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When Should We Be Undemocratic?

photograph of the White House at night

I am inclined to think the following two things:

  1. The Senate should have convicted former President Trump and prohibited him from holding future office (as permitted by Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 of the U.S. constitution).
  2. It would have been undemocratic for the Senate to bar President Trump from future office.

Why do I think it undemocratic to bar President Trump from office? Simply because it removes the ability of the democratic populous to select him once again as president. Certainly, I think his behavior should disqualify him from ever holding public office again; but there are a great many people who I believe should never hold public office, and yet it would be undemocratic for my will to be decisive in preventing my fellow citizens from electing them.

Barring a president from future office, then, is actually far more profoundly undemocratic than removing a president who was voted into office. After a president has been elected, it takes four years before the people could vote him or her out. Thus, impeachment and removal is necessary to maintain an interim political check. The problem with barring someone from future office, however, is that future elections already provide this democratic check. The people can choose to not reelect someone! To bar someone from holding office says: even if the people choose to reelect, even then, he or she should not be allowed to take that seat.

I’m tempted to console myself here; to tell myself that President Trump’s behavior made him a threat to democracy, and as such it is not undemocratic to remove his name from the list of potential candidates. This, however, I think would just be a pleasing rationalization. It is, itself, undemocratic for me to unilaterally decide which threats to democracy should (and should not) bar one from future office. For a long time, people thought that there was something essentially undemocratic about electing a Catholic to high office, since that would put U.S. decision-making under the moral control of the Pope. Of course, this was just anti-Catholic bigotry; but who am I to say the argument about Catholics is wrong and the argument about President Trump is right? When I look at the evidence this seems clear, but looking at the evidence I also thought Trump should never be president, and it would clearly have been undemocratic to make that choice for the nation.

To see the worry, note that I think there are many undemocratic aspects of both the Democratic and Republican platforms. But it would clearly be undemocratic to prohibit any Republicans or Democrats from running for office. To decide what undemocratic behavior disqualifies one from office should, in a democracy, be up to the people.

Most arguments I heard against impeachment seemed bad to me, but even I had to admit there was something to the worry that it would be undemocratic to not let the people decide for themselves.

Of course, there are goods other than democracy, and those goods speak in favor of impeaching President Trump. In particular, it seems important that we maintain a credible political threat against lame-duck presidents who have been voted out of office. If the Senate cannot impose a penalty barring future office, if the president is already on the way out the door, and if we want to preserve the norm against criminally prosecuting political enemies, then it is unclear what threat there is to hold a president in line other than impeachment (of course, this problem will still apply to president’s in their second term; so even impeachment is not an altogether adequate solution).

Now, I don’t want to here analyze whether it was right to bar President Trump from office. (I think it is, at least in this case, rather clear that barring him from office would have been the right thing to do all things considered.)

But I’m still worried, because I have no general principle for how to make these tradeoffs. I have no idea how to make comparisons between the undemocratic nature of barring someone from future office, and the importance of the social goods granted by the threat of impeachment. In this case, I have the strong intuition that the limited harm to democracy is unimportant when compared to the gains granted by deterrence. And, in fact, in this case, I’m actually pretty confident in that intuition. If any case is clear, it seems to me that this is going to be this one.

But what if the case were messier; what if the president’s behavior was itself less brazenly undemocratic? How would I go about comparing the good of democracy to other social goods? In a previous Prindle Post piece, I argued that, psychologically, we often make these decisions by intensity matching. How undemocratic does impeachment feel? How terrible do the president’s actions feel? If the president’s actions feel more terrible than impeachment feels undemocratic, then we should impeach and bar from future office. If the impeachment feels more undemocratic than the president’s behavior feels terrible; then impeach but don’t bar from future office. As I argued in that piece, however, the problem with intensity matching is that it does not reliably connect with any moral reality.  It depends on how one anchors their own scale, and often produces morally bizarre behavior (like a willingness to spend the same amount of money to save one hundred or one hundred thousand birds from oil spills).

So if our gut intuitions don’t tell us how to make this comparison, we need some principle. But right now I don’t see what that principle could be; and I think that should make us all a little more cautious in our calls for political action.

Moral Authority in America

photograph of President Trump leaving podium at border wall event

Leaving office on January 20, a disgraced Donald Trump, enraged over the failure of his attempts to overturn the election result, chastised by his latest impeachment for incitement of insurrection, sulking at being denied a farewell military parade, will be able to gloat about one thing – Joe Biden’s inauguration crowd will be smaller than his.

