Spare the rod, spoil the neo-fascist right: here, here for commissions, one on truth and lying
As my graduate school friend, Jack Palladino, the famed San Francisco private investigator (tragically murdered recently), said, “You don’t know where the critical line is until it gets crossed.” Though Jack meant it positively, a firm believer in good boundaries, Trump’s career as a professional con man speaks to darker, more destructive mayhem: “until I break something by violating untested lines, I won’t know how much or what I can get away with.”
With a clarion reform call from this endless misconduct (public doings are so much more visible than back-stabbing, back-office scheming), Trump’s consistent, destructive viewpoint explains his chronic lying (or inability to know truth, not the same), contempt for Congress and the courts, paralysis against pandemic scourges, refusal to plan, preference for incompetents, scorn for majority rule-elections, and bothersome, extraneous Constitution restraints on the top dog’s prerogatives.
So, no surprise at the immensity of broken toys one buffoonish president left for adults to fix! A reign of lawlessness barely imaginable four years ago is being litigated by juries and courts across the land. That’s what reckless blindness to normative mine fields produces. And the “gift” in the wound to America—the greatest teaching moment since the Civil War. Because nothing was honored (what? only two impeachments), our core governance vulnerabilities are spotlighted, center stage.
Whether this transparent earthquake becomes a teaching moment—or we summon the wherewithal to repair—no stable genius can know. Had Trump not disrespected so much, nor knew so little about history, morality or leadership, his recklessness would not have revealed so many cracks. The broken pieces are crying out, “Reform me, or we all bleed to death.” The magnitude of Trumpian damage speaks to his unique mix of gall, ignorance, and oblivion to what sets America apart. Only years of Trump tantrums, breaking every toy he touched—would have overcome a naive American reluctance to think the worst of its leader. The result of collective denial, all in the open: rejecting elections but not invasions of the Capitol.
After the deluge, the progressive era?
My closest historic parallel (in brokenness and potential reform) remains the post Civil War era. The Great Depression failed to comparably jeopardize law, belief in truth or science, believing officials and media, let alone faith in elections and democracy. Though capitalism took a battering, the 1930s exposed less polarization, victimhood or conspiracy-mongering. Earlier, despite miserable Jim Crow regression on race (beyond the south), union-busting and racist immigration laws (Chinese Exclusion, 1882), the last quarter of the 19th C. propelled the Progressive Era, capped by TR, FDR and LBJ gains. Decades of grueling activism produced breakthrough reforms: fairer wages, safer working conditions (especially for children), unionization , women’s suffrage, greater literacy, fairer taxes, popularly elected senators, less urban graft and science-based regulations on food, drink and medical drugs.
On the cusp of the next Progressive Era, today’s centrist Democratic agendas push decent band-aids. Yet President Biden has shied away from the comprehensive Sanders-Warren agenda: healthcare for all, controls over crony capitalism/ Wall Street, reversing obscene tax giveaways, plus overhauls of immigration and elections. Vs. the old status quo Joe, Biden has done well, sounding more progressive on climate and direct interventions, with less saber-rattling than Obama. But even were Biden like Sanders, where’s the critical Congressional mass to push a New New Deal? Perhaps 2022, with moderate GOP senators fleeing like frightened rats, advances the push for systemic reforms, but Biden is up to his ears with immediate crises. Reforming broken systems—electoral, influence peddling, income equality, racial (and thus healthcare) discrimination, will not only take a more unified Congressional village but many administrations. Women’s suffrage took 80 grueling years, as did improved labor, health and safety eras. Plus, we need to reverse the Trump environmental assault.
The wisest changes are self-evident but won’t be slam-dunks. Congress needs to forbid any politician in advance from poisoning an election as “rigged,” with high penalties for slandering certified results (say, a million bucks per incident and if persistent, disqualification). Ditto, we need to specify what mandates impeachment and conviction, using the Ukraine blackmail/bartering ploy and inciting insurrection as front and center. “High crimes and misdemeanors” is vague beyond usefulness, so far immune to the weaponry of mass destruction from the ex-Malefactor-in-chief. Plus, Congress should flesh in what defines “treason” and “sedition,” with clear, timely penalties. Violating an oath of office, and abusing the public trust, should not take months to establish. When an explicit criminal line is crossed, the only deterrence is quick retribution. Trumpism forces a clear reckoning: either we have explicit limits, with functional checks and balances—or anything goes, chaos rules and nightmares loom.
Similarly, leveraging power to amass illegal gains betrays the emolument clause, plain and simple as the truth. It’s beyond disgraceful that legal precedents don’t specify when a president abuses power for money. Why not tax all “emolument profits” at 200%, all the while mandating the IRS, not individual candidates, release five years of tax returns? Why not insist every president and vice-president hold all assets in hidden trusts (and forbid putting children in charge)? Oh yeah, banish family WH advisers. Without such basics, no democracy is safe from connivance, sleaze and corruption. I even have a title: “TRAC” or the Trump-Repayment Anti-Corruption law.
Truth and lying commission?
Why not three new independent commissions: one to identify impeachable offenses, sent to the House; a second for emolument abuses; and third, most importantly, one to monitor public truth telling? No politician sticks to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But as with gerrymandering (in CA), independent commissions are not hard to set up, nor run well. As with any jury, a non-partisan Truth Commission evaluates and grades all official statements. Already, trustworthy boards determine drug efficacy (thus life or death), federal reserve actions, plus critical health and safety standards. Penalties could fit the crime, with recklessly impugning national elections top of the mark.
While truth-telling cannot be legislated, its opposite number—calculated Big Lie propaganda—should be scrutinized, with warnings, like on cigarettes, that will appear simultaneously. Nothing that restricts free speech, only public warnings that here is a blatant, confirmed lie: don’t believe it. Adult supervision is necessary in this age of deception and conspiracy manias. Either the adults define, then supervise the rules or the grifters run wild and undermine democracy.
Lying is cancer to open forums. The tragedy here is that Trump never hid his unstoppable mendacity or the rank lawlessness he’d employ to get his way. That our political system was handcuffed at inhibiting totally predictable, nay promised tantrum rule busting is a painful, flashing alarm that calls for essential, innovative reforms. Elected “lawmakers” must be forced to live by just, clear laws. Until strict categories about impeachment or emoluments, let alone lying, are enacted, with strong penalties levied by independent commissions, the uncivilized barbarians among us will wreck havoc. Hard choice, eh?