How to Survive in a Post-Modern World

How does one define the “modern world”? Most would say it is our contemporary world. But what makes it modern versus its predecessor? Many historians would agree with me that the answer begins with the American Revolution and the new republic formed in its aftermath. The principles that formed that republic were partially foreseen during the Age of Enlightenment, courageously declared in 1776, and then experimentally constituted in 1787. But even at its founding, there were cracks in its foundation that fourscore and seven years later shook a budding nation to near collapse. But the experiment was destined to continue, even after the spilling of much blood and the imposition of martial law over much of its territory. Initially, America was referred to as the “new world.” What was discovered as “new” became “modern” because of its initial declaration that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These were the rights used to justify the institution of a new nation subject to the “consent of the governed.”

Later, in the formal Constitution of this new “model” of a nation, a marker was set down that has bedeviled America ever since. The goals expressed in this document were ambitious enough: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” What made these goals extraordinarily ambitious is that they were stated as means to an end. That end is the new nation’s fundamental underlying purpose, namely, “to form a more perfect Union.” In that purpose we find the crux of nearly every internal conflict this nation has endured since its founding—from Civil War, to reconstruction, to women’s suffrage, to civil disobedience, to the initial revulsion against almost every new wave of immigrants, to segregated housing, and to contemporary issues of fairness in the criminal justice system, in policing, in the provisioning of public services, and, as witnessed in the recent campaign, in the treatment of immigrants on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or legal entry into the country. The problem with this “more perfect Union” is that it implies social assimilation as well as de facto equality under the law. The former is a responsibility of every citizen. The latter is the purview of the government that guarantees the Constitutional rights of every citizen.

Even a very cursory review of human history must recognize how America’s very existence is a break with all of human history. Previous to its founding, nation states were formed around racial, tribal, and/or religious identities. America broke with this past and aspired to be different. What it created inspired many nations to form liberal democracies, though none as pluralistic as America would gradually become. The ongoing struggle to form that “more perfect Union” is at the very heart of America, its founding principle. It is also at the center of America’s evangelical influence on the rest of the world to follow its example in governance. Especially since the world wars, American diplomacy has encouraged the formation of democracies and a world order that mimicked its rule of law. The result has been the United Nations and so many other international organizations that influence trade, currency, worldwide humanitarian interests, and so much more. Europe, in particular, has benefited with NATO securing its borders and with the impetus to form its own interdependent union of historically distinct nations. It is almost as if the American Pledge of Allegiance has been extended from “one nation under God” to one world, “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Globalization, for example, is an analogue for America’s interstate commerce. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Geneva Conventions, and so many other international agreements and treaties reflect America’s federalist propensities. For better or worse, America has become the archetype for the modern world.

If you will concede that America has become the blueprint for a modern world, then you must also admit that it is a work in progress. And, as President Obama recently admitted, that work does not progress in a straight line. Besides the internal conflicts already mentioned, there have been many obstacles to that progress. For example, the nineteenth century gave birth to two very different economic/philosophic ideologies, namely, communism and capitalism. The former never really took root in America, despite the fears raised by McCarthyism. The latter actually undergirded the institution of slavery, for cheap labor was the underpinning of the South’s economic juggernaut and its plantation lifestyle. Its moral justification—that Blacks represented an inferior race—was a bit of sophistry to win public support for an inhuman economic system that perverted the key founding principle of America. After the Civil War and the failure of reconstruction, capitalism was the engine behind a new age of industrialism. It unleashed an era of wealth for a new class of economic barons who threatened to control the country in the service of growing their businesses and profits. President Teddy Roosevelt feared this threat; but, more importantly, wanted both labor and business to work fairly in the interest of the nation as a whole. While he introduced legislation to curtail monopoly and corruption, the breach between the economic wealth of the rich and poor widened until the stock market crash of 1929. It was Teddy’s cousin, Franklin, who began to introduce the bank controls and safety net legislation that established some measure of control over unbridled capitalism and of economic security for Americans.

Why do I bring this history into my narrative? Well, it is prologue to another hurdle for this grand American experiment in a self-governing pluralist nation. We just experienced an election campaign where we granted to an elitist billionaire the power to purge America of his self-ordained undesirables, namely, immigrants who are neither Christian nor white enough. His campaign promises regarding undocumented immigrants and Muslims categorize people by ethnic origin or religion in order to deny them the American experience and acceptance into the American community. His campaign was divisive. In addition, he is appointing other billionaires to his Cabinet who have supported policies that further divide the nation by undermining universal public education, nationwide environmental protection, union membership, American Indian treaty rights, criminal justice system reform, fair housing programs, and affordable health insurance for the poor, while proposing tax advantages for the very rich. The gap between the rich and poor, to illustrate just one example, will be further widened by making healthcare and education too expensive for millions and by changing the tax system to favor the rich more than it already does. Whatever might work towards a more perfect union he seems intent to dismember, defund, or simply negate by executive fiat.

Most of these policy positions cannot be enacted without the support of Congress. But many will find support in Congress where similar positions on repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax reform have already been proposed. In addition, the Speaker of the House would like to privatize Social Security and replace Medicare with a voucher system. A compromise between the Speaker and the President Elect might deliver legislation that suits both of their interests. The Speaker’s ideas for tax reform are already very similar to the President Elect’s proposal. The Speaker’s plan, however, is not as generous to the super rich as the President Elect’s, whose plan would increase taxes for the few poor barely living above subsistence level (earning less than $18,550) by 2% and decrease taxes for the upper middle class (earning between$151,900 and $231.450) by 2% and for the very rich by 2 to 6.6%, on an ascending income scale. Billionaires, of course, would rake in many more billions under these proposals. These policy positions have the net effect of increasing income inequality and further polarizing the nation into the “haves and have nots.” This economic polarization further accentuates the divisions he has already advocated between native or naturalized citizens and the undocumented, and between Judeo/Christian and Muslim.

