We are becoming overwhelmed.
The daily assault of news stories, some of which are pure distraction techniques, has caused so many people to withdraw, claiming not to want to see political stories in their news feeds. Wanting a filter. Wanting to take a break. Wishing things would just be kind and civil.
It’s OK to take a break when you feel overwhelmed.
When you are ready to come back, I will be here. I promise to be kind, civil, respectful, and honest. Seeking truth has always been my highest priority, right up there next to kindness. And both of those priorities, above and beyond my political beliefs, are currently under attack at the highest levels, and that kind of model filters down to our collective discourse. It’s meant to turn you off of politics! Don’t let it. Politics may not have impacted you before; if the election didn’t do it for you, recent developments signal that everyone’s lives are about to be very affected by politics.
Six days after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, it’s become clear that we all should have been taking him fully at his policy promises, such as they are, throughout his historically divisive campaign; but more than that, we must armor our institutions against attack from within. I’d like to summarize a few of the most abnormal and worrying developments so far and give you a little context to support this concern.
- Agencies including Interior, EPA, USDA, and others have been subjected to a media blackout. This level of restriction goes beyond any previous presidential transition and is reportedly “chilling” to employees. It’s not obvious that the order specifically violates First Amendment rights as it is worded, although it does create a (theoretically temporary) barrier between critical government science findings and the public. We do have the opportunity to watch how it is enforced; alternative, unofficial Twitter feeds such as “@AltNatParkSer” have been created by government employees in order to continue providing information that is of “public interest,” which is a protected form of speech for government employees.
- An investigation into “voter fraud” in “two states,” following an assertion that over 3 million votes were cast illegally. Senator Lindsey Graham (R – SC) stated that this assertion “shakes confidence in our democracy.” Indeed, this is a common preliminary tactic in the installation of autocratic and authoritarian regimes, in which shaking trust in voting, the fundamental institutional mechanism of democracy, is a critical step in removing or replacing the democratic structures entirely.
- The President issued a statement via Twitter threatening to “send the feds to Chicago” if Mayor Emmanuel does not “clean up the carnage” in his city. He has previously endorsed the use of “stop and frisk” in Chicago, a failed tactic first widely used in New York City, which was found to unjustly and ineffectively target people of color. Martial law, particularly targeting ethnic minorities, is also a common tactic among repressive and authoritarian regimes, particularly right-wing, fascist, and ethno-nationalist varieties.
- The administration is planning to propose the elimination of all 25 grants that support the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women. It would save the government “a little more than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget” and would defund support to some of the country’s most vulnerable populations, including child victims of assault and abuse, residents of tribal lands, women with disabilities, and children who have witnessed the abuse of a parent.
- In the first press briefing of the administration, the press secretary issued statements directly contradicted by knowable and reported facts and refused to take questions from the press. The President has also referred to journalists as “the most dishonest people on Earth,” among other epithets. His campaign fueled continual mistrust of the press. As with the investigation into voter fraud, this shakes trust in an institution absolutely essential to the functioning of our democracy and raises questions in the minds of many followers or neutral folks on whether facts can be knowable. This centers his own outlets of information (i.e. Twitter) as an authoritative source of facts. These fissures in the institution of the free press and the attempt to undermine and control structures of information flow in a democratic society are the bases of the classic authoritarian state-run propaganda complex and are a well-documented tactic of authoritarian regimes.
- According to Reuters, “U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign executive orders starting on Wednesday that include a temporary ban on most refugees and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries, say congressional aides and immigration experts briefed on the matter.” A Cato Institute report concludes, “The security threat posed by refugees in the United States is insignificant. Halting America’s processing of refugees due to a terrorist attack in another country that may have had one asylum-seeker as a co-plotter would be an extremely expensive overreaction to very minor threat. Resettling refugees who pass a thorough security check would likely decrease the recruiting pool for future terrorists and decrease the long-run risk.” This overreaction and scare tactic by the administration is known as scapegoating, and besides being, per Cato, an “extremely expensive overreaction,” it provides an external, nationalism-fueled enemy around which the authoritarian leader’s party may rally.
- Another notable quote from the Cato report: “A refugee from Burundi was detained by DHS for 20 months for materially supporting a terrorist group because rebels beat him up, stole $4 from him, and took his lunch (it’s unclear from the story, but he might have been an asylum seeker). Many good candidates for resettlement in the United States are turned down for these silly reasons.”
- President Trump may be in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which says: “No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust … shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State,” according to George W. Bush ethics Richard Painter. Emoluments are essentially payments for labor or services. His “blind trust” does not actually fulfill any of the technical requirements of a blind trust, which works on a high-level by putting all assets into a fund that is re-invested and managed by unknown parties. In that case, the owner does not know how their assets are being managed, and others outside of the trustees are not aware that the owner’s funds are involved.
However, the President has simply resigned from leadership in his companies and placed his family members in charge. The use of the word “blind trust” to describe this arrangement is wildly inaccurate and intentionally misleading. As it stands, he is aware of decisions made in his former businesses, and all the world is aware that they are doing business with his personally-designated family members. This puts him in a conflict of interest that could easily compromise national security, as his loyalty is divided between what is best for the country and what is most profitable for his companies.
Walter M. Shaub, Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, expressed his concern that this was not sufficient to avoid conflicts of interest and in response was sent a letter from Jason Chaffetz (R – UT), Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, threatening investigation, which was widely seen as a measure of intimidation.
It was not generally believed that a civil suit could correct this; impeachment, or, short of that, a resolution by Congress directed towards the President, would need to be considered in order to remedy these potentially compromising conflicts of interest. However, on Monday, January 23, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit against the President, but while they believe they have standing, their status as a directly injured party is not clearly affirmed by precedent. If the suit is upheld, the President could face a court order requiring him to divest fully from his current assets.
- The administration’s cabinet nominees are the wealthiest in history, making ethics review long and complicated; Senate Republicans are attempting to confirm these nominees before ethics reviews are completed.
Of course, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said. But political discussion is a marked change in the direction of this blog, and it is likely an unwelcome one to many of my readers – mostly family and friends. Some of you may have voted for Trump. You have as much reason or more to hold him accountable as those of us who did not. Join me in paying close and careful attention, seeking facts, evaluating context, and resisting any attempts – from any side – at eroding the basic tenets of our democracy and human rights.
You may note that I am not addressing everything. There are a number of areas of already-signed and anticipated executive actions that are not surprising in terms of their content, given the Republican Party’s stated stance on these issues. The substance of these issues, and whether or not they are the right direction for our country, can be debated – and believe me, I will debate that. But for now, regardless of your political leanings, I hope that we can all agree that our democratic institutions and rights are worth protecting, and that we can all unite against these threats to the core of our American – and human – values.