July 30, 2020

The Real Trump Platform

Republicans have decided to forego creating a new party platform for 2020 and to simply reuse their 2016 version. This is administratively simple, of course, but the United States of 2020 is very different from that of 2016, and Donald Trump’s agenda, now that Trump has seen what he can get away with, is rather more expansive. The president will not be too explicit about his real goals for the country, but we can glean some objectives from his actions and his tweets. Others, we can guess. Some of these ideas, he may be willing to talk about; others not so much.

Here is an attempt to discern the planks of Mr. Trump’s real platform for 2020:
  1. Complete and strengthen the wall on our southern border and begin building a wall on our northern border.
  2. Deport all people in the country found to be undocumented.
  3. Eliminate all immigration into the U.S., both permanent and temporary.
  4. Stop admitting asylum seekers.
  5. Withdraw from the United Nations, NATO, and other multilateral compacts.
  6. Add Russia to the G7.
  7. Add a representative of Russia to the National Security Council.
  8. Accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
  9. Remove U.S. troops from Europe, Korea, Syria, and Afghanistan.
  10. Increase spending on defense.
  11. Increase arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
  12. Eliminate the inheritance tax.
  13. Decrease the corporate income tax.
  14. Provide additional tax breaks for real estate developers.
  15. Outlaw all abortions.
  16. Keep niggers out of white suburbs.
  17. Eliminate scientists and science advice from government.
  18. Eliminate spending on science and medicine.
  19. Eliminate public schools and universities in favor of for-profit education.
  20. Protect statues of Confederate generals and other monuments to the Confederacy.
  21. Put the portrait of Robert E. Lee on the $20 bill.
  22. Outlaw books criticizing the president.
  23. Strengthen laws against slander and libel.
  24. Institute new taxes on newspapers and radio and television stations.
  25. Outlaw mail-in voting.
  26. Require a government ID for voting throughout the country.
  27. Privatize postal and weather services, Social Security, and the IRS.
  28. Begin charging admission for D.C. museums and monuments.
  29. Make the Justice Department and Federal Reserve answerable only to the president.
  30. Provide a domestic police force for the sole use of the president.
Perhaps you think the above list an exaggeration. A little, maybe, but it is certainly commensurate with Donald Trump’s inclinations. Only this morning has the president tweeted that we should postpone November’s election because mail-in voting is “INNACURATE & FRADULENT.” (He approves of "Absentee Voting,” which he himself uses, but he condemns “Universal Mail-In Voting.”) The Constitution be damned.

If you want a president with a real platform like the one above, by all means vote for Donald Trump in November, preferably in person and without wearing a mask. If you want to preserve our Republic, vote for Joe Biden by whatever means are at your disposal.

July 22, 2020

Votes for All—Universal Adult Suffrage

Voting access is the key to equality in our democracy. The size of your wallet, the number on your Zip code shouldn’t matter. The action of government effects every American so every citizen should have an equal voice. … We all count! It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American. We are one people. We are one family. We all live in the same house—the American house.

   — John Lewis, 2019

Vote button
I recently watched the four-hour American Experience documentary “The Vote,” which traces the long road to women’s suffrage. “The Vote” is available on the PBS Web site, and I recommend it highly.

The documentary pointed out a characteristic of our laws that I had never thought about. As the franchise was expanded over the years, the Constitution was amended to say not who could vote but who could not be prevented from voting.

Voting by ordinary citizens was not dealt with in the Constitution until the post-Civil War amendments were enacted. In Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, citizenship is defined:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.
This provision was required by the infamous Dred Scott Decision, which denied that Blacks could be U.S. citizens. Section 2 annuls the notorious provision of Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, which treated slaves—referred to as “other Persons”—as three-fifths of a person:
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.
(Notice that “persons,” not “citizens” are to be counted, despite President Trump’s recent instructions that the census should not count undocumented persons.) Section 2 also provides that a state’s representation can be reduced if the right to vote
is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime
This provision has been used to disenfranchise felons in some states. It has never been used to reduce a state’s representation. The provision was largely made moot by the 15th Amendment, Section 1 of which reads
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Taken together, the 14th and 15th Amendments require that, with minor exceptions, all men aged twenty-one or older may not be prevented from voting based on race, color, or having been a slave. (Apparently, some Southern states tried to prohibit people from voting whose parents or grandparents were slaves.) Nothing is said about prohibiting voting because of religion or sex. Arguably, the First Amendment made using religion to disenfranchise citizens questionable. Some women argued that these amendments should have given them the right to vote. They argued for their suffrage to be provided for explicitly. They did not carry the day.

