Trump : Symptom or Cause?

The major news in recent weeks has featured prominently the ongoing investigation into Russia’s manipulation of last year’s presidential election, the possible complicity of Trump’s campaign in said manipulation, and Trump’s repeated snafus, contradictions, and rather astonishingly public twitter meltdowns. With so much ground to cover, it can be a bit difficult to decide where to begin.

If ever there were an argument against the fitness of a particular holder of the office, we have a collection of problems whose astonishing proliferation parallels the severity:

and the list continues. We have a dangerously unstable man occupying the White House with the power to intimidate, imperil, and harass with minimal Congressional oversight. In fact, the Republican response to each new abuse of power, though glacially warming from their lackluster tepid beginnings, contrasts immensely with mass hysteria among Congressional Republicans during Clinton’s sex scandal or Obama’s healthcare proposals, nicely captured by the analysts at the morally bankrupt Fox news. Certainly it evokes the astonishingly forgiving attitude of arch-conservative faith leaders such as Pat Robertson toward Trump when damning Access Hollywood tapes surfaced, recording his sexual objectification of women as things to abuse at his pleasure.  Robertson, like his high-minded counterparts of the past complicit in the Nazi ascent, offers spiritual cover for Trump even amidst major scandals.

The mainstream media, though largely responsible for placing Trump in the center seat with high-volume, free news coverage throughout 2015 and 2016, somehow found its voice once Trump slithered into the White House with a slight advantage in the obsolete electoral college, no doubt because of his incessant attacks on the press. Nonetheless, what bothers me most about the current state-of-affairs is not the alleged collusion, which I’d easily wager truly did happen (think : Trump entreated Russia to steal Hillary’s emails, not to mention the snowballing investigation mentioned above), nor is it the insanity of Trump himself, a condition so blatantly obvious that mental health professionals around the world, including three university professors who implored Obama to institute a mental fitness test for incoming presidents, and country have drifted from the Goldwater rule, an APA convention designed to depoliticize psychology.

Trump’s shenanigans and abuses of power, together with the ineffective, simpering cronies in Congress, uncover some of the more fearsome deficiencies in the American government. A continuing dialog by CBS with a group of voters tracks the evolution of public viewpoints since the election, revealing a remarkable characteristic among Trump’s most ardent loyalists : they believe law enforcement and government agents should swear an oath not only to uphold the U.S. Constitution, but offer unconditional support to the U.S. President. Though this received very little press coverage, it struck me with great alarm, as I recall learning even as an elementary school student in social studies that the principles of freedom articulated in the Constitution greatly exceeded any one leader in authority; though the transition into adulthood taught me how unfairly protectionist elite sectors happen to be, quite striking for example in the application of austere, lofty market principles to the poor and vulnerable while greedily hiding behind the nanny state to guarantee a good, yet non-market outcome, hearing even lower middle class and perhaps poor people hope for some sort of totalitarian pledge to an office of increasingly diminished constraint frankly frightened. In fact, the cavalier attitude of Trump’s strongest supporters, both in Congress and the population, toward his many abuses of power, incompetence, violations of the emoluments clause, leveraging his position to enrich companies owned by him, his daughter, and his son-in-law, nauseating affection for vicious, murderous dictators such as Putin, Duterte, and Erdogan, and highly suspect entanglements with foreign agencies indicate either deeply entrenched partisanship or discouraging ignorance. An obvious example was in questions lobbed by Senators James Kennedy, John Cornyn, and Ted Cruz at Sally Yates about Trump’s ill-fated, first amendment-violating Muslim ban, in defiance of the purpose of her testimony, a discussion of Russian interference into the election, to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Kennedy mocked her by asking, “Who appointed you to the supreme court?”, blathering rather idiotically that no agent sworn to uphold the Constitution can argue with or overrule a despotic president ordering violations of that same document. It certainly gives one pause to consider that the racist underpinnings of Trump’s bans fly in the face of a multi-hundred billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the key source of “Wahabized” Sunnis fueling ISIS, according to regional expert Patrick Coburn. Obama had previously blocked such a sale because of the atrocious Saudi record of human rights violations, something a toady such as Kennedy might not know. Of course, though the ignorance of a petty sycophant in the Senate may be an acute example of the brokenness of the system, it hardly tells the whole story.

