The revulsion evoked by Donald Trump as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland goes far beyond his speech, which was memorable only for its angry mood, not its vapid content. What repelled so many Americans in that moment was the realization — or simply the intuition — that the candidate of the Grand Old Party in 2016 is a living repudiation of every hope, every principle, and nearly every word that made this country great.
Imagine for a moment what George Washington might have felt in observing the personage of Trump, whose vanity, prevarication, and rage are so opposed to the modesty and restraint that the first president personified. It is impossible to conceive of Washington proclaiming that only he could solve the country’s problems, or insisting that he had never been wrong, or making any of the audacious boasts emitted by the Republican nominee whenever he opens his braying mouth.
Washington refused to accept a crown, leaving office voluntarily so that the new nation could find its way toward a democratic succession. His country’s future was far more important to him than his own aggrandizement. Of Trump, nobody can honestly say that.
To Washington, Trump’s vengeful and bloodthirsty attitude toward the nation’s enemies, real or perceived, would be as loathsome as his monumental narcissism. The seasoned general who led the American revolution — against the overwhelming force of the British empire — refused to imitate the brutal practices of the imperial army, rejecting the mass executions, torture, and mutilation that were then so common in warfare. He ordered that any Continental soldier who abused a British or Hessian soldier be punished severely, and commanded that every prisoner be treated humanely. He would have detested Trump’s vow to imitate the most barbaric conduct of the criminal Islamic State as well as his vile promise to murder the families of alleged terrorists.
Listening to Trump assume the leadership of the Republican Party, a degrading event compared to death by many Republicans, inevitably brought thoughts of that party’s founding president. While Abraham Lincoln remains among this country’s most revered leaders and always will, he is naturally despised by many of Trump’s most ardent supporters, especially those who still lurk in the remnants of the Ku Klux Klan.
Beyond the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, what Americans remember most about Lincoln was a brief address whose most indelible lines — “With malice toward none, with charity for all” — could never be comprehended, let alone uttered, by someone like Trump. For if there is anyone who literally embodies malice, both personal and political, it is this bullying braggart. He would not “bind up the nation’s wounds,” as Lincoln died trying to do, but delights in inflicting pain on the defenseless, the crippled, and the weak.
The third American titan whose shadow loomed over Trump’s triumph is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose creative government rescued the country from Depression and the world from Nazism. The crude promotion of fear in nearly every line of Trump’s convention speech is precisely the opposite of Roosevelt’s injunction in his famous first inaugural address, when he said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That same message lifted the nation through the searing challenge of the Second World War, when harbingers of evil and their dupes, both at home and abroad, predicted that American democracy lacked the strength to endure. Now only our chronic historical amnesia allows Trump to scream “America First,” the name of a movement that sought to undermine this country’s resistance to fascism, and was secretly subsidized by the Nazis for that purpose.
Like Washington and Lincoln, FDR would have regarded Trump and all that surrounds him as abhorrent.
It is not that any of these presidents was perfect, or that America has adhered in every hour to the ideals they tried to uphold. We know that they, and this country, veered too often from those aspirations, to say the least. But we now confront the rise of an authoritarian pretender who admires despotism and abandons fundamental principles, a political figure whose character is so deficient that his candidacy mocks our history. The only way to honor what is best in our heritage, to deliver what we owe to our ancestors and our heirs, is to defeat him in November with resounding force.
By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, The National Memo, July 22, 2016
I’m sure several of you are shaking your heads, wondering if I got the title wrong. But while American political figures officially declared their independence on July 4, 1776, winning it was another matter. And that came on a hot day in June, instead of a cold day in December.
There’s nothing wrong with your textbooks, of course. Emboldened by George Washington’s ability to maneuver the British out of Boston thanks to positioning his artillery at Dorchester Heights, America’s 2nd Continental Congress did declare their independence in Philadelphia. It’s all grandly captured in David McCullough’s book 1776 as well.
But what the texts often forget, but McCullough doesn’t, is what happened to the Americans after Independence Day. Washington suffered his worst defeat, at the Battle of Long Island. 1776 continues to be a year to forget, as Americans lose Ft. Washington and other key outposts. The army is in full retreat, and it looks bleak.
But while wins at Trenton (the famous attack on the Hessians after Christmas) and against a rear guard at Princeton give Americans a little hope, it’s dashed the following year at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. The British capture the American capital at Philadelphia in 1777. Many in politics want Washington replaced, by either Charles Lee or Horatio Gates.
While the British enjoy the homes and comforts of the City of Brotherly Love, Washington and his men suffer outside the town at Valley Forge. But they don’t just suffer. They train with Lafayette and Von Steuben in the snow, while the British take it easy, and the King’s officers party away. By contrast, the American officers share the miserable conditions with their men.
The next test takes place on June 28 of 1778 at Monmouth Court House (a battle reenacted every year), as the British march across New Jersey. Washington hits General Henry Clinton’s army in broad daylight, out in the open. This will be no holiday ambush, or hitting a small portion of a force. It means attacking British regulars at their full strength.
