President Trump, Part 1: The Democrats’ Failure

No observer of President Trump’s habits and character could be surprised to find him the chief architect of his own political undoing in 2020. More perplexing to most observers would the question how he came to be in a position where he was virtually the only person who could have gotten in his own way. Admittedly it is not necessarily accepted that he was in such a position: but I believe such a case can be made, at least about Trump’s position after surviving the first impeachment against him.

The role of the Republican party in strengthening Trump’s position is obvious and not particularly interesting, as it mostly consisted of doing nothing and letting Trump “lead”. In fact the failure of a Republican-controlled Congress for two years – with the Senate majority maintained longer – to do anything of consequence at all is in my opinion a greater practical failure than virtual anything President Trump did or did not do.

By it is also the case that the Democratic party played a role in strengthening Trump’s hand. The strategic errors made in the 2016 election have been much discussed: primarily the appearance that was created of gaming the party process to ensure Clinton won the nomination, and then the Clinton campaign’s decision to, if not outright ignore, at least not take seriously certain surprise battleground states. Trump’s base of support as a candidate was surprising, but intelligent practice of politics must account for the situation that obtains.

The role of the Democratic platform is difficult to criticize directly, as the casual observer can hardly sort intentional party strategy from media coverage largely favorable to its main tenets. The image of the party, due to those twin influences, however, is calculated to create resentment, because it appears to emphasize social disruption and casting blame – legitimate media roles where social faults exist – over actually addressing problems, which a political party must at least pretend to do.

When that agenda majors on abortion, encouragement of sexual perversion, and vocal if admittedly not much practiced calls for stifling regulation of business – all while letting the major corporations that provide platforms for online discourse roam unsupervised – the more traditional America is horrified. A vague worship of northern Europe’s successful form of democratic socialism that would have no legal ground in the United States’ Constitution without significant amendments – on top of a century of vaguely socialistic programs enacted in defiance of said document and combined with a wilful ignorance of, or failure to repudiate, socialism’s and communism’s disaster stories and fanatical excesses – is hardly better. American history, in contrast, appears to be mentioned by Democrats only in the negative – the occasional appeals to vilify Republican actions as unworthy of the Constitution they generally so blithely ignore is calculated to create no reaction but bitter laughter.

The Democratic-friendly media attempt to make a slogan out of “resist”, unaware that overall media political leanings make the Democrats appear nearly ascendant even when they are out of power, was mostly just funny – especially when their choice not to deal really was a choice. President Trump’s agenda was not entirely in line with recent Republican posturing; support, compromise, would have been rewarded had a few Democrats crossed the line. I don’t say President Trump did any better in making his attempts to deal attractive to Democrats than the Democrats have done making their party attractive to Trump’s supporters. But if the mafia don’s deal is refused, nothing is left but, to save face, humiliating the opposition: and it was quickly apparent Democrats would major on opposition to President Trump far more than they would contest any issue on its merits: a sort of negative of the Republican party’s failure.

All of this could be excused. All of this could even, ignoring my own views, be considered a moral stand of sorts. What is most difficult to explain is the ineptness of the Democratic opposition. To highlight that ineptness, consider the impeachments against Trump.

Yes, impeachments, because President Trump was eventually impeached, twice. He was not convicted the first time, and I have significant doubts whether enough senators will prove comfortable with the idea of convicting a person no longer in office for it to happen on the second try. But what were the charges? Well, first of all, here are some of the things Trump was not impeached for:

  • President Trump was not impeached for attempting to create a “Space Force” on his own initiative – which reportedly got the Pentagon to start drafting plans for such a thing. The organization of the military is the responsibility of Congress: this could easily be construed as a usurpation. Perhaps most people were thought unlikely to care, and articles of impeachment would have been thought too transparently motivated; but then, the eventual impeachment hardly scores better on those criteria. It is not entirely clear to me whether Congress eventually giving the thing some sort of formal backing makes the situation better or worse.
  • President Trump was not impeached for abusing a national emergency order to access military funds which were reappropriated to build his pet border wall. There is little doubt that the handling of immigration at the southern border could be considered an emergency, even if President Biden has decided to retract the order rather than take advantage of it to promulgate his own solutions, and even if a swath of judges seemed at times more interested in rulings that would create problems and frustrate Trump than they did in meeting demands of either law or justice, not that President Trump seemed to care that much about the conditions suffered by those enduring his emergency either. The emergency may have been legitimate: the transparent abuse of process, hardly. But then, securing conviction seems impossible: Trump’s defense would certainly – if he could have kept his temper – have been that he was pursuing the means he thought best to address the situation, and a precedent of impeachment for bad judgment seems like it would find little favor.
  • President Trump was not impeached for pardoning convicted and alleged war criminals. This received about two days’ worth of media attention, is indefensible, and is certainly an abuse of authority. But perhaps it broke no laws – beyond making a joke of the military’s own due process, which could hardly endear him to anyone who takes our military virtue seriously – and the case would be too hard to argue.