When the President Elect admitted that the nation is already divided, I suspect he was referring to the urban and rural divide that he exploited so successfully. But he has yet to propose anything concrete that would bring these groups together either. It is true that globalization has incurred job dislocation along with the benefits of free trade. He promises to address the concerns of rural communities that are often disproportionately affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign labor markets. He has promised to make better trade deals and to repeal NAFTA. Even if he could repeal NAFTA, the net effect would likely be some decline in the Mexican economy, more border crossings for job seekers, higher prices for goods manufactured in Mexico, fewer jobs currently dependent upon our exports, and less income from the export business we now have with one of our biggest export markets. The net effect is not readily determinable and was certainly never itemized by the President Elect. Besides, he has not included in his analysis the impact of technology on manufacturing or other blue-collar jobs. It is not likely that a forty year out-of-work steel worker and head of household will be able or even want to obtain a college degree in order to support his family. The President Elect has made no mention of alternative blue collar work that might be made available, such as building windmills or assembling and installing solar panels. Like the current Administration, he supports infrastructure programs that would require unskilled labor. Unlike President Obama, he makes no mention of an infrastructure bank that would rely mostly on private investment. Instead, the President Elect wants to invest public money towards a trillion dollar infrastructure restoration. His purpose is laudable, but it does not address the loss of good paying blue collar manufacturing jobs. Many of the applicants for the jobs he wants to create are the very people he wants to deport. Moreover, his tax plan will not support these expenditures without blowing up the Federal debt. Besides the groups he has already alienated, like minorities, immigrants, and Muslims, he offers no solution for those others who feel isolated and adrift in an economy that is leaving them behind.

The actual promise of the next administration is further division and a dismantling of policies that might actually bring the nation together. Wittingly or unwittingly, Donald Trump is whittling away at America’s founding principle. If allowed to continue on this path, he will not make America great again. America’s greatness has always been in the future, not in its past struggles to advance the goals initially set in our founding documents. Our history has always been about realizing what it means to declare that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights. Plainly, America is about assimilating all groups within its borders and governing “with liberty and justice for all.” By contrast, President Elect Trump conducted a campaign that succeeded by “divide and conquer.” But if he governs in this manner, he will not be able to continue this nation’s progress towards a more perfect union. Instead, he will become liable for its deconstruction.

Earlier, in the twentieth century, after the communist revolutions in China and Russia, many feared the threat communism posed to American democracy, especially after the socialist legislation of the New Deal. But communism exploited social justice in a way that socialism could never imagine. It was not communism that threatened American democracy, but communists. While China never presented an existential threat, Russia’s very real nuclear threat did. The Cold War exasperated this threat. It was not, after all, Russian communism that unnerved us, but Russian militarism. Henry Adams, the renowned historian and progeny of two American Presidents, had foreseen this military threat of the Russian bear as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, after Russia’s unprovoked invasions of Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, President Elect Trump seems to favor some form of partnership with the Russian dictator. Vladimir Putin has long sought to reclaim the Soviet Empire’s status as a co-equal super power with the United States. He would welcome any form of joint agreement that might divvy up the world into equal spheres of influence. But appeasing Putin would unsettle all of Eastern Europe and weaken the NATO alliance that protects all European borders (reference “Why does Putin Favor Trump”). In addition, the President Elect’s remarks about abandoning America’s policies on nuclear non-proliferation not only threaten to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement but also encourage South Korea and Japan to become nuclear powers. Taken together these policies could spell an end to the Pax Americana or, at least, to America’s ability to maintain peace through diplomacy alone.

After having drawn this bleak picture, I must pause to admit that conjecture is not necessarily prologue to the future. Certainly, there are signs that point to a pivot from what we have come to believe to be the “modern world.” Populist movements seem to be gaining strength in many western democracies. The European Union, for example, seems to be near the breaking point. The BREXIT vote in England and the recent no confidence vote in Italy may just be the beginning of a wave. But, as Mr. Trump said during his campaign, he would not govern the way he campaigned. Listening to his recent interview with Chris Wallace, I was impressed with his sincerity and obvious emotional commitment to bring constructive change to American government. But, at some point, he needs to stop being the purveyor of sham facts to support his cause. Presidents need to win over the public with sound policies and honest communication. In the same interview where he argued eloquently about inhibiting corporate flight, job dislocation, and regulatory obstacles, he also stated that he won the greatest landslide victory in history. Actually, his margin of victory in the Electoral College ranks forty sixth amongst the fifty eight presidential elections. And he lost the popular vote by the largest margin of any candidate who won in the Electoral College. (There were only two other instances.) At some point, he needs to deal with facts if he expects to gain credibility with a majority of the electorate and not just with his supporters who believe in him without regard for the truthfulness or substance of his message (reference “Politics and the Illogic of the Heart”).

The press is already going crazy with their nitpicking about his non-attendance at daily intelligence briefings, about the absence of press conferences, about Mr. Trump’s excluding of the press from his dining out plans, about the imagined significance of everybody seen in front of the elevators at Trump Tower, and so on. Imagine the press reaction to his more substantive actions or policies as President. Although Mr. Trump has been allegedly quoted as saying “all press is good press,” I do not believe the manner in which he manipulated the press during the campaign will work to his benefit as President. There is a higher bar of truthfulness for the Presidency. He needs both to be informed and to inform at least as professionally as his predecessors in office.

If a tsunami is approaching, we all need to move to higher ground. Much of what we have grown to recognize in the modern landscape may be swept away. But each of us can survive, in fact, become better versions of ourselves. What I mean is better illustrated by what I have witnessed in my life. Many years ago, I found myself in the middle of a fierce war. Even to this day, there has never been a war where more live action fire fights were recorded. Missed in this recorded history, however, is the number of civilians caught in the crossfire: refugees moving from village to village, carrying their wounded, sick, and aging with them. They moved as a community, each caring for the other. The courage, the compassion, and the resilience I saw in many Vietnamese faces are etched in my mind forever. Even to this day, when I happen to meet a Vietnamese from that time, I ask for his or her story. Usually, I tear up and end our conversation with a hug. But that hug is not so much spawned by compassion, but by gratitude.

Politics can improve or destroy lives. Diplomacy can secure peace or devolve into wars. But only people of character can inspire others. Over time, that inspiration will eventually lead to better institutions of government, to improved relations between countries, and someday to a world community that protects this planet and its inhabitants.

