Monday, February 06, 2017

An Autocrat In Tweets

This piece was originally written as private correspondence. It contains certain allusions that might make more sense in that context.

On Friday night in Seattle a federal judge, James Robart, issued a temporary stay of Donald Trump's immigration, travel, and refugee executive order, in a suit brought by the state of Washington. Washington argued the order is unconstitutional. At least 15 state attorneys general concur.

Unlike earlier court actions staying parts of the order in particular circumstances, this one has the effect of blocking the order entirely and across the government. This has, for the moment, the effect of restoring conditions to what they were before the order was signed, which means travel from the seven excluded countries has for now resumed.

For our purposes here, it's instructive to look at how Donald Trump reacted to the judge's ruling, with an eye toward assessing his temperament, judgement, and honesty. Any thinking person acting in good faith can go a long way in making such an assessment, even without an in-depth understanding of long standing immigration, travel, and refugee policy that preceded the order. Give it a try.

As usual, Trump's reaction comes to us primarily through a series of tweets. Thus we have a good sequential record about how he's thinking and what he's trying to communicate to the American people.

Here is a gaggle of tweets sent by Trump on Saturday and Sunday. As a first pass, read these with an eye toward considering decorum, civility, respect for a co-equal branch of government, appreciation of checks and balances in our constitutional system, and understanding of the rightful and necessary functioning of the judicial systemin other words, temperament.

TRUMP: The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!
TRUMP: When a country is no longer able to say who can, and who cannot, come in & out, especially for reasons of safety & security - big trouble!
TRUMP: Interesting that certain Middle-Eastern countries agree with the ban. They know if certain people are allowed in it's death & destruction!
TRUMP: What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?
TRUMP: Because the ban was lifted by a judge, many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country. A terrible decision.
TRUMP: Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!
TRUMP: I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY. The courts are making the job very difficult!

It's quite unusual, for reasons of decorum and constitutional propriety, for a president to attack a judge. This "so-called judge" (Trump's words), a conservative jurist appointed by George W. Bush and duly confirmed by the Senate, occupies a rightful place in our legal system. When the executive branch finds itself at odds with a court, the normal approach is to be civil and courteous; to acknowledge the disagreement calmly but forcefully (eg., "we strongly disagree"), perhaps indicate some disappointment, and express confidence in the rightfulness of your position and in a favorable outcome as the legal process proceeds.

Instead, Trump is petty and demeaning. He snipes and attacks, and gratuitously insults whoever stands in his way. He alonethe great leaderis right and righteous, and any impediment to his designs warrants withering attack. "If something happens," Trump tweets, "blame him [Judge Robart] and court system." And bring your pitchforks.

Thus Trump undermines the rule of law by attacking the judicial process upon which it depends, and erodes the public's support for a constitutionally essential processexactly as he eroded the public's trust in our electoral systems by making hyperbolic unsubstantiated claims that the system is "rigged" and fraudulent. In this way does he tear at our most important and necessary democratic institutions. The court as an independent co-equal branch is one of the founding geniuses of our system, and I hope it is obvious that it literally, and by design, stands in the way of tyranny.

On that previous point, it should occur to you that an executive who can't abide an independent constitutional check on his authority is one hallmark of an authoritarian. Pause for a moment and let that register. Can you see how thoughtfully paying attention to events as they unfold allows you to "connect the dots"in this case, to give credence anew to what others have been saying for a long time about Trump's authoritarian dispositions? In particular, I told you [my email correspondents] that conservative intellectual David Frum recently wrote a thoughtful essay on the heightened risk of our sliding into autocracysomething novel in our history. Here, then, is another data point, small in isolation but connected to all the othersthat illustrates Frum's warning.

Importantly, I don't expect you to take these insights on my say-so. Rather, this is all "food for thought" that points to a preponderance of evidence you yourself ought to be observing, and that stimulates your own thought processes and allows you to connect the dots for yourself. The observing and thinking and dot-connecting becomes second nature with a little practice, and I highly recommend it.

More dot-connecting: Remember during the campaign how Trump attacked Judge Gonzalo Curiel over what Trump deemed unfavorable rulings in his "Trump University" lawsuit? Trump slurred the judge by claiming his "Mexican heritage" prevented him from being impartial and once again attacked not just the judge but our system of laws. Judge Curiel is an American of Hispanic descent, born in Indiana. Trump said the judge couldn't be fair because "I'm building a wall." Trump, who eventually settled the lawsuit for $25 million, was publicly scornful of the judge's rulings. During the campaign, many pointed to the Curiel incident as evidence that Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president. Now we see things haven't much changed.

