Email #246: “civility in Washington”?

Republicans and Democrats have found something to agree about. An NPR poll last month asked how “the overall tone and level of civility in Washington between Republicans and Democrats” has changed “since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.”

73% answered: “Gotten worse.”

While that figure included 83% of liberals, 71% of moderates agreed, and even 69% of conservatives did too. Compare that to July 2009 when the poll asked the same question about Barak Obama. Then only a total of 35% thought civility had gotten worse. President Trump has doubled that figure even among Republicans.

Would you say partisan civility has gotten worse too? You said just days before the poll was taken that “we have seen a decline in civil discourse.” Why exactly do you think that is? Do you, like 73% of Americans, see it happening as a result of President Trump?

You also said: “it is more important now than ever that we as a nation work even harder to maintain a civil discourse.” So what hard work are you doing to achieve that important goal?

Email #245: “a very different kind of truth”?

I couldn’t help but enjoy the feature The Roanoker magazine did on you in 2014: “The U.S. Congress’ Clark Kent Wears the Cape in D.C.” I write a lot about superheroes and so appreciated the allusion. When I met the chair of the Rockbridge Republicans at one of your Open Door meeting earlier this summer, he told me Delegate Ben Cline nicknamed me “Professor Comic Book.” Since I’m a professor and I teach comics, I can’t really complain. I’m even presenting a conference paper about comics for the Modernist Studies Association while I’m here in Amsterdam. Though the topic of an early 20th century Belgian artist’s style seems about as far removed from current U.S. politics as I could get it, I was startled to find how much my paper relates to Donald Trump.

Comics scholar Joseph Witek identifies two major modes in comics: naturalism and cartoons. In the first, figures “remain stable as familiar entities, with any changes in shape and size accounted for by the familiar conventions of visual distance and perspective” because “the world depicted within the panels is presumed to be stable.” In contrast, the cartoon mode “disavows any attempt to render the surface appearance of the physical world and makes a very different claim to a very different kind of truth” because stories “assume a fundamentally unstable and infinitely mutable physical reality, where characters and even objects can move and be transformed according to an associative or emotive logic.”

While we could say past Presidents have aligned roughly with political naturalism, President Trump works in the cartoon mode. His reality is fundamentally mutable and unstable. Where contradictory statements by other politicians can produce damaging and often career-ending appearances of incompetence, deception or hypocrisy, for President Trump they are merely what his ghostwriter called “truthful hyperbole.” As Time magazine’s Michael Scherer put it: “Reality, for the reality-show mogul, is something to be invented episode by episode.”

Thus when a poll or statistic that the President declared false in the past produces something favorable to him now, he redraws reality: “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” Although the FBI and Special Counsel have stated unequivocally that he is under investigation, the President draws his own picture: “I don’t think we’re under investigation. I’m not under investigation. For what? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Looking at just a few examples from July alone, the President claimed that he had signed more bills than any other President; that CNN’s ratings were way down; that the GOP won all five special elections; that because of his insistence NATO nations have begun pouring billions of dollars into their defense requirements; that the FBI reports directly to him, that the director of the Boy Scouts called him, and that Lebanon is on the front lines fighting Hezbollah. In fact, several other Presidents signed more bills at this point in their terms; CNN rating were way up; the GOP won four of the five elections; NATO nations agreed to increase spending in 2014; the FBI reports directly to the Attorney General; the director of the Boy Scouts did not call him; and Lebanon is allied with Hezbollah.

Regarding Hezbollah, the Washington Post reported: “It was not clear whether Trump was confused about that, or simply misspoke.” James Comey calls the President’s statements “lies, plain and simple.” The New York Times concludes similarly: “Not every falsehood is deliberate on Trump’s part. But it would be the height of naïveté to imagine he is merely making honest mistakes. He is lying.”

I say he is cartooning. And his sketchbook is our increasingly unstable country.

Email #244: “dangerous drug traffickers”?

Marijuana is legal in the Netherlands and openly smoked in Amsterdam coffee shops. While I have no intention of smoking any pot while here with my family, I see the argument for the country not squandering its tax dollars prosecuting people who do. While I am indifferent to whether marijuana should be legalized generally in the U.S., I am pleased that medical marijuana has been.

