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America On Trial

Author: Gary Hart

The incumbent president now faces trial in the Senate of the United States.  Donald Trump will either be convicted or not.  Having been Impeached by the House of Representatives, it is too late to be exonerated.  A majority of Senators of his own party cannot erase the impeachment.

But historically much more is at stake.  Members of Congress, House and Senate, are all judged politically by many votes.  On rare occasions, such as this one, each is judged morally as well.

Now each Senator, including those who claim already to have made up their minds, will be judged by their final judgment on whether or not to convict under the two impeachment articles.

For complex reasons, more comparisons are being made between the Trump impeachment and the threatened Nixon impeachment than the impeachment of Bill Clinton.  And increasingly focus is being placed on how Republicans in the House and Senate responded to charges against Nixon as facts unfurled.

A number of Republican House members announced support for impeachment as evidence of the president’s involvement in “Watergate” was unveiled.  But even as an increasing number found themselves abandoned by Nixon’s behavior, many stayed by his side.

Before an impeachment vote could take place in the House, there was the famous scene where Mr. Republican himself, Senator Barry Goldwater, went to the White House to tell the president that he had lost his Party.  Marine One was soon waiting to take him away.

Though daily, stone by stone, evidence of culpability is added to a wall the president does not want.

No helicopter awaits this president so long as he continues to intimidate the Republican members of the Senate.

But, as John Kennedy once said, sometimes Party loyalty demands too much.

That is the issue facing Republicans in the Senate.

Each will be judged for the rest of their lives by this vote.

The evidence is beyond dispute that Donald Trump was responsible for the actions established in the impeachment indictment.  Further, it is beyond dispute that those actions violated the Constitution and the laws of the United States each took an oath to preserve and defend.

Sure, red State Republican Senators who vote against impeachment will be welcomed as heroes upon returning home.

But how will they be judged by history?

Given the enormous responsibility of a United States Senator bound by his or her oath, not to a president, but to the Constitution and the American people, how does someone violating that oath against facts and evidence hold his or her head up in public, or even more important, before one’s own children.

Judgment, both moral and historical, awaits Donald Trump.  But judgment also awaits those who have the profoundly important responsibility to judge him.

Who among us would want to spend our remaining years, however long they may be, living with the knowledge that we violated our oath of office, the Constitution, and most importantly, our own conscience?

For what?

For an office?  For approval by our political allies, as corrupt as we are?

Is there any office in America or in the world worth our immortal soul?

A vote to exonerate a man who has demonstrated no conscience is a vote to sacrifice one’s own conscience…and to never be able to get it back.

 

The Real Economy: Rosy or Grim

Author: Gary Hart

Like many who occupy the periphery of American politics, I too readily accepted the conventional wisdom that presidents serving during a strong economy virtually always are re-elected.  Thus, predict the conventional wise people, Donald Trump will be re-elected.

Wrong, says my son John who knows a lot more about a lot of things, including economics, than I do.  Instead of insisting I take his word for it, he provides hard evidence, the kind conventional political journalists seem to ignore.

Most recently there is the Brookings Institute study that demonstrates the following facts (in this era where facts are dismissed by those in power): despite an official unemployment rate of 3.5% cheered to the rafters by the “base” (composed of those as ignorant of economics as I am), 53 million workers—44 % of all workers—earn barely earn enough to live on.  They are employed but scraping by.  Their median income is $18,000 a year.

As Brookings points out, these are by no means young people just getting started. Two thirds of these low wage workers are in their prime working years between 25 and 54.  Most are primary wage earners working full time.  “Millions of hardworking American adults struggle to eke out a living and support their families on very low wages.”

Under the rosy employment number, this is the reality.  The current administration, taking over from the Obama recovery, has not improved their economic conditions at all.  The stock market is up…for those who own stock.  Corporate profits are up, thanks largely to the budget busting tax breaks Trump gave them, and then used to buy back their own stock, not raise wages, employ more people, or invest in equipment.

So, there is the superficial economy, rosy, and there is the real economy, pretty grim.

With some notable exceptions, the American people are not stupid.  We know how the top one percent or top ten percent will vote.  What about the 53 million working people struggling to get by.

Trump has had almost a full term to lift the working poor up and he has failed.