Another hallmark of authoritarianism is to manufacture a crisis that requires decisive action by a strong leader. And so suddenly, according to Trump, our borders have been thrown open and dangerous throngs are descending: "people pouring in" (Trump's words). The situation is fraught with danger; chaos and "peril" (Trump's word) are upon us. "Dangerous people may be pouring into our country," Trump tweeted. Pouring! "Anyone""even with bad intentions, can come into U.S." Trump warns darkly of "death & destruction," but has never articulated exactly how we're vulnerable.

But no: "anyone" can't come in. Our country is still "able to say who can, and who cannot, come in & out" (Trump's words). As always, a properly issued visa is required. And as always, extensive vetting is required to obtain a visa. Trump tweeted hysterically and disingenuously that "I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY." Well, ok, but that was already happening.

During the next several days while Trump's order is on hold, the persons entering the country will be those, and only those, who had already completed the process, including vetting, and been issued visas. The U.S. has some of most thorough vetting in the world. That's particularly true for refugees, where the process easily takes two years or more, with layer upon layer of security checks. By the way, of the roughly 3 million refugees who have entered the U.S. over the past couple of decades, not one has killed a U.S. citizen in a terrorist attack.

The point is that nothing is different now from how it was before Trump's order, and before Trump's order there was not the slightest indication of anything amiss. The U.S. already practices the "extreme vetting" Trump claimed to want, and nothing is stopping him from making a thorough review of the system this very moment and ensuring it is adequate. There has never been the slightest articulation of how the system is broken from a security standpointbefore the election, or now. Trump is simply making good on a campaign promiseone that earned him the label "xenophobe"to drastically reduce certain foreigners coming into the country. In particular, Trump said before the election that he would stop the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Refugees, for God's sake! And yes, dear Christian, "God's sake" is a pun. You might wish "those people" stay out, but there is no acute security basis for your wish.

So Trump's implication that the borders have been suddenly thrown open is a lie, pure and simple. Add it to long litany of other lies that have earned Trump the "serially mendacious" designation by commentators on the right and left. These things matter. We need to be able to take a president's words at face value, but with Trump all bets are off. You just can't believe anything he says, because he lies continuously. And by the way, yet another hallmark of authoritarianism is the leader's propensity to continually promulgate his own reality, to the point where the populace simply doesn't know what is real. See: Orwell, George.

You can certainly see how Trump's "base", persons of the "low information" variety who are far less informed, thoughtful, and sophisticated than you, would be easy prey to such a lie. But ask yourself: What kind of president would use such shameless deceit and dishonesty to whip his supporters into a frenzy in this manner? There are many millions of people who literally don't have a clue about how travel into the U.S. is managed, or how refugees are vetted. If Trump tells them we're in great peril, and that "anyone" can get in, they'll believe him. What a despicable human being to use his position of authority in such a manner.

We can be thankful that our system is designed with checks and balances that can, at least for now, stand in the way of a would-be despot. (Erosions over time that weaken those checks are another matter. Trump is not a one-act show but a constant, pernicious threat.) The judicial branch is one such check, and the legislative another. In moments of acute crisis it typically falls to the judicial branch to act, as it is now doing.

Incidentally, Trump's slander aside, Judge Robart's ruling was not on its face improper. We can see this is so by noting that an "emergency" appeal by the administration to overturn the ruling was rejected Sunday morning by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court directed each side to provide additional arguments by 3:00 Pacific time today (Monday). This could end up before the Supreme Court in short order.

A final word on dignity and decorum being so sadly lacking in this president. Shortly after Trump's order was signed, acting attorney general Sally Yates, a career attorney in the Justice Department, said she would not defend the order in court because she was not confident that it was lawful. So far the courts have validated her concern. I say "concern" because neither she nor they have advanced a final judgement.

And so Yates was immediately fired, which is the president's prerogative. Normally when someone is fired it is done quietly, or perhaps with a neutral, low-key public statement. But in Yate's case, the White House released this statement containing Trump's trademark personal attack:
WHITE HOUSE:  Ms. Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration. It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals traveling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.
The thing reads as if Trump wrote the statement himself.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved