Mountain Snail

Stuff Ballard Wrote

Give Meadows a disclaimer

Citizen-Times, March 2019

The western counties of North Carolina get one representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, just one. And if Congress were a deck of cards, we drew a joker, right down to the tinkly bells on his slippers. Mark Meadows is a disgrace.

In front of the world on TV, he brings out a black lady who has planned events for the Trumps. With the poor lady standing like an exhibit behind him, Meadows says she proves that the president is not a racist. Then he lets his bruised ego run amuck when a congresswoman criticizes his little sideshow.

I can’t read the man’s heart to know if he himself is a racist, as some allege – but I can say absolutely, without question, that he has rock-head bad judgment. He’s an embarrassment to us all.

In the future, I want a message to crawl across the bottom of the screen whenever he speaks:

“Mark Meadows represents Western North Carolina, but he is not a native of WNC. He is a real estate developer from Florida.”

Restoration specialist wanted!

Asheville DAily Planet, April 2019

Years ago, when I was young and working, I was approached by a company needing help with their name. The company’s business was house fires. They did everything necessary to return the house to its original condition, from demolition to final touches. The name of the company was Restoration Specialists.

Now as we approach fateful 2020, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a Democratic candidate for president. I want a restoration specialist.

Our Founding Architects designed a stout form of government that withstood stormy feuds, floods of immigrants, a fiery Civil War. It stood strong because successive presidents, Congresses and courts wanted it to survive and prosper.

The Founders were hugely optimistic on the future of the nation they established. John Adams predicted it would be celebrated “from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” But James Madison foresaw a time when their creation could fall into irresponsible hands: “The hope is that [those elected] will be…patriotic and just, chosen due to their virtues. …But, on the other hand, the reverse could happen. People of sinister designs might wangle their way into office.”

Well, it took 230 years to come true, but now the Wangler is in the White House. Every day there’s some new outrage – making foreign policy with Russia and Saudi Arabia for their m-o-n-e-y, ignoring the Constitution’s separation of Executive and Legislative Branches, attacking our free press, threatening critics. He sees himself as head of a mom-and-pop country where he gets no guff.

The great puzzle of our time is that almost 90% of Republicans agree with him. They seem to want Trump as an authoritarian president with press and Congress muzzled on a leash. I know many Trump supporters. They’re sensible people. I understand that a lot about American isn’t working and nothing gets done in Washington. It’s tempting to wonder if Enlightenment ideas of government by the people aren’t out-of-date.

Tempting, yes – if that president were patriotic, smart, honest, truthful and informed on issues. Talk to me about an American dictator when we have a president with the character traits that Trump is famous for not having. Until then, I’m stickin’ to the Founding Fathers.

The election of 2020 will decide our direction. If American voters reelect Donald Trump, they strengthen the strongman. If they defeat him, they welcome back our democracy.

Right now, Trump’s opposition looks like fans before the big game – candidates rushing about, most of them unknown until they declare for president. They’re polishing life stories and concocting charisma. They’re teeming fish in a pond. How do we pick one?

Smart and tough, that’s my combo. I picture them sitting across from Mitch McConnell and squashing the worm into his chair. It’s part physical presence, part strength of character, part open-armed warmth.

That person can restore our democracy – helping along a functioning Congress, voting rights laws, somehow controlling money in elections. This new tough-and-smart Democratic president can take us back to a time when reasonable people practiced the art of governing, not political warfare – before Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh.

He or she can free senators and congressmen to walk the halls of government like giants once more, adopting an old-time work ethic, even staying in Washington most weekends. And best of all, old-fashioned values will be back, like truth, honesty and, yes, honor and patriotism.

For my grandchildren, I want to see the old house restored to the glory envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

I hear some Democratic candidates planning a new house next door. I’m sorry, but it’s not a house. It’s a Walt Disney castle. The Green New Deal takes me back to my childhood, when Mother’s lust for stuff would crash against Daddy’s income. I’m solid behind universal healthcare, for example, but tough-minded budgeting and fair taxation must come first.