Instead, we have trade wars with China, “easy to win” according to the “art of the deal” president sheltering in Mar-a-Lago.  That costs 28 billion dollars and counting just to bail out farmers who lost their principal markets.

I know firsthand people with advanced degrees and impressive resume`s who cannot find work in this economy.  Education is part of the solution but offers no guarantees.

The array of Democratic presidential candidates tries to make these arguments.  But too often they get drowned out by the incessant polls, fund raising reports, stories about squabbles, who’s up and who’s down, inside political baseball.

America’s real economy is not in good shape.  A variety of indices show “basic cost of living (housing, food, childcare, transportation, health care, taxes) frequently outpace earnings from low-wage jobs, even in families with more than one worker.”

A cautionary word: don’t accept quarterly job numbers, stock market ratings, and administration propagandists as the sole and most reliable indicators of economic health.

Having a job satisfies one number.  Earning enough to live on decently is quite another and hopefully will drive the outcome of this year’s election.

There is a deal, green or otherwise, out there to be made.  But it won’t be made by this president.

 

Assassination Redux

Author: Gary Hart

In 1975, the Director of the CIA testified before a secret hearing of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate the U.S. Intelligence Community that there had been assassination plots against as many as six foreign leaders in recent years, several against the Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  I am now one of only a few surviving members of that Committee.

This became something of a turning point in U.S. foreign, military, and security policies at the height of the Cold War.  To say this revelation “shocked the conscience of the nation” is probably an overstatement.  But it did bring even the most hawkish Cold Warriors up short, and after discussion and deliberation, a popular consensus formed, reflected in the Congress itself, that assassinations aimed at foreign leaders violated unwritten moral codes defining American itself and serve no useful purpose in disabling communism or any other undemocratic ideology.

Legislation outlawing government sponsored assassinations, though introduced, never achieved passage into law.  But President Gerald Ford issued an executive decree forbidding our Government from resorting to its use.

Years passed, then came 9/11 and shortly thereafter a “war on terrorism”.  New language is normally used to circumvent established policy.  So, assassination became “targeted killings” under both Presidents W. Bush and Barack Obama.  They became ubiquitous and were often justified as saving lives.  By targeting leading terrorists with 50 caliber long-range rifles and, more recently, sophisticated drones with air to ground missiles, collateral damage to innocent civilians in the area was limited in ways conventional bombs would not.

On complex issues of this sort, there is a scale of extreme pragmatism on one end and extreme moralism on the other.  Knock out bad guys every chance you get versus assassination by any other name is still contrary to American values.

Now, let’s complicate things even further by layering on a heavy coat of politics.  It requires no genius to understand a president under impeachment might be tempted to look for dramatic ways to change the channel or at least move the impeachment debate off the front page.

We will never know the answer to what evil lurks in the hearts of men, particularly when the drone strike kills a leading military figure proclaimed to be planning near term strikes against American targets.  What intelligence resources might be compromised by providing evidence of this?, reasonable people might ask.

There is abundant evidence that a practice used once soon becomes standard.  We did it once, why can’t we do it again…and again?  Or, President T did it; why can’t President B?  The extraordinary thus becomes ordinary.

Is there something deep in the American character that calls us to higher behavior?  That is worth discussing…at length.  But alongside that discussion is the practical one.  Was this Iranian general unique in the sense he cannot be replaced?  Highly unlikely.  Then, except for some Fox News chest-pounding, what has been achieved?  A demonstration that this president is tough.  So what?  George W. Bush was tough, and we lost 3000 Americans on his watch.

In so doing, traditional military thinking, founded on the human instinct for survival, went out the window.  Take away the survival instinct, and a person is capable of almost any act of destruction.

As cited before, the ancient Native American challenge: Accept your death, and become dangerous.

If the incumbent president has thrown the Ford doctrine out the window, we are back in the assassination business, even if we clean it up a bit by “targeted killing” window dressing.

It is thus for the few remaining statesmen and women to convene serious discussions about its effectiveness, its political, as well as military, implications, its poisoning of traditional diplomacy (though those in leadership disdain it), its achievement of any meaningful objective.

If American is back in the assassination business, someone needs to be honest about it.  In the case of an aging veteran of the previous assassination era, I am ready to testify it isn’t worth it.

