George Washington and the Dignity of the Presidency

George Washington infused the American presidency with his personal dignity and restraint. That may seem a hazy contribution, but it has shaped our nation. “President” was a new title for a head of state in 1789, and no well-known republic had ever created such a strong one-man executive. America’s presidency could easily have become a sleazy office known for naked power. Such a graceless office might have degenerated into a banana republic strongman’s post. Or America might have suffered the sort of “citizen leadership” that destroyed the French Revolution, with executives relentlessly accusing and slandering each other. But no. Our first president was another sort of man. Continue reading “George Washington and the Dignity of the Presidency”

The Democracy Watch List

Here’s what to watch for.

How would the Trump administration erode American freedom and democracy, if it went down that road? I’ve approached this question as a lawyer and amateur historian, studying democracies that lost freedom in recent years, as well as some currently on the brink. I’ve put together a list of their leaders’ moves against liberty — then deleted those I consider barely possible in the United States, thanks to our culture and Constitution. The result is below: steps the Trump administration and its GOP allies might take without obviously violating the Constitution. Continue reading “The Democracy Watch List”

Trump, ISIS, and the Tactics of the Weak

A prominent Trump supporter recently offered a view that seems to represent much of the nation. “When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS,” said Pastor Robert Jeffress, an influential TV host, “I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find.” Few would doubt that Donald Trump is mean, but what makes Pastor Jeffress thinks he’s tough? What makes millions of Americans think Trump is tough when, in fact, his behavior suggests he’s unusually sensitive? What, for that matter, makes us think ISIS is tough — so much so that “looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS” becomes the top priority? The answer is that Americans have been fooled by bluster and the tactics of the weak.

President Theodore Roosevelt: "speak softly and carry a big stick"
President Theodore Roosevelt: “speak softly and carry a big stick”

Bluster means loud, boastful, and threatening talk. It’s meant to give an impression of power. Terrorism plays a similar role, and in fact you might call it geopolitical bluster. It is devastating for its individual victims, but it has no military impact. So on a geopolitical scale, between nations, a terrorist attack is a loud, threatening statement. Continue reading “Trump, ISIS, and the Tactics of the Weak”

This is How Democracy Begins to Die

You might think it’s aristocrats and the rich who most threaten democracy. But actually democracy tends to die the hands of angry working people, who turn against elites and their own constitution and follow an authoritarian leader. That leader destroys democracy, or injures it so much that it begins to die.

The Acropolis - Athens: mother of democracy and of tyrants
The Acropolis – Athens: mother of democracy and of tyrants

Continue reading “This is How Democracy Begins to Die”

Trump Threatens to Jail Clinton: An Authoritarian in America

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George Washington’s legacy is restraint, particularly on presidential power. That legacy is threatened like never before.

Last night, Donald Trump told Hillary Clinton he plans to put her in jail if he’s elected President of the United States.

Dictators threaten to arrest political rivals. American presidential candidates never have. One of the central features of our democracy, since the Founding Fathers, is that we do not use the criminal justice system against political opponents. We separate the two realms as much as possible, to protect political freedom. Continue reading “Trump Threatens to Jail Clinton: An Authoritarian in America”

The Founding Fathers and the Election of 2016

The Republican Party has nominated a truly unusual candidate for President. More than any major party nominee in history, Donald Trump has spoken against the principles and policies of America’s Founding Fathers. He has opposed legal restraints on government power — laws that tie the government’s hands — which for the Founding Fathers provided the bedrock of freedom. And he has advocated open, overt religious discrimination, rejecting another of the Founding Fathers’ core values. Mr. Trump and his supporters aren’t necessarily unpatriotic. Most probably don’t realize they stand against the legacy of George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and the other founders. But as voters, we need to understand the Founding Fathers and the cornerstones they laid for our democracy.

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Continue reading “The Founding Fathers and the Election of 2016”

Star Wars and History: Samurai and Nazis

~ This is the last of a six-post series called Star Wars and History. ~

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Samurai with faceplate

Star Wars draws on history for its look and feel as much as for its plot choices. In particular, the samurai of Medieval and early modern Japan contribute their style both to good guys and bad buys. Darth Vader’s armor looks like a night black, plastic version of samurai armor, and the Jedi’s robes have medieval Japanese feel too. Continue reading “Star Wars and History: Samurai and Nazis”

Decline on Downton Abbey: Why the Nobles and Gentry Went Broke

Spoiler Alert: This post reveals details of Downton Abbey, through Season 6, Episode 1.

On Downton Abbey, Earl Robert repeatedly faces financial trouble. Many of his fellow nobles and gentry find themselves in even more dire straits. They cope by selling off their birthright — castles, houses, treasures, and land — and living humbler lives. Why do these apparently rich people teeter on the edge of financial ruin?

Inveraray Castle: Shrimpie's estate in Downton Abbey
Earl Robert’s cousin “Shrimpie” is forced to sell his beautiful castle. (In the real world, this is Inveraray Castle, Scotland.)

For most of their history, Britain’s nobles and gentry lived on the profits of farming. And by the early 20th Century, agricultural wealth had been dwarfed by the riches of industry. Farms still made money but proportionately much less. They couldn’t easily support the upper class’ high cost of living or the tax burden of industrial society. And many nobles and gentry could not or would not supplement their income by working. Continue reading “Decline on Downton Abbey: Why the Nobles and Gentry Went Broke”

Terrorists and Barbarians

Vive la France
Vive la France

In the wake of terrorist attacks like Friday’s mass killings in Paris, we often call our enemies “barbarians.” They are not. Barbarians like the Vikings, Huns, and Xiongnu lived on the fringes of civilization and preyed on their richer and more settled neighbors. But they did not hate their victims. If fact, they often admired them and adopted their ways. The barbarians were not intolerant. Nor were they even immoral by the standards of their times, since few pre-modern societies condemned violence against outsiders. Barbarian raiders were just opportunists; looting and pillaging offered their fastest route to wealth. Continue reading “Terrorists and Barbarians”