Politicians Who’ve Had it Worse

Joel:

Poor Donald Trump! As he whined during a commencement speech to the Coast Guard Academy, he, no politician has ever been treated worse.

Since Donald Trump is no historian, let’s help him out by making a list of politicians who have, indeed, been treated worse.

I’ll get started with US presidents:

  • James Garfield
  • William McKinley
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • John F. Kennedy

President Abraham Lincoln's hearse, Springfield, Illinois.

Above, Lincoln’s hearse. Below, the White House decorated to honor the death of James Garfield. 

presidential-funerals-james-garfield

 

 

presidential-funerals-william-mckinley

Above, the. body of William McKinley lies in state. Below, First Lady Jackie Kennedy weeps over the casket holding the body of her husband, John F. Kennedy. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Daughter Caroline at John F. Kennedy's Coffin

I think it’s also fair to add

  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Ronald Reagan

Andrew Jackson, Trump’s presidential model, was also the target of an assassination attempt. Our first president to face one, Jackson successfully defended himself against his attacker after the man’s guns—two of them–misfired.

And though we don’t have any news stories of bullets flying at Mr. Obama, the secret service somehow let a potential assassin sneak into the actual White House and get close to the president. Plus, Obama had to deal with years of racist hecklers showing up to his events. Unlike Donald Trump, he somehow coped with this without hijacking the graduation of the Coast Guard in an effort to garner pity.

We might even argue that the slobbering of Republicans during the unnecessary, expensive impeachment of Bill Clinton was a form of harassment to him. It was surely embarrassing to the rest of us, even if Newt Gingerich didn’t have the decency to sense his own hypocrisy.

To this list, we might add some international figures, including

  • Nelson Mandela
  • Vaclav Havel
  • Indira Gandhi
  • Benazir Bhutto

Of course, we should not expect a man who won’t read a briefing that doesn’t mention him a lot to read history. And we shouldn’t expect a known narcissist to be able to put his own experiences into a larger context.

Who would you add?

 

Worse than Impeachable

Joel:

Look at this: You, David Brooks, Rod Dreher (who we both struggle with),and I agree: Trump’s effort at witness intimidation, tweeted at James Comey, is a line that Congress cannot ignore, paling only in comparison to his reckless neediness on display when he gave away security secrets to Russia.

Both events this week indicate not merely a thuggish approach to the office of the presidency but also prove the impossibility of ever conducting politics in good faith with Donald Trump. Trump, always a projector, accused Obama of surveilling him, but Trump’s tweet seems to suggest that he think it’s perfectly acceptable to surreptitiously record others, and former associates have said that this is, in fact, business as usual for Trump. His carelessness with sensitive information reveals that that he has no respect for vulnerable allies. That Trump doesn’t think this is a problem isn’t a surprise: he’s never loved freedom, civil liberties, the Constitution, the law, or even just the norms of political life. He has never demonstrated true respect for others or care for them. He lacks enough knowledge of history to understand how this abuse of power echoes Watergate or how it endangers lives. That Congressional Republicans are not acting swiftly is what is more telling (and repulsive). Never believe Republicans when they tell you that the party believes in the rule of law.

What I found most interesting about your posts questioning Trump’s fitness for office, though, was that you said that you were now open to impeachment talk. I appreciate your caution, though I’ve not shared it. (I think Trump’s violations of the emoluments clause were already clear enough to warrant action.) It reminded me of a recent post by historian John Fea, who writes the blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home. A member of the faculty at Messiah College, Fea warns us against claiming that every president in our era is the worst president in history. History is long, of course, and how we rank people depends on our own position. Andrew Jackson was terrible for Native Americans, Andrew Johnson for African Americans, George W. Bush for the people of Iraq. Any president in the nuclear age is potentially more dangerous than any who had power before the invention of such weapons, so an even-tempered Barack Obama has more potential for harm than the feisty Teddy Roosevelt or the lazy Warren G. Harding.  In short, how we rank a president depends on a lot of criteria, including some that change frequently. (Obama looks pretty good right now to a lot of people, but if history shows that his commitment to neoliberal economic policies led to the despair that pushed voters toward Trump, how we he be ranked then?)