But if one of the new-house Democrats wins the nomination, I’ll back them enthusiastically. Trump must be defeated. Our democracy must be saved.

Are we harboring a horror?

Asheville Daily Planet, March 2019

What will Americans yet unborn think of today’s Americans? These distant generations will judge us, you know, just as surely as we judge those who lived before us.

In a New Yorker magazine article on Frederick Douglass, the writer includes two sentences that stop your eyes and engage your mind: “We need to be charitable about the moral failings of our ancestors – not as an act of charity to them but as an act of charity to ourselves. Our own unconscious assumptions and cultural habits are doubtless just as impregnated with bias as theirs were. We should be kind to them, as we ask the future to be kind to us.”

Do unto those in the past as we would have those in the future do unto us. We can’t help scowling at slavery. So are we shocked that our descendants might scowl at us?

Our Founding Fathers owned slaves. John Locke, the guiding philosopher of American liberties, was a major investor in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company. And yes, my Irish immigrant ancestors in South Georgia, who had very little, nevertheless owned a few slaves. Free blacks owned slaves. Priests owned slaves.

Some people today will find it hard to understand all this. I don’t. Growing up in the segregated South, I never once questioned Jim Crow. I never asked why our yard man took his lunch at the kitchen counter and not at the kitchen table. When I told somebody that Hank Aaron was making $100,000, he said, “I’d call him Boy.”

But in defense, our indifference reached an end. We questioned our customs. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ended school segregation in 1954, and our Congress ended Jim Crow ten years later. Now here we are, living in a middle ground between past and future.

The past is plain to see. The present – what we’ll be judged on – is not. After all, we inherited our forefathers’ “unconscious assumptions.” I’m a political critic, but as I sit here now, the future is a fog. What will those people many years hence say about the values of my time? Are we harboring a horror like slavery?

I think they will know of us. I think they will celebrate the changes we’ve made in American culture for the better. We’ve learned about good parenting. Girls can aspire to any career they choose. It’s not unusual when minorities succeed in every field of endeavor. We don’t litter. We stop friends from driving drunk. We don’t tolerate sexual harassment. So all the more, they will wonder how the heck the American people allowed what their history will call the Great Plutocracy – that era of greed disguised as the “American Dream,” that almost…almost…bled out America’s greatness.

Their history books will tell of 18th century slavery and robber barons and then use similar condemnations of the runaway power taken by the rich and corporations in the 21st century. They will liken us to Rome near its fall, when upper classes built new villas and ridiculed patriotism. A quote from our current president will be used in lessons on fairness and equity – his comment to his wealthy friends at Mar-a-Lago after the 2017 tax overhaul: “You all just got a lot richer.” And amazingly, they’ll say, the people shrugged.

A poem will survive into that future time, called…“2020”:

“Our basics of democracy were hollowed out by greed.

The richest few and business were hidden hands of power. They turned the Founders’ Congress into slavish, grubbing whores. Their agents viled our sacred halls with stinking flows of cash. With bedrock crumbling under them, the voters did more harm. They chose as president a man well known for nothing good. Sweet Liberty stood weeping, but her torch still burned on high. And just in time her children cast the vote that saved our land. Hist’ry knows their choice that year as Precious Guardian!”

Cars need names. GOP, too?

I spent the last 25 years of my working life naming things. My team named hundreds of products and companies – from NationsBank to a paint color for an airline. We had a good run. We never named a car. I never pitched an automaker. Their process is a bog. But I watched with interest from the sidelines. The word “précis” is a real word in English. Properly pronounced, it rhymes with “Tracy.”