 

The Sleep of Idealism

Author: Gary Hart

Idealism, perhaps the highest function of conscience, is asleep now.  Idealism is a soft virtue.  It is not aggressive as is eagerness for wealth, or the scramble for power, or the need to be among the influential.  Instead, idealism suggests a search for a more noble vision and a sense that we have a duty of care.

No challenges to our collective conscience are heard from high places.

Most news stories are about conflict, violence, or traumatic events.  Families on our border are shattered and living in miserable conditions.  The corporate world leaves concerns about our future climate to young people.  Our nation’s capital is shrouded in anger and hostility with little if any motivation for public service.

Money, usually hidden in the corridors of power, now openly controls virtually all our public policies.  The guardianship of our public resources has been blatantly turned over to those who seek to privatize them for private wealth.  There is a giant revolving door between the White House and the upholstered caves of the lobbyists nearby.

A survey of present social and political conditions is bound to depress.  It offers no glimmer of hope or promise.

As a recent column in the New York Times observed: when leaders systematically lie, “the danger is that we grow so weary and cynical that we withdraw from civic engagement” and fail to engage in the political process.

And yet, as glimmers of hope often unreported, acts of mercy and kindness are carried out every day.  There are private charitable agencies and warm-hearted individuals who seek to care for the broken immigrant families on our borders.

Years of effort by volunteer researchers and lawyers free inmates unjustly imprisoned after years of incarceration.  Young people with great hearts work to feed hungry children.  Unsung private groups build houses for the homeless.  Meals are delivered to shut ins.  The elderly in assisted living are treated to music by volunteer musicians.

Where does goodness come from in a world of greed and selfishness?  Much from religious convictions and training.  Much from kind parents who teach sharing and concern.  But there is much that comes from the individual human heart.  We often call this conscience.

Are we born with a conscience or must it be learned?  Why does it make us feel good when we have helped someone in need?

Cynics say we are “salving our conscience” by putting a bill in the Salvation Army bucket.  The idealist says we are responding to deeply held convictions in our very soul.

There will be no final resolution of these kinds of questions while on this earth.  But we desperately need a revival of conscience after years of neglect and selfishness.

There is a close connection between idealism and conscience.  The idealist is driven by conscience.  The idealist sees the gap between what is and what ought to be and tries to close that gap.  But the first step is to envision what ought to be.  Our conscience tells us.

Idealism is not dead.  But with notable exceptions it is sleeping.  Politicians, even idealistic ones, are reluctant to appeal to idealism for fear of seeming dreamy and out of touch with what we call reality.

Among the many presidential candidates, we still wait to hear any one of them say, “ask what you can do for your country.”  It is a challenge to idealism.  It is a challenge to our conscience.

[And to all my friends a very Happy New Year!]

Greetings for This Season

Author: Gary Hart

Among the many things for which I am thankful, this small but persistent network of thoughtful people is one.  Decency and common respect in the expression of opinions, especially on highly volatile subjects, is now more rare than it used to be.

Even our friendly virtual neighborhood is a blessing in a world that seems occasionally inclined to tear itself apart.  Perhaps this is where society is headed, not to the arenas and grand ballrooms of the like-minded but to places where thoughtful people with shared concerns can find a forum to discuss those concerns with respect and civility.

There is much these days to make sensitive and sensible people sad.  But there are enough lights in enough windows to give us direction and even hope for a better tomorrow.

In an age of diversity, we are people of different faiths, or no faith at all, different histories and cultures, and different political opinions and ideologies.  But people of good will all want things to be better, less hatred and division and much more common understanding and tolerance.

So, to all my friends within this circle, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, a joyous Kwanzaa, and blessings on many faiths.

Lift up your eyes to the stars, help those in need of help, march on, and most of all keep that light in the window for the weary traveler and the lost soul searching for home.

Gary

 

Democracy in Peril

Author: Gary Hart

Across several weeks our colleague Michael has raised serious questions about the future of democracy in America and elsewhere.  The questions he has raised and arguments he has made deserve equally serious consideration.

Increasingly the media are focusing on the rise of disinformation in campaigns, the challenge to factual narratives by false ones, the erosion of truth itself, and the use of social media to undermine and replace traditional reporting by “fake” media.

