The presidency of Donald Trump (those words still boggle the mind) is now a little more than a year old, and last night he delivered his first official State of the Union Address. It would seem a good time, therefore, to step back and take stock of what has certainly been an unconventional presidency.
However, trying to objectively evaluate Trump’s first year in office turns out to be more difficult than either his partisans or opponents would have you believe.
On strictly policy grounds, at least for believers in free markets, personal liberty, and peace like me, Trump has been the sort of typically mediocre President to which I have long become accustomed. He’s certainly done some things I have approved of. Tax reform was more tax cut than “reform,” but it will provide long overdue business tax relief, and should boost competitiveness and economic growth. Similarly, he has pursued an aggressive policy of deregulation that I have mostly cheered. Moreover, one can’t overlook the importance of Trump’s judicial appointments. Neal Gorsuch was a brilliant choice for the Supreme Court, and most of his lower court appointees (with a few conspicuous and sometime hysterical exceptions) have also been excellent. And, while Trump failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, he can at least claim repeal of the health law’s individual mandate.
The economy is doing well – unemployment down, the stock market booming, wages rising. While there is room to debate the degree to which Trump’s policies are responsible, I think it is fair to say that tax cuts, deregulation, and the president’s relentless boosterism has been an important factor. Certainly if the economy was doing poorly, we would blame Trump. It seems fair, therefore, to give him some credit for the upswing.
There have, of course, also been many policies that I vehemently oppose. One can start with the odious Muslim travel ban, and move quickly to a cruel and xenophobic immigration policy. He has too often championed crony capitalism and big spending, while ignoring the threat of a growing national debt. Trillion dollar deficits are expected to return perhaps as soon as next year. He steadfastly remains opposed to any serious reform of the entitlement programs that are threatening to bankrupt this country. Meanwhile, his protectionist trade policies threaten to undo the economic benefits from his tax and regulatory policies. And, the Trump Justice Department is ramping up the failed war on drugs.
On foreign policy, President Trump can legitimately claim success in the war against ISIS. While the larger strategy has generally been a continuation of one developed in the Obama administration, President Trump has pursued it much more aggressively, and significantly loosened the rules of engagement. The victory is on his watch, and he should get the credit. One caveat though: the new policies have significantly increased civilian casualties. Morality aside, this could mean more blowback and terrorism in the future.
Elsewhere, Trump’s belligerency has alienated allies, brought us to the brink of war in Korea, and threatened to bog us down in conflicts around the globe. Anyone who thought that a Trump presidency would mean less foreign adventurism should have been disabused by now. Pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (a position incidentally shared with Hilary Clinton) largely ceded American influence in Asia to China. He continues to see Russia as some sort of quasi-ally. And, far too often he has coddled dictators and authoritarian rulers from Putin and Sisi to Erdogan and Duterte. Human rights don’t just take a back seat to other interests, they don’t seem to be part of the conversation at all.
All in all, if I was grading solely on policy, I would give the Trump presidency my standard solid C (of course I grade on a curve). That’s pretty much how I’ve seen the last several presidencies – a mix of good and bad, drifting sadly toward ever bigger government and ever less freedom.
But, unfortunately, there is more to the Trump presidency than policies. There is also the petty feuds, bizarre tweets, and continuous streem of untruths. While pettiness and dishonesty are hardly unique to this president (just consider his predecessor or his opponent in the last election), President Trump seems determined to take those qualities to, dare we say, “Trumpian” levels. The same is true of his all too frequent attacks on our democratic institutions, particularly the free press. Much of it may simply be Trump blowing off steam, but it does raise concerns.
But most importantly, there is no way to evaluate the Trump presidency without considering the ways in which he has given aid and comfort to racists, misogynists, Islamophobias, and anti-immigration zealots. From smearing all immigrants as criminals (on display again during his SOTU address) to the Muslim ban, from his moral equivalency on Charlottesville to his wish for more white and fewer brown immigrants, Trump’s presidency has not just served up dog whistles to the most antediluvian forces in our society, he has sounded an entire marching band’s worth of drums and trumpets.