Well, Mitsubishi came out with a Precis coupe in 1985 (they dropped the acute accent). I remember reading at the time that focus groups couldn’t pronounce it. It seems the last box to be checked was how to say the name! They asked the focus groups how they would pronounce it, and so it was that Precis went to market as “PREE-sus.” I grieved in print when Cadillac assassinated their iconic Eldorado and DeVille in favor of a letter-string system (ATS, CTS, XTS).

Now I notice they’ve gone to an alphanumeric system, mostly starting with X. I wait for cooler heads to bring back the icons. Even in retirement, comfy on my mountain, I’ll mutter, “Nice,” to a new name on TV, or, more commonly, “How much did they pay for that dog?”

The Nissan Armada, for example. Armada? Top of mind, the Armada was a fleet of clunky Spanish warships that set out in 1588 to invade Britain. They had a terrible plan, and when they retreated, storms sank most of the ships. The car looks like a galleon, but why call attention to it? Cressida was an unfaithful wife during the Trojan War. Students of Shakespeare and the classics sighed with relief when Toyota laid her to rest.

In the late 1980s, a journalist asked me to rate the names given to four new luxury cars: Acura (from Honda), Infiniti (from Nissan), Lexus (from Toyota) and Sterling (from Britain’s Rover). I quickly applied the naming rules my team lived by. Is the name easy to pronounce? Lexus whacked Acura on that one. Consumers know “accurate,” but they stumble over unfamiliar coinings. Infiniti’s cute spelling took away the immediate recognition of “infinity.” My team liked natural words – we did Workforce tools for Home Depot, for example – but tired old buzzwords like Sterling, no thanks. Lexus understood the power of infrequent letters. They used X and gained a hint of “sex.” We were big users of high-value Scrabble letters. We named the Vyvx subsidiary of Williams Communications, Fazoli’s for Long John Silver’s and Sheenique for Sally Beauty. I rated the four names, in order: Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Sterling. And that’s pretty much how they prospered. Sterling only lasted a few model years, and Lexus sales are twice both Acura and Infiniti.

Those of you who follow this space regularly in the Daily Planet might be wondering what’s happened to the leftish exposition on politics that I usually serve up. Truth is, this column started as branding advice for Republicans. Their party’s name is in trouble. It no longer carries the strong conservative connotation it did from Barry Goldwater, through the Reagan era, to 2016. Now it’s just a shell where politicians cower and cringe, fearing the next tweet from the president.

These elected Republicans don’t really have a choice. The voters at home love Trump. Non-politician Republicans who disapprove of Trump, are lost in space right now. They want to re-Republican the Republican Party. While some have switched party affiliations, most are just waiting to see what happens over the next two years. If Trump is still president leading up to the 2020 election, he will own the party and its name. The re-Repubs stay in space. If, on the other hand, Trump is not in office, then the fight for the Republican shell will be brutal. Trumpists will try to keep the party and name for themselves. If they succeed, the re-Repubs must consider forming a new party, and that means a new name.

I’m watching with interest from the sidelines.

Asheville Daily Planet, February 2019

WNC’s puzzle in Congress

Asheville Daily Planet, January 2019

Mark Meadows made a bid to be Donald Trump’s chief of staff. Trump turned him down. Aw shucks. We came so close to getting rid of a bad congressman. Bad, but how bad? What are his badnesses? Read on. I wrote a column back in 2012, when he was running for Congress, about how Meadows was campaigning against a 1992 UN initiative called “Agenda 21,” a voluntary plan for environmentally-friendly global development. George H.W. Bush signed it for the United States. Meadows bought into dark theories about Agenda 21, that it’s a plot to take away private property rights. Alabama had passed a law calling Agenda 21 a precursor to world government. The word “kook” didn’t appear in my column, except by logical conclusion.

In last year’s election campaigns, I noticed that my county’s Democrats were more exercised against Meadows than against (snort) Michele Presnell or (ptui) Ralph Hise. And I noticed that TV commentators, when talking about Meadows’ bid for chief of staff, often mentioned that he’s unpopular in Congress.