Most often the reason Americans fall prey to anxieties and fears is the absence of any real threats to our security or wellbeing. We fear we may not be up to the test. It is only when truly put in danger or challenged, that we have the opportunity to test our worth. After Pearl Harbor, men volunteered for service and women replaced them in the factories while still caring for their children. African Americans walked into an angry mob at Selma and withstood the anticipated onslaught. When we have the courage to join with others and face our challenges and fears, we make the resulting engagement meaningful and discover our own strength. We may be facing difficult times ahead or not. The future is not yet determined. But if it marks the end of an era, then it will be up to each of us to define a new era.

I believe in America, and I believe in you, my fellow Americans. You care for your family and friends; you not only do well at work, but do good as well; and whatever you create, you make available to all. You should feel grateful for what you have and for what you can contribute. Whatever may be in store for America and the world, it will not change your worth or the meaning of your life. For only you can do that.

Standing Rock and Knowledge in the Information Age

A few years ago I walked into my local bakery and engaged the baker in our usual discussion, talking about her daily offering of baked goods and their ingredients. Often this dialogue would range over other topics, like the news of the day. Since I knew she was Native American, I referred to the Obama Administration’s recent settlements of decades old law suits—one for 1 billion dollars involving 41 tribes (4/11/2012) and the other for 3.4 billion dollars addressing US trust violations that affected over half a million Native Americans (11/27/2012). My intent in introducing this subject was to gain more perspective, specifically from a Native American. She did not disappoint. Quickly she pointed out that these monetary settlements cannot undue the moral, cultural, and personal harms inveighed against Indian tribes. Her father, as it happens, was a chief who had actually met then Senator Obama. She was a teenager at the time. She volunteered that the President was a “good person” who meant well, but likely did not understand the core problem, along with the rest of America.

Various legislation actions (such as the Indian Reorganization Act, the Indian Self-Determination Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act) affirm the status of Indian nations as “domestic dependent nations” under Federal trusteeship. And the financial settlements just referenced only reinforce the status of tribal populations as dependents and devalue them further by equating the indignities they have suffered with monetary remuneration. What Americans fail to understand—including Congress and our Presidents—is that the tribes are not seeking the same citizenship rights of freed African slaves, but the freedom of self-determination as independent nations.

The courts have often ruled in favor of Indian treaty rights. But previous Administrations had refused for decades to settle their civil lawsuits. And Congress had ignored their many grievances for an even longer period, apparently assuming that they should be satisfied with legislation from the 1940’s that acknowledged their right to hold their cultural property and to determine guardianship of their children. But actual reconciliation with these Native Americans requires much more. They demand that their land and its natural resources be restored to them, as well as their right to self-government within its boundaries. There is no better example of their persistence in this demand than the Lakota’s refusal to accept the Supreme Court decision in 1980 to award the Sioux tribes 122 million dollars in exchange for their lands. That award has been held in a trust fund and is now worth about 1 billion dollars. The tribal chiefs continue to refuse any financial settlement in lieu of restoration of their lands. They fought a war, spilled their blood, and signed a treaty with the United States of America to protect their birthright to these lands. Monetary compensation is not any kind of appeasement to them. It is just a further humiliation.

My local baker knew her facts. Of course, they are readily available on the internet. But she could also embellish her knowledge with personal experience, having a tribal chief as a father and having met Barack Obama as a young girl. Like a giddy reporter about to uncover “breaking news,” I asked her how these two men got along. She laughed, “They got along fine, like they understood each other.” Then she added, “Maybe it’s because neither were born American.” Her response jolted me. It was totally unexpected. Naturally, I questioned her meaning. She explained that Obama was a Muslim and was born in Kenya. I tried to correct her understanding. But she insisted that she had found many sources on the internet that corroborated the fact of his birth and his religion. Besides, she explained, various TV news personalities were constantly reporting on the failure of the President to prove otherwise.

What is my purpose in sharing this story with you, my patient readers? Well, it illustrates how much we can learn from each other AND how polluted can be our information sources in the age of fake or insubstantial news. There is no question that my baker friend was sharing what she knew. The question remains, however, how she came to know what she knew. And that question goes to the heart of what we mean by “knowledge.”

In general, we know something as a result of our experience or of critical inquiry. When Descartes said, cognito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), he justified knowledge of his very existence upon his experience of thinking. Of course, our experience is more inclusive than our thinking: I know the keyboard I am using to write this blog, because I feel it under my fingertips. I also know the speed with which the moon circles the earth because it is mathematically calculable—or so I have been told. We trust our senses every day of our lives. But we never know enough to trust the logic or mathematical precision behind everything we are told. Living in the information age means that we are exposed to many “facts,” “theories,” and “evidence” that we can never really know in the sense of personally experiencing or critically justifying. Instead, we must trust our sources of information . . . or not. This trust is a matter of belief. My baker friend, for example, had firsthand experience of being born on an Indian Reservation and of living in a place to which she was organically connected and from which she was being systematically disowned. But what she knew about the President’s birthplace was based upon her trust or belief in the validity of information available on the internet, inadvertently affirmed by TV personalities, and even touted by such supposedly “creditable sources” as elected politicians.

At this moment, protestors are digging in for the winter at Standing Rock, North Dakota, to stop the last connecting link of a 1,172 mile long pipeline that will deliver half a million gallons of oil per day to Illinois. The point of contention is where this pipeline will cross the Missouri River. At risk is the water supply not only for the Indian Reservation but for many Americans living downstream of that river. Originally, the land transgressed by this pipeline was apportioned to the native Sioux tribes in the Treaty of 1851. But in 1867, another treaty was signed to cede “navigable rights” to the Federal government, to include “roads, railroads, telegraph lines, mail stations, and other public improvements” (italics are mine). The latter could not have foreseen oil pipelines that can provide a unique environmental hazard and, in this case, a health risks to individuals. Since these lands our held in trust by the Federal government, the Obama administration sought to delay construction of the pipeline until these hazards and risks could be reviewed and alternative options identified.** But in September the courts intervened and ruled in favor of the pipeline construction plans. President Obama, who many tribal leaders claim has done more for Indian rights than all previous Presidents combined, has asked for calm, demanding that peaceful protestors not be forcibly removed. Unfortunately, his requests have not been met. Both hired security forces and local constabulary have prodded protestors with attack dogs, rubber bullets, batons, and high powered water hoses. Many arrests have been made. And women—both Native Americans and other Americans—have even undergone strip searches while held in custody.

