Autocracy and why Trump’s firing of his Secret Service director is extremely alarming

I’m getting the sick feeling that we are this close to an autocracy. Things seem to be going rapidly from bad to worse to ohmigod this is incredibly dangerous!

The feelings got real when I learned what Attorney General William Barr was planning to do with the Mueller report: redact as much of it as possible and work as hard as possible to keep the full report from ever getting to Congress. It got worse when I watched our petulant Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brush off Congresswoman Maxine Waters: the idea of wasting his time talking to Congress when he had important things to do! Also, he seems to be aiding and abetting keeping Congress from getting Trump’s tax returns, even though the law requires it.

You don’t have to look far to find plenty of other signs. For example, Donald Trump is thinking of dumping migrants in sanctuary cities. Why? Because he thinks he can and he wants these cities to pay for having the audacity to oppose him. Then there’s his de-facto concentration camps that separate immigrant families and new reports that suggests he wants the U.S. military to build a whole lot more of them and run them, much like the German military ran its concentration camps. And if that weren’t enough, Trump was recently on the border urging CBP employees to break the law by not letting these asylum seekers in. Trump is implicitly saying: I can get away with anything, because Congress won’t hold me accountable in the end. And if you do break the law, I’ll pardon you!

All this is sickening enough, but then there’s the imperial way his administration seems to be blowing off the courts. He’s been under a court order for about a year to resettle these unaccompanied minors with their parents, or at least place them with relatives in the United States. Instead, most of them linger inside former Walmart stores under lock and key and out of sight. Recently, three congresswomen weren’t allowed in to inspect a detention facility for minors in Homestead, Florida. Trump doesn’t care that Congress has the responsibility for executive oversight.

More and more the Trump administration seems to be simply ignoring the courts. Until now, we’ve sort of assumed that if the courts tell you to do something, you must. More and more the Trump administration seems to be just ignoring the courts. After all, what can the courts do but issue more rulings? I guess there is the U.S. Marshal Service, which is supposed to enforce court orders if necessary. But the courts do not control it; it’s controlled by the Justice Department. And our new attorney general Bill Barr seems quite happy to take orders from Trump, even though he is supposed to uphold the law.

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? The constitutional remedy for executive overreach is congressional oversight, subpoenas and when all else fails impeachment. Trump’s lackeys are ignoring most congressional subpoenas. Nancy Pelosi has ruled out impeachment, mostly because she knows Trump has no possibility of being convicted in the Senate. And that’s not just because Republicans control it narrowly, it’s because Republicans are very clear that they don’t care about the rule of law. All they care about is expanding their power or, failing that, holding on to their power.

And it’s not like they feel the least bit compelled to follow the rules or precedent anymore. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an erstwhile conservative, broke with more than 230 years of precedence to speed up the debate on the nomination of federal judges and no longer allows home state senators to block these nominations either.

Meanwhile, deeply red states like Alabama and Texas are going out of their way to turn their states more authoritarian. In Texas, they are debating a law that could potentially give the death penalty to women who get abortions. Wow! The breadth of this should be astounding, but it’s par for the course these days. Ohio’s governor just yesterday signed a law that outlaws abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. These states are simply trying new tactics to see what might overturn Roe v. Wade now that Brett Kavanaugh is a justice. It’s all supposedly about being pro-life, but at least in Texas they are willing to kill people to do it. It’s all absolutely insane, particularly when you consider that not one of these states wants to give women contraceptives to not get pregnant in the first place, won’t subsidize their pregnancies and do their best to keep these kids off food stamps once they are born. Since so many are nonwhite, they’ll be happy to disenfranchise them when they reach voting age too.

Of course, these red states continue to do their best to gerrymander districts and suppress people of color from voting. Florida wants ex-felons to pay all judgments before being allowed to vote, essentially a poll tax, which is unconstitutional. Its state legislature is also working to overturn the referendum, which allows ex-felons to vote in the first place.

So it is crystal clear to me that Republicans will let nothing stop them from achieving their aims. Increasingly they are simply ignoring courts and Democrats in Congress. In essence, they are wholly abandoning democracy in favor of autocracy, and using inertia built into our system of checks and balances and Republicans open willingness to allow Trump to get away with stuff to bring it about.