This is not just one factor balanced against others. Trump’s casual affinity for racism and other prejudices is fundamental affront to the American ideal. There is no way that people of color, women, the transgendered, gays, immigrants, and other minorities can feel like there are full participants in the American project while they are under attack from the highest office in the land. It is a stain, not easily erased, and it threatens both the unity of this country, and the hard won progress that we have made.
No matter what Trump’s policies are, no matter what other successes he enjoys, this will be the defining element of his presidency.
I had hoped that there might be a decent mourning interval after the horror in Las Vegas before we returned to contentious political debates. But, alas, that is not to be. The natural instinct after tragedies is a desire to “do something.” And, the “something” for a great many people in this case is gun control. So, reluctantly, a few thoughts on the issue.
Though my natural instincts rebel against any expansion of government power, I am not an absolutist on Second Amendment rights. I can be convinced to support reasonable measures to protect the public, while also protecting the rights of gun owners. But once we get past the emotion of “do something,” I ask my liberal friends on here, what exactly do you propose? Ban “bump stocks?” Sure, I’m fine with that. But beyond that, what gun control proposal would have prevented Las Vegas or any of the more recent mass shootings?
The Washington Post offers a pretty straight-down-the-middle at recent mass shootings and gun laws: They don’t find any that would have been prevented by current gun control proposals. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/12/10/marco-rubios-claim-that-no-recent-mass-shootings-would-have-been-prevented-by-gun-laws/?utm_term=.c08aa91b4ee5.
The truth is that there is no easy answer to gun violence. A few things to consider:
There appears to be no relationship between the number of guns and the number of murders. There has been a 56 percent increase in gun ownership since 1994, and a 49 percent decline in gun deaths over the same period. There are a number of reasons for the decline in gun crime, including changing demographics, better policing, and so on. But it seems hard to make a claim that more guns inevitably leads to more crime. In addition, a look at states with widespread gun ownership does not show them to have higher murder rates. Guns are ubiquitous in, say, Vermont, but it hasn’t exactly turned into a shooting gallery. One can overstate this – most of these states, like Vermont, are rural – and have lower crime rates generally. Still, the relationship between gun ownership and crime generally are ambiguous at best.
It is true that other countries with stricter gun laws have lower murder rates. But there may be less here than meets the eye. Those countries frequently had lower rates of gun homicide before their most stringent laws were enacted. For example, while the number of gun deaths in Australia declined after it enacted a sweeping gun ban following the Port Arthur mass shooting, that was largely a result of a decline in gun suicides. The rate of gun murders does not appear to have dropped significantly.
The most common gun proposal is an expansion of the background check system. But Stephen Paddock went through a background check – and passed. There was nothing in his background that would have raised flags under even the most vigorous check. He even went through the associated waiting periods, and given the length of time he apparently planned his crime, a longer waiting period would have made no difference. The same is generally true in other mass shootings. The killers passed background checks. (The Newtown killer stole weapons from his parents who had passed background checks).
It has been suggested that those with histories of mental illness should be barred from gun ownership. That might indeed reduce gun deaths. But it needs to be balanced against the probability that it would discourage some individuals from seeking treatment. Moreover, how is mental illness to be defined? Anxiety? Depression?
The second most common proposal is to ban so-called “assault weapons.” The evidence from the previous (now-lapsed) assault weapon ban is inconclusive. According to the most comprehensive study of the law’s impact: “The ban did not appear to affect gun crime during the time it was in effect, but some evidence suggests it may have modestly reduced gunshot victimizations had it remained in place for a longer period.” That’s not a ringing endorsement.
An effective assault weapon ban would also be extremely difficult to legislate. That’s because there really is no such thing as an “assault weapon.” There is no difference in the firing mechanism between guns commonly described as assault weapons and most popular hunting rifles. As a result, most assault weapon bans prohibit weapons based on cosmetics or the inclusion of extraneous features, such as a pistol grip or collapsible stock. These restrictions are extremely easy to evade.
It also noteworthy that, while “assault weapons” are often a feature of mass shootings, they are not really part of the overall problem of gun violence. Only about 2 percent of gun murders are committed with assault-style weapons. Handguns are the murder weapon of choice.