Why do Democrats wish him gone and congressional Republicans wish he’d never come? I asked Google. An NPR article popped up: “Meadows, 57, has rebelled against the establishment Republican Party. He helped shut down the government in 2013 and oust John Boehner from his House speakership in 2015.” Actually, the media gave Meadows and Senator Ted Cruz equal credit for the 2013 shutdown. Meadows precipitated the crisis with a letter to Boehner, demanding that Obamacare be defunded in the budget. He is reported to have said: “It’s best to close the government in the short term to win a delay on Obamacare, despite the potential negative impact on the economy.” It was his first year in Congress, and he was already doing jumping jacks to attract attention.

I think the Obamacare issue is diagnostic of Meadows, as a politician and as a man. He fanatically wanted Obamacare repealed – until he read the Congressional Budget Office report, that the GOP replacement bill would greatly impact coverage for pre-existing conditions. It’s reported that he wept, remembering the experiences of his father and sister. He now favors protecting pre-existing conditions. Meadows tends to be quick and loud on issues and then back away. NPR reports that “Meadows wants to cut off all 10 million Americans who today get federal subsidies to buy health coverage, which he says the country can ill afford.” Obviously, nobody in Meadows’ family gets subsidies.

Meadows’ healthcare positions would certainly be one reason for Democratic disapproval. Now try this one on: “How ridiculous is [the idea of global warming] when you have our fighting men and women, they get up and they say, ‘Man, it’s a little chilly, maybe today is the day that we’ve got to worry about climate change.’” He got headlines last year on the Mueller investigation. He tweeted in July: “I just filed a resolution…to impeach Rod Rosenstein.” His words seemed to dance with joy on the page.

An Asheville editorial opened like this: “We are routinely appalled by the views of Mark Meadows….Now, however, his actions have gone beyond simply appalling. In his attacks on the Department of Justice, Meadows is targeting the rule of law for political advantage.” (Two weeks later, after consulting GOP leadership, Meadows dropped the impeachment idea and suggested contempt of Congress instead.)

He’s often said that he does what his constituents want him to do. Right. But it would be more honest for him to play the sound track of “Showboat” as background to his tweets. Meadows’ bid to work for Trump is puzzling. Is he tired of the Congress gig? Or is he wonder about reelection? Before 2020, the courts will rule on gerrymandering, and the 11th District will likely be drawn fairly. With Asheville back in the district and some red counties gone, he will need an enthusiastic base. But it’s also likely that Trump will be totally discredited

Liberalism: nutty or needed?

Asheville Daily Planet, December 2018

 

Florida’s governor went into a rant:  “I won’t stand idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election.”

An old friend sent me an email.  She said she was raised “an evangelical, liberal-hating Republican.”  She wrote that she’s become disenchanted with Republicans but wasn’t ready to become a Democrat.  “I don’t want to be under the same roof with all those wacky liberals,” she said.

Blame Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh for taking a great word from history – “liberal” – and turning it into a hot iron for GOP candidates to brand their opponents with.

A Notre Dame poli sci prof named Patrick Deneen has written a book called “Why Liberalism Failed.”  I heard him interviewed on Ezra Klein’s podcast.

The title is an unabashed lure to conservative book buyers.  Deneen’s liberalism, that he says failed, goes back to the Enlightenment, to the philosophers whose ideas inspired our Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  They set thing in motion, he says, that resulted in our crumbling society today.

Conservative columnist David Brooks, in his critique of Deneen’s book, wrote:  “The liberal democratic moral….stands for the idea that our covenantal institutions — like family, faith, tradition and community — orient us toward higher loves and common dreams that we then pursue in the great gymnasium of liberty.”

Exactly.  Our great freedoms are built on the foundation of liberal thought.  John Locke, the 17th-century “father of liberalism,” whispered in Jefferson’s ear as he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

An article in The New Yorker magazine last July put it neatly:  “Liberalism is a perpetual program of reform, intended to alleviate the cruelty we see around us….[We hope for] a future society, flawed, like our own, but less cruel as time goes on.”