Trump’s presidency began in January 2016 with the petulant and much-repeated lie that his was the biggest inaugural crowd ever, despite the evidence of photographs showing the size of the crowd attending Barack Obama’s inauguration clearly refuting the claim. This gave rise to Kellyanne Conway’s absurd remark that there are ‘alternative facts’ a phrase which encapsulates the Trump presidency.

This ridiculous lie, and many others like it that issued from the president and his administration over the last four years, seems petty and, compared to other false claims, laughable.

Things have taken a much darker turn since the November election with Trump’s campaign to convince his supporters that the election was rigged culminating in the horrific events of January 6, when what should have been a routine process of certifying the electoral college vote turned, at Trump’s urging, into a violent and deadly assault on Congress by an angry mob of his supporters.

Following this failed insurrection, as the FBI continued to arrest (suspected) participants and the president faced swift rebuke with the House impeaching him, disturbing reports have continued to surface about possible collusion from inside Congress, questions have been raised about the lack of preparedness of security forces, the disparity has been noted between the anaemic response on Capitol Hill the day of the riot and the heavy-handed response to BLM protests earlier in the year; as security services remain concerned about possible sympathizers within the US armed forces and the Pentagon attempts to vet all armed personnel ahead of Biden’s Inauguration, America looks like a different place.

In the hours leading up to the inauguration of Joe Biden as America’s 46th President the world watches on anxiously, shocked by footage of Washington DC, that beacon of democracy, where streets are lined with soldiers in fatigues, and government buildings are fenced off, heavily guarded by military vehicles.

This moment, in which America and the world holds their breath, is the culmination and intersection of many factors – Trump’s election fraud lies, his persistent years-long stoking and appropriation of people’s grievances, and the permissive normalization of white supremacy which has characterized his presidency together with the inexplicable presence in the US of citizen militias legally armed to the teeth.

This period of American political and social history will no doubt keep analysts, historians, and pundits of all kinds busy for a long time.

Something we have heard a lot over the past weeks, from US lawmakers, political observers and members of the public is that these events have somehow changed America. Whether it is being called an insurrection, a domestic terror attack, a riot or the storming of the Capitol, one thing is clear – something has happened to America that has deeply and indelibly affected the country’s claim to being a beacon of democracy. Counting the cost of these last four years (and especially the last two weeks of the Trump presidency), America’s moral authority has to be reassessed.

To talk about America’s moral authority as a free, liberal democracy, jingoistically, without acknowledging factors that complicate that claim – such as the deep vein of racism which runs through American history to the present as its legacy of slavery, and America’s interference in other country’s political processes with its involvement of coups d’état in Latin America during the Cold War era – would be naïve.

But eschewing the simplistic patriotism which leads to sloganizing of America as ‘the greatest country on Earth’ – a cliché that has long irked many non-Americans – still leaves room for America to be justifiably proud of the central role held by liberal democratic values like freedom, equality, civil rights, justice, and the rule of law.

As the era of the Trump presidency (if not of Trumpism) closes, those values have taken a hit. Whether the wounds are fatal is yet to be seen, and depends on what happens next.

However, as the Trump presidency has marched and stumbled inexorably towards the events of January 6, some of the country’s moral authority has been lost.

Moral authority is a difficult, somewhat fuzzy concept. It is not the authority of power, but of example. A person, institution, idea, or indeed a society possesses moral authority when it has over time exemplified some important moral stance. Moral authority exemplifies ‘the good’ not in the shallows of moralism but in the deeper waters of virtue.

Donald Trump has never had any personal moral authority. He has power, and authoritative sway in the form of might, but he does not possess the kind of authority that comes in principle and by example. He has in fact always mistaken power for authority. Of the many instances that demonstrate this confusion is the tone of his attempt to persuade Georgia’s secretary of state to change the election results in early January. Trump has used his power to demand loyalty at all costs, and the costs have been high.

As he has tried more and more to wield his power with sound and fury, real authority has become more and more remote from him.

Trump has of course not single-handedly caused the current crisis in American social and political life that has seen white supremacist extremism move from the fringes to entering the mainstream, but he has used the resentments boiling away in American life ruthlessly to his own ends – to gain power and feed his insatiable ego. As we try to unpack this whole mess, the question of America’s moral authority will have to be wrested back from that of Trump’s – and we have yet to see what is left.

In her book Too Much and Never Enough, Trump’s niece Mary Trump writes:

“The fact is, Donald’s pathologies are so complex and his behaviours so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would  require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he’ll never  sit for.”

Diagnosing Trump is one thing, diagnosing the state of the American democracy is another. I believe American democracy is resilient, and that it will win out against the dark forces not just at its door but well and truly inside the gates – but only if America is prepared to learn the lessons here.