My question is simple: what do Americans actually know about the crux of this problem: this standoff between a pipeline corporation and Indian tribes; this confrontation between the Federal Administration and the Judicial Branch of government; and this obvious conflict between Treaty jurisdiction and morality. The only time the press has covered this standoff at Standing Rock is when pictures of demonstrators being beaten, bitten, hosed down, or shot are made available. And, of course, the press was quick to interview a movie star who was arrested in the melee. What the press failed to report was a joint statement issued immediately after the court decision by the Federal departments of Justice, Army and the Interior. That statement reads as follows:

This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects. Therefore, this fall, we will invite tribes to formal, government-to-government consultations on two questions: (1) within the existing statutory framework, what should the federal government do to better ensure meaningful tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews and decisions and the protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights; and (2) should new legislation be proposed to Congress to alter that statutory framework and promote those goals.

The second point is most relevant. If you believe, as I do, that Federal trusteeship of Indian “dependent nations” is a treaty obligation that implies an ongoing review and determination of any necessary adjustments, then you must also recognize that obligation implies an underlying moral imperative. In other words, we Americans must demand a legislative response to any nationwide reform proposed by these government-to-government consultations.

Our legislators do respond to public pressure. And the public can be aroused at times to take action—to vote or contact a legislator for instance. We just witnessed 62 or so million Americans elect a new President they hoped would change the way Washington worked. The problem with public action in a democracy is whether it is motivated by passionate and informed positions, or merely by passion. An angry mob can overthrow a government. But an informed citizenry can demand legislative and administrative policies that serve their general welfare and effect real democratic change that suits the time. The key to this proposition is the quality of information provided to Americans. How can we know what to do or support if we only have questionable sources of information? How can we attain some level of certainty in what we think we know?

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**This blog was written last night. Minutes ago, a news bulletin reports that the Army Corps of Engineers has denied the easement the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, required to cross the Missouri River. The Corps has honored the President’s request to find an alternative route for this pipeline. This will be the second rerouting. The first was incurred at the request of citizens living in Bismarck. That request was honored without challenge. This rerouting around an Indian Reservation will likely be challenged. It may represent the last shot across the bow by our sitting President. He is about to be replaced in a little over a month by a man who reportedly owns stock in this pipeline company> (Whether he does or not own stock in Energy Transfer Partners has not been substantiated. Energy Transfer Partners is actually a consortium also comprised of Sunoco and Phillips.) The President Elect has already stated he favors building this pipeline. There may yet be more chapters in the telling of this story.**
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“Knowledge” is a very broad concept that includes what we have learned, the learning process, and the creditability of what we have learned or believe we know. Given the enormity of the knowledge landscape, how can we have certainty about what we know? My baker’s experience has a personal psychological verification of its truth. And I learned something from her experience because I believed in its authenticity. That President Obama was born somewhere, on the other hand, is certain for it logically follows the self-evident truth that no human exists who was not born. Whether the President was born in Kenya or Hawaii, however, can only be derived from creditable evidence. Even trusted sources can allege “facts” without verifiable evidence. But even when verifiable evidence is provided—such as short and long form birth certificates, relevant newspaper clippings, or the testimony of public officials—some may choose not to belief the evidence or at least question the certainty of that evidence. In addition, much of what we think we know may in time be proven wrong, even though our knowledge is based upon personal experience, belief, or trusted sources. Certainty can seem allusive.

An artificial intelligence can use mathematical logic to answer specific question with certainty. It mirrors human intelligence in this way. It also can deliver highly probable, though not certain, results by canvasing a very large volume of data. In this manner, it not only mirrors, but actually exceeds human intelligence. You see, our database is much smaller and takes a lifetime to develop. As we age, we continuously store our experiences in memory, expand the extent of our knowledge, and mature our understanding of its content. When I was 21 years old, I was really sure of almost everything. Gradually, as I grew in experience, I realized how little I actually knew with any degree of certainty. We all benefit from sharing our differing perspectives. Other than logic and mathematics, no degree of certainty is achieved without a lifelong accumulation of our stored perceptions, of the creditable testimony of others, and of the induced results achieved by the power of our reasoning. Whatever certainty we may attain, then, is dependent upon a learning process that never ends.

We in America are at a turning point in our acquisition of knowledge. The process of learning, as I just described, requires more of us in this age of information. Each of us need to be dedicated to self-reflection, to disciplined evaluation of information sources, and to critical thinking that weighs all aspects of differing opinions. Obviously, we need to be served by honest and in-depth reporting and by elected officials dedicated to justice and freedom for all within our borders. What is happening at Standing Rock is just one example of how far we have strayed from these needs and, as a result, from the promise of our democracy. America is not easy. No nation has ever successfully broken down the barriers of tribal, ethnic, and religious inflexibility. But only by tearing down those barriers will our common humanity emerge. The promise of America cannot be realized unless we constantly strive to learn from each other, insist on fair and honest reporting, and demand responsive government that reflects both our needs and our moral integrity. Otherwise, problems like Standing Rock will continue to undermine our values and the effectiveness of our institutions. Consider where our nation would be today if we had chosen to learn from the Indian nations how to respect the land and become coequal custodians of the American continent. Problems like Standing Rock, or Devil’s Lake, or Black Hills would never have surfaced.

The way in which we communicate and receive information should reflect our desperate need to learn from each other and grow in understanding. Information used to gain influence, power, or financial benefit is propaganda. It serves no useful purpose in helping Americans understand issues like Standing Rock or further the ideals of a democratic and pluralist society. Only when our communication bridges the gap between perspectives, will it bring racial, ethnic, religious, and culturally diverse groups together.

And that coming together is still the unrealized promise of America.

