Several times in the process of playing my role of “voice crying in the wilderness” against the plague of Trump and Trumpism, I have encountered relatively temperate and relatively reasonable Trump supporters who said that, no, they were revolted by Trump’s advocacy of violence against his critics, prejudice against Muslims, the muzzling of a free press, and his condoning of sexual assault, because, yes, they recognized the reality of offenses in all those areas against personal dignity and constitutional liberty. But … you could hear the thundering hoofbeats of the “But” all the way across the Galaxy … Trump did advocate several policies they supported. And, besides, they concluded, the Presidency was, by the design of the Framers, a pretty weak office, anyway, in fact, more or less a mere “bully pulpit” for the advocacy of an agenda. The “bully pulpit” allusion is revealing in itself: the term was coined by Theodore Roosevelt over a century ago, and to use the phrase to describe the 20th– / 21st-century Presidency reveals a breathtaking degree of historical ignorance. But I will skate over that and instead point out two instances – one much earlier than Mr. Roosevelt; one much later – that demonstrate how powerful the Presidency can be when aided and abetted by political and historical circumstance. In these cases, the Presidency is immeasurably more than a mere “bully pulpit”, and can be a conduit for the propagation of dangerous bullshit.
o The Sedition Act of 1798
In 1798, the Congress passed, and President John Adams signed, four acts – the Alien Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Naturalization Act, and the Sedition Act – that were all about equally dangerous. I single out the Sedition Act because it struck most directly at the constitutional basis for free speech and a free press. In fact, the Sedition Act of 1798 had the practical effect of repealing the “abridgement” clause of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press … Yet that is precisely what Congress and the Adams Administration did in 1798. Under the terms of the Sedition Act, individuals and newspapers who ventured even the mildest, most tentative, most rationally conceived, and most civilly expressed adverse criticism of the government could be arrested, tried, and jailed if convicted. Idle remarks in taverns, even if made in jest, could result in criminal charges and imprisonment if the wrong persons overheard the remark.
The passage of the Sedition Act and the subsequent arrest and trial of newspaper editors and pamphlet writers – the bloggers of the 18th century – resulted in an upwelling of rage. But the public outcry was muted because the late 1790s was also a time when it was widely feared that war with the global superpower of France was imminent. In fact, this brewing conflict was often referred to at the time as the “quasi-war” with France. So, given that French agents could be on American soil clandestinely agitating, in writing and in speeches, in favor of a policy of military and diplomatic weakness under color of being honest ex-pats and immigrants, the prevailing winds of politics favored a stance of security over liberty. Hence, also, the Alien and Alien Friends Acts that were overtly anti-immigrant and that, with the related Naturalization Act passed at around the same time, greatly extended the residency requirements of potential immigrants to the United States. Under the latter, the President could simply order the deportation, without due process, of non-American nationals he personally deemed as disloyal and threats to national security. This was a time of xenophobia not unlike today.
But beyond even that, what were the most basic and enabling root causes of the Sedition Act of 1798? I can identify three: (1) a shared and intense fear on the part of the public – in this case, fear of war with France, which the US could not hope to win; (2) a President and a Congress that were (2a) of the same political party and that (2b) shared that fear; (3) a certain moral flabbiness on the part of Congress, especially of the dominant party (Federalists in 1798) to stand up and question the prevailing climate of fear and President Adams’ way of dealing with it by abridging First Amendment liberties. (In fairness to Mr. Adams, we should also give his Administration credit for avoiding the feared war: the “quasi-war” with France remained merely “quasi”.) For all practical purposes, the Federalist Congress in 1798 abdicated its Article I duty to act as a check to the Executive, electing instead to transform itself into a mere extension of the Presidency, the better to do the President’s bidding. When power is united with fear, and when both are being used in the service of a single man – in the 1798 case, John Adams – it is time to sound a very loud alarm.
At that point, the Presidency ceases to be a mere “bully pulpit” and becomes instead a conduit for demagogic bullshit.
o President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Japanese internment order (EO 9066) of February, 1942
As it was with the Sedition of Act, so it was with FDR’s EO 9066: a combination of fear and a monopoly on political power.
The fear component is understandable: Pearl Harbor had been attacked on 7 December 1941 and most of the US’s Pacific Fleet was either sunk or severely damaged. All that preserved the fleet as a significant defense force was that the great aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet happened to be absent from Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. Had that not been the case — had the American carrier fleet been sunk along with the great dreadnoughts lining “Battleship Row” — quite literally nothing would have stood between the West Coast and an air and land assault by Imperial Japan on Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, to name just a few. People of my generation, the post-war generation, the “Baby Boomers” — I was born in 1949 — have and can have no conception of the fear that gripped the Nation in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. It is only something we — and I — read about in books.