Moral authority will not be preserved fully intact after these events, which may not yet be over; but neither will it be lost if we keep hold of the idea that authority is not about being faultless, and it is not about power, or strength in the form of power. Moral authority comes from the way a person, an institution, a country copes with its challenges, and how it responds to its own failings. For such authority to return, power and moralism, will have to step back.

Trump and the Dangers of Social Media

photograph of President Trump's twitter bio displayed on tablet

In the era of Trump, social media has been both the medium through which political opinions are disseminated and a subject of political controversy itself. Every new incendiary tweet feeds into another circular discussion about the role sites like Twitter and Facebook should have in political discourse, and the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol by right-wing terrorists is no different. In what NPR described as “the most sweeping punishment any major social media company has ever taken against Trump,” Twitter has banned the president from using their platform. Not long before Twitter’s announcement, Facebook banned him as well, and now Parler, the conservative alternative to Twitter, has been removed from the app store by Apple.

While these companies are certainly justified in their desire to prevent further violence, is this all too little, too late? Much in the same way that members of the current administration have come under fire for resigning with only two weeks left in office, and not earlier, it seems that social media sites could have acted sooner to squash disinformation and radical coordination, potentially averting acts of domestic terror like this one.

At the same time, there isn’t a simple way to cleanse social media sites of white supremacist violence; white supremacy is insidious and often very difficult to detect through an algorithm. This places social media sites in an unwinnable situation: if you allow QAnon conspiracy theories to flourish unchecked, then you end up with a wide base of xenophobic militants with a deep hatred for the left. But if you force conspiracy theorists off your site, they either migrate to new, more accommodating platforms (like Parler), or resort to an ever-evolving lexicon of dog-whistles that are much harder to keep track of.

Furthermore, banning Trump supporters from social media sites only feeds into their imagined oppression; what they view as “censorship” (broad social condemnation for racist or simply untrue opinions) only serves as proof that their First Amendment rights are being trampled upon. This view, of course, ignores the fact that the First Amendment is something the government upholds, not private companies, which Trump-appointee Justice Kavanaugh affirmed in the Supreme Court in 2019. But much in the same way that the Confederacy’s romantic appeal relies on its defeat, right-wing pundits who are banned from tweeting might become martyrs for their base, adding more fuel to the fire of their cause. As David Graham points out, that process has already begun; insurrectionists are claiming the status of victims, and even Republican politicians who condemn the violence in one moment tacitly validate the rage of conspiracy theorists in another.

The ethical dilemma faced by social media sites at this watershed moment encompasses more than just politics. It also encompasses the idea of truth itself. As Andrew Marantz explained in The New Yorker,

“For more than five years now, a complacent chorus of politicians and talking heads has advised us to ignore Trump’s tweets. They were just words, after all. Twitter is not real life. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but Trump’s lies and insults and white-supremacist propaganda and snarling provocations would never hurt us.” But, Marantz goes on, “The words of a President matter. Trump’s tweets have always been consequential, just as all of our online excrescences are consequential—not because they are always noble or wise or true but for the opposite reason. What we say, online and offline, affects what we believe and what we do—in other words, who we are.”

We have to rise about our irony and detachment, and understand as a nation that language is not divorced from reality. Conspiracy theories, which depend in large part on language games and fantasy, must be addressed to prevent further violence, and only an openness to truth can help us move beyond them as a nation.

Winning Graciously and the Problem with Empathy

photograph of Joe Biden speaking with microphone with American flag in background

In his first speech as president-elect, Joe Biden placed a strong emphasis on national unity and reconciliation. “For all those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand the disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of times myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance,” Biden said in between bouts of cheers and honking car horns. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again. And to make progress we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies.” Biden presents himself  as a president for all, a message which many Democrats and centrists have wholeheartedly embraced as a path to ending, in Biden’s words, a “grim era of demonization” (though he did not specify who or what exactly has been demonized, or whether one side of the political divide is more blameworthy for this demonization than the other).

In the wake of his victory, celebrations have erupted across the globe. People in blue Biden-Harris t-shirts dance in the streets of New York, and across the Atlantic, fireworks are being set off over London. While this outpouring of joy feels well-earned, it’s worth considering what attitude the left ought to take towards Trump supporters going forward. One of the central questions of ethics, famously taken up by T.N. Scanlon in his 1998 book, is what we owe to each other. Many Democrats are wrestling with this question now: what obligations do those on the left have toward their (somewhat) vanquished political foes?