The House of Representatives harriedly passed a bastardization of healthcare reform in a desperately rushed, craven attempt to hand Trump some meager legislative victory before the Congress Budget Office could offer a sobering analysis delivered for the first variant of Trumpcare. I watched in utter astonishment as Representative Mark Sanford admitted not reading the entire bill; others confessed they simply wished to punt healthcare to the Senate. Honestly, I’ve often wondered how it was possible that public approval of the branches of the federal government negatively correlates to the democratic quality of the branch; that is, the House is the most hated, followed by the Senate, then the Supreme Court, then the White House. Yet listening to men whose only job is to propose, amend, read, understand, and approve/disapprove legislation affecting the entire country concede that their constitutional oaths to office, purported devotion to constituency, and their juicy six-figure salaries are meaningless in the face of a tantrum-throwing imbecile so set on any victory that slicing the throats of his own supporters with cuts to Medicaid, student loan subsidies, small business subsidies, and elimination of ACA protections seems perfectly reasonable. The worshiped, fabled checks-and-balances of our government, as usual, are only as powerful as the people enforcing them. So far, no success, despite the carefully laid out responsibilities of each branch listed in the Constitution, let alone the more serious constitutional pressure valve of impeachment.

Speaking recently to an educated family member whose devotion to Trump defies imagination, I attempted to outline the case for such an impeachment, suggesting that a narcissistic conman with near unconstrained war-making power and a profound ignorance of climate science can harm not just the vulnerable and the poor, largely unimportant to my relative, but also his own children’s chances of decent survival. His two retorts, utterly stunning, included a dismissal of corruption and abuses of power of both Trump and, appropriately parallel, Nixon as “not really a big deal,” and that all existential threats to humanity are resolvable through “population control.” That is, if there were fewer people on planet earth, nuclear weapons would magically no longer pose a threat. Though the effects on climate from exponential gains in population are noteworthy, it seems almost as ludicrous as simply asking the sun to turn down the heat, as it’s impossible to solve a population problem in the near term without anything short of genocide. I reminded him that the distribution of consumption and massive pollution of militaries and multinationals are more appropriate targets in mitigating ecological disaster. He even proffered population control as a means of ensuring enough employment for everyone, expressing loyalty to an outdated and outmoded economic paradigm derided by former Greenpeace CEO Paul Gilding as unsustainable. Even more astonishing is that my family member receives most of his salary through government safety net programs, seemingly oblivious to the self-inflicted wound supporting Trump’s heartless, destructive budget proposals happens to be, as mentioned above.

Much public discussion of impeachment has appeared in light of more recent revelations, including a courageous act by black Representative Al Green to call for and draw up articles; he has since received threats of murder and lynching, steeped in racial epithets.  Yet despite Trump’s turbulent relationship with media, it isn’t hard to pinpoint the two key weaknesses in the fourth estate’s watchdog role : Trump’s not-so-state-of-the-union address and his unilateral dropping of MOAB in Afghanistan and the bombing of a Syrian airfield. In each of these cases, the media tried, I think genuinely, to support him moments before the eruption of a new scandal. In the case of the former, they seemed excited he was behaving “presidential” by sounding less insane in his speech, demonstrating their societal function of continued subservience to power; in the case of the latter, violent military action tends unfortunately to generate a rally-around-the-flag effect, despite being an obviously impeachable offense. Intriguingly, Obama refused to act unilaterally in Syria because of threats by Congress to impeach him, yet the Republican leadership and mainstream media welcome with euphoria a completely ineffective airstrike which imperils relations with Russia and other players in the region. Also, MOAB, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever created, devastates anything within a mile of its target, a vicious and malevolent display of aggression against an almost totally destroyed country. Of course, I’d agree if Obama had acted as such, he should have been impeached. In fact, every president since the second world war should have faced impeachment for some military action or another (think the invasion of Iraq, the drone assassination campaign, and so on), raising perhaps one of the most disconcerting developments in the past eighty years.