The President Elect’s Challenges

A new President Elect comes to Washington as an outsider, riding a wave of support from the common people of rural America. The Administration he will replace is aghast and, in the words of its Secretary of State, his supporters are “like the inundation of northern barbarians into Rome.”* That Secretary of State was Daniel Webster. And the President Elect was Andrew Jackson. Although “Old Hickory,” as he was famously called, had sought the White House for the previous six years, he had little background in politics and even less patience with the duplicity of politicians. He was, however, determined to alleviate the plight of the common laborer at the hands of a burgeoning industrialism. Like our current President Elect, that determination had to contend with his natural reluctance to leave a well-established home—in his case, a Tennessee plantation. And both men abhorred the hordes of office seekers and publicity hounds that awaited them in Washington. Jackson went so far as to sneak undetected into DC and, on the day of his inauguration, to scale the wall behind the Capitol to make his entrance as clandestine as possible. Mr. Trump’s secretive “comings and goings” between New York and Washington and his use of a private rear entrance into Trump Tower is reminiscent of Jackson’s natural recoil from public exposure of his movements. On the surface, there does seem to be some similarity between these two President Elects. Beneath the surface, we find a very different story.

Although our President Elect only has to fill 4,000 office vacancies compared to Jackson’s 11,000, his transition period is made more problematic by a barrage of media criticism both at home and abroad. Unlike Jackson who had been a Superior Court judge in Tennessee and a United States Senator, he has no public service experience upon which to draw. Moreover, Jackson was the much heralded hero from the Battle of New Orleans, as the general who defeated Wellington, Napoleon’s nemesis at Waterloo, and who effectively won the War of 1812. As a result, he came to Washington with a nearly universal mandate. Our new President Elect does not even have the majority support of the electorate and has no such reputation or public service history with which to leverage acceptance of his policies. Winning a/o maintaining public support may be a challenge for President Trump.

Although there may be similarities in the transition phases of these two President Elects, it is patently unfair to compare an American hero with the controversial character of Donald Trump. Something other than character was operative in Trump’s victory. And therein is a problem both for our President Elect and for our country. Besides lacking a popular mandate, a recent exit poll reported a fourth of those who voted for him believed him unfit for office. In other words, it may be assumed that at least some of those Trump votes were not actually for him, but were simply protest votes. In addition, many of his true believers admitted they bought into the native flamboyance of his character and his generic promises for change. They voted for him in spite of his lack of specificity and his more outlandish rants and hyperbole. Naturally the enthusiasm he generated amongst his supporters attracted an inordinate amount of media attention. But the same media that was so enthralled with his enthusiastic rallies and with the extravagance of his lies and conspiracy theories will now be prepared to criticize his every word and action—just as they did with his predecessor. Even as President Obama is preparing to leave office, the often liberal leaning MSNBC asked its viewers whether Obama was responsible for Trump’s victory. As preposterous as this question may seem, it is emblematic of a media obsession with finding fault in whoever holds the office. President Trump faces an unremitting adversary in the commercially supported media which tends to cater to the public’s eager consumption of “lies, sex, and videotape.” Mr. Trump has already wet this appetite. The press will be unrelenting in their attempt to feed this hunger. Securing press support for his administration, even from the conservative leaning FOX network, may prove to be a daunting challenge for President Trump.

I am not, as you may have already surmised, totally buying this comparison of Trump to Jackson. It was initially made by a political commentator in one of those 10-20 second soundbites. Besides the similarities I have noted, this commentator also proposed a similarity in character. He felt both men were similar in their ability to fight for their beliefs and personal honor and to inspire a movement. Regarding their respective pugnacity, Andrew Jackson was certainly a man of integrity who never backed down from a fight and, in tune with the honor code of his time, even took a bullet in the chest to defend the reputation of his wife. And Trump may be, as he explained, a “counter puncher.” But he seems to defend his ego more than any principle or respect for another. Regarding their respective movements, Jackson’s social cause was about the application of Jeffersonian ideals to the labor dislocation of the 1820’s nascent industrialization. His politics were nuanced to the times, on the one hand fighting Hamilton’s American system and at the same time welcoming Federalist support from the Supreme Court. In other words, his politics were anchored in the Constitution and our founding principles. Trump, by contrast, would appear to trample on the inalienable rights outlined in that document as I argued elsewhere in “Politics and the Illogic of the Heart.” His business acumen may have served him well in private enterprise, but its self-serving nature offers no platform for launching a selfless public service regime. His company is already engaged in a string of civil lawsuits. In fact, his post-election affiliation with his business enterprises, as currently planned, presents serious conflicts of interest that will likely run aground of the law. President Trump may well face Federal indictment as a result. Unless he establishes a blind trust, his ongoing business ties will present a serious legal challenge for President Trump.

Our President Elect’s avowed policy “leanings” may be well served by appointing to the position of Attorney General a former civil rights antagonist and supporter of torture, to National Security Advisor a Turkey lobbyist and outspoken advocate for Islamophobia, to Chief Political Strategist an alt-right activist supported by white supremacists, to Director of the Central Intelligence Agency an advocate for resumption of torture and unrestrained surveillance, and to Director of the Environmental Protection Agency a person who thinks climate change is merely a hoax. Currently, among the possible choices for Secretary of State, he is considering a Russian lobbyist. Considering his previous statements in support of Vladimir Putin and his complementary remarks about Putin on RT’s (Russia Today’s) telecast, it is not unlikely that our President Elect will choose somebody that mirrors his tendency to seek some kind of rapprochement with Russia. By allowing the stated policy preferences of these appointments, he would be undermining fundamental American values and any constructive role in foreign affairs. Earlier in “There are Five Stages,” I stated my hope that the President Elect would impugn his campaign positions; instead he appears to be doubling down on them. These appointments could spell disaster for America and may already be one of the greatest challenges to his Presidency.

Prior to any consultation with the State Department, he has already had a conversation with Mr. Putin. Perhaps in the future they might work out a “compromise” where Russia would agree to join the United States in fighting Daesh and limit its annexation of sovereign territory to Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in exchange for joint acceptance of Assad as President of Syria and of unfettered Russian interference in the Baltic States which it considers its historical sphere of influence. Although hypothetical, this type of “rapprochement” is well suited to our President Elect’s stated positions with respect to Russia. It is also antithetical to America’s current foreign policy, to NATO’s charter, and to the international coalitions America has formed with western democracies. President Trump would face backlash from many nations with whom we have partnered for the last 70 years. But he may count as a positive that not only Russia, but even North Korea has expressed support for his Presidency. If his foreign policy continues in its current direction, America would face increased isolation in world affairs and may well facilitate the dissolution of the Pax Americana.

