I know I just said last night that I was going to reduce the rants and move towards a simple journal about my experience trying to be a published writer. I also said I was terrible at arguing. Both of those things are true.
But also, I think that continuing the conversation is vital to our democracy. People frequently blame our president for his continuous denigration of the media, and you can see the results in how frequently that charge is echoed by his supporters; but the free press alone is not enough to protect our country and our liberties. We all need to think about it, and talk about it. The women’s marches, last year and this, are a wonderful example of citizens participating in the conversation, and the interview I heard this morning on NPR in which a woman criticized the marches for not having a clear message was, I think, missing the point. If you are determined that the answer must be clearly known and entirely solidified before you speak up, before you take action, then you’re assuming that the answer is simple, and therefore so is the problem.
We’re talking about our country. Our democracy. It is not simple. Especially not when you also include women’s rights in our society, women’s issues within our culture, gender politics, and the culture of sexual assault and harassment in the conversation. I recognize that the woman making the comment on the radio was trying to say that we should limit the conversation to a single talking point, but then it becomes easy to discard because that single talking point doesn’t affect everyone. Sometimes a single issue should be the exclusive focus, but sometimes it should be broader. Both types of conversation are necessary: a marriage can’t be considered healthy just because the two people have figured out who does the dishes, but no marriage can go on without figuring out who does the dishes.
So here’s a conversation I came across and that I would like to participate in. Not as an argument, just a conversation. It’s a couple of days old, now, but if Fox News will let me, I will link to this blog in the comments, and see if anyone gives me a response. I welcome responses of any kind.
It’s an op-ed called The Truth About Trump’s First Year, by Allen C. Guelzo, a professor of history at Gettysburg University. The first victory for the president, according to Professor Guelzo, is simply that he is still president:
But despite the Russia investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, despite the unrelenting fury of the princes of the op-ed pages, despite President Trump’s hiring of staff he was forced to fire, and despite his much-criticized tweets, the president is still in charge at the White House. And he appears to be wearing down all but his severest critics.
The last sentence is the thesis of the essay (though Guelzo goes a bit further than that by the end of the piece), that the President is convincing all and sundry that, actually, he’s doing a better job than we have given him credit for. The slant of the piece is apparent in the list of “despites:” the Mueller investigation is not over, of course, and Professor Guelzo does not list the various elements of the investigation that have already called the president’s actions and associations into question; the “unrelenting fury of the princes of the op-ed pages” is a wonderfully loaded phrase, calling into question both the rationality and impartiality of the pundits, and also implying they are undemocratic, unlike the Man of the People in the White House (I will not point out that Mr. Guelzo is himself declaiming on the opinion page, as I’m doing the same; but I will include this picture of the Man of the People.);
the tweets are “much-criticized” not because we’re all biased against the President, but because the man should not Tweet as he does – and nearly every interview I hear with a supporter of the President says the same. You think there’s broad bipartisan support for DACA? Run a poll on whether or not Twitter should close the President’s account. So I think that Professor Guelzo is already discounting things that should not be discounted, in any assessment of the President’s first year in office.
But let’s see how the President is wearing down his critics. The first issue raised is ISIS: Guelzo refers to a New York Times op-ed that discussed the collapse of the Islamic State this past year; the author, Ross Douthat, who describes himself in the piece as focusing primarily on finding fault with the President’s actions, grudgingly gives the President some of the credit for ISIS’s collapse:
So very provisionally, credit belongs where it’s due — to our soldiers and diplomats, yes, but to our president as well.
But Douthat’s argument isn’t terribly good, either:
I mean the war against the Islamic State, whose expansion was the defining foreign policy calamity of Barack Obama’s second term, whose executions of Americans made the U.S.A. look impotent and whose utopian experiment drew volunteers drunk on world-historical ambitions and metaphysical dreams. Its defeat was begun under Obama, and the hardest fighting has been done by Iraqis — but this was an American war too, and we succeeded without massive infusions of ground troops, without accidentally getting into a war with Russia, and without inspiring a huge wave of terrorism in the West.