We are not getting rid of guns in this country. Americans currently own more than 300 million guns. Roughly half of all American households own a gun. Suppose a gun ban passed tomorrow, and an unimaginable 90 percent of Americans voluntarily turned in their guns, that would still leave some 30 million guns out there. And, the people not turning in their guns are likely to be those I least want to have them.
Finally, I keep hearing that no one needs this or that type of gun to hunt. Well, “need” is amorphous concept. But, more importantly, let’s remember that there are many legitimate reasons to own guns besides hunting, such as: sport, self-defense, and, yes, a bulwark against tyranny. There would be less resistance to gun control proposals if supporters didn’t so quickly jump from “no one is coming for your guns” to proposals to broad gun bans or confiscation proposals.
Again, I’m perfectly willing to consider some type of gun control. But I am looking for practical, effective proposals that would actually reduce gun crimes, while still protecting the rights of law-abiding Americans. If you have such proposals, I’m willing to listen. Over to you…
OK, folks, please square this one for me.
You have fun for years laughing at “liberal snowflakes,” who retreat to their “safe space” for milk and cookies when confronted with opinions they dislike. In fact, you’ve cheered when universities invite “controversial” speakers like Milo Yiannopolis, despite the fact that many students find his opinions not just offensive, but dangerous.
You thought it was an outrage when Google fired James Damore for circulating a memo to fellow employees that denigrated the emotional and intellectual abilities of women.
You are angry when protestors want to take down statues of those who actually fought against the United States in defense of an indefensible system.
Yet, when mostly African-American athletes quietly kneel during the national anthem in order to protest more than 400 years of racial oppression, including ongoing police abuse, you find that expression intolerable, worthy of presidential condemnation and a firing offense.
I say this as a veteran and the son and grandson of veterans. If I didn’t see combat, I have friends and relatives who did. People I knew gave their lives in defense of this country. For all its flaws, I love America, and have always respected the flag. Yet, the flag is not an idol to be worshiped. It a symbol of the values we hold. And one of the most important of those is the right to dissent.
It is easy for those of us, comfortably protected by our privilege, to suggest that those protesting should find another way to do so. Yet, consider the issue from their point of view. From 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 African slaves ashore at Jamestown, until the slave trade was abolished in 1807, nearly 600,000 slaves were forcibly brought to this country. At the start of the Civil War, roughly 89 percent of all blacks in America, almost 4 million people, were slaves. Overall, between the arrival of those first black slaves at Jamestown and 1865, when the 13th Amendment officially outlawed slavery, millions of Africans and their descendants were held in bondage and servitude in the United States. They were routinely murdered, raped, beaten, and deprived of the most basic human rights. That represents an indelible stain on this country’s soul.
The oppression of African Americans hardly ended with the abolition of slavery. On paper, of course, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments promised equality. In reality, however, the end of slavery marked the beginning of a century of legally enforced second-class citizenship. In fact, while the worst aspects of Jim Crow were outlawed by various civil rights laws in the 1960s, the treatment of African-Americans has remained unequal.
Even if overt discrimination has greatly diminished today, the consequences of past discrimination are still with us. You cannot have a race in which one runner is loaded down with weights and chains for half the race, remove them, and suggest that from then on it is a fair contest.
Nor should we forget that, from abuses in the criminal-justice system to continued discrimination in employment, housing, and education, full equality remains more aspiration than reality. As a white man, with all the privilege that implies, I can’t even begin to imagine the toll that constant exposure to racism, from minor slights to full-blown discrimination, must take on its victims.
Yes, we have come a long way. Despite our ongoing racial problems, thing really are better than they were. Yet, much of the change that we now celebrate came about precisely because some people protested. Many, at the time, thought those protests were bad for the country, impatient, disrespectful, or unjustified. Aren’t we better off today, because those protestors spoke out?
This is not Anti-fa. This is not violent. This is not disrupting anything or taking away from anyone else’s rights. Protestors are silently kneeling. I may wish they weren’t, but I’m certainly not being harmed.
Perhaps instead of wrapping ourselves up in the latest episode of the culture wars, we should take this opportunity to reflect on what we can do to make our country a more perfect union, with more liberty and justice for all. That would be a terrific way to honor our country and our flag.