All this may or may not be “populist”, but it is most certainly authoritarian, the acquisition and concentration of power in the hands of the few by undermining the world of facts and truth.

There are many examples of this process throughout history, but none better than Germany and Italy in the 1930s.  Uncouple political narrative from truth and the train of authoritarianism is well down the track.

This process is enabled when there is widespread distrust of government, encouraged by anti-government political media, demonization of immigrants, replacement of reliable democratic alliances with dictator friendships, distrust and even hatred toward domestic political opposition, perversion of elections, dismissal of public ethics and morality, and replacement of necessary public information by propaganda.

Whether the U.S. national election of 2020 will prove to be a hinge of history remains to be seen.  But it is not too soon to worry about this and its consequences.  Once eroded, democracy is difficult to repair and recapture.  And the forces of erosion are closing in.

The authoritarian pattern further rejects the empirical world of science, thus leading to denial of climate change even as destructive evidence of it mounts daily.  But if you believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, you will believe anything.  And once that pattern begins, there is no end to it.  The Authority can and will tell you preposterous lies and you cheer him onward.

The Authority high jacked an entire American political party.  Where is the limit?  Can an entire nation be highjacked?  Twentieth century world history proves yes.  And tens of millions of people died.

If Donald Trump loses re-election narrowly next fall and refuses to leave the White House, claiming election fraud, do not be surprised if Fox News broadcasts his call for support from the “base” and tens of thousands surround the White House.  The Secret Service does not have the manpower to manage such a situation.

Who has the authority under the Constitution to request, if not command, military assistance?  The current Attorney General, now a full-fledged presidential assistant, will not seek a court order for military intervention.  But even if he did, there is no guarantee the current Supreme Court would uphold it.

Scenarios such as this can and will be dismissed as darkly pessimistic speculations of a profoundly concerned American.  But it has happened before, thankfully not in America, and it can happen again given how much has changed in the past three years.

After all, we do have a president and presidential supporters for whom their motto is: “Who are you going to believe…me or your lying eyes?”

 

Authoritarianism by Stealth

Author: Gary Hart

If you intend to be an authoritarian president, like others you so admire, then it is necessary to demean and diminish the professional career civil service that stands in your way by administering the laws of the nation.

A president at war with his own government, at least the executive branch which he has taken a Constitutional oath to administer according to the laws that govern our nation, deserves much more consideration than brushing aside his occasional references to the “deep state” to which he attaches full blame for his failures.

The “deep state”, as yet to be defined as anything other than a permanent, Democratic presence out to thwart him, springs from the Trumpian guru Stephen Bannon who early laid down the mission to dismantle, if not totally destroy, the “administrative state.”

That is a clearer objective to deal with.

The administrative state is the product of two domestic revolutions: first, the late 19th century reforms against the political state, the practice of filling government positions with patrons; and second, the Rooseveltian reforms and New Deal expansion of the role of the national government in administering a social safety net as a rescue from the Great Depression.

The result was a professional civil service apart from partisan influence.  That is the “deep state” that Bannon, and Trump under his influence, want to destroy.

Leave aside that the size of the professional civil service has rarely varied even in conservative Republican administrations, despite proclamations by Ronald Reagan that “the government is the problem” and various rhetorical flourishes by others about shrinking the size of government.

The national civil service remains at a constant size for the simple reason that it is required to administer laws adopted by both Republican and Democratic administrations, laws that Republican Congresses have failed to abolish for the equally simple reason that they are popular.  The most recent example is the failure to abolish the Affordable Care Act.

The anti-government rhetoric against government rarely if ever notes that the national government represents around 12% of the civil service, State governments represent twice that number, and local governments comprise all the rest, about two-thirds of all government employees.  Any growth in government has occurred at the levels Republicans claim to like.

But the sinister attacks on the “administrative (or “deep”) state” are not about its size or even the fact it is carrying out Congressional mandates.  It is about letting an authoritarian president become authoritarian.  It has taken Donald Trump almost three years to understand that the professional civil service’s resistance to his unilateral demands are because they are doing their respective duties under the laws.

