…the pilot episode.
by Berry Muhl.
This President’s Day, I figured I would start a series on the presidency, maybe beginning with an introductory post and then following up, on an annual basis, with a profile of an American President, say, in chronological order from the very beginning.
Then it occurred to me that this would require forty-odd annual blog posts, which would run afoul of my remaining life expectancy. I’d like to retire, at least, somewhere well short of president #30.
So instead I’ll just offer an introductory episode, including some thoughts on the current presidency, in the context of all those who’ve gone before.
- To start with, 12 of the first 18 Presidents owned slaves (including four of the first five, and the last, Ulysses Grant, who defeated General Lee in the Civil War).
- George Washington used force to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the rebels fired first, and that Washington was opposed to the tax measure that sparked the Rebellion.
- Bill Clinton engaged in perjury to Congress, for which he was impeached, in lying about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.
- Ronald Reagan’s administration was found to have sold arms to Iran, in violation of an embargo, presumably in order to secure the release of American hostages held there. Some funds from the sale were diverted to provide aid to Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Congress’ investigation turned up nothing to implicate Reagan himself, although he did at least appear to be aware of the arms sale, at some point, as he later admitted in a public speech.
- Richard Nixon resigned the presidency after being implicated in the burglary at Watergate, one in a series of paranoid actions against his political opponents.
- The Teapot Dome scandal erupted under Warren Harding’s administration, in which his interior secretary, Albert Fall, was found to have accepted bribes and other compensation for awarding no-bid contracts for access to oil and gas in Wyoming, on lands that Fall had had the Department of the Interior secure for that purpose. Fall was the first former Cabinet member to be imprisoned. While Harding’s administration is widely regarded as the most corrupt (or at least the most scandal-ridden) in history, there is little to no evidence tying him directly to any wrongdoing.
- The “Whiskey Ring” was a soak-the-IRS scheme cooked up by whiskey distillers operating during Grant’s second administration. The conspiracy was wide-ranging, with 110 eventual convictions, and implicated Grant’s own personal secretary, Orville Babcock. Grant’s testimony helped secure an acquittal, but the scandal was damaging nonetheless: Grant’s administration is regarded as being second only to Harding’s in terms of corruption.
- Andrew Johnson was impeached after refusing to obey a law passed specifically to prevent him from firing a Lincoln appointee, the Radical Republican and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The Senate procedure failed, by one vote, to remove Johnson from office.
- The 1824 election involved a sordid quid pro quo operation between John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams (a Founding Father and second President of the United States). A failure of the election that year to secure a winner resulted in Congress taking a vote and appointing Adams, largely on the strength of House Speaker Henry Clay’s speech. After taking the White House, Adams appointed Clay to Secretary of State. The resulting fallout galvanized Adam’s presidential opponent, Andrew Jackson, and his supporters, eventually resulting in the founding of the Democratic Party.
- That was actually the second time the House decided the presidential winner; the election of 1800 required Congress to appoint Thomas Jefferson, defeating incumbent John Adams and ushering in a generation of Democratic-Republican rule (as mentioned in my ongoing series on the Constitution, thereby repudiating Federalism for years to come).
- The 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided not by popular vote, nor by electoral college, but by the Supreme Court.
- The 2016 election, in which Trump won the Electoral College vote despite not winning the popular vote, was likewise not the first of its kind. Aside from the aforementioned Bush election, Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) and Benjamin Harrison (1888) were installed by the electoral vote, which bucked the popular vote.
- George W. Bush’s administration pushed for, and got, an invasion of Iraq in 2003, nominally another front in the War on Terror, but of questionable justification. Although there is no evidence that the administration fabricated evidence of a weapons-of-mass-destruction program operating in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and despite the fact that caches of chemical munitions were found on a number of occasions, the intelligence utilized by the administration in making that decision was of dubious quality, and evidently cooked up by Saddam’s own intelligence forces in order to promote the illusion that Iraq still posed a WMD threat to its hated enemy, Iran.
- President Obama’s bumbling immigration policy resulted in its own “humanitarian crisis” on the southern border in 2014, although the administration did eventually find its footing.
- Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, however, is widely derided as being premature and misplaced, with even Nobel Committee members expressing remorse for the award in the wake of Obama’s expanding drone program and increasing involvement in conflicts throughout the Middle East.
- On the continuing subject of Obama, we also have the IRS scandal, the hugely divisive Affordable Care Act and the various falsehoods (“keep your doctor”) associated with it, as well as the numerous unconstitutional provisions and actions thereof (such as unilaterally delaying the implementation of key provisions, a power not granted the President).
That’s the backdrop against which the Trump administration comes into play. I haven’t even gone into the various personal warts of each president (other than to point out Nixon’s paranoia). Most of these men had unfortunate character traits; Lincoln, for instance, privately espoused a kind of benevolent or neutral racism, and opined that he wished he could preserve the nation without freeing a single slave.
By the same token, Nixon, despite his deep-seated distrust of political opposition, seems to have been a hell of a nice guy, willing to promote race relations quietly without exploiting his successes for political gain.
What I’d like us all to take away from this is that it sometimes seems as though greatness and assholery are intertwined to some degree. Every great person has character flaws. It’s almost as if you have to be a particular brand of prick in order to achieve much in this world, but the nature of some positions places checks on just how dicky you can get away with being.
I have the misfortune of being exposed, on about a daily basis, to news and editorial programming on CNN and MSNBC, with the latter predominating. I think it’s safe to say that Trump occupies something like 80% of their air time. It’s rare that Trump doesn’t lead off any program, and almost never that he isn’t mentioned at all. Some programs, like those of Katy Tur and Nicolle Wallace, appear to have come into being specifically to cover the Trump White House, and Maddow, Hayes and Melber never stray far from the topic.
It may well be the case that Donald Trump is the single most
scrutinized President ever to occupy the office. This means in turn that We the People will
eventually end up knowing more about him than any other (assuming we don’t
Another way of putting this is that Donald Trump is going to be one of the most consequential Presidents in history. This is true not only of his impact on the media (and , perhaps, on our lives as individuals), but also on the presidency itself, whether by dint of the avenues for action that he has opened up, or the policies and procedures that will be put in place by Congress in order to restrain the actions of later Presidents.
Think about that just for a second. Love him or hate him, Trump may end up being the most epochal President in US history.
He’s of great commercial importance as well. There’s an entire cottage industry, beyond the 24-hour news networks, in informing us about him. On my parents’ bookshelves I can count at least five books, touted on MSNBC, CNN or the “Tonight Show,” discussing some aspect of his administration, behavior, or ethics. My sisters have also undoubtedly bought some of the same works. This industry, at least, might be expected to continue churning after Trump leaves office, although the NeverEndingTrumpShow television programming probably won’t.
Now, we can debate until 2020, or even beyond, the merits of Trump’s character and politics. I personally subscribe to the view that what he does is far more important than what he says, and that his bragging of sexual exploit and abuse, his endless tagging and trolling of political opponents, and his perpetual stream of gaffes are all but meaningless drops in a rather large and sloppy bucket, itself almost entirely diluted by the much vaster tide of American history.
The following meme (which may or may not have originated with Rush Limbaugh) seems applicable:
Far be it from me to come between a leftist and outrage, but I think we might consider withholding our indignation for things it truly merits: his actions. In review:
- Trump pushed for tax cuts which seem to have helped promote economic growth and reduced the average taxpayer’s tax burden. (Complaints about this year’s tax refunds being smaller have been met with the objection that tax withholdings throughout last year were also smaller, meaning people kept more of what they earned.) Although it was claimed (by some) that the tax cuts would “pay for themselves,” this hasn’t exactly happened. A quick review of government spending reveals why: although tax revenues are up roughly 0.5% since the implementation of the tax cuts, government spending has increased 9% in that same interval.
- The Trump administration implemented a zero-tolerance policy at the southern border for illegal immigration. While different in scope from previous administrations’ policies, it did entail a continuing separation of minor children from their parents (not exactly a new thing). There are sound reasons for detaining minor children away from adults in the chaotic environment of border detention, the administration botched it, effectively losing hundreds of children and precipitating a media-frenzy backlash, in turn galvanizing the pro-illegal-immigration camp.