We aspire to ever-greater things, and our basic liberal principles propel us to achieve them.  It can be truly said that liberalism contributes something otherwise missing in our government:  problem-solving.

Think about it.  Democrats – all of whom Gingrich and Limbaugh would call liberals – were in power when all the great and positive changes in American life took place:  women’s suffrage, social security, minimum wage, overtime pay, GI Bill, Medicare, Civil Rights Act, on and on.

With full power in Washington for two years, what problems have the Republicans even tried to solve?  Securing Social Security?  Disaster preparation?  Global warming?  Healthcare? Strengthening ties with allies?  Balanced budgets?  None.  And the big reason for their failure is their philosophical refusal to confront problems head-on.  Government is enemy, not friend.  They make a show of doing something when necessary, but their heart isn’t in it.

In today’s America, Democrats are the keepers of our long liberal tradition.  No question about that.  Republicans look backward to some utopia before the New Deal, when Republican governments helped business but certainly not the people in need!

Democrats now have control in the House of Representatives – which makes me worry.  They have opportunities to make life “less cruel” for our people.  They can work with Republicans to make healthcare a reasonable reality, for example.

But will they?  Many Democrats who worked hard in the recent election are howling for impeachment of Trump, something that would totally distract from the people’s work.  Political correctness can result in the elevation of people not ready for leadership.  Incoming freshmen could clique together as a power bloc.

It is urgent that Democrats connect themselves with liberalism’s historic difference – namely, how problems get solved, how government meets the needs of the ordinary people who elect them.

Let’s give all those liberal-hating Republicans the positive experience of good liberal government.  There’s no better way to heal the divide in our land.

 

Nothing checked, nothing balanced

Asheville Daily Planet, September 2018

This November, we have a chance to save the reputation of the Founding Fathers.  Their Constitution is looking old and worn these days.

We hear pundits talking about a “Constitutional crisis” when President Trump has done something forbidden.  It’s like these people really believe the line they got in ninth-grade civics class about checks and balances.  Relax.  We’re not going to have a Constitutional crisis.  Nothing’s checked in Washington, and nothing’s balanced.

The Founders did their best.  They drew from the great philosophers of the Enlightenment and, incredibly, their plan for their new government has worked pretty well for 240 years.

Now it’s all coming unwound, and we see the Constitution in a new, critical light.

The Constitutional Convention was very low-profile.  The superstar Founders – Jefferson, Hancock, both Adamses, Jay, Henry – didn’t attend.  (Franklin did, and Washington was chairman.)  Hamilton attended sporadically.  The press gave scant coverage.

Delegates came and went over the summer of 1787.  Some state delegations lacked quorums and so had no vote on issues.

For two months, the Convention debated the principles of an outline James Madison brought.  Then a “Committee of Detail” took 10 days to write the first draft – from the Convention’s deliberations but also from many other sources and even ideas, that hadn’t been discussed, that they thought should be included.  Ultimately, the Constitution we have was the handiwork of two obscure Founders:  South Carolina’s John Rutledge and Pennsylvania’s James Wilson (both later Supreme Court justices).

The issue of keen interest to us today, checks and balances, was intended as a rifle standing beside a vigilant watchman.  The gun doesn’t act on its own; it has to be deployed.  Madison wrote in Federalist #51:

“The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others…Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

As we review the Founders’ work in today’s world, we see the big flaw of the Constitution’s checks and balances system is the power given to the Executive Branch.

The president is commander-in-chief with no real check on his use of the military.  He makes appointments, grants pardons, carries out foreign relations – and the compelling one in recent years, the power to issue executive orders, which don’t require congressional approval.