Also, as in 1798, Congress was controlled by FDR’s Democratic Party, which was riding a wave of public adulation at the actions Mr. Roosevelt had taken to mitigate the effects of the Crash of 1929 — despite the Supreme Court’s unremitting hostility to virtually all aspects of the New Deal. So the “mono-partisan” — single-party, i.e., the President’s party — government of the Executive and Legislative Branches that characterized the politics of 1798 was largely replicated in 1942. The year 1942 is important because, like 1798, 1942 was the year when, because of fear combined with “mono-partisan” politics, the Constitution was once more violated and marginalized. In 1798, fear and a partisan monopoly in the Executive and Legislative Branches led to the violation the “abridgement” clause of the First Amendment. In 1942, the internment of Japanese Americans violated the 5th and 14th Amendments, in particular, the “due process” clause of both and the “equal protection” clause of the latter. (I say this despite the fact that the Supreme Court in 1943 upheld the constitutionality of the internment order in Hirabayashi vs. US, and in 1944 in Korematsu v. US. Hirabayashi and Korematsu are the Japanese equivalent of Dred Scott v. Sandford of 1857.) It is exquisitely ironic that, when Mr. Roosevelt said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, he himself, with the internment order, provided a vivid lesson about how truly he spoke: fear is indeed to be feared because, when widely shared and when combined with a partisan monopoly on Executive and Legislative power, fear can be used to abridge fundamental constitutional rights. (If you think this is a dead issue this long after the war, think again: Michelle Malkin has written a book, In Defense of Internment, defending EO 9066.) Fear can turn the Constitution and Bill of Rights into precisely the “parchment barriers” Mr. Madison warned Mr. Jefferson about in his letter to the latter of October, 1788.
Fear plus a monolithic monopoly on power can transform the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency into a pipeline for bullshit. That has already happened (at least) twice in our history … and may well be in the process of occurring a third time.
o Trump, Trumpism, and today’s politics of fear and mono-partisan government
Mark Twain was right: history does not repeat, but it often rhymes. All three of the above elements — fear, mono-partisanism, and a willingness to use ruthlessly the power of both — is a distinct possibility, perhaps even already a reality. Especially among Trump’s base, the fear derives from several disparate but related sources: immigration and immigrants, Islam, perceived or real economic bias against the US via trade agreements, and a generalized and ill-defined sense of malaise traceable to a perception of America as in decline. The irony is that Trump himself provides evidence for that decline in his constant obsequious toadying to Vladimir Putin. How does one argue against an America-in-decline thesis when the President himself defers time and again to Russian economic and foreign policy?
And, unlike in 1798 when the vulnerability of the Constitution was localized primarily in the “abridgement” clause of the First Amendment, and in 1942, when that vulnerability pertained primarily to the 5th and 14th Amendments, the Trump Administration, ostensibly concerned with mitigating the fear driving the Trump faithful, is assaulting the Constitution on several fronts at once: freedom of the press, 14th Amendment protections for non-citizens, 8th Amendment prohibitions of “cruel and unusual” punishment, and even the 2nd Amendment, as interpreted by DC v. Heller and Heller’s acceptance — the late Justice Scalia’s acceptance, no less! — of the necessity for common-sense gun restrictions. Add all that together with the fact that Donald Trump, and many of the Trump faithful currently infesting the Executive Branch, owe no allegiance, and know virtually nothing about, the Enlightenment roots supporting the American — in fact, the Western — socio-political culture. They are not merely conservatives, because they are interested in conserving nothing, and attracted only to the brute and raw exercise of power for its own sake and for personal aggrandizement. Under those circumstances — and, as in 1798 and 1942, energized by a shared fear — it is practically guaranteed that the Presidency will be transformed from Theodore Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” into a bullshit pipeline that will make Keystone XL look like a martini straw by comparison, all the more so because Trump & Co. breathe the noxious vapors that comprise the atmosphere of postmodernist epistemological nihilism that views objective truth as a quaint but outdated relic only suitable for display on Antiques Roadshow.
So what can be done? We — meaning the US in particular, but including the West in general — need cadres of people who can do for Enlightenment social and political values what Madison and Jefferson did vis a vis the Sedition Act of 1798 and what Messrs. Korematsu and Hirabayashi did vis a vis EO 9066: swim against the prevailing social, political, intellectual, and moral current. How does one jump-start that kind of cultural insurgency? Well, I would suggest reading this is a good place to start.
James R. Cowles
Wheelbarrow … Pixabay … Public domain
Theodore Roosevelt … Photographer unknown … Public domain
Trump at Reno, NV, rally … Darron Birgenheier … CC by SA 2.0
“Third Reich” … Darron Birgenheier … CC by SA 2.0
John Adams … Mather Brown, 1788 … CC by 2.0 generic
FDR … Leon Perskie, 1944 … CC by 2.0 generic