Years ago, I purchased a set of  presidential playing cards at the Smithsonian. I wondered at the conversations that the designers must have had as they picked who to assign which card to. Kennedy was the king of hearts and Nixon the ace of spades, which were pretty easy, I imagine, to assign, but how to rank those whose legacies are both impressive and awful–Jefferson’s radical belief in democracy as measured against the fact that he bought and sold human beings? FDR’s leadership during World War II and his invention of the welfare state (making him a savior or a devil, depending on your view) during a time when he was also interning American citizens in prison camps? LBJ’s effort to eradicate American poverty and insure that older Americans could live in dignity while also bombing Viet Nam?

If no US president (sorry Carter fans!) has a record free of the deliberate killing of innocents, does this mean that the job itself cannot be carried out without unnecessary violence. (The answer for many of my Mennonite friends is yes, which is why they can’t in good conscience vote.) And if that is the case, should we ever honor any president? Can you imagine, on a personal level, excusing the violent actions that our presidents have undertaken because of a person’s good behavior? (“Sure, Tom enslaved his own children, but he was a product of his times. We can’t really expect anything else.” “Maybe William took us into a war that killed 200,000 Filipino civilians, but he did it because he wanted to build a naval superpower and there was just no other way to get that done.” “Okay, I’ll admit that Bill accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia, but his heart was in the right place!”)

Ellen

Above, talk show host Ellen Degeneres shares a sideways hug with former president George W. Bush, who has been able to rehabilitate his legacy, despite foreign policies that have killed more than a million people. He’s just like your grandpa, if your grandpa killed 5% of the Iraqi population. 

Any praise we give any president is tainted by survivor’s bias. Those of us who live because a past president did not enslave, annihilate, or degrade our ancestors have a duty to remember those who were killed: the more than 300,000 enslaved Africans brought to America as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the more than 70,000 Japanese killed in a single day when Truman dropped the atomic bomb, the 20% of the civilian population decimated (No, that word is wrong–it means 1/10 of the population. Truman’s leadership killed twice as many. We have no word for that kind of horror.) in North Korea when he waged war there, the more than 100 civilians killed by drone strikes under Obama.  It’s easy to claim that Trump is the worst if we ignore the 1 million Iraqis dead under George W. Bush.

Is Trump a thug? For sure, but we knew that when we elected him. Is he guilty of crimes against humanity? Maybe not yet, but if he’s anything like most of our presidents, he will be.

 

 

Approval Junkie Would Kill Us All to Get His Fix

Joel:

So, we’e a little more than 100 days into the misery of a Trump presidency (and what I hope is at least 90% of the way done with it), and I can honestly say that it’s gone better than I expected. So far, Trump’s ego has killed just one Navy SEAL and an American child in his botched raid in Yemen back in January. And think of all the places we haven’t yet had a war with! We’re somehow NOT exchanging nukes with with North Korea or China, which I consider a win.  Sure, Trump is pointlessly escalating the largely pointless war in Afghanistan (Did you think that was over? Wrong!), but if fighting there could keep him distracted from starting a new war, maybe we can call it “harm reduction” rather than “waste of human life.” Sorry to the US soldiers about to lose life and limb for that, but it seems like reality TV just isn’t enough to occupy our fine leader these days, so someone’s gotta do it.

In light of Trump’s cavalier attitude about sharing top-secret information with a Russian that our experts say is a spy, some conservatives are coming around to the idea that Trump maybe just maybe doesn’t have the temperament for a job as a bingo caller, much less to be president, though others are still willing to defend a president who is “unschooled” (as if ignorance of how the office of the presidency works is something we should just tolerate in the honest-to-God-I-still-can’t-believe-it POTUS). I suspect that if they didn’t mind his bringing the nuclear football to lunch and showing up in selfies, they won’t mind him revealing sensitive information about vulnerable allies in the fight against ISIS (which was, I think, supposed to be solved in February, right?).

All of this is predictable. After all, senior intelligence officials warned about it during the campaign.

As a Christian, I like turnaround stories–the scales dropping from Paul’s eyes and his conversion from the chief persecutor of Christians to the architect of the early church. Those who anticipated such a dramatic change between Candidate and President Trump were looking for an equally large miracle, and they were foolish. At 70 years old, Trump’s character was pretty well-formed (or, rather, ill-formed); changing it would be difficult even if Trump himself wanted to, and he doesn’t–and why should he? It, along with inherited millions, got him this far.

Trump’s character is familiar to any of us who have had extended contact with those with fragile egos (by which I mean sense of self, not arrogance). Apparently, 60 million of us didn’t learn this simple playground lesson: the vacuum inside a bully can never be filled from the outside.