These enormous powers have hung like tempting fruit to all presidents, but few have taken advantage.  Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court in Indian removal to the West.  Abraham Lincoln was a dictator during the Civil War.  Congress told Andrew Johnson that he couldn’t remove his secretary of war, but he did anyway.  Teddy Roosevelt did what he wanted in Panama.  Franklin Roosevelt was an “imperial president.”  Executive orders in excess were issued by Barack Obama when he was stonewalled by Senate Republicans, and now Trump issues them like souvenir pens.

Presidential powers are scary there on paper.  In the hands of Donald Trump, they’re apocalyptic.

The Founders bungled presidential power – and then they compounded their mistake by making the Legislative Branch’s check on the Executive a virtual impossibility.

It’s relatively easy for the House of Representatives to impeach because their work isn’t final, but the required two-thirds vote for conviction and removal in the Senate is likely only if the president is a raving maniac or a traitor.

If voters elect a Democratic Congress in November, we can move toward what the Founding Fathers hoped for in checks and balances.  Republicans have been timid watchmen, no check on Trump’s use of power.  Democrats will find ways.

Impeach him?  Probably not.  Why not?  Because the Founding Fathers made the next step, removal, practically impossible.

 

 

Corruption with a capital C

Asheville Daily Planet, September 2018

If Professor Harold Hill were here today, we’d hear:  “Ya got trouble here in America – Corruption with a capital-C, that rhymes with T, that stands for Trump!”

But then here comes Bob the Builder on PBS Kids:  “Can we fix it?  Yes we can!”

And who’s that with Bob?  It’s our Democratic Congress next January!  They’re putting on hard hats and singing:  “C-O-R-R-U-P-T!  That’s the word for G.O.P.!”

Democrats have a rerom plan (read on below), and they’re ready to go.

It’s 2007 over again, when Democrats cleaned up after Tom DeLay’s pay-to-play “K Street Project” and Jack Abramoff’s scams and bribes.  The new Democratic majoirty passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.  But DeLay and Abramoff were pipsqueaks compared to Donald Trump and his Forty Thieves.

In fact, nothing in our history comes close to the Travesties of Trump.

Teapot Dome, a 1920s scandal that made my sixty-grade history book, was nothing more than a Secretary of the Interior who gave an oil lease in exchange for millions.  He covered all his tracks except the bribe itself!

Richard Nixon couldn’t bring himself to destroy the tapes.

Amateurs, these guys were amateurs at scandal.

Trump’s presidency is his cash cow.  He kept his business interests and added a D.C. hotel.  And fees for members at Mar-a-Lago doubled to $200,000.  And he doesn’t cover it up.  He’s being who he is.

So when he chose his Cabinet, he did indeed wanted yes-people.  But he also wanted people comfortable to him – like Nixon picked Spiro Agnew as his vice-president.

Inauguration Day in 2017, Obama folk, straight arrows for eight years, turned over their crispy clean offices to snorting pigs who headed straight for the public trough to get their share.

Scott Pruitt, our man at Environment Protection, used a private email account to keep in touch with industry cronies, lived in D.C. for $50 a month in a lobbyist’s condo, the junket to Morocco with an entourage – and incidental time in Paris.

Health Services Tom Price chartered aircraft for trips when commercial flights were available.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin took his wife and an entourage on a nine-day frolic in Europe that included free Wimbledon tickets.  And doctored emails were involved, too.

It’s like a corruption contagion.  The boss himself practices greed in the open, and his underlings, already inclined that way, catch the virus.

To all this, add the grassroots corruption that came from the Republican National Committee, not Donald Trump – the blatant gerrymandering and voter suppression that took place in states where Republicans had state legislature control and Republican governors.

