The Chief Justice Can Call Witnesses

Marshall would never stand for impeachment without witnesses
Would John Marshall, our most influential Chief Justice (1755-1835), have stood for a trial without witnesses?

Under the Constitution, the Vice President presides over the Senate — except during presidential impeachment trials. The Vice President would inherit the President’s position if the trial led to conviction, so the Founders feared the VP’s bias. Who then? An obvious choice would be the President pro tempore of the Senate: the Senator who presides in the Vice President’s absence. Or the Senate could elect another Senator. But instead of those natural choices, the Founding Fathers reached out of Congress and chose the Chief Justice of the United States. Why? Continue reading “The Chief Justice Can Call Witnesses”

Vichy and American Collaborators

In 1940, cooperation with the Germans looked like good sense to many French leaders. Germany had conquered most of their country, and by working with the invaders, these politicians and generals could maintain power. Even better, much of the populace favored cooperation. So while some French leaders kept fighting a seemingly hopeless war, others set up the “Vichy government,” which administered much of the country and assisted the Germans during World War II. Aiding the foes of French liberty, however, did these men no good in the long run. After the war, the French jailed or executed much of the Vichy leadership. And the nation came to view them with contempt and loathing. Some Vichy leaders had done great things before 1940, but that does not matter. History has given them an ugly name: collaborators.

Marshal Pétain, first of the Vichy collaborators -- a lesson for impeachment
Marshal Philippe Pétain, once an immensely popular WWI hero — jailed for leading the Vichy government and remembered today as a traitor and collaborator

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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, with none of the royal charisma the Eighteenth Century expected of national leadership. 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 Roman Empire Survived Unbalanced Executives — Maybe America Can Too

The early Roman Empire survived two mentally unbalanced emperors: Caligula and Nero. In fact, neither seems to have harmed the economy or disrupted the lives of the common people, despite bizarre behavior. That’s encouraging in the age of Donald Trump.

Nero entertains the crowds
Nero entertains the crowds

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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

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Trump Threatens to Jail Clinton: An Authoritarian in America

portrait_of_george_washington-transparent
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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Governments can’t stop terrorism any more than lions can stop flea-bites.

When a single man can kill eighty-four with a truck, it’s time to let go of the illusion that governments can keep us safe from political violence. Lone-wolf terrorist attacks have become part of modern life, and no one can change that. We should accept it and at the same time recognize that we Westerners still live far safer lives than any people in the history of the world. Instead of sacrificing civil rights in favor of persecuting suspected minorities — in a doomed attempt to stop lone wolf terrorists — we should focus on preventing the most devastating attacks, by denying terrorists access to nuclear power plants, airports, and weapons of mass destruction. Continue reading “Governments can’t stop terrorism any more than lions can stop flea-bites.”