Not until the ratification of the 19th Amendment, did women get the right to vote:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
It is unclear whether “sex” includes sexual minorities such as homosexuals. It is reasonable to conclude that it does, as the Supreme Court has just ruled that “sex” in legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment does indeed cover such people.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to enforce the protections of the 14th and 15th Amendments and explicitly outlawed certain mechanisms for denying the right to vote such as the use of literacy tests. Additional legislation over the years has sought to strengthen voting rights. In 2013, however, a major provision of the 1965 law was struck down by the Supreme Court. That provision required states with a history of discrimination to obtain federal clearance for any changes to their voting laws.  Shelby County v. Holder provided an excuse for Southern states to implement procedures intended to limit voting by racial minorities.

The 24th Amendment outlawed the franchise’s being dependent on paying a poll tax or other tax. The 26th Amendment, the most recent amendment touching upon voting, reduced the voting age to 18:
The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.
The Constitution does not explicitly prohibit using other criteria to prevent people from voting, such as removing them from the voting rolls for not having voted in recent elections. Additionally, many states prevent incarcerated persons from voting, possibly even after they have served their term in prison. In Florida, for instance, felons lost their right to vote and had to go through an elaborate procedure to restore their rights upon release from prison. Floridians voted to eliminate that procedure, but the legislature passed a law that, before voting rights could be restored, all fines and mandated restitution had to be paid. Does that law run afoul of the 24th Amendment? That question awaits an answer.

If the United States is to be a true democracy, should not everyone be allowed to vote? Even criminals sent to prison remain citizens. What harm can come by allowing them to vote? They might even have special insights into our penal system that might profitably be taken into account. Given that this country incarcerates so many people, taking away those people’s franchise significantly reduces the electorate.

I believe, apparently as did the recently departed Congressman John Lewis, that all citizens should be allowed to vote. Period. Therefore, I propose a constitutional amendment that would make that ideal a reality:
Amendment XXVIII
Section 1. All citizens of the United States who are eighteen years old or older shall have an irrevocable right to vote.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
This amendment, rather than describing who cannot be prevented from voting, simply declares that suffrage is universal among citizens. Moreover, events such as incarceration can have no effect on suffrage. One can lose the right to vote only be losing citizenship, by personal renunciation, for example. States could implement this amendment in various ways or Congress could specify a nationwide implementation. Ideally, voter lists can be done away with. When presenting themselves to vote, whether in person or remotely, people can simply self-certify that they are citizens. As now, severe penalties can be assessed on non-citizens caught trying to vote. (Although Republicans falsely claim that many non-citizens have been allowed to vote, there is no evidence for that belief.)

Would not such an amendment be a reform that enhances our democracy?

July 14, 2020

A New Name for the Redskins

So the Washington Redskins are finally to get a new name. Fine. What is it to be? I have been unimpressed by most of the names I have heard suggested. Redtails? That seems like a cynical attempt to embrace one minority after defaming a different minority for decades. Will the new uniform pants have scarlet seats?

An obvious naming strategy would be to take advantage of some aspect of the District of Columbia. After all, there once was a baseball team called the Washington Senators in town. This could be the new name for the NFL team. The team could adopt another name suggesting the governmental nature of Washington. We could cheer the Washington Lobbyists, the Washington Legislators, the Washington Lawmakers, the Washington Politicians (commonly called the Pols), or the Washington Solons. Less favorable references to our nation’s capital suggest names such as the Washington Swamp Rats or other names that, out of delicacy, I will not mention.