But perhaps our new President Elect will find a threat to his tenure in office of greater concern than the challenges enumerated here. Paradoxically, the most severe threat that may face President Trump is from his own Party. As many have stated, he is more pragmatic than ideological. His Republican “conservatism” is suspect on many issues, as shown during his primary debates. Also, he violated the Reagan oath to never criticize fellow Republicans. In fact, during his campaign, he alienated many Republican leaders, including the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. The latter are the very people who would prosecute an impeachment if Trump failed the challenges put forth here, most especially any domestic legal charges or serious foreign policy mishaps like a conflict of interest or collusion with a foreign power. Having won the election, he appears to have regained support of nearly all Republican officeholders. But that support is opportunistic, not organic. Beneath the surface, there still lurks a smoldering distrust of his Republicanism.

Now you might think a Constitutional confrontation between the branches of government would be remote. But it was only eighteen years ago when a Republican Congress attempted to impeach a President for perjury and obstruction of justice because he lied under oath about a consensual affair he had while in office. Remember “I never had sex with that woman.” His only defense was what he thought sex “is,” thereby incriminating a defenseless intransitive verb. Compared to President Clinton’s failure with his personal challenge to marital fidelity, President Trump’s potential to fail before much greater challenges elicits risks both to the general welfare of all Americans and to America’s status in the world. If he should fail here, impeachment might not only be justified, but it would be politically desirable for the Republican Party. The current Vice President Elect is a very conservative Republican who served for twelve years in Congress and considers the Speaker a personal friend. Republicans would readily welcome him in place of an impeached President Trump.

Remember General Othello was undone by his trusted ensign. In the house of cards Donald Trump is building, there are many possible Iagos.

*As quoted by Marquis James, in “Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President,” p. 181.

There are Five Stages

On the Late Show last night, Stephan Colbert referred to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resignation. Like our fellow Americans across the country he seemed still in the early stages. The spontaneous mass demonstrations in many of our largest cities last night would seem to be there with him. After reading my last blog (“Optimism for a Trump Presidency?), you might have guessed I was in the third stage of grief. Its final question mark was both an expression of my doubt and my hope. The combination of the two spells out “anxiety.” Gamely, I tried to see this election in an historical context. After all, our country has weathered many storms. This morning when I awoke, I realized a difference in my general attitude: the beautiful fall day outside did not frame my mood, nor did the prospect of making breakfast. Normally I bounce out of bed filled with expectations and plans for the day, beginning with a creative, healthy breakfast and a cup of coffee. Since I am not a person who abides depression, I struggled to find a path forward. Then I listened again to the President’s remarks yesterday about the smooth transition of power this democracy demands. Encouraged, I turned off the DVR, switched to live TV, and saw the most unlikely picture I could have imagined: the champion of the “birther movement” sitting next to the “Constitutional professor-in-chief.” Surreal, right?

When I heard the President Elect pronounce his respect for the President, my mind immediately began replaying all the disrespectful statements made over the last several years. Then “the Donald” said the words that must drive a portion of his constituency absolutely crazy: he intends to consult with the President often both before and during his Presidency. After their anticipated 10-15 minute meeting that stretched into an hour and a half, he was convinced he would need more advice from the man he would replace in office. And, of course, the President freely offered his service—even joked with his successor as he called an end to their brief press conference. I, meanwhile, sat back in my chair and drank another sip of coffee, asking myself what just happened in the Oval Office—and in me? Welcome to the fifth stage of grief!

Both Party primaries had a strong bench of candidates. I would have preferred Kasich as the Republican nominee. I believed Clinton was the most prepared and qualified amongst the Democratic nominees. So, I begin my post-election recovery deeply disappointed in the outcome. Nevertheless, as an American citizen, I want our President Elect to succeed. Unfortunately, he carries a huuuugge burden with him into office. That burden is his words and actions during the campaign. The media often promoted the equivalency of the mud-racking on both sides without always acknowledging the source of Clinton’s harangue. Her main witness for the prosecution of her claim of his unfitness and incompetence was Donald Trump. The new President Elect will have to spend a great deal of his time and political capital impugning this witness. Many of his supporters have said they disregarded his more outlandish statements as mere hyperbole or showmanship because they believed he wanted to bring real change to our government. Now they will witness the fact that many of the things he promised cannot and will not be done.

What he could do—such as signing a bill to repeal Obamacare or reversing all of the President’s executive orders, as he promised—would create mass confusion in our institutions, international repudiation of American leadership on climate change along with so many other Presidential initiatives, and a universal outcry of anger and rejection of his Administration by even the citizens who voted for him. In other words, our President Elect carries into office the weight of a very nasty 19th century style campaign into an office represented by a 21st century President who transformed it with his decency, reasonableness, and steady hand.

The contrast between these two men could not be more clearly drawn. Even when I disagreed with the President, I appreciated his willingness to admit his mistakes—like the ineffective diplomacy after the initial Libyan bombing or the collapse of Obamacare’s risk pool. After his reelection, he was in tears when citing his unworthiness of the dedicated support he received from young admirers. His humility was real, because it was never stated as such. The campaign version of his successor once attested to his humility in an interview with the words, “I am very humble; I’m more humble that you can even imagine.” The very definition of humility negates this attestation. My point in quoting him is to stress his need to leave ego at the door of the Oval Office. No President is without flaws. But only the successful ones can admit and learn from them.

Donald Trump must outgrow his campaign self and become the humbler, eager-to-learn President Elect who will serve the interests of all Americans and strive for the highest standards of the predecessors before him. President Obama leaves an office he has imprinted with his personal style, decency, and moral character. I want that office to imprint its expectations for moral, reasoned, and compassionate leadership on our new President Elect. Finally I have reached the final stage of grief, for I am resigned to a Trump Presidency with just one caveat: if the stature of the office does not change him, then he will not be worthy of it.