It’s entirely possible there are other instances I missed, but any of these seems at least of worthy of condemination than what actually happened. The articles of impeachment that were eventually brought against Trump a little over a year ago had, nominally, to do with attempting to pressure a foreign power to investigate a connection of a political opponent; which is disreputable, but – and here is what the Democrats missed – “everybody knows” politics is a load of dirty money and dirty laundry. If there was a misdeed less likely to turn opinion against Trump, I can’t think of it – especially when circumstantial evidence suggests Hunter Biden’s connections wouldn’t stand scrutiny themselves, the Democrat-led process was hardly squeaky-clean, and Trump’s threat to withhold aid was never followed through on.

Now, had President Trump made enough enemies in the Senate that conviction could be secured, the case would have been a good one for the Democrats to pursue: the conviction would publicly throw the “swamp” back in Trump’s face, implicitly secure Biden’s reputation from public derrogation, and, of course, remove President Trump from office. But the combination of Republican stonewalling and Democratic attacks – sometimes verging on slander – had made that impracticable. It’s not that Trump seems likely to actually have been innocent, mind: merely that the case was neither chosen nor handled in such a manner as to create certainty of guilt and stain senators irrevocably should they demur from conviction.

The second impeachment is in some ways more appalling still. President Trump certainly ought to have been impeached after the election, when he was discovered, on a recorded phone call, soliciting for a fraudulent election count. He was even recorded giving a specific number of votes to be found! After all the hyperbolic warnings about possible fraud by others, the public relations gain the Democrats could have made by parading this hypocrisy around dwarfs anything they might have gotten from success last year and a one-year Pence presidency. What, after all, could the Senate say in defence? And what could the Republicans in the Senate do the stonewall on a charge that obvious? And, reputation after standing behind Trump for four years and then having to convict being what it would be, how likely is it the GOP would stand up to really resist any but the most far-fetched Democratic proposals, for quite a while at least?

Instead, the second impeachment depended on taking the most negative view of a couple tweets. A precedent that implies politicians should refrain from encouraging protests of perceived injustice, or that implies politicians who do so will be held personally accountable for any rioting that ensues, is chilling – and would condemn a huge number of politicians over the unrest last year, if the principle were carried out consistently.

It is also telling that the reaction to President Trump’s alleged encouragement of insurrection was first to threaten, not impeachment, but instead abuse of a constitutional amendment meant to provide for conduct of the presidency’s business in case of illness. This impeachment was the results of Democrats being unable to bully others into doing Congress’s work for them. The impeachment process certainly takes longer, but it suggests an agenda more interested in trying to implicate Vice-President Pence in removing President Trump – and thus get Pence out of favor with Trump’s base – than one interested in seeing the law followed or justice done.

The Democrats agenda, while at least openly proclaimed, is not carryingly popular. This calls for a scrupulous honesty to win further support and deflect criticism, or successful villification of opponents: but they failed to put a dent in President Trump’s support by attacking him directly, because their motivations appeared to be those of resentment rather than principle; and their methods seem as venal as his.

In a country plagued by non-participation in elections, Democratic efforts did eventually create enough interest to remove Trump from office by election; but it can hardly be said that the number of those willing to support Trump was diminished in any way. Of the support that did fall away, much of it was surely motivated by Republican inaction, as sketched above – and by Trump’s own failures of character and control, which I will discuss in part two.

Immigration Principles and Consequences

It is widely accepted in the modern world that an independent nation has the authority to control who may enter its borders.  As long as this principle is accepted, persons entering a country will be subject to some kind of confirmation or examination; and as long as that is true, the potential exists for whatever system is put in place to conduct those examinations to become overloaded.  The result is delay, and in order to maintain the orderly entry, some kind of living arrangements for the people waiting to enter (or not) must be maintained.

This possible situation is being played out in reality in the United States along our southern border with Mexico.  The situation further is not quite captured by this neutral language, as there are both widespread failures and evils due to enforcement of policies not appropriate to the overloaded situation – possibly not appropriate at all – and scattered but mainly reliable reports of intentional abuses.