Redskins Helmet
Many of those names probably would not work well, particularly those having more than two syllables. Actually, I sort of like Swamp Rats, though I doubt that has much chance of being selected. It does have but two syllables, which is a plus. (Go Rats!)

How about the Washington Leaders? If the team is actually any good, that name would have a double meaning. Again, the name has but two syllables.

My best suggestion is simply to call the football team the Washington Reds. Fans of the old name will see a surreptitious reference to the former name; detractors of the old name will see a name with no negative implications or, perhaps, will imagine a team of revolutionaries (or maybe Bolsheviks). The communist reference is a stretch. The name can just suggest a color. After all, my alma mater, the University of Chicago, fields the Maroons. What, after all, is a Maroon?

Well, I await a final decision about the team name from the Redskins front office. Is anyone ready to wager on what name will be selected?

Community vs. Individual Concerns in the Time of Pandemic

What is needed to control the coronavirus until a vaccine is available, we are told, is extensive testing and effective contact tracing. We should all be wearing masks and be distancing from one another. This will allow us to identify outbreaks and quickly contain them. There is general agreement, except in the White House, that we have not yet achieved effective control of the virus by these means.

Coronavirus
Coronavirus
We must recognize, however, that even if we have readily available testing and contact tracing, and people are wearing masks and avoiding getting close to one another, individuals are not immune to catching the virus. Some people will be infected, and they may get sick and possibly die. The benefit to the community is that fewer people will become sick, and a good deal of economic activity can resume with reduced risk. The heavy burden currently being felt by hospitals, EMS personnel, and funeral homes will be substantially reduced, and the nation will be a happier place.

The one bright note for individuals is that the medical establishment is learning how better to treat COVID-19 patients. There is still no cure, but treatment is improving, and one’s chance of surviving a COVID-19 hospitalization has improved. Because, even with extensive testing and contract tracking, individuals are not immune to getting sick, however, it is wise to do everything you can to stay well—wear a mask, wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and avoid people—especially crowds of people—as much as possible. If you can, stay home and watch Netflix or read War and Peace.

Good luck surviving this pandemic.

July 11, 2020

Masks

Despite the now universal medical advice that, during this time of pandemic, people should wear masks in public to decrease the spread of the coronavirus, many people refuse to do so. Masking has unfortunately become a political issue. People eschew masks as effete or as a concession to a science in which they have no faith or in recognition of Donald Trump’s assertion that the pandemic is some kind of liberal plot. To my knowledge, no one has so far been killed in arguments over mask-wearing, but that may well happen before the pandemic subsides.

The militantly unmasked are doubtless inspired by the actions of the president. Donald Trump has consistently dismissed the viral threat despite the 135,000 deaths in the U.S. that have been caused by it. He has made a point of not wearing a mask, even in situations in which doing so has seemed particularly urgent. Today, for the first time, he unabashedly wore a mask publicly in a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. One suspects that the hospital staff was insistent on mask usage to protect its patients. The president has not suggested that he has changed his mind regarding masks, however, and today’s mask usage is probably a one-off event.

I believe that the zealous opposition to mask-wearing could largely be extinguished if the president would simply proclaim that he will wear a mask whenever he is interacting with others and that he urges everyone to follow his lead in order to decrease the spread of disease.

Why is Mr. Trump so reluctant to take this simple action? Why is he willing to contribute to already appalling death toll by failing to do the obvious?

July 8, 2020

Can Americans Follow Through?

The increasing number of COVID-19 cases, mostly in the South and West, was totally predictable. States went through a period of shutdown without developing testing and tracing capacity and without achieving the decreasing incidence explicitly recommended by White House guidelines (though ignored by the president himself). When states like Florida and Texas began “opening up” their states, people, especially young people, behaved like the contents of a shaken soda bottle that was suddenly uncapped. Masks were left at home; people gathered in large celebratory groups; and infections invariably followed. People were tired of restrictions, and politicians did not have the will (or the good sense) to assure that the re-opening of their states would be at least relatively safe from contagion. As a nation, America has not had the will to see the project of suppressing the coronavirus to a minimally damaging conclusion. Such a seeming failure of will is not unheard of but is not inevitable.