On the one hand, gloating over the defeat of an opponent seems more likely to sow further division than mend bridges. This is primarily a practical consideration for politicians and legislators. As political scientist Ian Bremmer points out, the Republicans may still maintain their hold over the Senate, depending on how the upcoming election in Georgia turns out, so a commitment to compromise and teamwork between both sides will be key going forward. In a tweet, he suggests that “Now is the time for every Biden supporter to reach out to one person who voted for Trump. Empathize with them.”

However, many on the left are pushing back, citing an inextricable problem with the brand of amnesiac empathy Biden encourages. Karl Popper’s famous “tolerance paradox,” inspired by observations of facism in Europe in 1945, states that,

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

Unfettered tolerance contains the seed of its own destruction. An America that is truly for all, for both Trump supporters and the far left, cannot help but destroy itself. The solution, it seems, is for the tolerant to commit to uplifting the downtrodden and disenfranchised while opposing those groups that perpetuate structural violence, a kind of qualified tolerance. Biden’s call for reconciliation may ultimately feed into the pernicious logic that allows for good people “on both sides,” though it seems unfair to preemptively attribute such reprehensible moral equivocation to Biden’s fledgling administration months before he’s even been sworn into office.

So, do we strive for unity which may elide the very real struggles of the disenfranchised, or sink deeper into mutual estrangement, which risks stagnation in the aim of moral purity? The reality is that many of us have no choice but to compromise with one another, to enact change step by step rather than in a glorious blaze of revolution. Political compromise may constitute a moral compromise, but it may pave the road for a future where such concessions are less difficult to make. This may feel like a deeply unsatisfying approach to those long ignored by mainstream political discourse, and it doesn’t always address the deep hurt victims of structural inequality have faced for centuries in this country.

Regardless of the difficult road that lies ahead, this is a moment where celebration is warranted. In particular, Biden’s stance on climate change and immigration are a source of hope for many across the globe, though it is still to be seen whether or not his administration can enact substantive change within our deeply fractured system. But once the euphoria wears off, Democrats and Republicans alike will have to reckon with Scanlon’s question in the tumultuous months to come.

The Day after Election: A Return to Normal?

black-and-white photograph of the Capitol building at night

Much attention and energy is focused on the outcome of the election, but regardless who wins there is a great deal of work to be done — simply declaring one side the victor won’t solve our problems. So what’s the next question we should be asking after “Who won?”

Regardless of who wins the Presidential election, it is clear now that Americans are anxious about the election and the future of their democracy. A recent poll found that 9/10 believe that America is not “normal” right now. Between COVID-19, racial tensions, public unrest, and the election, many Americans yearn for a so-called return to “normalcy.” Public health experts often speak of what it will take to return to normal from a health perspective. The Biden campaign has heavily focused on returning to normalcy. As described by Glenn Reynolds in USA Today, it is a pitch that “all the Trump craziness will expire, and things will be safe, sane and familiar.” The Republican campaign has also been pitching the concept of returning to normal. But the most important morally salient question to be asked is what does “normal” even mean and why do people want to return to it?

Normal can imply two important meanings. Normal can signify actions that are consistent with norms like rules, principles, standards. If one does not act in a way governed by certain norms, then it is not normal. Normal can also signify what is usual, typical, or to be expected. For example, the Brookings Institution suggests several ideas about what returning to normal might mean after a Trump presidency: a normal president will release their tax returns, a normal president won’t associate with dictators, a normal president won’t attack democratic norms by refusing to accept the results, a normal president would be more empathetic, etc. In some cases, these may indicate norms that we think a president should follow such as respecting election results. In other cases, these are simply expectations based on past experiences. It may not be normal for a president to spend so much time on Twitter. However, it becomes problematic when we start to confuse the two, because “normal” in the second sense may mean different things to different people.

Normalcy, in the second sense I have described, is inherently conservative and backward-looking. It is a form of nostalgia, and a tendency to see through rose-colored glasses; an attempt to harken back to the good old days. For example, Ezra Klein of Vox suggests that the Biden campaign “is offering a politics of nostalgia. He is painting a sepia-toned portrait of the Obama era, and reminding voters that he was in that portrait, standing right behind a president they liked and miss.” But if this is the case, then what is “Make America Great Again” if not an appeal to a return to some perceived normalcy? Of a return to the good old days? But psychological studies of fading affect bias remind us that the good old days are not always as good as we remember. After all, President Trump isn’t the first to cozy up to dictators.