I thought I had said everything that needed to be said about Nazis in America and the need for anyone who lives liberty to denounce them. But, judging from my social media feeds, too many people still don’t get it. And, then there was President Trump’s truly appalling press conference. So a few thoughts to further clarify:
1. There will be many occasions to denounce the violent rhetoric and tactics of Antifa and their allies on the Left. THIS IS NOT IT! This is about the evil represented by nazis, white supremacists, and the rest of their ilk. They should be denounced without appending a “but” to that condemnation. In fact, failure to condemn racists and racism in unambiguous terms strips you of the moral authority to call out the violent Left the next tine they deserve it.
2. Too much of the moral equivalency argument focuses on the violence. Yes, some Antifa supporters came looking for trouble, and happily joined in the fighting. Bit the nazis should be denounced not just because they were violent, but because their ideas are evil. Even if there had been no violence at all in Charlottesville, that rally and those who participated in it would be a disgrace. Yes, they had – and should have – a legal right to rally and speak about their insane ideology. But the rest of us can and should be clear about just how revolting those ideas are.
3. And no, there were not many decent people taking part in the rally. Decent people do not march with nazis or racists. They do not participate in rallies where people chant “The Jews will not replace us” or Blood and Soil.” Everyone who attended, marched, or participated in that rally is morally deficient.
4. Keep context in mind. This country has oppressed African-Americans since its founding. From slavery through Jim Crow to the ongoing abuse and discrimination suffered by People of Color today, we have failed to live up to our ideals. Yes, we’ve made tremendous strides – advances unimaginable in much of the rest of the world — but those of us who grew up and live with privilege, can never know the pain of that legacy. Keep that in mind when you reflect on debates about confederate symbols and such.
5. The presidency offers a unique bully pulpit. The president has a chance to unite the nation behind great ideals. Donald Trump has used it to legitimize and mainstream evil. He has failed us in ways that will stain this nation far into the future.
Let’s not waste time: The neo-nazi and white supremacist degenerates who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend are despicable examples of human excrement. See, that’s not so hard to say.
This is not just a question of violence. Observers on the ground in Charlottesville point out that both the nazis and the anti-fa counter protestors contributed to the fighting (although notably none of the nazis ended up dead). Denouncing the violence is easy and lends itself to the type of “plague on both your houses” type of rhetoric that lets us off the hook. The problem isn’t just the violence that accompanied the nazis and racists, it’s their ideas.
Now, I’m pretty damn close to an absolutist when it comes to the first amendment. I think that if a bunch of escapees from their mothers basement want to parade around with tiki torches and preach hate, they have a legal right to do so. I’d be opposed to any law that tried to deny them that right.
But the fact that they have a right to be scum, doesn’t bind me to silence. A right to say something doesn’t mean a right to say something without consequences. Too many – including far too many libertarians – stop at the first part of the equation, the right to speak. But if we truly believe in a philosophy that is premised on the equal worth of every human being, then we have an obligation to speak out against racism (and sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and every other form of bigotry).
And please, no “whatsboutism.” Yes, some of the rhetoric issuing from the left is beyond the pale. It is wrong to use force and violence to prevent speech you disagree with. And, the idiots traipsing around in Che Guevara tshirts might as well be wearing swastikas. But A) that’s irrelevant, and B) doesn’t take into account how bigoted speech impacts people who have suffered from bigotry since this country was founded. We owe a special type of debt to the people that this country has oppressed. The least we can do is say that speech that continues to denigrate them is wrong.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” goes the quote attributed, perhaps incorrectly, to Edmund Burke. Libertarianism cannot be so thin that it doesn’t recognize racism (and other forms of bigotry) as evil. And recognizing them as evil, we should take action to denounce them, to ostracize them, and to drive them out of civilized society.
We should demand this from our political leaders, including our president (who has so far failed the test), but most of all from ourselves. Indeed, because we believe in liberty for all, that obligation lies even heavier on us. And if we can’t see that, then how different are we really from those losers in Charlotte?