Americans have often seen existential challenges to the end. Despite repeated setbacks, the country pursued its fight for independence to a successful conclusion. The Union finally won the War to Preserve Slavery (i.e., the Civil War). There were protests about the war and about conscription, but the nation even held a presidential election in the middle of the war. World War II, despite its loss of life, its disruptions, and its privations was prosecuted successfully and led to the Pax Americana. Smaller conflicts that were not existential threats were too quickly concluded to inspire heavy opposition or caused too little disruption of everyday life for the citizens to demand their end (think the war in Afghanistan).

Unfortunately, Americans have not always responded courageously to significant moral challenges. The writing of the Declaration of Independence was nearly derailed over slavery, and American’s original sin persisted until the conclusion of the Civil War. Having finally put slavery behind us, the nation failed again, however, truncating Reconstruction and paving the way for the backlash that became Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement of the last half of the twentieth century rolled back many of the indignities long visited on Black people, but the gains were partial and, in many cases—think of the Voting Rights Act— did not last intact.

We now face two moral challenges, and it is unclear whether Americans have the will to overcome them. One is the current Black Lives Matter movement that seeks to reform policing, do away with monuments to the Confederacy, and achieve the promise of equal rights implicit in the Declaration of Independence and in Reconstruction. This revolution is centuries overdue. Will it be successful this time? That success is hardly assured. If Donald Trump is re-elected, the dream of equality will again be suppressed.

The second moral challenge we face simultaneously is overcoming the coronavirus. The opening up of states in the South and West is proving to be disastrous. Americans are impatient to return to their normal lives, and politicians, most notably the president, are exploiting that impatience. Will we be successful in minimizing the effects of the pandemic until a vaccine is available? Or will we sacrifice American lives out of collective impatience and the eagerness of the president to improve the economy to buoy his election chances?

It is unclear that America will meet either of these moral challenges. Eventually, of course, the coronavirus will be reduced to a manageable threat, as have been measles or polio. The cost in lives and treasure may be heavy, however.

It is less clear that justice for the race we once enslaved will, at last, be achieved.

July 6, 2020

Nominations for the National Garden of American Heroes

In a July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore, President Donald Trump announced plans for a “National Garden of American Heroes” to honor great Americans. The garden is to contain statues—they must be straightforward likenesses of those honored—of the likes of Billy Graham, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Dolley Madison, Ronald Reagan, and Antonin Scalia. A Washington Post story on Mr. Trump’s idea suggests that the proposed list is odd and seems designed to please his own supporters. Of course, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are included, but many other names are unlikely to be at the top of lists compiled by legitimate historians.

If this initiative is really intended to ingratiate Mr. Trump with his ardent supporters—and there is no doubt that this is the case—the list really needs to be more focused on that objective. To that end, and as a service to our president, I offer the off-the-top-of-my-head list of potential honorees below. My list is in no particular order. Perhaps readers can offer additional names:
  1. Jefferson Finis Davis
  2. George Armstrong Custer
  3. Fielding Lewis Wright
  4. Charles Augustus Lindberg
  5. Fred Christ Trump
  6. Roger Brooke Taney
  7. George Corley Wallace Jr.
  8. Phyllis Stewart Schlafly
  9. Jason Gould
  10. Robert Edward Lee
  11. Andrew Jackson
  12. Ayn Rand
  13. Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor
  14. Preston Smith Brooks
  15. Andrew Johnson
  16. Orval Eugene Faubus
  17. Ronald Wilson Reagan
  18. Isabella Maria Boyd
  19. William Jennings Bryan
  20. Joseph Raymond McCarthy
  21. Antonin Gregory Scalia
  22. Charles Edward Coughlin
  23. Jesse Alexander Helms Jr.
  24. James Strom Thurmond Sr.
  25. Rose O’Neal Greenhow
  26. John Caldwell Calhoun
  27. Ross Robert Barnett
I have to admit that I needed to look up some of these people to get their full names. I included no living persons, who surely would not grace the memorial garden—at least, not yet.