The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to the 2015 appropriations bill specifies that:

“None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used … to prevent any [states] from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

This was common-sense, bipartisan legislation. The amendment was named after conservative Republican Rep. Rohrabacher, and it was brought to the floor of a Republican-controlled House where 49 Republicans joined with Democrats to pass it.

Sadly, I see you were not one of those Republicans. Worse, I see Attorney General Sessions hopes to see the amendment revoked. He wrote to Congress arguing that the amendment would inhibit the Justice Department’s ability to enforce the Controlled Substances Act:

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

While I am pleased the Attorney General is battling dangerous drug trafficking, medical marijuana is a separate issue. According to a Quinnipiac poll from April, 94% of Americans approve of medical marijuana. And the medical research community has reached a consensus about its unique benefits, especially the alleviation of chronic pain. Moreover, states with medical marijuana record fewer deaths due to opiate overdose.

And yet Attorney General Sessions seems unaware, stating:

“I see a line in The Washington Post today that I remember from the ’80s, ‘Marijuana is a cure for opiate abuse.’ Give me a break. This is the kind of argument that’s been made out there to just — almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits. I doubt that’s true. Maybe science will prove I’m wrong.”

Science has already proven him wrong. Our Attorney General should not be making 2017 Justice Department policy based on his 80s-era assumptions. I ask that the House Judiciary Committee please caution him accordingly.

Email #243: “a speech about Hillary”?

I am concerned that President Trump is not being honest about whether he was informed of his son’s meeting with the Russian lawyer who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton acquired through the Russian government. Donald Trump Jr. responded to Rob Goldstone’s request for the meeting on June 3:

“Seems we have some time and if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week when I am back?”

At 5:19 on Tuesday June 7, Trump Jr. confirmed the meeting for Thursday:

“How about 3 at our offices? Thanks rob appreciate you helping set it up.”

Later that same evening Donald Trump announced at a campaign rally:

“I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend. Who knows?”

The New York Times recently asked the President about his announcement in light of what we now know about his son’s planned meeting: “Did you know at the time that they had the meeting?”

TRUMP: No, I didn’t know anything about the meeting…. It must have been a very important — must have been a very unimportant meeting, because I never even heard about it.

NYT: No one told you a word, nothing?

TRUMP: No, nobody told me. I didn’t know noth—— It’s a very unimportant — sounded like a very unimportant meeting.

NYT: But on the date you clinched the nominations with New Jersey and California and the primaries, when you give the speech that night, saying you’re going to give a speech about Hillary Clinton’s corrupt dealings with Russia and other countries, and that comes just three hours after Don Jr. —

TRUMP: Number one, remember, I made many of those speeches.

NYT: People wondered about the timing.

TRUMP: Many of those speeches. I’d go after her all the time.

NYT: Yeah, I know, but—

TRUMP: But there was something about the book, “Clinton Cash,” came out.

NYT: Yeah, a year earlier, though. But you were talking about—

TRUMP: But we were developing a whole thing. There was something about “Clinton Cash.”

Peter Schweizer’s “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich” was published in May 2015. It wouldn’t be reprinted until July 2016, and the paperback edition included no new material for a “major speech” on the Clintons. When Trump gave the speech, he cited some passages but then focused on Secretary Clinton’s emails:

“Her server was easily hacked by foreign governments … While we may not know what is in those deleted emails, our enemies probably do. So they probably now have a blackmail file over someone who wants to be President of the United States. This fact alone disqualifies her from the Presidency. We can’t hand over our government to someone whose deepest, darkest secrets may be in the hands of our enemies.”

While the statement does suggest that the President knew that Clinton’s “deepest, darkest secrets” were in the hands of Russia, like the timing of his “major speech” announcement, it is only circumstantial. If so, the coincidence is merely surprising. If not, then the President was personally involved in Russian collusion.

What’s your opinion? And, more importantly, what are you doing to verify it?

Email #242: “joking”?

I saw that President Trump mentioned you by name in his speech to Long Island police officers late last month:

“We’re also working with Chairman Bob Goodlatte on a series of enforcement measures — and he’s a terrific guy — to keep our country safe from crime and terrorism — and in particular, radical Islamic terrorism. A term never uttered by the past administration. Never uttered. Did anybody ever hear that term? I don’t think so. But you heard it from me.”

The speech received negative attention because a paragraph earlier the President told the officers “please don’t be too nice” when making arrests:

“Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”

New York police commissioner James P. O’Neill responded: “To suggest that police officers apply any standard in the use of force other than what is reasonable and necessary is irresponsible, unprofessional and sends the wrong message to law enforcement as well as the public.” Other law enforcement officials and organizations condemned the remark too, but Blue Lives Matters tweeted, “It was a joke,” and Tom Rogan of the Washington Examiner also said, “Trump was clearly joking.” What is your opinion? Was the President making a joke, and if so, was the joke irresponsible?

Regarding President Trump’s reference to you, I was not aware that you were working on radical Islamic terrorism. Could you please explain what the President meant? He did go on to mention legislation that you are working on:

“That includes cracking down on sanctuary cities that defy federal law, shield visa overstays, and that release dangerous criminals back into the United States’ communities. That’s what’s happening. They’re releasing them. So many deaths where they release somebody back into the community, and they know it’s going to end that way. That’s the sad — they know it’s going to end that way.”

While we disagree about whether jurisdictions should have a choice to allocate their local tax dollars to make their police serve as federal immigration officers, the President’s argument is one of the worst I’ve heard in favor of your legislation. Sanctuary cities are not releasing dangerous criminals. They are simply not investigating the immigration status of the people they arrest. And what does the President even mean when says “they know it’s going to end that way”? Does he believe these cities release murderers knowing that they are going to commit more murders? Or was he just joking then too? Joking or not, if the President tries to use this argument to persuade the Senate to pass your anti-sanctuary legislation, it is doomed to the same fate as the American Health Care Act.

I presume you continue to support President Trump because you still imagine he’s the best chance you have of advancing your own legislative agenda, but he is proving counterproductive even at that.

But at least he thinks you’re “a terrific guy.”

Email #241: Gay Pride Canal Parade

My family and I are visiting Amsterdam this week, and today the city is holding its annual Gay Pride Canal Parade. It’s the largest gay pride event in the Netherlands and one of the largest in the world. The tourist website says it draws over a half million spectators. I feel lucky that my wife, our teen-age son, our college-age daughter, and I will be among them this year.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in the Netherlands since 2000. They were alone then, but 23 other countries have followed since, including the U.S. in 2015. But you said in 2014: “I believe marriage should be between one man and one woman.” The Supreme Court said you were wrong. Has your opinion changed since then? Or do you still consider gay people to be less than human?

I wish you could be in Amsterdam today. The canal parade includes boats sponsored by the city, its police department, the national ministry of defense, the ministry of security and justice, and the military. You should especially see the one by gay Christians. Or do you still imagine that God condones your bigotry?

Email #240: “regardless of political affiliation”?

One year ago today, on August 4, 2016, former CIA chief John Brennan warned Russia not to interfere in the U.S. election:

“I said that all Americans, regardless of political affiliation or whom they might support in the election, cherish their ability to elect their own leaders without outside interference or disruption. I said American voters would be outraged by any Russian attempt to interfere in the election.”

If you had asked me a year ago if Brennan’s assessment of Americans was accurate, I would have said yes. In fact, since Republicans have long fostered a reputation for patriotism and the need for strong national defense, I would have thought Republicans would have been especially outraged. I would have been wrong.

Based on the actions of Republicans both in and out of office since Russian election interference was first reported and then unanimously confirmed, it seems Republicans cherish their personal political agendas more than their nation’s ability to elect leaders without outside interference. You are a primary example. Instead of outrage, you are content with this new status quo. You would rather have a Republican than a Democrat in the White House, even if another country actively and significantly undermined the Democrat in order to promote the Republican.

Your loyalty is to party first, country second. Were CIA Director Brennan and I naive ever to think otherwise?