In the post-war era, Congress and the Supreme Court have increasingly broadened war-making powers of the President under the guise of national defense, offering

"[t]he President shall be Commander in Chief of
the Army and Navy of the United States, and of
the Militia of the several States, when called
into the actual Service of the United States"

as crucial constitutional support. Yet something happened at the conclusion of the second world war unforeseen by the framers: with the beginning of the nuclear age and the Anthropocene epoch, mankind for the first time was uniquely positioned to extinguish itself. The President of the United States, the single most powerful person in the most powerful institution to ever exist, can precipitate terminal nuclear war with the tenuous argument that it is necessary to provide the common defense. Dangers have abounded in the past, including orders by Nixon’s chief of staff Alexander Haig that no last minute nuclear strikes should occur without approval from himself and Henry Kissinger as the Nixon presidency collapsed under Watergate. We’ve discussed near-misses such as the Cuban missile crisis and Operation : Able Archer before, but the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is certainly worth remembering.

Watching as scandal after scandal shreds public institutions further, it again reminds me to ask why we need these institutions in the first place. Obama prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all previous administrations combined, and Democrats and non-Trump Republicans cheered, such as denouncing Edward Snowden to be a traitor after he revealed a mass surveillance operation leveraged by the NSA against the American population. Now, whistle-blowers from within the so-called “deep state” reveal information almost daily that acquaint us with the desperately precarious position in which we find ourselves, and the media and many Democrats cheer. The fact remains that though one can argue “state secrecy” as justification for concealing any information in the name of security, it again illustrates a fundamental distrust of the population that government representatives and elite media generally share. Leaks have always been an essential feature of elite power systems desperate to self-sustain even at odds with institutional charters, as Carl Bernstein pointed out in a recent op-ed. Certainly the decades-old “state secret” argument dovetails nicely with John Yoo’s doctrine on near constraint-free torture even against children and with white supremacist Stephen Miller’s claim that Trump’s authority “cannot be questioned”

Trump therefore happens to be especially acute in the danger he represents, but the problem persists as systemic; after all, if he’s guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, aren’t all or most of his cabinet, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Devin Nunes, and the like? They too either refuse or offer tepid support to investigate what should be substantive news; admittedly, the U.S. has interfered through violence, subversion, subterfuge, and a host of other mechanisms in elections across the globe throughout are history. It certainly isn’t as fun when someone else does it to us.  Analysts argue back and forth as to whether his obstructions carry the requisite criminal intent, an almost laughable debate considering that quashing an investigation into your own possible criminality is by definition criminal intent.  It’s worth noting that even highly respectable analysts such as Glenn Greenwald suggest the possibility of no smoking gun in the case since Trump would be rather stupid to draw attention to himself in firing Comey; of course, he tacitly ascribes a rationality to Trump obviously missing when one applies even layperson psychology.  So we have a crazy, destructive narcissist running the White House, laying bare frailties of the crumbling public institutions before our very eyes.  How do we fix it?

An apparent strategy, and perhaps not beyond what is achievable in light of the many abuses of the White House, is to substantially curtail the power of the executive, increase the size of both the Supreme Court and Congress, and (with greater difficulty) adjust the Constitution to match the needs of a modern society. Watching as the media and Congress wait with breathless abandon for the president to set the agenda is laughable; why does the White House set the legislative agenda? How can corrupt gerrymanderers in North Carolina who think arguing that partisan advantage justifies racial discrimination garner a single vote from the Supreme Court, let alone those of Alito, Roberts, and Kennedy? How is it that the U.S. Senate can sit idly by while Trump, a serial liar, continues to violate the Constitution and obstruct investigations into his own corruption? If we survive the time Trump is in office (and I’m increasingly convinced that time will be very brief), we should try to solve the serious inadequacies of our system, and that right soon.

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