Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Gianforte Problem

The assault on a reporter by Montana Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte brings our politics to a new inflection point. Democracy is a fragile affair, and there are many forces and contingencies that can work to its detriment. Among all such factors, however, violence is the most destructive. Political violence acts like a corrosive acid on the institutional coherence and functional foundations of a democracy. The fate of republican systems in Germany, China, Spain, and a host of other nations stand testimony to this fact.

American democracy has proven very resilient in the face of this peril. The Civil War did not bring the American project to an end; nor did the wave of anarchist terrorism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; nor did the attacks on John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and George Wallace in the years between 1963 and 1972. But such experiences prove that the American public and leaders have been perspicacious enough to defend the system against such challenges, not that the system itself is immune.

What is most distressing in the case of Gianforte is that today's vote will inevitably (rightly or wrongly) be viewed as a referendum on Gianforte's use of violence. This is not an unprecedented event. In a special election on August 1, 1856 the voters of South Carolina's 4th Congressional District returned Prestoon Brooks to the House after his brutal caning of Senator Charles Sumner. The fact that the Civil War followed less than five years after that event does not bode well for anyone trying to use Gianforte's prospective election as a bellwether.

Political violence was on the rise in our country before the election of Donald Trump. Terrorist attacks like those in Boston, Orlando and San Bernadino were obvious examples of this trend. So were the attacks on Representative Gabby Giffords, the assault on the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and the murder of churchgoers in Charleston. In the rising climate of fear and anger created by such incidents, the rhetoric and tactics employed by the Trump campaign were (and are) potentially very toxic to our civic life. It is difficult not to look at Gianforte's assault on a reporter, followed by his rationalizing it as a response to the provocations of a "liberal journalist," as a further regressive stage in a persistent downhill slide. 

It may seem strident to juxtapose Gianforte's transgression to atrocities such as Charleston or Orlando, but if history teaches us anything it is that political violence can not be tolerated as a matter of degree. Either we respect one-another's physical persons absolutely or we abdicate the basic principle of civil discourse on which our democratic political life depends. As I wrote in another blog, even the "glitter bomb" attacks that have been popularized in some recent activism are in breach of this imperative. There may be room for reasonable people to reasonably disagree about what the boundaries of "politically correct" speech should be, but in a functional democracy there is no such thing as "politically correct" violence.

Speaker Ryan has called upon Greg Gianforte to apologize. I applaud Mr. Ryan's statements, and I hope that Mr. Gianforte will comply. If he does so before polls close today some of the damage he has done to our civic life might be ameliorated, even if he should win a seat in Congress. In any case, for the sake of our institutions I hope that he will be seen to pay a political price for what he has done.

UPDATE: I feel moved to add the punching of Richard Spencer, "Alt-Right (read: Neo-Nazi)" leader on January 20 to the list of recent acts of political violence, which I am sure could be vastly expanded. Spencer's case is particularly important because it illustrates a fundamental truth: for democracy to work even the person of a figure as reprehensible as Spencer should be sacrosanct, much less that of a reporter seeking answers about a matter of public policy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

Dear President Trump,

        Though I am a lifelong Democrat and voted against you last fall, I approach you not as a partisan but as a fellow American. I appeal to the highest aspirations of your campaign, to your sense of duty to your supporters, and to your patriotic concern for our Republic in asking you to resign the presidency. Though your election to that sacred office was legitimate, your conduct since being inaugurated has made it impossible for you to fulfill its responsibilities efficaciously.

         I make this plea without rancor and under no pretense of knowledge about your private character, motives or designs. The problems that you have encountered could as easily be the product of inexperience, miscalculation, and miscommunication as corruption or malicious intent. But they are real and at this point have become insuperable.

         Your tenure was inevitably going to be divisive. You championed causes (for example, the repeal of Obamacare) that many Americans opposed. In this respect you were not entirely different than any incoming holder of your office. Unlike most of your predecessors you made no attempt to "mend bridges" with your political opposition, but launched into an aggressive push to enact the most controversial measures of your program without bipartisan support. This was unusual but not wholly discreditable. Your supporters, after all, had voted for you as a "disrupter."