No one explained these basic 8th grade facts of civics to him.  So, he has had recourse to claim to his “base” that he has been prevented from promised dismantling of many government programs (many of which the “base” benefits from) by a sinister “deep state”.

Where he has undertaken to dismantle those programs administratively, he has done so by wreaking the damage on blue States and sparing red States and districts.

It’s the old corrupt spoils system administered by the president.

The central point of all this is that the Bannons of the world seek to introduce authoritarianism into Western democracies, including first and foremost, into the United States through the backdoor.  The first and most important step is to destroy the professional civil service.

Trump has done so by fiat, for example in dispersing agencies of the U.S. Department of the Interior, encouraging early retirement by senior career officials, and appointing Washington lobbyists to key administrative positions.

Members of the press now celebrate the fact that it was career foreign service officers, members of the professional administrative state, who blew open Ukrainiangate.

Why one or two of the myriad Democratic candidates do not feature this explanation in their public appeals is a mystery.

An Appeal to Our Better Angels

Author: Gary Hart

Many of us of a certain age and generation deplore the nation’s recent lurch into incivility and recollect an earlier time when discourse, routine as well as political, was carried out without resort to bickering, insult, and sarcasm.

Naturally, the impeachment proceedings and the press quarrels accompanying them brought this to mind.

But even before that, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described an entire swath of Americans as “deplorables”, separating them from the rest of presumably polite society.  As the child of meagerly educated parents, Eisenhower Republicans who would not have voted for Mr. Trump, I winced at that word.  Did she mean people like my parents?  Who, exactly, was she talking about?

If that one word did not cost her the election, it came very close.

What did she gain by using that word…except, perhaps, to demonstrate her and her friends’ and supporters’ superiority to those who couldn’t find the Yale Law School on a map and had no reason to do so.

Of course, she was competing with the master of invective, divisiveness, and coarseness, whose main theme was “lock her up.”

If she felt she had to defend herself, take it out on Trump and not the third of America who thought, and seems still to think, he speaks for them.

But democracy does not thrive in a cesspool.  And it is Trump’s triumph that he is dragging much of America down to his level.  When things get ugly, tempers fray, and anger is the mood of the times, who doesn’t look for a food fight.

Those of us who pray for his replacement, sooner rather than later, cannot ensure that outcome by descending to his level.  The eternal struggle between good and evil is never won by both sides competing on the evil plane.

This all sounds pretty elementary, I know, but the long road back to civility must start somewhere.

The struggle for America’s national soul ultimately depends on one thing, the character of the American people ourselves.

Despite the convoluted outcome of the last election, and the chaos that has followed, we will either keep the American Republic, as Benjamin Franklin pleaded, or we will not.  It depends on us, not the harsh partisan voices in Washington, or headline seeking journalists.  It depends on our willingness to insist on truth, to reward integrity, to respect honor, and to follow common decency.

But there is one other factor now at play.  Our concern for our children and their future.  Long after my generation is gone, we will be judged by successor generations for our stewardship of the natural world.

My generation fought for nuclear sanity.  Now those who follow must fight for sanity toward the natural world.

This fight will continue long after Trump is gone.  It will not be won by language that pits party against party, politician against politician, and American against American.

It will be won by appealing to the better angels of our nature.

The Regular Order

Author: Gary Hart

In former days, on the rare occasions where protocols of the U.S. Senate were breached in the heat of the moment, for example if Senators engaged in debate without seeking recognition of the chair as rules require, order would be restored by one or more Senators who would address the chair, the presiding president of the Senate at the time, with a command for “regular order.”

Given the chaos now endemic to the current executive branch, remaining statesmen and women should now be heard demanding the “regular order, Mr. President.”

The difficulty is that the current President is not familiar with any regular order in governing.  And this is central to our current historic dilemma.

In our long history America has never before had a president so unfamiliar with the Constitution, the rule of law, checks and balances of the branches of government, the limits on presidential power, the necessary role of diplomacy, and the necessity of democratic allies for our own security and the stability of the world.

For those of us who have spent three years searching for an explanation for repeated incidents of irrationality, reversal of policies just announced, stunning turn over in the White House and executive branch, denigration of allied leaders, and unilateral withdrawal from serious international security, trade, and environmental treaties, it is this repeated ignorant blundering against established governing (and civilizing) norms that offers an explanation.