In late June, Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes and 163 other Democrats filed House Resolution 975, the “By-the-People Resolution” that would do the following (from Sarbanes’ website):

Expanding access to the ballot box;
Promoting national automatic voter registration;
Ending partisan redistricting by establishing state-based, independent commissions;
Restoring the integrity of the Voting Rights Act;
Protecting the integrity of the election system;
Ending the revolving door of special interests into and out of government;
Expanding ethics laws to apply to the president and to promote greater accountability of the chief executive;
Reforming the Office of Government Ethics;
Updating the Lobbying Disclosure Act and prohibiting bundled campaign contributions from lobbyists;
Strengthening bribery laws to guard against public officials profiting from public service;
Empowering small donors and diminishing the influence of big-money campaign donors;
Disclosing “secret money” and promoting transparency of political spending;
Amending the Constitution to reassert Congress’ authority to regulate political spending and overturn the Citizens United ruling;
Preventing foreign interference in our elections;
Restoring function to the Federal Election Commission; and
Strengthening coordination law to prevent candidate-affiliated Super PACs.

If Democrats take the House in November, they will pass these reforms.  Then it’s up to Us, the People, to shame a Republican Senate to do the right thing and go along.  And failing there, we take the Senate in 2020, when a whole bunch of Senate Republicans are up for reelection, and many will retire.

The Supreme Court on trial

Daily Planet, November, 2018

 

James Buchanan, as president, was a free-wheeling, iconoclastic, vacillating, white supremacist Northerner.  Yeah, a lot like Donald Trump.

And he made one gigantic misjudgment about the Supreme Court – one that Trump seems to be making now.

As president-elect in 1857, Buchanan badly wanted the issue of slavery to be over and done with before he took office.  At the time, a lawsuit had made its way to the Supreme Court, Dred Scott v. Sanford, in which a slave in Missouri wanted his freedom because his master, a U.S. Army surgeon, had held him in free states.  The unwritten rule at the time was, “Once free, always free,” but Missouri courts had ruled him still a slave.

Five justices on the Court wanted to decline consideration, but Chief Justice Roger Taney, with Buchanan’s encouragement, wanted to use the case to decide the issue of slavery.

Taney wrote an astounding opinion.  He reasoned that since, at the time of the Constitution, blacks “were regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  He said that blacks never were and never can be citizens, so Dred Scott had no standing to sue for his freedom.

Six other justices concurred.  All seven on the winning side were Southerners or were “doughfaces” appointed by Southern presidents.  The Court was blindly partisan.

Taney’s opinion was exactly what Buchanan wanted.  He thought the American people would accept the Court’s decision as final, and so the slavery issue would go away.

He was wrong, so very wrong.  Instead, the American people recognized the Supreme Court as nothing but partisan politicians in black robes.  And we got the Civil War.

Partisan politicians in black robes.  That’s not how the Founding Fathers intended things to go.  They intended checks and balances, separation of powers, an independent judiciary that makes impartial judgments.

Brett Kavanaugh gives conservatives a 5-4 edge on the Court.  But the question before us now is not about conservatives and liberals.  It’s about Trump and Trumpism.  Will our Supreme Court be independent, or will it be sucked into Trump’s orbit – like the Republican-controlled Congress has been?

I have no doubt that Trump will try to muscle the Court, like Buchanan did.  But will he be successful?

Republicans will hold the Senate, where his soulmate, Mitch McConnell, shares his contempt for tradition and rules.  The Senate will not just be compliant; they will be complicit in efforts to gain partisan power.  And Congress has frighteningly broad powers to restructure itself – and the other two branches.

However, if Democrats take the House of Representatives, congressional pressure on the Court will be mostly neutralized.

Ultimately, everything will lie with the Court.  Make no mistake:  the five conservatives on the Court are really, really conservative.  It’s expected that the new Court will do the usual conservative things, like siding with the rich and corporations over ordinary people.  They won’t repeal Citizens United v. FEC.  But will they be Trump Republican partisan?

Nobody knows.  If we see them stifling Mueller findings, for example, we will hear Dred Scott’s name called a lot.  Like Roger Taney’s Court in 1857, our Court will have no legitimacy.  And Trump will replay Buchanan.  Slits in our national fabric will widen.  Most Americans will be enraged.  And this animosity could find its way into the Court itself, with justices sniping publicly.