Frankly, to me the most alarming sign of all was not Trump’s firing of his Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, but his firing of Secret Service Director Randall “Tex” Alles. Think about it. Let’s assume that Democrats do win the presidency in the 2020 election. And it is ultimately up to the Secret Service to evict Trump from the White House. Will his hand-picked lackey evict him? When push comes to shove, who decides to hand over the nuclear codes to the next president? And if you have a Republican senate that won’t fight back on Trump against anything, if he refuses to leave, how do you get rid of him?

It all makes for a constitutional crisis already well underway that looks like it will come to a crescendo on January 20, 2021, but which is likely to all come to a head much earlier than this.

These are crazy, deeply dangerous and incredibly scary times. We are facing what looks like the probable end of a 230 year old democracy.

When did conservatism become so radical?

Halloween should be rescheduled for the last week of June. This is the last week of the Supreme Court’s annual session and they tend to leave their juiciest and most controversial decisions to the very end. The Supremes did not disappoint this year with two decisions yesterday that should leave sensible people reeling.

I’ll concentrate on the first, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and leave the public unions decision Harris v. Quinn perhaps for a future post. In the Hobby Lobby ruling, we got a decision that grants “closely held corporations” religious rights. Previous Supreme Court decisions had already granted corporations personhood status, a preposterous assertion given that corporations do not breathe, have children, die, get checkups, walk, talk or vote. On the latter, given the court’s breathtaking decision in this case, it’s probably only a matter of time before corporations get the right to vote as well. (Given the way the Supreme Court sees these things, they will probably get a number of votes proportional to their status, maybe based on the number of employees.) Justice Alito went so far in his decision as distinguish between corporations as people and actual human beings, “natural persons” as he calls us. You have to ask yourself: WTF? Was he sober when he wrote this?

All this, you see, is to protect the precious rights of the people that own these companies, as if in their role as “natural persons” they don’t already have the right to vote, or to spend their own money on campaigns, or speak out at rallies or take out ads in the newspaper. This means, of course, if you are an executive of a corporation you effectively get twice the rights, but effectively a lot more as you can wield the assets of your company to the extent you have money or can borrow money to speak out as much as you want. The Koch Brothers epitomize the ability of the very moneyed to drown out much of the rest of us. And now because your corporate personhood is so precious, you can also take away the rights of others. Unsurprisingly, certain companies like Hobby Lobby feel the need to screw it to women, which thanks to this decision means that they can prohibit contraceptive coverage from being covered in their health insurance plan. Why? Because it’s against their religion. Like corporations can go to church!

You would think this decision could not possibly make the pigs any “more equal” than the other farm animals (that’s an Animal Farm reference, in case you missed the allusion), but you are forgetting one of last year’s stunner decisions. Almost a year ago, on June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law required certain states like Mississippi with a long history of racial discrimination in the voting booth to get preclearance for their voting methods. Mississippi was one of many mostly Southern states to set up more onerous criteria for voting: you had to show an approved photo ID, something that is difficult, expensive and inconvenient if you are poor. The Justice Department didn’t like it, of course, so it nixed the idea, but the state appealed to the Supreme Court. Of course, keeping blacks and minorities from voting was the whole intent of the law in Mississippi. By this decision, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, which was written specifically to get rid of decades of Jim Crow laws that made it hard or impossible for minorities to vote.

So the Supreme Court, which claims to be so concerned about maximizing freedom of speech, gives virtually unlimited speech to corporations which aren’t even human beings while allowing states to make it harder for certain actual human beings, minorities and the poor naturally, to exercise what limited speech they have due to their financial state. In other words, it’s more freedom for those who can afford it, including entities (corporations) that are legal fictions, something Justice Alito in his decision candidly acknowledged. And due in part to last year’s decision, it’s less freedom for those that can’t. This is not surprising from a court that was very plainly equated money with speech. Last I checked, a dollar bill did not have lungs, a tongue and lips.