Quite recently the concern over the living conditions provided, together with these reports of abuses, has led some to term the detention centers “concentration camps”.  In a technical sense, the term is accurate, but it has been mainly used to invoke the horde of negative connotations the term has acquired in the popular mind by its association with Nazi Germany.  Those connotations are unfortunate because they imply an intentional evil where the situation we are dealing with is, primarily, accidental.  Certainly some of the abusers may feel enabled by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and feelings of President Trump, other politicians, or their own supervisors: but the institutional problems would exist in the most welcoming possible society, as long as it as accepted that entry to a country may justly be controlled.  Further, if the general principle that entry to a country should be monitored is correct, it is logically possible that in a given country as a given time, a limiting stance on immigration is reasonable.

Solutions to these immediate problems would take one of three forms:

The orthodox approach would be to increase the resources – monetary, personal, legal – devoted to monitoring and controlling immigration at the crisis points.  President Trump’s border wall would fit this category (except that it is not something that can be completed quickly) as would his administration’s deployment of National Guard troops to the border (although it is not clear that this helps directly with the processing of paperwork and so forth that is the real slowing factor).  A more direct solution would be to hire more Customs & Border Patrol personnel, on at least a temporary basis.  Other steps would include reviewing policies in place and either temporarily suspending normally sound policy which is inadequate to the situation, or replacing policy if it is found fundamentally lacking.

An alternative approach would be to re-evaluate the basic principle.  Especially in a world where modernist ideas of democracy ideas are generally accepted – which is to say, the people pre-exist their governments – it is not clear on what grounds a government should be able to stop a person’s travels.  The first cause that comes to mind would be self-defense: in other words, the apprehension of criminals, a check on medical conditions, or possibly the confiscation of weapons.  And these, almost certainly, will take some time: in the United States, even domestic background checks can take several days.  Another potential issue is identifying who exactly – after entry – is a citizen or “really” part of a nation, and who is either passing through or merely resident.  So although it is attractive to think we could see entirely free human movement, as long as there are regionally distinct authorities, this is unlikely as even the most minimal and common-sense limits and restrictions produce the same problem as the endorsement of national borders as a principle produces: a time in which travelers or immigrants must wait for authorized entry.

A final possibility – which has been actually advocated for at times by the Democratic party, and was for years the de facto policy for immigrants who had previously entered in an unauthorized fashion – is to maintain all the formal principles as valid, while simply not enforcing them when it is inconvenient or difficult to do so.  This is the easiest at any given moment, but is simply procrastination and thus is not really a solution.

I am in favor of the first procedure: specifically in this case an increase in personnel and other resources dedicated to managing this crisis.  Because I believe freedom of human movement is a worthwhile ideal, even if (as outlined above) it cannot be fully met in a fallen world, I would hope this would be combined with a re-evaluation and liberalization of the formal requirements for immigration, as well.

Speaking the Language

The tax bill currently being worked through Congress’s reconciliation process contained a couple new taxes on and the withdrawal of a couple exemptions or subsidies for various educational institutions, mostly colleges.  As far as I know, no Republican legislator or conservative media outlet defended these changes along the following lines:

“A number of recent studies suggest that college education may be overvalued in our society, and that many would be better off pursuing other fields of interest and career paths.  We’ve decided to take some steps to scale back artificial subsidies which make it too easy for people to fall into what’s really an unsuitable life for them.

“Additionally, it seems probable that ‘getting a degree’ really proves a reinforcement of class distinctions, and that the college-bound lifestyle is primarily a status indicator.  We think it’s reasonable to ask institutions of higher education, especially the richest ones primarily associated with this class and lifestyle, to give something back towards the rest of society.”

This statement I created purely as a hypothetical example.  I have no idea whether it would accurately apply to the effects of this particular tax bill.  However, the ideas referenced about the place of higher education in our society appear to be actual effects which have received fairly mainstream – if limited – attention.  Even if their effects in this case were completely fabricated, or required some creative accounting to make plausible, rhetorically this message would provide a serious problem for any answering liberal.  Either the factual claim has to be shown incorrect (and government math is notoriously fuzzy), or he has to riposte on unfamiliar territory (perhaps limited government, but polls seem to indicate that the GOP’s supporters – to be polite – think higher education is insufficiently responsive to the actual public good), or concede the point.