Why is a return to some previously “normal” point in time even desirable? Normal is what led to where we are. The victory of Trump in 2016 and everything that has happened since was only made possible by trends and habits that existed before the election. Polarization and fierce partisanship were on the rise well before 2016. The disproportionate shooting of Black people by the police was still present long before 2016, as was systematic racism. Normal before the pandemic left most nations unprepared and scrambling to secure the necessary equipment and resources needed to address the crisis.

Conservative media has stressed that much of what the Biden campaign and broad left are proposing is not normal. The proposals to tackle climate change, public health, and racial justice are new, not normal. In some cases, such as responding to climate change, insisting on normalcy would be bizarre. For many on the left eager for change, it is the break from the norm that is desired. For the right, Trump has already ended normalcy by significantly changing the balance on the Supreme Court. It is foolish to insist on norms that developed in the past that are not responsive to the problems of the future.

Yet, as each side seeks reform in the name of restoring normalcy, it is clear that what is “normal” is not a consensus. The rhetoric of insisting on returning to a “normalcy” that half of the country doesn’t recognize is inherently exclusionary. To be outside of what is called normal is alienating; this is true regardless of political ideology. The larger problem is whose “normalcy” will prevail? And what are the risks of excluding the other side of the normalcy they seek?

It may not even be possible to return to “normal.” Even if Trump loses the election, even if he loses badly, his success in politics has demonstrated that so many assumptions about our democracy were incorrect. That Trump and the Republicans have been able to attack the media, criticize members of the armed forces, spread misinformation, spread coronavirus, run without a new platform, completely backtrack on their own stated principles regarding court appointments, and still get over 40% support in most opinion polls reveals something more concerning. In 2004 an accusation of flip-flopping could be devastating to a candidate, but now consistency over policy barely matters compared to political affiliation. How can democracy function when almost half of the electorate is willing to overlook facts, principles, and social cohesion? Even if Trump loses, the basic strategy will live on. Voter suppression tactics will only become more subtle. Political conspiracies will continue to spread. Many on the left now embrace the advertising tactics of the Lincoln Project, who are able to run the sort of negative and manipulative messaging that used to be so devastating against Democrats. The distrust and animosity that have swelled over the past decade of American politics and the habits that have followed from this will not disappear after election day.

Trump, Berlusconi, and Double Standards on Tough Questions

two photographs: 1 of Donald Trump and the other of Silvio Berlusconi speaking at podiums

Since the election of Donald Trump, political experts have launched themselves into a comparison with his Italian version: Silvio Berlusconi. From his billionaire status to his physical height, the similarities between the two have been carefully examined in the hopes that the US could learn from Italy what to expect from the Trump administration. The comparisons made sense: Berlusconi and Trump indeed share many common traits. Their treatment of women and people of color, their financial privilege, their troubles with the law, their approach to tax evasion (as something to be flaunted instead of ashamed of), and their dismissal of journalism. Yet perhaps because the Trump administration created issues that a comparison with Berlusconi could not have helped solve, the similarities fell into silence. Until now.

On Thursday, just hours before his presidential debate with Joe Biden in Nashville, Trump released footage from his interview on CBS’s “60 minutes.” The video showed the president abruptly leaving the interview, calling the correspondent’s approach “no way to talk.” The interviewer, Lesley Stahl, is shown doing the job that a journalist should be doing, and doing it well: she asked challenging questions, questions that any politician would prefer not to answer, and she asked persistently, leaving no room for presidential monologues. The comparison with Berlusconi is unavoidable. In 2006, while Berlusconi was Presidente del Consiglio (the Italian version of Prime Minister), he was invited to be interviewed in “In Mezz’Ora” (“In Half an Hour”), a show conducted by the journalist Lucia Annunziata. Known for her professional and serious temperament, Annunziata kept asking pressing questions to Berlusconi, who eventually decided to leave the interview halfway through. While shaking her hand, Berlusconi scolded Annunziata for her “unfair treatment,” hinting at her alleged leftist bias. The similarities with Trump are particularly striking. Both time-constrained interviews (60 minutes in Trump’s case and 30 minutes in Berlusconi’s case) feature women interviewers relentlessly pressing for an answer that is concise and to the point.

Trump and Berlusconi’s reaction to their interviews also share similarities. In both, they complain about having been unfairly treated, hinting at the seemingly aggressive temperament of the interviewer who did not give them the opportunity to respond. In truth, both interviewers did give them time to reply, but not in the way Trump and Berlusconi are perhaps used to: by responding with overly long speeches about their achievements and ultimately avoiding the question.