General Lee, who dislikes the plan, leads it poorly and produces a disorganized retreat. Washington relieves him of command on the spot, and organizes a rally. “Mad Anthony” Wayne, General Stirling, and Henry Knox’s artillery, the goats of Germantown, are ready to withstand an attack by General Charles Cornwallis.
The result is spectacular. Washington’s men stop Cornwallis’ attack cold, a combination of snipers and stiff resolve (and heroic stories like the legendary Molly Pitcher). While America’s cannon rake the enemy, the British guns are off on their timing. As temperatures climb to well over 100 degrees, Washington’s order for his men to leave their coats behind is brilliant. The “by-the-book British” keep the heavy items, and lose hundreds more than the Americans to heat stroke. And it’s clear who has been hard at work, practicing over the winter. Americans lose fewer soldiers in the pitched battle, and hold their ground, as the British leave the region for New York City.
But there’s a final piece that Monmouth battle archaeologists discovered, as seen on the History Channel’s Battlefield Detectives. They found, arguably for the first time, buttons issued with a simple pair of words: U.S. No longer would we see ourselves as New Yorkers first, or North Carolinians first, or Rhode Islanders first. We would be THE United States of America. And that’s a spirit the British could never beat. We’re still united, and can’t be divided.
By: John A. Tures, Professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga; The Blog, The Huffington Post, July 3, 2015
The sad controversies of Penn State have shown us that there is one thing politicians in Washington do right. Well, do right most of the time. Official Washington is smart enough to know what the folks at Penn State sure didn’t — you don’t build statues or monuments to people who are still alive. At Penn State, they thought it was a great idea to erect a statue of football coach Joe Paterno when he not only was still alive but still coaching. Nobody could have imagined when they dedicated the Paterno statue in 2001 that it would have to be removed in ignominy and shame, by workers hiding behind a hastily-built fence, only 11 years later.
But they should have known they were taking chances when they decided to honor somebody whose legacy was still being writ. They should have listened to Robert Shrum, who said Sunday on Meet the Press: “We shouldn’t put up statues of living people. You’re going to make yourself a hostage to fortune. And that’s what happened here.”
If they had paid attention to how Washington builds its monuments, they would have seen an abundance of caution, a willingness to let the passions of the day subside and history render its considered verdict. Just look at the edifices that dot the Mall. George Washington died in 1799, universally acclaimed as the greatest American. But it was 49 years before work began on the Washington Monument, and it was not completed until 85 years after the first president’s death.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the greatest of the Founders, died in 1826. It was 117 years before his Memorial was dedicated. Abraham Lincoln saved the union. But he was in his grave for 57 years before he got a Monument in his name. Franklin D. Roosevelt was beloved as the president who guided the country through a Great Depression and a world war. He did get his likeness on the dime, replacing Winged Victory, while passions were strong. But that was recognition of his work on what became the March of Dimes and the battle against polio. He didn’t get a memorial for 52 years, until 1997. And those eager to honor Martin Luther King Jr. had to wait 43 years after his assassination before his statue was unveiled in West Potomac Park.
The patience is often tested, particularly when passions are strongest. A center for the performing arts had already been approved by President Dwight Eisenhower three years before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Given the slain leader’s support for the arts, it was a no-brainer to affix his name to the new center in 1971. But waiting for history has served the country well. For the most part, the United States has avoided what is commonplace in dictatorships such as Iraq and the Soviet Union, where citizens could get dizzy watching statues of Saddam, Lenin and Stalin go up and come down.
Despite the pressure of those with personal nostalgia and political agendas such as those rushing to name buildings after Ronald Reagan and build statues of him while he was alive, the American model is to wait until contemporaries are dead before taking chisel to granite. Just think of the one major exception in the capital. Is there anyone who doesn’t regret the hasty decision to name the FBI headquarters for its longtime director J. Edgar Hoover? The decision was made in 1972 only 48 hours after Hoover’s death, and long before historians began sorting through some of the less salutory aspects of the director’s tenure.
By: George E. Condon, Jr., National Journal, July 24, 2012
Eric Spiegelman has an interesting post on how the legal establishment got the individual mandate so wrong. In it, he writes:
How far can the definition of Congress’ enumerated powers be stretched? As Justice Scalia asked during oral arguments: if Congress can force you to buy health insurance, can they also force you to buy broccoli? The question I like to ask is: what if Congress forced you to buy a gun?
But Congress has forced Americans to buy guns. It’s in the Militia Acts of 1792. The relevant section is a bit lengthy, so I’ve bolded the key parts:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective states, resident therein, who is or shall be of the age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia by the captain or commanding officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this act. And it shall at all times hereafter be the duty of every such captain or commanding officer of a company to enrol every such citizen, as aforesaid, and also those who shall, from time to time, arrive at the age of eighteen years, or being of the age of eighteen years and under the age of forty-five years (except as before excepted) shall come to reside within his bounds; and shall without delay notify such citizen of the said enrolment, by a proper non-commissioned officer of the company, by whom such notice may be proved. That every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball: or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear, so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise, or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack.
