Secretary of Defense James Mattis (I don’t say “General” because he has retired from active duty and is a civilian employee of the U.S. government) has done a better job of maintaining his dignity than most other Cabinet officers this past year. Mattis has said more than once that his job is to “protect the Constitution and our way of life.” Well, he is likely to get a chance to prove himself soon, if reports that the president is about to get rid of Attorney General Sessions are true. Trump is apparently starting to realize that he actually can ignore the so-called adults in the room and do all kinds of not-normal and very likely illegal and unconstitutional things that he has been itching to do. The Constitution, as Trump may be realizing, is a dead letter if it isn’t enforced by Congress or the courts. And if pushback from free assembly and free speech aren’t enough to convince those other branches to restrain the president, the Constitution won’t save us.
If the president removes Sessions, installs (for example) Scott Pruitt, and Pruitt removes Mueller, then we are on the edge of constitutional crisis (I say “edge” advisedly because I don’t believe a president can succeed in trashing our freedoms unless we acquiesce). Congress could intervene by passing, with veto-proof majorities, a new independent counsel statute; alternatively, Congressional committees could actually get serious about enforcing subpoenas against Trump and his minions; or, of course, the House could impeach. What does Mattis have to do with any of this? If Trump does move to shut down Mueller’s investigation, Mattis’s only honorable move, in my opinion, will be to resign and furthermore tell us why he will not be a party to subversion of our Constitution and our traditions of freedom. If Mattis can’t move the needle of public opinion among Trump supporters and on-the-fence Americans, we are in trouble. But he will have done what he can to preserve what he says he cares about most.
Today in Cincinnati the president accused Democrats who wouldn’t clap for his applause lines at the State of the Union address “treasonous.” He throws out a lot of un-American garbage, day in and day out. This was one of the more ignorant and trifling accusations he’s made. Did it have anything to do with the Dow Jones down over 1000 points? Did it have anything to do with the Nunes memo being exposed as a dud (at least if you think about it for more than 5 seconds, which the president hopes you won’t do)? Did he toss out “treasonous” because he is feeling the walls of the Mueller investigation closing in? It’s not good at all to have such an infantile person heading up the executive branch of our government. He has no feeling at all for the freedoms that make our country as great as it is.
There’s no getting around the pickle we’re in, though many people protect themselves by tuning out most of the time and saying things like “politics has gotten all topsy turvy.” True enough–but why? One lazy, comfortable approach is to take the many cues from mainstream media that both sides are at fault. I agree that both political parties are full of pompous and irritating people, but just a few moments reflection will tell you we are way beyond honest disagreements over the size and shape of government. We have rolled the dice, bless our hearts, and elected a 71-year-old who acts like a 4-year-old, and not just any 4-year-old but an evil and malicious one. Just because the only verifiable Christian doctrine is (as Reinhold Niebuhr said) original sin does not mean that “both sides” are equally to blame in American politics today. We have chosen, heaven help us, a guy who demands that everyone clap for him and love him and bow down before him. Democrats have some very real shortcomings, but if they are the only available vehicle in 2018 to check and control an out-of-control president, so be it. Grown-ups, whatever their party affiliation, are obliged to face our dangerous political situation, hold their noses if necessary, and try to make it better as soon as possible, to keep our freedoms safe from the threat of our rogue president.
If there was ever a year when people all over need to move from “distentio animi” (the soul stretched out of shape and distracted) to “intentio animi” (roughly, concentration) and from discordance to concordance, it’s now, 2018. Of course Americans are not united, but I expect even those who figured what the heck let’s roll the dice in 2016, not necessarily from evil intent but in many cases out of real frustration, many if not most such people are worried and troubled by what they saw in 2017. Every president has the capacity to initiate events, for better or worse. But there is now an election in view, and it is now possible for those Americans who want to check and balance this president to focus on doing so. Yes he can try to get us to pay attention to shiny objects and yes we may get fooled into diving down one or two rabbit holes, but there is hope for “intention” this year, intention for the sake of protecting our constitutional rights and our way of life (imperfect though it is). We need to insist on sane and responsible representation this November. We voted (via the electoral college, bless its quasi-democratic heart) to take a risky path a year and a half ago, but we have a chance to repair, I hope, much of the damage this fall. Any politician, in spite of possibly honorable past service, who is subservient to our current president is not serving freedom and democracy well at this point. If that sounds oblivious to the many flaws of the Democratic Party or “the left,” so be it. Differences over the proper size and shape of the federal government are one thing. Protecting freedom and the Constitution is a higher imperative at this moment.