This is conservatism? This is not radically changing what has worked in the past? I don’t know what word it is, but it is not conservatism. It’s crazy and radical stuff. Rather it was the Supreme Court that inferred that corporations must be treated as people. These latest shocking decisions take this to a further absurd and quite frightening level.

Given that these radicals will be on the court for some time a harder and more permanent solution is needed. It’s already underway but as a practical matter to actually make it happen will require Democrats to have large majorities in both the House and Senate. It is simply this: we need a constitutional amendment that unambiguously states that corporations are not people and only have such temporal rights as Congress deigns to give them. If I were in charge, corporations would be forbidden from giving a dime to any political candidate, any PAC or any group that works to influence public policy on any level whatsoever.

What kind of glue are these conservative justices sniffing? Have they read the preamble of our constitution lately? It simply starts, “We the people”. There is no “We the people and corporations”. That is original intent. The so-called constitutional conservatives on the Supreme Court who voted for these unwise and radical decisions have simply proven the opposite. Instead, they are part of a cancer that is killing our democracy.

Caucuses are still undemocratic

It has been four years since the last Iowa caucuses. I am hoping that like four years ago C-SPAN will show the caucus process live on national TV. It was quite an eye opener for me in 2004. It did not leave me with a nice, comfortable feeling that our democracy was in good hands.

In summary, here is what will happen tonight. A likely tiny share of Iowa’s voters, probably less than ten percent and likely about five percent (those who do not mind skipping the Orange Bowl or traveling in subfreezing weather) will show up at their neighborhood caucus. They had better show up promptly at 7 PM because that is when the caucuses start. There is no mailing in of absentee ballots. Moreover, if you are handicapped or are required to work that evening that is just too bad. In addition, if your favorite candidate does not garner at least 15% of the vote in your Democratic caucus, they will receive zero delegates. So among those who attend, a fair number will actually vote for their second choice.

The Democratic Party caucus system in Iowa does not allow for a secret vote. You declare your support openly and in front of your neighbors. If you are an easily intimidated type, you may end up supporting a candidate you do not prefer. Since many of those in the room are likely your neighbors, you have to weigh your vote against your need to get along with them after the caucus. In short, peer pressure may have an effect on your vote. Moreover, if you need to leave early because Jimmy is suddenly running a fever, well, your vote will not count. If you are susceptible to changing your mind, expect to be lobbied in ways that may make you feel like a Congressman. Your neighbor may agree to buy you lunch every day for the next week for your vote. These tactics are legal.

While the Democratic Party caucus system in Iowa disenfranchises lesser-known candidates, if you attend a Republican Party caucus then whoever gets the most votes at your caucus gets all of its allocated delegates. In other words, it is a “winner takes all” system, reminiscent of our Electoral College. On the positive side Republicans at least get to have a secret vote. They scrawl their favorite on a piece of paper. The caucus chair sorts through them and determines the winner. If you cannot spell Mitt Romney’s last name correctly, just write “Mitt” and hope the caucus chair will decide you meant Mitt Romney.

Moreover, as this article points out, the caucus system in Iowa is biased in favor of urban voters. Twenty seven percent of voters select 50 percent of the delegates, and those 27 percent live in the more densely populated areas. It can also be helpful to your candidate to make sure the “temporary chair” of your caucus supports your candidate. As “temporary chair”, he will have a disproportionate ability to influence undecided or wavering voters.

In short, it is a bad system. Yet, the Iowa caucuses do matter. Recent history (since 1972 or so) suggests that if you win the Iowa caucuses, you have a 2/3 chance of winning the party’s nomination. If you are a Democratic candidate, you have a 2/9 chance of winning the general election and a 1/3 chance if you are a Republican. With a better than 50% odds that you will win the party’s nomination by winning in Iowa, it is no wonder that more than a year ago potential candidates were trolling for votes there. Winning in Iowa is not a sure thing to winning either the nomination or the presidency, but it provides real momentum.