Optimism for a Trump Presidency?

Yesterday I wrote, “Sometimes our personal perspectives can become out of context with reality.” These words resonate truer today for proving me wrong. Earlier in a blog entitled “A Prescription for Change” I stated the case for the rural vote that has determined this Presidential election. I just underestimated how many rural and obviously not polled voters came forth to cast their vote for the change they wanted. I wrote,

“Overlapping with these racial and ethnic divides are social economic factors that further define both the diversity and contention within America. The mobility inherent in our system has allowed people to concentrate within communities of similar ethnic and social economic identities. It is this concentration phenomenon that has given our political parties the inspiration to develop gerrymandering into an art form. The rural/urban divide, as a result, seems to largely define Party alignments. Population centers like our major cities have no more voice in the House of Representatives than much less populated rural, districts. Should we be surprised that our diversity supports contention in Washington along the lines of race, ethnic origin, and urban/rural communities of like-minded perspectives? Both divisiveness and cultural diversity are very much a part of our context.”

In the past I have written about the cross pollination of liberal/conservative strains between our two political parties. This particular election reminds me of these intermingled strains and of a previous election 176 years ago. In the election of 1840, Martin Van Buren, an incumbent President who had previously served as Andrew Jackson’s Vice President, succumbed to William Henry Harrison, a candidate whose positions were little known and whose status as a victorious general was suspect. The motto for Harrison’s campaign was the memorable line “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Tippecanoe was the location where General Harrison was alleged to have won a great military victory. But, in truth, that purported victory was a lie and Harrison’s “hero” stature, a sham. President Elect Trump also had a catchy slogan, “Make America great again,” and promoted himself as a great businessman, while hiding a nearly one billion dollar lost and all subsequent tax returns. In that 1840 upset election the Jacksonian banner, which Van Buren represented, lost to a candidate who represented little more than his brand as a hero. But the parallels between 1840 and 2016 are only on the surface. Certainly, Hillary Clinton presented herself as an extension of Barak Obama, but the President’s policies have only a partial similarity with Jackson’s. Both were “change” candidates. Although Jackson blew up the American banking system that Hamilton had in part envisioned and pushed legislation to control the budding corporate entities, he was also a strict Jeffersonian in his support of state’s rights and a limited Federal government. On the other hand, he was for unions; and was strongly supported by the “locofocos,” the outspoken unionists of his time who also composed the more liberal wing of the Democratic Republican Party. Harrison, by contrast, had no track record on policies. More than this superficial analogy between the 1840 and 2016 elections is the similarity in emotional response. The 1840 election was apocalyptic to Van Buren supporters and to the Jacksonian movement. This morning I saw in the many crying and grimaced faces of Hillary supporters the same reaction to a crushing lost.

Nevertheless both Hillary Clinton and the President addressed the nation today with a message that was not apocalyptic, but hopeful. I feel American history supports their hopeful rhetoric. Remember it required two Republican Presidents to open constructive dialogues with communist China and Russia. And it was Obama who finally moved us closer to universal healthcare by establishing the Heritage Foundation’s mandated healthcare first proposed by Republican Senator Dole. Now we have President Elect Trump who once proclaimed he was in favor of a single payer system. Although the very idea of a truly universal healthcare system is anathema to mainstream Republicans, their nominee for President does not appear controllable by his Party establishment. He has consistently shown himself to be his own man. Also, whereas Clay and Webster supported Harrison as their puppet, Bennett and Ailes may not have as much influence as they did during the campaign. Apart from his abortion and immigration stance, there is little in Trump’s pronouncements that favor current Republican positions. He certainly is not a free trader and more Libertarian than Republican on international engagement. For the most part, our new President Elect’s specific policies are largely unknown because he is a neophyte on the national and international scene. If he leans too heavily on his appointees, he could become a mouthpiece for their positions. But he tends to be unscripted. He claims to have “great judgment.” Well, he can prove the quality of his judgment by listening to all sides of an issue from different perspectives. I think it will be imperative for leaders of both Parties to impress upon him the need for bipartisan consultation. And it will be even more imperative for the groups left out of the Trump coalition to speak up and make their voices heard.

Rural Americans have spoken. What will President Trump do to address their concerns? Other minorities’ voices from Asian, Latino, African American, Muslim, and Native American have also spoken. Although not part of his constituency, will President Trump attempt to listen to them as well? The Alt-right has claimed Trump’s victory as its own. Will President Trump give an ear to them or to the concerns of moderate Republicans? The international community has symbolically shown its reaction to Trump’s victory in crashing markets around the world. Will President Trump assure the world that America will continue to act responsibly on the world stage and continue its constructive leadership? At least, he has begun to address this last question. For the rest, we can only hope and see.

In the last paragraph of “The Case for Optimism,” I stated “. . . there really is no other alternative.” Optimism, I believe, is a quintessential American attribute.

The 2016 Election in/out of Context?

Between 2005 and 2006 I researched and wrote a work of historical fiction entitled “A Culpable Innocence.” There would seem to be no reason for me to recall that book’s storyline during the waning days of our current Presidential election campaign. But I find a parallel between Regis Fallen, the book’s protagonist, and the current state of a significant portion of our electorate. That parallel is a comparable disengagement from the underlying currents of the time and from any sense of personal responsibility to understand and participate in those currents. In Regis’ situation, I depicted his initial perspective on his life’s trajectory as completely out of sync with its actual context. Although his story takes place during the Vietnam War and the racial unrest of the sixties, he is oblivious to the significance of that war on his life and unable to decipher his conflicted feelings for a woman of color. His predominate focus was on his career and the promise of his personal entitlement—that is, the “American Dream” or the opportunity any white male of that era might have for self-fulfillment and personal enrichment. But the draft shattered that dream and forced him to face the reality of war and of a love constrained by a prejudice sown into the fabric of his consciousness. His life became meaningful only when it opened to the reality that surrounded him.