As the Trump presidential circus lurches uncontrollably through the latest crisis, I have a few thoughts on where things stand now:
1. If the Trump presidency eventually crashes and burns, it won’t be because of some shadowy conspiracy of deep state communist jihadis or whatever, but because of his own hubris, incompetence, and unwillingness to learn from his mistakes. I have no doubt that there are elements of the permanent bureaucracy that are all too happy to leak damaging information about Trump. Moreover, clearly the media is not about to cut Trump the same breaks that they would (and did) give to Obama or Clinton. But none of that would matter if Trump didn’t spend every other morning shooting himself in the foot. Yes, Trump has enemies. And, he is all too willing to hand them additional ammunition.
2. On the larger charges, I very much doubt that Trump was directly and personally involved in colluding with the Russians. Yes, the Russians clearly preferred Trump to Hillary, and also wanted to sow distrust with American democracy in general. But they didn’t really need to coordinate with the Trump campaign. After all, Hillary was doing a fine job with her own version of Trumpian self-immolation. And, as he has shown as president, Donald Trump doesn’t have the attention to detail or strategic aptitude to coordinate a conspiracy with the Russians. He’s just not that “hands on.”
3. That doesn’t mean there is no “there” there. Almost certainly some lower level aides like Roger Stone, Carter Page, and Paul Manafort had some type of contacts with the Russians. Whatever they did was probably pretty minor in terms of “collusion” – with the exception of Manafort, they really didn’t have enough influence or authority to collude – but we will have to see where this all leads. And, former national security advisor Michael Flynn is an especially sleazy special case. If there is any criminal culpability in all this, it looks like Flynn is most in jeopardy. And it looks like a fair amount of what he is accused of was about his personal enrichment, not election meddling.
4. As usual in Washington, the cover-up is worse than the crime. Trump’s bumbling attempts to stop the various investigations may or may not reach the level of obstruction of justice – which legally is both vague and hard to prove – is at the very least unseemly and does serious damage both to his presidency and to American institutions. I have no particular affection for James Comey, who was indeed something of a showboat, and whose Hamlet act on both the Clinton and Trump investigations was wearing thin, but you simply don’t fire the man leading an investigation that may implicate you. And when you do, you don’t lie about your reasons.
5. Trump’s behavior seems to be driven by two things. First, ego and resentment. Trump’s opponents continue to insist that he is not a legitimate president, that somehow Russia-Trump collusion “stole” the election from Hillary Clinton. This is just silly. Clinton lost because she was an abysmal candidate who had no vision for the future of America beyond vague left-wing sloganeering. She ran for president because “it was her turn.” It turns out it wasn’t. But every time Trump’s critics attack his legitimacy, he becomes more determined to prove that there was no Russian involvement, that he won fair and square. After all, this is a guy who keeps a map of the county by county vote results on the Oval office wall.
6. More troubling in the bigger picture, Trump still doesn’t understand the presidency isn’t like being king – or being on a reality television show. He thought he would win the election, give a few orders, things – “great things” – would happen, and he would bask in the applause of an adoring public. Now he continues to find out that governing is “hard.” He refuses to do his homework, or to try to learn how government works. Aides report that they have to slip Trump’s name into every third or fourth paragraph of his national security briefings, because it’s the only way he will keep reading. He still doesn’t understand that you can’t just fire anyone who displeases you, demand that Congress act a certain way, or deliver an applause line even if what you say is untrue.
7. By the way, for Trump supporters, enough of the “whataboutism” arguments. I agree that Hillary and Obama did all sorts of terrible things. But so what? Trump is president now, not either of them. It is his conduct that counts now. How does Hillary’s server, for instance, justify anything that Trump has done? If what Trump did is wrong or stupid or both, it is wrong or stupid or both, no matter how many wrong and stupid things Hillary, or Obama, or Andrew Jackson, for that matter, did.
8. For Trump opponents, please take a deep breath and calm down. We are a long, long way from impeachment. We are not experiencing a constitutional crisis. This is not Watergate. We may yet find out that crimes were committed – or not. So far, the checks and balances in our system are working just fine. And, the more you hyperventilate, the more Trump’s supporters – around 40 percent of the country according to recent polls – circle the wagons. Also, please note that “I really hate him” is not an impeachable offense.