What should we make of this comparison? I think the lesson to draw here is a double standard: both Trump and Berlusconi have a hard time maintaining poise in challenging interviews. Granted, interviews can feel like a difficult battle, a back-and-forth that hardly leaves time to breathe, but that rhythm is exactly what is so particular to journalistic style. Interviews are not – and should not – provide a sympathetic atmosphere where candidates can let themselves indulge in long responses that tout the importance of their qualities. Rather, they are a moment of scrutiny where one’s articulate responses are tested. Both Trump and Berlusconi fail the test: they show that they do not know how to deal with journalists (a remark Annunziata makes when leaving the show after Berlusconi storms out). This kind of behavior also hints at the inability to take one’s own medicine.

In the first debate with Joe Biden, Trump relentlessly interrupted the former vice president, often talking over him, and was repeatedly scolded by Chris Wallace, the moderator. If that is an acceptable way of interacting during a debate, then it should be so when other interviewers occasionally interrupt him to obtain a clear answer. Yet, to Trump it isn’t. Right before leaving his interview, Trump chastised Stahl’s approach as “no way to talk.” Notice the double standard here: it is no way to talk when such behavior is directed at him, yet it is acceptable when directed at others. The double standard brings to the surface a somewhat incoherent behavior. And this incoherence is more of a logical problem, rather than a political one. A double standard is not a formal fallacy, that is, a poorly construed argument, but it highlights an inconsistency between words and actions. Trump’s behavior towards Biden during the first debate paints a relentless exchange, yet his verbal remarks about Stahl’s approach toward him tell a different story: they lead to the conclusion that Trump will not endure such tough treatment.

Do we have an obligation to being consistent? Deeming a practice as wrong and nevertheless performing it might make one vulnerable to charges of moral hypocrisy. While it might be difficult to be consistent, our politicians should strive to meet this challenge. Avoiding special treatment and refusing a double standard sends a positive message: one that embraces reciprocal treatment and suggests that those who represent us are not above us.

The Day after Election: Democracy and Good Faith

photograph of downtown Washington D.C. with Capitol building in background

Much attention and energy is focused on the outcome of the election, but regardless who wins there is a great deal of work to be done — simply declaring one side the victor won’t solve our problems. So what’s the next question we should be asking after “Who won?”

In a recent podcast discussing the state of the American democracy, David Runciman remarked:

“The optimistic view is that democracy is a resilient and flexible form of politics… but there’s a deeper fear – which is that something has changed, something over these last three and a half years; [that the Trump presidency] has left not just a stain but a kind of permanent imprint on how people think about the institutions the values and the norms [of American democracy].”

America, and the world, will know soon if Trump gets in for a second term. There has been much talk over the past four years about how much damage Donald Trump could do, is doing, and has done to American democracy, and much discussion about the ongoing effects of the stress the Trump presidency has had on the institutions of American democracy.

If Trump loses, it isn’t yet clear how the institutions of American democracy will emerge from the crisis of his presidency. If Trump is returned to office, no one knows what the state of American democracy will be after four more years, but the prognosis would not be good.

When people talk about the ‘institutions of democracy’ they usually mean the balance between legislative and executive power, the checks and balances Congress is supposed to provide, as well as the role of an independent judiciary and a free press. The last four years, compounded by fears that Trump may refuse to concede a lost election, have demonstrated many weaknesses and vulnerabilities in all these areas. But there is another important democratic ‘institution’ rarely mentioned yet vital for a healthy and functional democracy – that of good faith.

When Utah senator Mike Lee said recently that “democracy isn’t the objective” of America’s political system, he confirmed the suspicions of many in appearing to speak out loud the agenda and tactics of the Republican Party. Other Republican figures, including the president, are on record admitting that without voter suppression tactics the Republican party could not retain, or likely ever again attain, the power of the presidency or of Congress.

Good faith means that all sides of politics respect and uphold the central principle of democracy as a system of government formed by and of and for the people. Citizen participation is needed for this. A high degree of trust is needed. For there to be trust in politicians they must be trustworthy. If you trust someone who lies and cheats, that doesn’t make you a trusting person, it makes you gullible. So there has to be the right kind of trust, which is reciprocal and earned and not misplaced.

Good faith, necessary for democracy to function, is derived from the institution itself: from respect for and deference to true democratic principles by those empowered to discharge its duties. Good faith is attached to the principle of fairness, and it is lost when the desire to win at any cost takes hold.

Erosion of good faith between political parties, where there is no recognition of a common good, only the good for one side or another, has been poisoning American democracy since before Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy. So, while it is tempting to think of this election as centrally a test of whether the American democracy can withstand authoritarianism of whether the world’s oldest and longest surviving democracy can withstand the stress test of Donald Trump it would be incorrect to think the era of bad faith began with him, even if he is the unsurpassed master of its theatrics.