        But there was another respect in which you differed from your predecessors. You had used unprecedentedly belligerent and alarmist rhetoric in your path to the White House. You had spoken about banning Muslims from entering the country, and allowed speculation about instituting a "registration" system for Muslim-Americans to go unanswered. You joked about beating up dissenters or jailing members of the press. You questioned the competence of a federal judge because of his Mexican-American heritage. In other words, you created an atmosphere that caused many Americans, some of them already marginalized and vulnerable, to fear the consequences once you assumed the awesome powers of the presidency.

        Unlike the general wisdom of "mending bridges" with the political opposition, the onus upon you to win back the trust of these citizens was a non-negotiable imperative. You had traded away their trust in exchange for political advantage, and it was incumbent upon you to repair that breach so that the business of government could move forward. You have not acknowledged this necessity, but on the contrary have made the situation worse. The precipitate and aggressive manner in which you pursued policies like your travel ban and the continued stridency of your rhetoric has only deepened the fear and distrust sown by your campaign pronouncements.

       If these were the only problems, the situation might yet be redeemable. But compounding these issues have been your general failures in carrying out the task of the executive. Dozens of cabinet-level posts remain unfilled. Critical military maneuvers like your recent dispatch of a carrier group to the waters off of the Korean Peninsula have been bungled. Secret information entrusted to us by our allies has been let slip in conference with a hostile power.

      Questions of basic amity and competency notwithstanding, there might yet be world enough and time for you to repair the damage of your first months in office. But finally, you have forsaken the trust and confidence of the electorate in your mishandling of the FBI's Russia investigation. The nation is very polarized, and it may be true that the vast majority of your supporters remain convinced of your probity and integrity. It was inevitably going to be the case, however, given the polarizing nature of your campaign and your policies, that a substantial portion of the populace would hold you in suspicion, especially given the strange circumstances surrounding Russia's hacking of the election. You have not only failed to assuage the natural and understandable suspicions of these citizens, but have thrown gasoline on the fire of their fears. However innocent your motives may have been in private, your public moves to fire the FBI director and discourage investigations into the ties between your campaign and Russia give you the appearance of a man with something to hide. Indeed, they may rise to the level of criminal obstruction of justice.

     Whether or not criminal charges are warranted, such a mistake cannot be put down to inexperience or benign ineptitude. Given the clear logic of your situation from the outset and the obviously high stakes, your actions constitute political negligence and malpractice of the highest order. It is unreasonable for you to expect the necessary confidence and trust of a critical mass of the electorate moving forward. The best that you can hope for is to set one part of the nation against the other, each side convinced that it has more than ample cause to loathe and fear the other. There is no way to govern under those circumstances. More tragically, that situation can only lead to a coarsening of our civic life and a general deepening of public cynicism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic in the long term.

       Resignation is the clear and honorable choice. This is made all the more evident by the fact that there can be no partisan advantage for your political opponents in such a contingency. Quite the contrary. Your stepping down will make Vice-President Pence our new executive, which will guarantee an uninterrupted dedication to the implementation of a Republican agenda. More months of scandal will hurt the electoral chances of the GOP in the midterm elections, especially if they resolve in articles of impeachment. Resigning now will give Vice President Pence and the Republican Congress an opportunity to enact policies in hopes of winning support for next fall.

      Whether from the perspective of partisan obligation or patriotic duty, resignation is the right thing to do. There is no shame in admitting that you are not up to the task, especially if the job is as crucial to the general welfare as the presidency. History will judge you with gratitude for having the wisdom and the strength to sacrifice your own ambition for the greater good. I respectfully beg you to consider this course of action for the sake of your voters, the country, and our venerable democracy. In any case, should you read these words I thank you for your attention and hope that this message finds you well.

                                 Sincerely,

                                 Andrew Meyer