Right, so as Douthat himself states, the war effort began under Mr. Obama, and was fought primarily by troops from the countries involved – Iraqis in the struggle to overthrow ISIS in their country, and Kurds and Arab soldiers in Syria; at least 160,000 fighting troops, and about 2,000 U.S. advisers, plus the American personnel carrying out airstrikes and artillery support – and so I immediately have to question how much of an American war this was. Yes, we were involved; but the President changed very little about that, he didn’t send more troops, didn’t appreciably change the strategy or the resources, didn’t bring new allies into the coalition. He gave the U.S. generals more freedom in deciding strategy, but how much influence did that really have? Were our generals behind the actual strategy as carried out by the fighting men? And then the success markers Douthat lists – we DIDN’T send in thousands of American troops, we DIDN’T get into a war with Russia, we DIDN’T inspire new terrorists (Well. Not yet. Right?) – I mean, that’s a low bar. I didn’t do any of those things, either. Can I have credit for the victory? (Snark aside, this article from the Guardian makes a compelling argument that the collapse of the actual Caliphate was inevitable, and that we have not yet seen what will come of ISIS as a stateless terrorist organization, which is what we have made of al Qaeda and the Taliban – both of which we are still fighting. I think this is not much of a victory at all, let alone a victory for the President. I will also say that the collapse of the Islamic State is a good thing, and that U.S. forces do deserve some credit.)
Next in Professor Guelzo’s argument is this:
Douthat’s observation was followed by never-Trumper and fellow columnist Bret Stephens’ insistence that, despite the collapse of ISIS and other achievements, President Trump must remain beyond the pale because he lacks “character.”
What Stephens didn’t say was that the Constitution does not list “character” as a prerequisite for the presidency, nor do voters necessarily reward it – or punish a perceived lack of character.
The issue of “character” certainly did nothing to affect Bill Clinton, or, for that matter, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Stephens’ attack was a pout, and when pundits turn to pouting, it means they have lost faith in their own argument.
This is, unsurprisingly, a poor rendition of Stephens’s argument. Stephens, who calls himself a conservative, discusses how the conservative viewpoint was once the one that touted character as the most important criterion for political office; he describes how the President’s particular personality has had harmful effects on his own administration. He makes a dozen points to support his contention, and to dismiss them all with “Well, character’s not in the Constitution!” is a pretty ridiculous red herring. Guelzo’s other point about character not affecting Clinton or Kennedy or Johnson is obviously false: Clinton was destroyed by the Lewinsky scandal, and Gore was sunk by the same torpedo; whether or not Kennedy would have been affected by character assassination was made moot by the other assassination. Professor’s Guelzo’s argument regarding this President seems to be that if one gets elected, and does not specifically violate the requirements in the Constitution, then that shows that one is satisfactorily performing the office.
I suppose we’re not going to talk about the emoluments clause. Did you know that Trump never even set up the blind trust (which wasn’t going to be that blind since his children are not exactly disconnected from him) for his company? I didn’t know that either.
Guelzo then refers to a third New York Times columnist, David Brooks, who wrote about how people meeting the President are surprised to find that he’s not actually a lunatic in person. I suppose that’s a victory. This is followed with these critiques of the left’s response to the President’s inauguration:
[A]s we turn the page on President Trump’s first year in office, the dirigible of anti-Trumpism is assuming an amusingly deflated look. It actually began deflating in the first few weeks of the Trump presidency, after Antifa thugs gave the “resistance” a self-inflicted black eye and a “Women’s March” made the wearing of funny hats its biggest accomplishment.
All right: so “Antifa thugs” that gave the resistance a black eye is only valid from a specific point of view, one that was looking for a black eye to give the left after the largest single protest movement in the history of humankind – which, apparently, only accomplished the wearing of funny hats. I think the only response to this is to reverse it: the white supremacists in Charlottesville gave the President’s party a black eye, which they tried to cover up with their MAGA hats. No, that’s not all the Republican party and the conservative movement accomplished in the last year, and the very worst elements affiliated with the right should not taint that entire half of the political spectrum. So too with the Women’s March or Antifa, which all by itself should not be tainted by its worst members – none of whom, I will say, drove their car into protestors.