Much has been made over the last four years about the Republican Party in general, and particular key figures such as Mitch McConnell, as enabling Trump – but Sarah Churchwell makes the point that the failure of McConnell et al to reign Trump in has enabled the ideological right. Trump has been utilized by the Republican Party to pursue its arch-conservative and patently antidemocratic agenda.

Heading into the election Trump has not only helped advance the conservative ideologue’s antidemocratic agenda, but taken it to a whole new level. As Sabeel Rahman (president of the thinktank Demos) says: “A set of actors in the Trump administration and the Republican party have made it very clear that their intention is to hold on to political power at the expense of democratic institutions.” This was spelled out (although incorrectly) by Mike Lee: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

It has been clear leading into this election that voter suppression and intimidation is the Republican plan for winning the election. Added to this is the widespread fear that Trump won’t concede, and the uncertainty about what will happen next. Judith Butler tells David Runciman: “…I think if Trump is successful in his efforts to contest, litigate, or otherwise cling on to power, then he is there unless the government is able to act and remove him.”  At this stage, as the election looms, we don’t know how such a scenario would play out.

Democracy and the institutions and democratic norms it relies on has, at best, always been a slow dance towards a better, more inclusive, more progressive, and more just iteration of a political ideal where the views and interests and of the people are represented through various means of direct and indirect choice. The lack of good faith now at the heart of the system has severely impeded this goal. It seems that all but a few, now-powerless members of the GOP are willing to sacrifice good faith for power – and, whatever happens next week, the American democracy cannot heal without some restoration of those vital democratic institutions of trust and good faith.

The Trump/Zelensky Exchange: The “Though” Makes It Quid Pro Quo

photograph of Trump and Zelensky posing for cameras, seated and shaking hands

The Trump administration released a “transcript” of the recent phone call between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and Trump. The administration seems to think that the document proves there was no quid pro quo arrangement suggested by the president. They claim that defense funding was never made conditional on Ukraine investigating Joe Biden or his son. Supporters of the president have dismissed the uproar as motivated by partisan politics, and regard any suggestion that the memo might represent an impeachable offence “a huge overreach” by Democrats.

But the accusation of a quid pro quo arrangement between a sitting president and a foreign government is a big deal. Asking the Ukrainian president to investigate a political rival by itself is sketchy. But to dangle defense funding in front of Ukraine and suggest that Ukraine won’t get it unless they come through is clearly an abuse of power. These types of political dealings were precisely the kind the founding fathers thought essential to keep out of our democracy. To use the power of the presidency for personal gain or to undermine a political rival is precisely the kind of power the founding fathers meant to curb with the constraints they placed on the executive branch. As Zack Beauchamp of Vox has argued,

The president is trying to get a foreign power to open an investigation into the highest-polling Democratic candidate, perhaps Trump’s likeliest opponent for reelection in 2020, on an extremely flimsy pretext — to turn Biden’s fake Ukraine scandal into “her emails” 2.0. He is actively working to weaponize the presidency to boost his political fortunes.

Not only would this constitute election interference, it further threatens to give a foreign power leverage over another nation’s commander-in-chief.

The administration has been adamant that no such deal was officially presented. In Trump’s own words he said, “I didn’t do it. There was no quid pro quo.” Many news outlets have tended to confirm this account; without anything more explicit it’s hard to say definitively whether an offer was intended or whether it was interpreted as such. This ambiguity has led the Justice Department to conclude that prosecutors “did not and could not make out a criminal campaign finance violation.” Without a clearer picture of the actual goods on offer and any clear-cut proposal, the DOJ found it difficult to hold the president accountable for soliciting foreign support in his upcoming presidential campaign.

But there is one word in the transcript of the phone call between Donald Trump and Zelensky that makes it pretty clear that Donald Trump threatened to withhold defense funding from Ukraine if Ukraine did not investigate Joe Biden and his son. It’s the word “though”.

Here is the excerpt that matters:

President Zelenskyy

I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. Specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.

The President

I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people..

President Zelinskyy thanked President Trump for defense support and mentioned that he would like to continue this cooperation. The first sentence out of Trump’s mouth is “I would like you to do us a favor though.” He goes on to ask for an investigation of Biden as part of this favor. In this context, “though” would literally be defined as “placing a restriction or condition on what was previously said.”