Trump’s decision to compromise the safety of allies who provided us with information about ISIS was not even a decision–it was a way for him to get the approval he needs like you and I need oxygen, and he doesn’t hesitate to suck up flattery like we suck in air. Trump, when facing a man his own fragile masculinity recognized as savvier than him,  did the only think a fragile ego can do: he begged for approval. Oh, he can’t ask “Do you like me? Am I the best? Do you respect and fear me?” So instead he brags about his intel–he has “the best intel.” (Of course you do, you rube. You have all the power of the presidency. No one is impressed that you have intel.) Like so many other fragile men, he needs flattery and is willing to trade anything for it. He gave away important, dangerous information, jeopardizing our relationships with our allies, in exchange for the chance to brag about it. He isn’t “the best”; he is the neediest.

Trump’s embarrassing dependency on other’s approval threatens us all. We need to recognize it as a permanent condition, not a temporary lack of judgment. 

That kind of emptiness can never be filled. In exchange for others telling him he is a big and powerful man, Trump would give away every secret, endanger every member of the US military, alienate every ally, stuff the nuclear football in Kim Jong-un’s Christmas stocking, hand Xi Jinping the keys to Fort Knox, and appoint Vladimir Putin as the new Secretary of State. And he would still not be satisfied  because a person without a core, without an identity apart from the admiration of others (which is easy to get when you are rich, even though those who claim to love you–perhaps your wives–despise you), can never have that need met. It’s bottomless.

Which means this will not stop until Congress makes it stop.

Which means, really, it’s up to us.

Everything wrong with American Evangelicalism in “the Best Commencement Speech Liberty University has ever had”

Joel,

Did you listen to Donald Trump’s commencement address at Liberty University, the dominionist university started by Jerry Falwell and now headed by Jerry, Jr?

As usual for Trump, it included ample bragging about his surprising electoral win in November and another crass reference about how vital their support was for his campaign (“And I want to thank you, because boy did you come out and vote, those of you that are old enough, in other words your parents. Boy oh boy, you voted, you voted.”). The speech has the usual vacuous references to the graduates’ futures, a quotation misunderstanding Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and some lousy theology (“Jerry, I know your dad is looking down on you right now, and he is proud, he is very proud,”) that frankly should have offended the premillennialists, but, really, evangelical Christians have no standards at all any more, so it’s not surprising that they are unbothered by this detail. For Trump, it was almost coherent.

Falwell and Trump

Above, two lying, talentless conmen who have benefitted from nepotism: Donald Trump and  Jerry Falwell, Jr., who has called Trump evangelicals’ “dream president.” They stand in front of a framed cover from Playboy. Jerry Falwell, Sr., campaigned against the placement of pornographic magazines in convenience stores and sued Hustler in a case that went to the Supreme Court. “Jerry, I know your dad is looking down on you right now, and he is proud, he is very proud.”

One passage, though, strikes me as as almost prophetic:

“A small group of failed voices who think they know everything and understand everyone want to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think, but you aren’t going to let other people tell you what you believe, especially when you know that you are right.”

Here, Trump is talking about Washington, DC–a “small group of failed voices” (you know, the ones elected by the people), but, “boy oh boy” could he be describing evangelical Christians. American evangelicalism has failed to turn its adherents into Christians, and those who claim that their evangelical Christianity prompts their conservative politics… well, they are failing too. They can’t persuade the majority of Americans to vote like them, and they can’t staff a Supreme Court who will ignore the Constitution in favor of their dominionist views. But they’ll keep at it because the know that they are right. Sigh.

More repulsive, though, were Jerry Falwell, Jr’s words praising Trump for dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US military’s arsenal in Afghanistan. Falwell sees this as a defense of Christians in the region, who are persecuted by ISIS. Neither Falwell nor I can speak to the theology of Christians who are facing genocide at the hands of ISIS. What I can say is that, whether the US bombs ISIS or not, Christians, even those at Liberty University, should not rejoice in the death of those who would persecute them.

 

Wolf by the Ears: Why the GOP Can’t Stop being Racist

Joel:

This week you quite rightly pointed out the Republican Party’s anti-immigration policies are aimed at reducing the number of Democratic voters. Republicans have owned up to it, just as they’ve admitted that efforts to suppress black votes are efforts to suppress Democratic ones. And this is the history of white people since the founding: to insure that the votes of people of color will never overcome their own votes, that non-whites will not be able to pull the levers of power.