The only plausible excuse for this unprecedented behavior is total ignorance of the existence of a regular order in democratic governments.  This ignorance may also be augmented with behavior calculated to pander to angers and prejudices of those composing a political “base” that is delighted by an irregular order that they applaud and cheer.

The irregular order is enabled by a very simple human characteristic: hypocrisy.  This characteristic increasingly underlies American politics in this period.  It is simple:  if they do it, it is wrong; if we do it, it is just, right, and fair.

Everyone in America knows, if the events at the center of the impeachment process now had occurred during a Democratic administration, Republicans would be outraged.  When we do it, it is ok; when they do it, it is wrong.

Imagine if Barack Obama had behaved in Ukraine and in many other areas as the incumbent president has done, Republicans would be beside themselves.  Impeachment proceedings would have begun in those circumstances much earlier than is occurring today.

The press and media should be pointing out this hypocrisy on a daily basis, but they have become so inured to Trumpian behavior and Republican complicity that they all seem to throw up their hands.  And the Pelosis and Schiffs are so accustomed to it that they simply roll their eyes.

This double standard would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic.

There is little to no hope for a change in conduct.  It is a little late in life for an aging autocrat to learn civility, decorum, respect for his office, mature behavior by a genuine leader, and a host of other qualities that were missed while growing up.

In the meantime, we Americans will once again muddle through, in this case wholly unnecessarily, until sanity returns.

But while doing so, it is also legitimate for all right-minded citizens to point out and demand an end to partisan hypocrisy and double standards, and to demand return to the “regular order.”

 

America on the Verge

Author: Gary Hart

Sometime in the past decade or less the American political universe experienced a significant earthquake.  And I missed it.

Our correspondent Michael rightly attributes this, at least in part, to substantial changes in the media, and he is clearly right.  The decline of the print press, the explosion of social media, the rise of partisan electronic media, and much else.  Everyone is now a journalist, both a photographer and commentator.

In elections and governance, on the good side is the rise of small dollar fund raising on the Internet.  Sadly, this is outweighed by wholesale gerrymandering into red and blue Americas, blatant partisanship of the judiciary, demonization of the opposition, and in the Trump era blatant disregard of facts, meaning, and truth itself.

This latter pollution of language is the most disturbing epicenter of the earthquake.  It marks the 21st century’s refinement of last century’s totalitarianism of the right and left.  He who defines the meaning of words wins the debate.  The new authoritarianism massively redefines the meaning of words.

Nowhere is this more true than in Trumpian America where his supporters could care less that he calls black white and invents his own version of history.  This is incidental because “he understands me and my anger”, they say.

In war, the first casualty is the truth.  Trump has declared war on traditional democracy and its norms and declared dictators and autocrats his friends’ and a third of America doesn’t care whether he is telling the truth or not.  They may not care what truth is.

This has been documented and commented upon endlessly and vainly.  He does not care nor does his “base”.  There have been Trumps before, but none has ascended to the highest national office.  Now he is there and possibly for a second term.

A large segment of America has changed.  It not only tolerates his behavior, it rewards it.  This has been written off as anger at globalization and immigration.  Neither justifies wholesale abandonment of a rich democratic heritage, the rule of law, and standards of mature conduct in America.

Some current projections show a Trump re-election if markets stay up, if Democrats do not nominate a strong and persuasive candidate, if young people, women, and minorities stay home, and if voter turn out generally is low.

Too many Americans longing to recover better days have virtually assumed the next national election would restore normality.  This assumption is not assured.  If our nation is undergoing a negative resurgence, it could take only four more years to incorporate it into our culture.

If a substantial minority of our fellow citizens are becoming, or perhaps already have become, Trumpian to the core, then we are in for a dark period in our nation’s history.

Our unwillingness or inability to cooperate with allied nations will increasingly be mirrored by divisions at home along ethnic, racial, and religious lines.

Trump’s eagerness to appeal to the worst angels of our nature will continue to resonate and those dark angels will be legitimized.

Trump’s claim to represent the party of Lincoln is in fact a claim to represent the party of Trump, a party that Lincoln would not recognize.

A year from now we will know whether our current unprecedented detour is over or whether we are becoming a different kind of country.