No person is totally good or totally bad, of course, so even liberals may find laudable qualities in some of the persons listed. (Perhaps not too many, however.)

The president intends for his garden to educate citizens. Who can argue with this objective? If readers do not recognize all the names above, they can research the accomplishments of these American heroes.

July 1, 2020

Thoughts on the Department of Justice

The United States of America is a nation of law. Or so we were taught in school. We have a venerable Constitution that defines the overall structure of the Republic and a Congress and president that are responsible for enacting laws. We have a judicial system, including a Supreme Court, that interprets the law and relies on the body of laws and judicial opinions developed over more than two centuries.

Justitia by  Maarten van Heemskerk, 1556
Justitia by
Maarten van Heemskerk, 1556
These institutions and resources, though vitally important, underspecify how the country actually works. For example, the Constitution is silent about political parties, yet our two-party system of private entities has become a seemingly essential component of our governing system.

Additionally, American government adheres to many unwritten rules. Votes are countered honestly, at least most of the time. Presidential candidates disclose their medical and financial records before standing for election. Presidential nominees requiring Senate confirmation get a hearing and a vote by the Senate. Presidents, who occasionally are known to shade the truth, are not expected to lie more often than not. The Department of Justice administers federal laws fairly and without favoritism.

Donald Trump and his Republican allies have defied conventions that may not be enshrined in law but which are essential to the workings of the Republic. He refuses to disclose his tax returns and offers laughable excuses for medical information. He fires competent office-holders and replaces them with temporary lackeys. He lies to the public, often seemingly for the sheer sport of it.

Most distressingly, the convention of a Department of Justice enforcing the rule of law and representing the interests of the United States before the courts has been conspicuously violated. Under President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr has led a Department of Justice intent on protecting the president, his friends, and his personal interests. Readers can easily enumerate the myriad ways in which Mr. Barr has acted as the president’s fixer, rather than an advocate for the rule of law and for the interests of the United States.

One hopes that, in November, President Trump will fail in his re-election bid, and, in January, President Biden will fire Mr. Barr and nominate a more conventional Attorney General. We should ask what we can do to avoid ever having another Attorney General like William Barr.

Assuring the independence of the Department of Justice is difficult. Although it seems as though William Barr is doing everything the president wants him to do, it is not really clear that he is taking his orders from the chief executive. Mr. Barr seems to hold the view that the president can do just about anything, and his interests override those of everyone else and of the country generally. He never should have been confirmed by the Senate.

The view of the presidency held by William Barr is, happily, a minority one. One hopes that the Senate will, in the future, assure that no one with such an anti-democratic view will be approved as Attorney General. (Actually, senators had every reason to expect Mr. Barr to act as he has, despite his less than candid answers before the Senate.)

What is needed (and the best we can do) is a mechanism to assure that justice is administered fairly and without influence by the president.

Ideally, I think, the Department of Justice should become a fourth branch of government, headed by an Attorney General appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The Attorney General should have a fixed term, perhaps of 10 years, and be removable for cause only through impeachment by the Congress. The advantages of this organization should be immediately apparent. Although this would be a logical arrangement, it is unlikely to be implemented, as doing so would require a constitutional amendment.

Perhaps a not-too-dissimilar organization would work nearly as well based on something like the Federal Reserve model. Presidents invariably try to influence the Federal Reserve, but usually without success. Of course, the Fed is protected from presidential influence in part because the president does not control who all the decision-makers are. Nonetheless, the Department of Justice could be restructured a largely autonomous body with a fixed-term leader insulated against arbitrary dismissal.

I  don’t have a fully worked-out plan for Justice, but I do think the above ideas should be given some consideration. The rule of law in the United States is under threat, and we need to do something about it.


Note: As it happens, today is the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Justice. Most people assume Justice it is much older. Its beginnings and thoughts about its possible future are offered in a Washington Post editorial that can be read here.