ImmigrationProtest

Above, anti-immigrant protestors hold a sign saying “Send them back with birth control.” They don’t just want no immigrants in the US–they want fewer brown-skinned people in the world. 

To the argument you lay out, I will this:

Republicans fear non-white votes because Republicans (who are overwhelmingly white and less reflective of the national population than Democrats) have used elected office and government policy to hurt minorities and bolster structures that maintain their power.  They fear nonwhite power because they themselves has used power to hurt nonwhites. They fear retaliation because they know they deserve it. We can see it in the words of Thomas Jefferson, whose own relationship with slavery was–what is the polite way to say this?–conflicted, though not enough for him to act right. Despite the polymath’s genius in imagining a new form of government and his statesmanship in bringing it to life, he couldn’t see how powerful whites could do anything except maintain power over enslaved Africans and African Americans. Writing in 1820, he said:

But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

Today’s Republicans see a similar issue: to maintain power, they must be racist.  And they have embraced racism as a political strategy with a kind of glee that suggests it might not be strategy alone that drives them.

This isn’t just the hard kick of a dying mule. It’s an immensely cynical strategy and one that is self-defeating. There are good reasons why many immigrants are more politically progressive than the average Republican. Unlike nearly anyone in Congress, they have often seen the effects of US warmongering up close, and the sound of American military jets flying overhead don’t inspire patriotism but fear. They have lost family members killed by American soldiers or with American-made guns and bombs. Too, they have lived in colonies and former colonies in places whose economies and landscapes have been decimated by the forces of capitalism. Today, the largest numbers of refugees settling in the US are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Burma, and Iraq–not all places where we’ve messed up, though, historically, we had to take in large numbers of refugee after bungling wars in Viet Nam and other parts of Southeast Asia–but places where our policies have not necessarily helped the local situation. Our undocumented immigrants come mostly from Mexico and points south--places where our economic and foreign policy has long contributed to instability.  They may be fleeing civil wars, genocidal dictators, drug wars, and grinding poverty, but that doesn’t mean that they love Ayn Rand or Paul Ryan.

But, while Trump advisor Michael Anton worries that such immigrants have “no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,”  they, like African Americans, should not be presumed to be default Democrats. Very often, immigrants and refugees from the “Third World” that Anton despises so much as well as native-born people of color embrace gender and sexuality norms that align more with Republican’s so-called “traditional family values” than with the Democratic Party’s stances on abortion, divorce, parental authority over children, women’s rights, or gay rights. The Hispanic and African American students at my own university aren’t majoring in Queer Studies or Radical Leftist Rioting, after all, but in business and criminology. (In fact, criminology is the most popular major for black and Hispanic students at my university.)  International students are pursuing degrees in STEM and economics, not The Overthrow of Capitalism.

So why can’t Republicans imagine appealing to the foreign born and people of color? Is it because, like Jefferson, they cannot imagine the victims of their own racism doing anything except murdering them? Is it because they know that a coalition of social conservatives and robber barons doesn’t really make sense and that, eventually, social conservatives will realize it, too? Or is it because their racism isn’t merely strategic but also heart-felt?

It’s not just the Republican Party losing here. (Remember that the GOP has not been able to place a truly new candidate in the White House by popular vote since 1980. I was in diapers. Every Republican president who won the popular vote since then was either an incumbent president or VP.)  Our democracy would be richer if people of color could contribute to the national political conversation without having to go through the Democratic Party. There is no reason why the huge diversity of black voters so overwhelmingly chooses to vote Democrat–except that the Republican Party (and individual Republican voters) are so racist.  If anyone should be angry about the racism of the GOP, it should be conservatives of color.

 

Who Do Church Police Protect?

Briarwood Presbyterian church, an Alabama megachurch, has recently been granted permission by the state to create its own police force. The church, which maintains a child care center, a private k-12 school, and a seminary, made the request because, it says, out of concerns for public safety at churches, citing shootings at other churches, including one at a carnival at another church in the area recently. Currently the church, like many other houses of worship, hires off duty officers to provide security at events, but these officers serve on an as-needed basis and do not report to the church itself. In the new model, police would be associated with the actual church, giving the church “the authority of state government,” as Randall Marshall, with Alabama’s ACLU, observes.

