party over country and simply don’t care that in doing so we are no longer a representative government. Which doesn’t leave a lot of hope.

Mass protests will do little; Trump and Republicans have proven inured to them already. A huge economic downturn might help, but I hate to root for that. Change tends to happen only during times of great pain.

What I really hope for is that white knight. House Democrats have largely done all they can do. Mitt Romney though could go the extra mile. He could say the emperor has no clothes: that Donald Trump is very mentally ill, he is destroying our constitutional system of government, and his mental health should be assessed by a panel of nonpartisan physicians. It probably wouldn’t change anything, but it’s what I’m hoping for at the moment.

In truth, this black time is turning obsidian. Only Trump getting a sudden deadly stroke might change this around. From his crazy, rage-filled days spent tweeting about his enemies, who knows? His blood pressure must be sky high. It may be closer than we think.

I’m not a praying man, but it’s time for me to pray … fervently.

Impeachment is the logical result of a break-the-rules presidency

The Thinker by Rodin

It looks like the House of Representatives will formally vote this week to open an impeachment inquiry on Donald Trump. The move is unnecessary but doubtless the Trump Administration will quickly find another rationale for why it can’t provide testimony and documents for the inquiry. One thing Trump is good at is moving goalposts.

To be clear, the House has the sole power to impeach. The U.S. Constitution is silent on procedures it must use. If the House wanted to, it could conduct it entirely in secret, including the final vote on impeachment. An impeachment is not a trial; it’s the political equivalent of a grand jury indictment. Trump has no more right to open impeachment hearings than he had to be in the grand jury room during Robert Mueller’s investigation into him. An impeachment is a political indictment saying there are probable grounds to think that the president engaged in high crimes and misdemeanors. The Senate has the sole power to remove someone from federal office. Trump’s trial would happen there and both prosecutors and the defendant would have the right to present their case. It’s a very high bar to remove someone from office by impeachment, as it takes two-thirds of senators present to convict.

Trump’s reaction to the impeachment though is symptomatic of his general problem: he assumes he can make whatever rules he wants. His lawyer has taken it to the ultimate extreme, claiming in court that the Constitution gives the president blanket immunity from all actions while in office. This cannot be. If courts upheld this, it would be the end of our republic. A president truly immune from prosecution while in office could cancel elections and declare himself president for life.

So presumably this has no chance in the courts. But to Trump, it may not matter. He thinks he is a dictator and acts like one. So why not ignore the courts? He wouldn’t be the first president. Andrew Jackson ignored Supreme Court decisions he didn’t like, figuring that the court had no way to enforce its decisions. He was right and this points to a fundamental flaw in our system of government: it assumes our Justice Department is not corruptible, because it’s that department which enforces federal law. And ultimately the Justice Department reports to the President. It would be better if the Justice Department was run by our court system.

But lately it sure looks like the Justice Department under Bill Barr is corruptible. Recently, it announced a criminal investigation into Robert Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump. Also, Bill Barr is running around Europe on taxpayer dollars trying to get foreign governments to investigate crazy allegations against Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee. Barr is breaking the law by illegally interfering in our election. Logically, he should be impeached too. By statute, the department is supposed to enforce the law as written. Bill Barr though believes his job is to follow out orders by the president instead.

Likely most of the people who voted for Donald Trump were sick to death of our system of government. They saw Trump as the Great Orange Bully that would be the bull in the china shop, breaking things so that the inertia that has characterized our government for the last couple of decades finally comes to an end.

There’s no question that our system of government is hard to legally change. The task is made much harder when those who control it largely are not accountable to voters. Gerrymandering, voter suppression and the endless amounts of money the U.S. Supreme Court is content to allow to be spent on elections makes this already Herculean task that much harder. This explains why some of the most prominent Democratic presidential candidate are running a campaign a lot like Trumps: calling for large structural changes. Doubtless a President Warren or a President Sanders would try to push things to the limit to affect these changes. But it’s unlikely that they would openly break the law to do so. In some ways, this is an admission that their campaign promises are doomed to fail if elected.

So likely is Donald Trump’s presidency. He certainly is breaking things, but our bureaucracy is the bigger and more enduring force and will probably be able to fix the china shop when he is gone, though it may take a few decades. You can see this in whistleblowers coming forward and people agreeing to testify anyhow. The only way that Trump’s changes last is if he can get away with things.

Chances are he will, if he can stay in office. Assuming our justice system is still around after he leaves, he’ll be spending most of the rest of his life as a defendant, if not in prison. Which is why dictatorship appeals to him. He figures he doesn’t have much of a choice but to act like a dictator. His only way out seems to be to never relinquish power.

The most dangerous time for our republic is not yet here. It happens after the November 2020 election. If Trump is reelected, he may well succeed in destroying our government’s fundamental structures. Acquitted by the Senate and presumably given the go ahead by the American people, there is nothing to stop him. If the Senate couldn’t convict him the first time for his many egregious crimes, they likely won’t during a second term.

But if he loses, he has to be removed from office. At that point we all have to hold our breath. He will rally his supporters to take things into their own hands to protect him, which means civil unrest. Ultimately it will come down to our military: will they support Trump or their country? Chances are in January 2021, we will find out. God help us.