It is a tremendous problem in terms of public image that conservatives rarely talk openly in terms of fairness and propriety.  I suspect at times – especially with regard to the Republican party as such – that this reflects negatively on actual factional priorities.  We are very strong on rights and laws, and rightly so, but these are means to an end.  Conservatives are often afraid of “sounding liberal”: but the problems with liberal ideas of “social justice” are merely that their particular goals are not actually just and the society resulting if their ideas were implemented fully would be untenable and inhuman.  That “merely” is fully meant: in that they are openly concerned with the good of the civilization, liberals are correct, and being wrong is, in this world – human.  Neither society nor justice are things that can or should simply be abandoned – as they often are in conservative rhetoric – because somebody else has bad ideas about them.

Gun Control Without Annoying People?

A friend recently suggested on facebook that, with several weeks having passed since any heavily-publicized shooting, it might now be a good time to have that mythical “conversation about guns”.  I intend to define that conversation a little more clearly.  Advocates for gun control often appear to expect the discussion to consist of them making points, and their opponents acknowledging that wisdom: I see a real resentment of what seems to them senseless stubbornness on the part of defenders of gun rights.

At least part of the problem, I think, is that gun control arguments on the whole do not address the concerns of those concerned with gun rights.  In some cases, they actually make the case for gun control less appealing.  For instance, defenders of gun rights often regard that right as a peculiarly American institution, and reflexively assume American ideas are superior to others.  To compare foreign laws favorably, especially when combined with the apparent implication that American laws are inferior, is to prejudice that audience against your conclusion from the very beginning.

Now, I think there is a natural right to self-defense, and that there is in the United States a civil right to bear arms – including firearms.  In fact the language and context of the Second Amendment suggests “arms” should be considered to include any weapons commonly assigned to infantry: in this respect accepted laws on gun possession are if anything more strict than the Constitution allows.  But I am not convinced the natural law of self-defense requires citizens of any hypothetical country to have this right.

In other words, I admit the possible utility of gun control.  However, I am generally among those put off by the arguments generally put forward by gun control advocates.  If they want to make a case that actually appeals to the sensibilities of supporters of gun rights, they need to do at least three things.

First, they need to respect the law.  Advocates of gun control are often dismissive of the Constitution and the legal protections of due process, emphasizing momentary needs over institutional integrity.  Many, I believe, support gun rights primarily, like myself, because it is the law: dismissing the Second Amendment, or the concerns of its authors about tyranny, needlessly antagonizes a constituency which is not emotionally or habitually invested in gun possession and therefore is a potential gun control ally.

Second, they need to demonstrate the benefit.  Citing foreign experience is insufficient, for reasons I have outlined.  Most advocates of gun rights associate high levels of gun violence not with gun possession simply, but with the cities – which is to say, corruption and poverty.  Racially-motivated distrust also plays a part.  But when it comes to gun control in the American context, cities often have more stringent laws than other places: and so the American concludes gun control doesn’t work in America.  “Gun-free zone” is a common a morbid jab at their opponents among gun rights supporters.  Gun control might help prevent violence: especially deadly violence, but for it to find approval, American urban crime rates – both violence by private persons, and government corruption – have to be brought down, and the public has to know these rates have fallen, or many people will simply continue to assume gun control does not really work, and is simply a short-hand to achieve “people control”.

Finally, gun control advocates need a population that trusts the government.  In America, this is a somewhat paradoxical task: the entire structure is set up under the assumption that people are not particularly trustworthy, and ambitious ones even less so.  But at the moment, neither major party is doing anything to counter-act these suspicions.  The Republican Party, as an institution. is more or less openly on the side of business and consulting that will keep them fat and happy, but at least has the decency to talk about believing in free trade as a cover; the Democratic Party is not really any better, and does not even make that an excuse – and moreover, is generally always in favor of passing coercive regulations on any subject whatsoever.  Those supporting gun rights for any reason whatsoever almost always believe in the ideal and benefits of self-government, while they see advocates for gun control practically denying the possibility.

I am, as I said, not convinced that passage of gun control laws is either necessary or the most urgent cause at the moment.  But if a gun control advocate were serious about achieving tighter control without intentionally aggrieving gun rights defenders, I would suggest the working within the laws.  I think, in fact, a Constitutional amendment is likely required.  If I were working to allow gun control laws, I would suggest an amendment to the Constitution be made up in Congress, reading something like this: “The Fourteenth Amendment shall not apply to laws made by State or local authorities with regard to bearing or possession of arms.”  By proposing such a law as an amendment, gun control advocates could show they were serious about working within the legal framework.  By returning a specific power to the States, they would cripple a common argument among those defending gun rights, that the Federal government is looking to centralize all power.  And by allowing variety – the passage of laws as States and localities desire – we would be better able to demonstrate, in a purely American context, what kind of laws really are best for limiting violent crimes.