After the Dred Scott decision, Justice Benjamin Curtis, one of the two dissenters, resigned from the Court, the only justice ever to do so.  That’s exactly the atmosphere that a partisan judiciary engenders.

James Buchanan got what he wanted in the Supreme Court, and the country got the Civil War.  Now Trump has what he wants with Kavanaugh.  He expects a nodding majority.  What will he get?  And what will happen to us?

Footnote:  CBS News ranked the 45 U.S. presidents.  James Buchanan was #44, next to last.  Donald Trump was ranked #45.

History will judge our times

Daily Planet, August 2018

When now is history, I’ll be dead and gone.

And, man, I’d really love to know what’s going to be said and written, say, 50 years from now about the days we’re in now. Things happen every day that have never happened before.

Superficially, history tells us how things turned out. Richard Nixon resigned August 9, 1974.  But with the passage of time, historians have described the details that brought him down.

Our own superficial history begins on November 8, 2016, and every day we strain to try and figure how things will turn out.

North Carolina in the spring of 1861 was like our time today. Several southern states had seceded from the Union but not North Carolina.  Our General Assembly was opposed to secession.  A referendum to hold a convention to consider secession was voted down.  Only plantation centers in Eastern Carolina were in favor.  A Wilmington newspaper editorialized that “South Carolina has been nothing but trouble from the beginning.  We must not follow them.”

But when President Lincoln called for North Carolina to give troops to help put down the rebellion in other Southern states, everything changed. The North Carolina History Project tells of Zebulon Vance at the moment he heard about Lincoln’s troop request: “With arms upraised, (Vance) was pleading for the preservation of the Union: ‘When my hand came down from that impassioned gesticulation,’ he said, ‘it fell slowly and sadly by the side of a secessionist.’”

North Carolina, and WNC in particular, had no enthusiasm for secession. And many who voted for secession in the convention knew the Confederacy would destroy the South.  And it’s telling that after the vote for secession, the convention also voted not to put the question to the people in another referendum.

It all came down to decisions. When leaders make decisions, they bring good or ill for their people.  Our state’s leaders’ decision to go with Southern neighbors over the Union (for reasons I can’t understand) was terrible.  In the end, reluctant North Carolina contributed more men and supplies to the Confederacy than any other state, and we suffered more casualties.

If we put ourselves back in 1861, reading a newspaper, we can feel their anger, their fears, their bewilderment. What’s wrong with those people we sent to Raleigh?

Almost precisely what we feel right now about our government in Washington.

One-third of Americans are so loyal to President Trump that they support him even when he says and does things that are not in our national interest. They believe his obvious lies. They trust him when corruption is all around him.  And their devotion scares Republican lawmakers out of their wits – and their Constitutional responsibilities.

We’re bewildered. Like our forefathers in 1861, we’re angry and often pessimistic.  We think of great nations that have fallen from within.

People in 1861 were right to worry. Their leaders would make the horrendous decision to secede.   And we are right to worry about the decision that Republicans have made not to check President Trump.  Their timidity is shameful by any measure.

We look with hope to November and a possible Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. If they control House committees, they can call for answers.  They can change Washington.

The Mueller Report will tell us a lot about criminals and traitors. History will tell us everything.  Is Republican silence and inaction out of fear of their constituents, as supposed, or are they really hoping that Russian interference will rescue them in November?  Historians will find out.  Is President Trump’s irrationality from senility?  Or will they find he has no American patriotism, only his self-interest?

Will spineless D.C. Republicans be consigned to the same rubbish heap as those who didn’t confront slavery in the Nineteenth Century? Will Limbaugh and Fox News be a laughing stock?  Will Trump’s one-third stay with him if thick turns to thin?  Who will be seen as heroes of our democracy?

I’d love to know. My grandchildren will.

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