Do Iowans represent America? I guess it depends on the demographics you are looking at but clearly, America is no longer primarily an agrarian economy. Iowa comes close to Utah in being the nation’s premier Wonder Bread state. Iowa’s primary role in the presidential race is to clear the field, so it may give Caucasians disproportionate early influence. If you do not come in at least third, you are likely out of the game. Expect tomorrow to see a number of candidates drop out. I bet Dodd and Biden will drop out tomorrow. Richardson and Kucinich will likely say adios also. They will have spent their wad and will have little in the way of resources to compete in the remaining states. Richardson might well command ten percent of the vote in Iowa, but he will likely not pick up a single delegate there. Of course, it is the number of delegates pledging a candidate that ultimately choose the party’s nominee.

The nomination process also favors the party establishment. A few weeks ago out of curiosity, I decided to learn how I could become a delegate to the Democratic Party National Convention in my state of Virginia. Our February 12th primary is used to select delegates to a Virginia Democratic Party convention held in June. Fortunately, delegates at that convention are proportioned by candidate based on their primary results. 85 delegates go to the Democratic National Convention but only 54 of those delegates are chosen based on the February 12th primary. The remaining 31 delegates are chosen at the state convention. There is no assurance that those chosen at a state party convention will proportioned based on the state’s primary vote. However, Virginia Democratic Party rules allow 18 others to become “automatic” delegates, meaning Virginia will actually have 103 voting delegates. These include top party leaders, including our governor Tim Kaine. So in the best case 82% of my state’s delegates will be chosen based on primary results. In the worst case, only 53% of my state’s delegates will be chosen this way. Consequently, in the event of a brokered convention, you can expect that the current political establishment, rather than the voters will wield the real power.

I hope voters in Iowa and elsewhere are smart enough to realize that the caucus system works against them and demand a primary-based system. In addition, I hope both parties will eventually reform the delegate selection process so that delegates are truly proportioned based on primary results.

Free D.C.

What an irony. Lincoln freed the slaves. We fought a war of independence to ensure the principle of “one man, one vote”. And yet here it is 228 years after our independence and the residents of the District of Columbia are still our nation’s serfs. Yes this may be news to some of you but DC residents still have no voting representative in Congress. It can pass all the internal laws it wants to but Congress can retroactively overturn any of them. And Congress does overturn its laws regularly and seems willing to do so again real soon.

The latest outrage is that prominent members of Congress from Northern Virginia, including my own Congressman Frank Wolf are threatening to overturn any law DC passes on allowing slot machines.

Congress will halt any attempt to bring slot machines to the nation’s capital if a referendum is placed on the November ballot and approved by voters, two influential members predicted yesterday.

Northern Virginia Republican Reps. Frank R. Wolf, chairman of a U.S. commission that recommended a national moratorium on gambling in 1999, and Thomas M. Davis III, chairman of the Government Reform Committee, delivered a clear signal to colleagues and D.C. officials that the unfolding voter initiative faces opposition in Congress, whatever its fate in the District.

“Under no circumstances do I think gambling should come to the District of Columbia, period,” said Wolf, a House Appropriations subcommittee chairman.

“Can you see coming to see Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, President Kennedy’s grave, the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and first we go by the Lucky Five gambling casino? It would be horrible,” Wolf said.

Davis said that he does not want slots in the District and that “members are not going to want to vote for slot machines in the nation’s capital.”

Now as readers may recall I voiced my opinion on this issue. I don’t like the idea of slot machines in DC. I think they are a bad idea for the District. I hope if the issue comes up for a vote its citizens are wise enough to say no to this very bad idea. But I am not a resident of D.C. I live in Northern Virginia. And as bad an idea as I think it is, it would never cross my mind to pick up the phone and urge my congressman to have Congress overturn the will of the residents of the District of Columbia. To me representative government is sacrosanct. But not for Congress — it just loves to mess with DC.

The time has long passed for Congress to end its feudal-like control over the District. When I think of reasons why DC is so impoverished and crime is so high, I think its roots can be traced to the simple fact that residents of DC are not enfranchised. Everyone else in America is. It is true that residents of U.S. territories and commonwealths, such Puerto Rico, don’t have representation in Congress either. But unlike DC residents, members of our commonwealths are allowed to manage their own affairs and make their own laws. Lawmakers in the DC government must always look over their shoulders and hope Big Brother (Congress) doesn’t get mad.