What’s next, Professor Guelzo?
President Trump succeeded in getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed to fill the seat on the Supreme Court vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. In addition to Gorsuch, the Senate has confirmed 22 Trump nominees for federal appeals and district courts, with another 43 awaiting action.
What’s more, as Jonathan Adler of the Case Western Reserve University Law School has said: “The overall intellectual caliber of Trump’s nominees has been as high, if not higher, than any recent predecessor. That’s almost the opposite of what you might have expected.”
Okay, this is certainly an accomplishment; the appointment of Justice Gorsuch was one of the most pivotal issues that swung traditional conservatives to support the rather unconventional candidate picked by the GOP’s base. Turns out that this is actually an impressive number of judicial appointments:
Trump ranks sixth of 19 presidents filling the highest number of judgeships at the Supreme, appellate and District Court levels in their first year in office, while Obama ranked tenth, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis Friday.
The president has appointed 23 judges, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a dozen appellate court judges and 10 District Court judges. Obama appointed 13 judges—Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, three appellate court judges and nine District Court judges.
Of course, context is everything. You know that, Professor: you’re a teacher. You teach history, for Pete’s sake. Why would you drain all the context out of this, if not to achieve a slanted partisan talking point?
Trump’s success comes in part from the fact that the GOP holds a slim majority in the Senate, which confirms Trump’s picks. In addition, Republican senators in Obama’s first five years blocked three dozen judicial nominations, Politifact found. Democrats used a simple majority to pass most judicial confirmation votes, not a super-majority of 60.
“Nominations pretty much came to a halt until the start of the Trump administration when the Senate started quickly confirming his nominees,” University of Georgia law professor Susan Brodie Haire told the LA Times.
And as to Professor Guelzo’s comments about the intellectual prowess of Trump’s nominees, this is why he went with the opinion of a single pundit using a single subjective metric:
However, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has rated four of Trump’s nominees as “not qualified,” which is close to 14 percent of his picks and a higher percentage than recent presidents.
Of the 23 confirmed judges, only nine have previous judicial experience and most have backgrounds in litigation in either private practice or government. The association bases its ratings not on candidates’ politics, but their “integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament,” its guidelines state.
And while 23 confirmed appointments and 43 awaiting processing is impressive,
There are still more than 140 vacancies in the federal judiciary.
At this point in the piece, however, Professor Guelzo does take on a more fair and balanced view of the President’s first year in office.
And despite an undeniable string of misfires with Congress (especially on the “repeal and replace” of ObamaCare), there are now more grins than grimaces among Trump loyalists from the increasing number of successes the president has scored over trade deals (withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership), the repair of the crucial diplomatic relationship with Israel, the decline in illegal border crossings, and the economy.
I mean, the withdrawal from TPP may have been a victory, but I have heard nothing but negatives about the renegotiation of NAFTA, the withdrawal from the Paris Accord, the attempted scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal. I suppose we have improved our relationship with Israel, though of course there are two sides in Israel and we have pleased the hardline conservative faction while upsetting the more liberal faction, so it’s more that the President shifted our relationship with Israel than that he repaired it; the President’s decision to move the U.S. embassy has also made our relationships with Arab nations much more difficult, especially Jordan, a nation whose population is 30% naturalized Palestinians, with another 2 million Palestinian refugees living in the country.
So what’s the clear victory here? Must be this:
“It’s the economy, stupid,” was once a Democratic battle cry; it may now become President Trump’s.
The Dow Jones industrial average has soared from 18,259 on the day President Trump was elected to over 26,000, in what one analyst called “the most doubted bull market of all time.” New jobs created topped 200,000 in December, driving the unemployment rate down to 4.1 percent – the lowest in 17 years.
I mean, how can I argue with this?
Luckily for me, I don’t have to. Professor Guelzo argued it for me.
Anti-Trump diehards will argue that these are not really Trump accomplishments at all, but the last successes of the Obama years. There is probably some truth in that. The reality is, though, that it’s irrelevant.
Every president takes the credit (or assumes the blame) for what occurs on his watch, and harvests the votes afterward.