- Trump has further exacerbated this problem by blocking entry of migrant caravans. While the nation is well within its rights to turn away illegal immigrants, preventing petitioners for asylum from making their case is bad policy on several levels.
- He has evidently taken steps to impede or prolong the various investigations of his campaign’s possible ties to Russian saboteurs of the Democratic National Convention.
- He has instituted a “Muslim travel ban,” more of a moratorium, that stays ingress from selected Muslim-majority nations while travelers can be better-vetted (and the system for vetting can be overhauled). This ban has been variously challenged, blocked, and eventually authorized as Constitutional.
- He has imposed tariffs on China, the European Union, Canada and Mexico, and has threatened to institute more. The results have been mixed. Some US industries and workers have suffered, due to shortages and retaliatory tariffs, although the targeted nations, particularly China, seem willing to work with the administration going forward. I cannot regard tariffs as sound economic measures, but I do see them as having foreign-policy value, and that may be how Trump is using them. In any event, he may have a solid rationale, based on the preexisting trade situation, for targeting China and Japan. Tariffs just may not be the best solution.
- He has also renegotiated NAFTA, rechristening it USMCA and securing what seem to be more favorable terms for the US.
- He has issued a ban on the military service of transsexuals. While this triggered trillions of progressives around the globe, there is a quite valid rationale: deployability. The military demands that every serviceperson, regardless of MOS, be ready and able to deploy anywhere in the world at any time. People who are undergoing long-term therapies such as hormone treatments, or are on waiting lists for elective surgeries like gender reassignment, are not eligible for deployment.
- He appears to now be in the early stages of a sweeping gay-rights initiative, having launched a global effort to end the criminalization of homosexuality. (Worst. Homophobe. Ever.)
- He has repeatedly fired, or pressured to resign, officials whom he has appointed to office or hired as staffers in his administration. The high rate of turnover is a meme in itself, but there is also question about the quality of those he initially onboarded. Whether the overall quality of the administration is improving over time remains to be seen.
That’s the list of major accomplishments: the dos. What about the says? Has his speech provoked any dire consequences? So far, the main result has been the continuing enragement of the progressive proletariat, and the enrichment of those news networks and authors. One real casualty appears to be General James Mattis left the administration, in which he served as Secretary of Defense, after Trump announced his intention to immediately withdraw American ground troops from Syria. Mattis, widely regarded as the Adult in the Room, is seen as a major loss for Trump and his credibility.
The question I want you to ask yourself is: Has it been all bad? I know that progressives will oppose most of these measures just on general principle, but the performance of the economy alone is enough to vindicate the actions behind that performance. In a world in which we see Democrats gleefully rejecting the prospect of 25,000 new jobs being created in New York city, in favor of $3 billion in tax revenue that would easily have been recouped (to the tune of $27 billion) over the next few years, it’s hard to credit liberals with a surplus of objectivity or economic sensibility.
But can you put aside your disgust and your disapproval long enough to weigh the consequences of words against the consequences of actions? Like any President, Trump will do some good and some bad while in office. Opposing everything he does will land you on the wrong side of those good things.
Like Nixon, Trump seems to be flailing largely due to his defensiveness. He is constantly being attacked, constantly kept off-balance, constantly having to respond to criticism. It’s not his strong suit, and I suspect that he overcompensates quite a bit.
He can do better. Much better. He can start by listening to his advisers. And by cooperating more with the political opposition, or at least giving an ear to their grievances in the interest of promoting bipartisanship.
But frankly, he could also do much worse.
Although presidents do often leave office under a cloud of disapproval and even disgrace, history tends to be kinder. Obama’s divisiveness appears to be an unintended consequence of his constant pursuit of legacy, and Trump’s is much the same. The harder politics and the public push back on a president, the greater their perceived need for permanence. The Border Wall may well be the ultimate vanity project, a literal monument to Trump’s ego. The irony is that it might not even be an ongoing controversy had he not faced such strong opposition over the past two years…and that might not have happened had he not said so many things that pissed so many people off.
With the Wall steadily decreasing in probability, Trump’s legacy may well be limited mostly to things he says, rather than things he does. I’ll continue to support the things he does right, and oppose the things he does wrong, but I’d very much like to see my fellow Americans giving much less of a shit about