Now, you could argue that this was not done under the Commerce Clause. But as Yale’s Akhil Reid Amar says, “the law shows that George Washington, who signed the law, thought that purchase-mandates were not intrinsically improper. If Congress can regulate a ‘well-regulated’ militia with a mandate, why can’t Congress regulate interstate commerce the same way?”
Incidentally, that’s not the only time an early congress mandated that Americans purchase privately sold products:
In 1790, the very first Congress—which incidentally included 20 framers—passed a law that included a mandate: namely, a requirement that ship owners buy medical insurance for their seamen. This law was then signed by another framer: President George Washington. That’s right, the father of our country had no difficulty imposing a health insurance mandate.[…]
Six years later, in 1798, Congress addressed the problem that the employer mandate to buy medical insurance for seamen covered drugs and physician services but not hospital stays. And you know what this Congress, with five framers serving in it, did? It enacted a federal law requiring the seamen to buy hospital insurance for themselves. That’s right, Congress enacted an individual mandate requiring the purchase of health insurance. And this act was signed by another founder, President John Adams.
That’s from Einer Elhauge, a professor at Harvard Law, who continues, “not only did most framers support these federal mandates to buy firearms and health insurance, but there is no evidence that any of the few framers who voted against these mandates ever objected on constitutional grounds. Presumably one would have done so if there was some unstated original understanding that such federal mandates were unconstitutional.”
Also of note: unlike the mandate to buy muskets, the maritime mandates were exercised under the Commerce Clause.
By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post Wonkblog, June 26, 2012
I’ve been mulling over a column by David Brooks on “The Politics of Solipsism” for the past couple of weeks. What he wrote is nervy to say the least. He argues that America has lost the republican virtues on which it was founded, namely, the curbing of self-centeredness in the interest of the public good. I too am a fan of Cicero, but Brooks fails in one of the primary republican virtues by not forthrightly acknowledging that Republicans, the adherents of Ayn Rand, are the ones who have most blatantly deserted these same virtues. Self interest has center stage on their platform.
Brooks praises Truman and Eisenhower, but he fails to mention that it was President Kennedy who repeatedly challenged Americans and asked them to sacrifice. He urged us to go to the moon because it was tough, not because it was easy. And when my father, Robert Kennedy, was running for president and medical students asked him who would pay for more health care for the poor, he quickly answered, “You will.”
Contrary to the Republican philosophy, summed up by Ronald Reagan, that government is the problem, John and Robert Kennedy considered politics an honorable profession and affirmed that government was the place where we “make our most solemn common decisions.”
Both my uncle and my father knew that America is at its best when its citizens are willing to give up something for others. That was the spirit in which they committed themselves to public service. Ultimately they both gave their lives in the service of their country.
Like my father and my uncle, I believe that serving the public good is the essential republican virtue. In fact I led the effort to make Maryland the first and still only state in the country where community service is a condition of high school graduation. I did this because I believe that virtue comes from habits developed, not sermons given. Aristotle said, “we become house builders by building houses, we become harp players by playing the harp, we grow to be just by doing just actions.”
Republican governors are making their mark attacking public servants. They’re laying off citizens who exemplify republican virtues like teaching in inner city schools, fighting drug cartels, and rushing into burning buildings. Why? So that those who make outrageous salaries can pay lower taxes.
Brooks says that Republicans want growth, but I see no evidence that they want growth for anyone but the most well off. Where is the commitment to education, to infrastructure, to science?
Brooks commends Paul Ryan for sending the message that “politics can no longer be about satisfying voters’ immediate needs.” And yet Ryan would give the rich even more of a tax break at a time when our taxes are the lowest in three decades.
George Washington, whom Brooks also praises, would be surprised that the rich are being asked to shoulder less of a burden. He supported excise taxes that would fall disproportionately on the wealthy. When he went to war, he brought his wife, Martha, to share the hard, cold winter of Valley Forge along with him.
The wealthy have a special responsibility. From those who have been given much, much will be asked. In a true republic, people of wealth and privilege are first in line to serve in government, go to war, contribute to the honor and glory of their country. They set the nation’s values. If what they value is money, money, money, then the country will follow.
After 9/11, George Bush asked us to shop. At just the moment when he could have called us to a cause greater than ourselves, he (apparently on the advice of Karl Rove) urged us to step up for new TVs and designer bags rather than for the public good.
So if Brooks really wants to put an end to the politics of solipsism, he must take on the Republican party itself, which has done so little to cultivate the virtues of service, sacrifice, and commitment to country.
Please don’t lecture us about solipsism and republican virtues when it’s Republicans who are the ones who have made such a virtue of self interest.
By: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, The Atlantic, May 22, 2011