Sometimes our personal perspectives can become out of context with reality. In many ways, this elongated election campaign seems to have driven many Americans deeper into their preconceptions, fears, anxieties, and compulsive defensiveness. While one campaign focused upon the white population—and more specifically on white males—the other drew support from every corner of the population. The reality, of course, is that America is a pluralist nation, more so than any single nation in history (excluding empires composed of many nations). The convergence of this myopic focus and the misconception of our polity’s composition inevitably agitated a suppressed tension within the electorate. Mr. Trump, for example, seemed compelled to denigrate the non-white segments of the population to arouse his base. At the same time, he had to disqualify his opponent as a spokesperson for those other segments—which he incongruously termed “the elites.” The only way to justify this narrow-minded perspective is to exasperate the fears and anxieties of white voters and to convince the rest that they too are victims of an unjust system. Perhaps they might become so disenchanted that they simply would not vote. Then the faction to whom Trump could relate would vote him into office. This is a compelling strategy we have seen successful in recent European history. But we are no longer European expatriates. We are Americans. As such, we are composed of practically every race and national origin on the planet. What makes us a nation is not the color of our skin or the heritage of our immigrant forefathers, but our commitment to the rule of law and the governing structure and values outlined in our Constitution. Mr. Trump does not understand this American context. It is a different kind of reality: specifically, it is a motivating ideal. Our history has shown how often we have fallen short of that ideal. The Civil War, women’s suffrage, civil rights law, voting rights law, and the successful—though problematic—assimilation of various immigrant populations all give evidence of our difficulty with forming a “more perfect union.” Nevertheless, America continues to strive towards its ideal. And that striving IS our context.

Mr. Trump cannot and could not change this American context. But he has torn the scab off a wound that has fettered over the last several decades. Paul Waldman has written about this in his Plum Line blog. He outlines how recent proclamations of “total war” from Republican Party operatives threaten our democratic republic. Although I do not believe these proclamations express the opinion of most Republicans, they do represent an outgrowth of what has been brewing beneath the surface of Republican politics for a very long time. Perhaps it began with the Republican insurrection against President Bush in the early 90’s. Certainly, it broke the surface of political propriety during the impeachment of President Clinton. And during the last eight years under President Obama, it developed into a full blown exhibition of anti-democratic nihilism. How else would you describe the actions of a Republican controlled Congress that would shut down government, that would threaten to destroy the financial stability of our nation, and that would undermine the working viability of our Supreme Court in order to appease a constituency who hold a minority viewpoint within the body politic? These are the desperate measures of a failing Party trying to hold onto power at all costs. The irony is that many Republicans have expressed their dissatisfaction with Republican leadership during the Republican Primaries. Unfortunately, the outsider who won those Primaries is an opportunist who took advantage of this dissatisfaction without offering any real resolution to the Republican dilemma. But his undermining the Party is not the answer. Redirecting it is. After the 2012 Presidential election, Republicans analyzed why they lost and recognized their need to represent a broader constituency. This analysis promoted the “big tent” objective. But they never acted on their own analysis. Instead, they seemed trapped in a reactive impulse to our first black President. Here was a man who was educated, articulate, and politically savvy who could also sing and crack a joke. His wife was equally endowed and beautiful, though not in the typical Caucasian manner. And could she ever dance! Together they challenged white Republicans to break out of their preconceptions and accept this power couple as representative of American diversity. They unfortunately failed that challenge and deserted their “big tent” direction. And they made President Truman’s “do nothing Congress” a paramour for legislative achievement by comparison, failing not only America but fellow Republicans as well. As I have written in previous blogs, the Party opened the door for Trump to highjack it and profit on the discontent of its members.

As I write this blog, I do not know the results of this Presidential election. But what I do know is that Americans are fed up with the uncompromising gridlock in Washington. We are demanding that the Parties work together in our interests. Although it is conventional to ascribe the problem to both Parties, let’s be honest: only one Party has failed to consider the general welfare of all Americans. Of course, there are different approaches to the problems that beset us. But the Republican leadership, sometimes supported by the media, has spouted a false equivalency in finding blame. The fact, as represented in its own analysis, is that the current rendition of Republicanism does not represent the plurality of the American electorate. They have resorted to clinging to power through gerrymandering, voter suppression, meaningless symbolic repeal votes, and law suits designed to logjam court dockets in the hope of delaying or killing executive actions. The Republican Party can do two simple things to turn around these useless and anti-government tactics: develop constructive legislation that address the needs of a majority of Americans; and negotiate with Democrats in order to find the common ground upon which both Parties can compromise. Republicanism cannot continue to ignore the general welfare of our pluralist citizenship. And it cannot continue to define its avowed “conservatism” as an ideology that ignores Constitutional precepts and the family values of ALL its citizens. When a Republican office holder wraps him/her self in the mantel of Reagan, I cannot envision the Ronald Reagan they invoke. Not only is the current Republican Party not representative of Lincoln. It is not Reagan’s Party either.

In closing, regardless of the outcome of this election, we must all encourage the Republican Party to reform itself and to begin addressing the needs of all our citizens. The vitriol we witnessed in this election is symptomatic of a potentially fatal disease for any democracy: disassociation between the electorate and its elected representatives. In order to cure America of this creeping malady, we must restore our common vision of America, break out of the chains of obstructive perspectives and ideologies, and rejoin the 240 year old evolution of our democratic republic. Remember we Americans will forever be striving to “form a more perfect union.”

The Fallen Leaves

A stem that barely shows in the spring
By summer becomes a fully formed leaf
That dances to the gusts of early fall
Until breaking free it escapes with the wind.

Then it cavorts like a brazen butterfly
Until tumbling onto the cold dry ground
Where it breaks apart to nourish the trees
That will grow new leaves for the coming of spring.

The old man totters on his cane
While pondering his life and tightening his scarf
He steps unsure, as he crushes underfoot
The last spring’s plenty into next spring’s hope.

Reminding himself that “winter’s approaching
And I’ll need to stay warm to see the spring,”
He has only his cane and scarf to bring
His final flight to a graceful ending.

The footprints he makes in fallen leaves
Will not remain but be swept away
Along with his past and spoken words
Except for what he wrote in truth.

There are roots that feed on truth – he knew –
His life had shown what might come forth
For whatever lies underfoot will sprout and renew
For all awaken to light and warmth.

10/17/2016, AJD