Regardless of the constitutionality of the arrangement, the thousands of (mostly white, because this is a church that was founded in objection to desegregation and as religious enclave for whites fleeing an integrated Birmingham) people who participate in life at Briarwood each day might want to think carefully about installing a church-supported police force. Crime within the congregation—rather than crimes against the congregation—seem to me to be far more likely. When a congregational leader commits fraud or a brother in the faith sexually assaults a minor, it’s far healthier for outside investigators to lead the effort to find the truth, protect victims, and insure safety, as we know from horror stories across lines of faith—Catholic, Jewish, Amish and Mennonite, and more.

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Above, the compound at Briarwood Presbyterian church, in a suburb of Birmingham. If people within the congregation are being abused, they could tell a teacher within the Briarwood Presbyterian educational system or a police officer who reports to the church. This is a set-up for abuse. 

Moreover, a church-related police force gives considerable control to the church, control that congregants might not like if it turned against them, as members of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints community in the Hildale, Utah/Colorado City, Arizona, have learned. There, the police force was a defacto arm of the church, leading to corruption and the harassment of those who spoke against it.

If Briarwood does form its own police force, congregants may find that, rather than making them safer, it makes them more likely to be victimized.

Is self-defense a “sacred right” for Christians?

Joel:

Did you listen to Donald Trump’s speech to the NRA in Atlanta on Friday? It was the first time since Reagan that a president addressed this powerful lobby group, and Trump was in his element, firing up the crowd’s fear of immigrants and contrasting his own strongman tactics with the Obama administration’s failure, in the right’s imagination, to support police or veterans. And, yes, he reminded the crowd that he won in November, to the surprise of the media, and, just 100 days into the worst first 100 we’ve seen in modern history, he spoke about his plan to run in 2020.

So, there was a lot to unpack, but it doesn’t take much nuanced thinking to do it: more bluster, more opportunistic promises (Trump’s inconsistencies on gun control has garnered him derision among many gun rights advocates–but not enough to make him lose their vote.), more racism, and, always, always, always, the fearmongering.  Though the Obama administration did virtually nothing–even in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings of a room of kindergartners–to address gun control, Trump said that an “eight year assault on gun rights was ending and that the government would no longer be “coming after” law-abiding gun owners. Sure, that never happened, but whatever. The point is that Americans need to be afraid! “These are horrible times for certain, obvious reasons,” Trump told the crowd, who were able to fill in those “obvious reasons” themselves (immigrants, black people).

In some ways, I feel quite sorry for Trump supporters, who must be the most afraid people in America. For the Christians among them, this is an even more pitiful state, for they’ve chosen to exchange the confidence their faith promises for fear.  That’s an act of disobedience, and the consequence is a life of constant suspicion, susceptibility to savior figures, a surrender of joy, and a failure to be spiritually prepared for suffering.

For Mennonites and other people of faiths that reject violence, one particular moment in Trump’s NRA speech reminds us that our religion is a currency, not a real consideration, in how politicians treat us. Trump promised to protect the “sacred right of self-defense for all of our citizens.”

gun

Above, a close up of “the Crusader,” a tactical rifle with Psalm 144:1 (“Blessed by the Lord, my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle”) etched on one side; on the other is the Knights Templar Long Cross, a symbol of the Crusaders during their attempt to take the Holy Land from Muslim control. The gun was specifically designed with “Christian values” in mind, according to the Florida manufacturer. 

For Mennonites, the “sacred right of self-defense” is an oxymoron. We might disagree about whether we ought to engage in self-defense at all and if, so, in under which circumstances and in which ways. We might disagree about whether guns can be used for that purpose and whether a gun itself invites such violence. We can argue about whether the Constitution gives us an individual right to handgun ownership or if it reserves the use of weapons for well-regulated militias.

But what we can’t disagree on, I think, is the idea that our right to kill another person, for any reason, is a “sacred right.” We have no models of “sacred self-defense” in the teaching of Jesus, and we have the most important model–of Jesus’ death–that counters this. Unlike most white Americans, early Christians had reason to be afraid, for their lives were in constant danger. And, yet, still, they are told over and over not to live in fear but in joy. Our “sacred right” isn’t an uninformed optimism that we will always be safe; it’s that we will always be loved–and that we experience that love more fully (and share it more generously) when we surrender our fear.