P.S. For a seemingly abstract (though in Augustine, book 11, strikingly concrete) take on “distention” and intention, see the following sources (Augustine’s Confessions as translated recently by Sarah Ruden; Peter Brown’s review of Ruden’s version; and Paul Ricoeur’s interpretation of Augustine):
Donald “L’Etat C’est Moi” Trump has now let us know just how frustrated he is by the separation of powers. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by unfaithfulness to any promise he has ever made, so why would the oath of office be any different? He would really like to be executioner as well as executive. That’s his idea of strong leadership. He has no feel at all for the checks and balances that have helped keep the United States of America a functioning republic. He has a sickeningly sensitive feeling for the best ways to rub salt in social and cultural and economic wounds, but no visible desire at all to promote social unity or healing.
Donald Trump is reported to have required non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements from his employees. At his inauguration as president, he uttered an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He promised to become a public servant, that is. Now he tells us, openly, that he chafes at the restrictions. Non-disparagement clauses are apparently only for the little people, not for Trump. Since he has admitted that he really, really, wants to seize illegitimate and unconstitutional powers, we are face-to-face with the reality that protecting and defending the separation of powers is everybody’s business in this era of Trump. Most of us used to be reasonably confident that on a given day, we didn’t need to worry about our country sliding into banana republic status. But here we are.
Republican cowardice and petty feuding by Democrats are part of the landscape, sadly. Arguments over the size and shape and priorities of government will and must continue. But defending our Constitution against Trump’s assaults has to be the nonnegotiable top priority for all citizens, the priority from which all distractions are a clear and present danger. If Trump manages to fire Mueller, some say there would be a constitutional crisis. I would say it’s only a crisis if Congress and the courts fail to check Trump by reinstating Mueller in a truly independent position. We can still rely on the Constitution to defend against Trump, but the Constitution is no longer, if it ever was, a machine that runs by itself–it’s going to take people acting firmly, fairly, and consistently to restrain evildoers like him. There’s no need for and no use in panic, instead we need firm, fair, and consistently principled pushback.
Trump’s apparent use of “madman theory” logic to get his way (whatever that is on any given day) on healthcare probably won’t intimidate Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer. Will Trump-as-madman succeed any better on the Korean peninsula? Are we the people ready for an American president who can actually out-crazy Kim Jong-un? We elected him. We knew that no-drama-Obama was getting old. We wanted a little excitement. How much excitement? That’s what China is wondering! Their foreign minister just put our president on the same level as Kim by urging “all parties” to stop “provoking” each other. Should we blush with embarrassment? Trump, who says he comprehends very well, listened to Xi Jinping explain thousands of years of Korean history in ten minutes (or less, believe me) and now grasps very very well how to put America first by using the craziest words and threatening to use the biggest bombs. And why worry that Kim might be even more unpredictable than our president? North Korea has an excellent system of checks and balances, many people say. Their National Security Council is far more fully staffed than ours, so I hear. Their family dynasty, as Mr. Xi no doubt explained to his U.S. counterpart, is much more experienced than ours. So they will surely do the right thing. Oh right, we still have to worry about Trump–oops.
In or near Silicon Valley today, just a short copter ride away from Harry Callahan’s SF, President Obama said he was tired of all the fear-mongering over Obamacare. Then he let all of us know that he did not “want the whole day to be a bleeding press conference.” And then he took a question or two about secret surveillance and told us that if we did not realize that “the folks you all vote for as your representatives in Congress” were on top of this, and that if they weren’t there were federal judges with life tenure looking over their shoulder, and that “if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.” Kind of makes me feel (to switch movie references) like I can’t handle the truth!
President Obama says “I welcome this debate.” (Ezra Klein asked if Obama might actually be the leaker. Very funny? But the creepily named Palantir operation is right down the road from where he was speaking–coincidence?) Furthermore Mr. Obama is within his rights, as it were, to point to “tradeoffs” between safety and privacy, whether or not he thought he could transcend such tradeoffs when he was a younger man or younger President. But when he complains about information being leaked “willy nilly” he reminds us precisely why there is a trust problem. We are mature, serious, conscientious blah blah. . . Those leakers are infantile, unstable, DSM-5 material. Is that so? Problems indeed.