Indeed the residents of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico at least get a dividend for not having a representative in Congress: they don’t pay federal taxes. That’s not true of DC residents. They must pay their share of federal taxes. They have the same burdens of any citizen of the United States, including having to serve their country in time of war. They just don’t get any real voting privileges for their alleged citizenship except for voting in presidential elections. Indeed their supposed “home rule” is a veneer at best. Congress can take it away by simply repealing the law.

It is way past time for equity to the residents of the District of Columbia. The solution isn’t rocket science. Create a small contiguous federal area around the Mall to be exclusively managed by the federal government. It should have no residents. Then give the citizens of D.C. at least one representative in the House of Representatives proportional to their population. It would be magnanimous if the residents had at least one Senator too, but that may be too much to ask since the District is not a state. Repeal the part of the U.S. Constitution giving Congress the right to manage the affairs of the District of Columbia. It was written at a time when the District was merely a tract of land and its inhabitants were Native Americans. It is now a real city full of U.S. citizens who pay taxes and serve their country. That we haven’t given DC residents true representation is shameful.

If for some bizarre reason Congress can’t do the obviously fair thing then the least they can do is repeal federal income taxes for DC residents. Maybe the extra cash in their pocket will be some small compensation for their obvious second-class status.

Caucuses are Undemocratic

I realize not many people watch C-SPAN. Perhaps they should. It can be an eye opener. Not only do you get to see politicians live and unfiltered, but occasionally I see something very disturbing. This happened Monday night when C-SPAN broadcast live from one of the Iowa Democratic caucus precincts. It was enough to convince me that the caucus system has to go.

The way the caucus system works is that on caucus night you visit your local caucus and find others like yourself who support your candidate. You essentially declare your support for a candidate openly. You then have to listen briefly to statements from groups supporting each candidate. You then might choose to move from your candidate’s group to another candidate’s group. This might be the one virtue of the caucus system. This differs from, say, the Chicago political machine where your local alderman’s friend gets you down to the polling place and gives you a suggested list of people to vote for. At a caucus you are required to hear a differing point of view. I assume this dates back to an agrarian time when newspapers were hard to come by and many voters might go to a caucus having little or no knowledge about the candidates. Clearly this is not an issue in the 21st century.

But here is where the caucus system breaks down. In Iowa (and I assume many other caucus states) only “viable” candidates count. You know your candidate counts if your candidate is actually awarded delegates from your precinct. In Iowa if your candidate (say Dennis Kucinich) doesn’t make a 15 percent threshold, sorry, he gets zero delegates. You are effectively disenfranchised. Across Iowa it is possible that a candidate could get 14 percent of the vote but won’t get a single delegate. This is not democracy. It’s a variation of Animal Farm where “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Oh, but it’s not over. Since the 15 percent don’t count, they have the opportunity to throw their allegiance to some other candidate who is viable. Heck, anyone can change their mind up until the final count and move from candidate group to candidate group. Eventually though a final count is called. Those who were marginalized out of the process may have picked an alternate candidate. Or they may have given up in disgust and gone home.

Delegates are broken down proportionately based on the final count of viable candidates. The candidate coming in second for a particular caucus though may get awarded an extra delegate. In Iowa the rules say that if the delegate count doesn’t break down proportionately, the highest candidate drawing less than 50% gets the extra delegate. So strike another blow against democracy.

The caucus system is really a delegate selection process that disenfranchises marginal candidates, inflates delegate counts for the “viable” candidates and may award a special silver medal for the second place candidate for a particular precinct. You have no secret vote, and your can change your candidate affiliation as many times as you want before the final vote, perhaps wending some personal favors for your vote.

It’s a stinky process. It needs to go. Thank goodness next Tuesday the voters in New Hampshire have the opportunity to vote in a real primary. Those who choose to vote for Dennis Kucinich will know that their votes actually mattered. Voters won’t effectively be tapped on their shoulders and offered advice in the voting booth. They can make their choices secretly and anonymously.

The caucus system may have made a certain amount of sense at one time in very rural states where people are few and far between. But those days are long gone. We have cars. We have modern telecommunications. We know how to do a secret ballot. Abolish these absurd and undemocratic caucuses!