9. Finally, the appointment of a special counsel could actually be good thing for Trump’s agenda. This could end the daily drip, drip, drip of new revelations, and allow the White House to change the subject back to their agenda. We still need an Obamacare replacement, tax reform, deregulation, and so on. Trump could start talking or tweeting about these things, and simply deflect other questions by pointing to the ongoing investigation. Of course that would require a certain amount of self-discipline – oh hell, what am I talking about.
In 1939, Irmgard Köppel, her husband Josef, and their 14 month-old daughter Judith attempted to flee Nazi Germany for the United States, but were turned away at the border and forced to return to Germany. Irmgard and Josef later died at Auschwitz. Judith, however, survived, because she was harbored, at great personal risk, along with five other Jewish children, by French gentiles, Joseph and Eliette Enard.
The question that Trump’s travel and refugee bans asks us as a country is whether we will be more like the U.S. authorities who sent the Köppels and thousands of other Jewish refugees to their deaths, or more like the Enards, who risked their lives to save those of a different faith and nationality.
Trump’s executive order actually does two things, which are being conflated by many critics. First, the administration banned for 90 days entry into the United States by citizens of seven countries (Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen). It is not really a Muslim ban, since it applies to non-Muslim citizens of those countries, and does not include Muslims from other countries. However, there is little doubt that it is motivated by a degree of anti-Muslim animus. (The order may also run afoul of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which bars immigration discrimination on the basis of national origin).
The seven affected countries were already on a list, drafted by the Obama administration, and codified by Congress as part of the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, whose travelers require stricter scrutiny. As a matter of policy, it makes little sense, since it does not cover countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where there is a real radical Islamicist presence, while including countries like Iraq, where troops are fighting alongside Americans to battle ISIS. The number of Americans killed in this country by citizens of those seven countries has been precisely zero. (And are we really issuing many visas in Yemen these days?) If the policy had been better designed, implemented, and communicated, it would still have been bad policy, but it would probably have ignited less outrage.
But, Trump overruled the Department of Homeland Security, to include green card holders, other permanent lawful residents, and possibly even those with dual citizenship (interpretations differ), provisions which certainly appear to violate U.S. law, and are now being walked back by DHS Secretary Kelly. And, by providing no lead time for implementation, the administration insured chaos at airports nationwide. Those blocked from entry or detained included doctors, scientists, and artists, as well as interpreters and others who had assisted US troops. Already, ISIS has gleefully publicized the order as an example of the US “war on Islam.”
The second part of the executive order is even less defensible. That part indefinitely suspended refugee programs for Syrians and others. Compounding matters, the order says that if the programs resumed, preference will be given to Christians and other non-Muslim refugees. This callous indifference toward the suffering of thousands of men, women, and children caught up in a war that we did much to precipitate, can only be explained by anti-Muslim bias.
We are told, of course, that terrorists may try to use the refugee program to infiltrate our country. One notes that, in 1939, similar arguments were made, including a front page story in the New York Times, to suggest that Nazi spies might infiltrate Jewish refugee groups. But more importantly, there is little evidence that Islamic terrorists are actually using the refugee programs to enter the US. Indeed, if a terrorist wanted to come to the United States, going through the ponderous, bureaucratic, and heavily vetted refugee program is among the least efficient and effective ways to do so. In fact, since 1975, just three Americans have been killed by refugees. (The three refugees in question were Cuban, not Muslim.) Overall, your chances of being killed by a refugee are 1 in 3.64 billion annually.
No one can guarantee that that record will continue. Indeed, I expect that sooner or later, a Muslim refugee may commit a terrorist atrocity. But, perfect security is never a guarantee, and should not be our overriding goal. We should not allow fear to make America other than what it is. There are values more important than safety.
The United States current accepts less than one half of one percent of the world’s refugees. For a country built on immigration, compassion, and justice — that holds itself out as the beacon of liberty in this world — we can and should do better. This should not – and cannot – be a partisan issue. Rather, this is a time for moral choosing. Every American should speak out.
Joseph and Eliette Enard are memorialized at Yad Vashem as two of the “Righteous among the Nations.” When our reckoning comes, will we be counted on the side of the Enards, or will we let fear and bigotry rule our hearts, our lives, and our country.