Simply put, I don’t think the truth is irrelevant. I don’t think the ability to “harvest votes” (A strange phrase, when one thinks that every vote is a person) justifies all. He’s right, of course, that every president takes credit for things that aren’t his doing; but that sucks, and we shouldn’t accept it, let alone encourage it.
So let’s tell the truth. President Obama was not the greatest president in history. Nor was President Clinton. The Democratic Party has done some really bad work in the last two decades, including the catastrophe of the 2016 primaries that led to Hillary Clinton’s nomination. (Some specifics: President Obama never dealt with Guantanamo; the continued and in some ways intensified involvement in Middle East nation building – the longest war in our history, presided over by Obama longer than any other president including Bush – has had terrible consequences; Obamacare is a travesty of a gutted compromise when what we should have had was single-payer healthcare, or nothing. President Clinton ravaged the welfare system, took down the Glass-Steagall Act and thereby was the single most important precursor of the 2007 Wall Street collapse, and yeah, really did lack character in important ways, which have continued to resonate to this day. And the 2016 primaries? Superdelegates and collusion among the DNC leadership, anyone?) I also have argued and will continue to argue that the President should not be impeached until and unless he is proven to have committed high crimes and misdemeanors against this nation, just as I argued that President Clinton should not have been impeached just because he cheated on his wife; the idea that he lied about it and therefore perjured himself was too much of the snake eating its own tail. I think the Russia investigation is important to restore some faith and credibility to a democracy that got invaded by Russian hackers; but I doubt that it will bring down the President, and unless Mueller finds evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by the President, evidence that has so far been nonexistent, it should not bring him down.
And on the other hand: it’s the economy, stupid. Our current President deserves little if any credit for the unemployment rate, which has been going down steadily since its height in 2008-2009. The arguments that conservatives have been using to knock that progress, that the official unemployment rate doesn’t include those who gave up looking for work, and that the current rate doesn’t reflect the number of people who are underemployed, are still true. The bull stock market only increases wealth disparity, as it concentrates more wealth in the hands of those who had the money to invest big in the market before it went up, an issue which the tax overhaul only intensified, and no amount of short-term tax cuts for the 99% can counteract. Income inequality is the number one place where our entire government, of millionaires for millionaires, fails to act to protect our country and our citizens; I hope I don’t need to actually argue that the election of a billionaire real estate developer has not brought progress on this issue. The deficit and national debt have been increased, as it always is by the majority party when they are in control, and despite past Republican claims that they would rein in spending, despite the President’s claims that he would drain the swamp and oppose the entrenched Washington interests. Did you see, by the way, that the President has now said that he will campaign for incumbents? Or at least that he’ll avoid primaries?
At the same time, the President has launched an all-out war against immigrants, which has had the effect of scaring millions of people, and therefore both reducing border crossings and increasing tension with other countries; I can’t see it as a good thing in the final summation – though it has not yet run its course, so we’ll have to wait and see before we can judge that. He has agitated our enemies (Iran, North Korea) and insulted our allies (Germany and the EU, the Arab nations, and all of those shitholes). He has, whether Professor Guelzo wants to admit it or not, so soiled the office of the Presidency that even his staunchest allies are forced to turn hypocrite or offer weak criticisms of his Tweeting while ignoring the bullying, the accusations of sexual assault and misconduct, and the clear racism. It’s true that poor character is not the exclusive province of the President; but it’s also true that he does exhibit it to an extent that Americans should decry, regardless of their positions on policy. It’s a tired trope, but I would get fired if I did half the shit that the President does, and I’m only responsible for a hundred or so students. That’s the truth.
Conservatives may be pleased by the reduction of regulations, by the dismantling of the EPA and the Department of Education; they should be pleased by the appointment of conservative judges, particularly Justice Gorsuch. I’m sure corporations are still whooping it up over the tax cuts, and those who are seeing direct benefits, such as the increased wages and the bonuses, should be happy too. The current administration has had victories, both symbolic and practical.
But that’s not the whole story. And the conversation should continue, and continue to be as honest as we can possibly make it.