Had Trump left that word out, this still looks pretty close to quid pro quo, but there is still the possibility of inferring some weaker claim. On the other hand, one might infer that though he didn’t explicitly threaten to withhold funding unless an investigation happened, it’s implied by asking for the favor. The “though” is what actually makes this an explicit threat; it’s what removes this ambiguity.

It’s up to Congress and the American People to decide what should be done next. As a matter of political expediency, we can argue about whether impeachment is a good idea or not. But whatever is decided, let’s not pretend that this phone call was anything other than an explicit threat by a sitting US President to stop cooperating with Ukraine on their military defense unless they investigated his political rival. The “though” makes this clearly a quid pro quo exchange.

Sworn to Secrecy: The Ethics of Confidentiality Agreements

close-up photograph of contract with pen laying on "signature" section

On August 31st, President Trump revealed that he is currently “suing various people for violating their confidentiality agreements.” This kind of behavior from the President is unremarkable because it has happens so often. In the highest profile case, President Trump had Stormy Daniels, a woman with whom he was having an adulterous affair, sign a non-disclosure agreement, promising that she would not speak about the nature of their relationship. 

Non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements are common. Employees and members of various organizations are often expected to sign them. One major concern about these kinds of agreements is that they make the moral dimensions of the making and keeping of promises seem as black and white as the writing on the page. Careful reflection on these matters makes it clear that this is not so.

There are some morally defensible reasons for the use of confidentiality agreements. If an employee works in research and development, an employer might have genuine concerns about intellectual theft—an employee could take the ideas developed by one business and bring them to another. Confidentiality agreements may also be important in cases in which employees work in defense and security. Revealing security secrets could threaten many people’s lives. There is also, within limits, some reason to think it is important for members of an organization to be able to have conversations with one another under the assumption that they can speak freely without fear that what they are saying will be reported outside of the group.

There are also many reasons to be quite skeptical about the morality of confidentiality agreements. In practice, it may well be the case that almost all such agreements are coercive. People must make money in order to pay their bills and stay alive, and often signing a confidentiality agreement is a condition of employment. Even in conditions in which employment is not at stake, those who are in a position to sign are often in a vulnerable, subordinate position, which limits the extent to which they behave autonomously when they sign. Promises are not binding if they are coerced.

Moreover, in order for a promise to be binding, at least some degree of informed consent must exist. Morally defensible promises are entered into in good faith. At the point at which they are made, both parties must trust that the other is not omitting important information from the agreement that might change the willingness to sign the document. If it becomes clear that the nature of the relationship is not what it originally appeared to be, that impacts the degree to which the person that signed it is morally obligated to follow it.

The existence of a confidentiality agreement may be morally relevant to the evaluation of what should be done in any particular case, but it is not morally dispositive. For example, the fact that a person signed an agreement provides them, on the face of it (if the decision was un-coerced), with some reason for compliance. Depending on the circumstances of the case, however, it may not provide them with an all things considered reason for compliance. Other moral considerations might easily and often outweigh the obligation to comply with a confidentiality agreement. A person might come to realize that the values of the institution or individual involved are not commensurate with their own values and dedication to upright moral character. The promises a person makes in a confidentiality agreement may turn out, in the fullness of time, to be inconsistent with other important commitments they have made. Or it may be the case that the harms being caused by the institution or individual are so severe that speaking out becomes obligatory, even if that requires violating a confidentiality agreement.

Under certain conditions, signing one of these agreements makes the person who signed it vulnerable to lawsuits if they violate it. This isn’t a moral fact; it’s a legal fact. Often, lawsuits against people who have violated confidentiality agreements add insult to injury, especially if the violation was a form of whistleblowing. 

These agreements may also lead to a diminished sense of personal responsibility, at least in cases in which neither security nor research and development are involved. If you think that it would be bad for you if others find out the things say or do, perhaps you should put a little more care into what you say and do. For example, President Trump’s personal assistant, Madeleine Westerhout tendered her resignation after revealing to a reporter that the president doesn’t like to have pictures taken with his daughter Tiffany because he perceives her as overweight. The president tweeted that Westerhout “has a fully enforceable confidentiality agreement.” We can’t confirm or disconfirm whether what Westerhout said was true. If it is true, then perhaps the problem isn’t the violation of confidentiality; perhaps it is criticizing your own daughter’s body in front of your subordinate employees. Confidentiality agreements often create hotbeds of abusive and otherwise unethical behavior. It is allowed to go on unchecked because people are scared to speak up out of fear of being sued. 

One of the most significant problems with confidentiality agreements is that they encourage the confusion of ethics with compliance. It is possible, and even common, to be very well-versed in exactly what constitutes compliance for a given organization, but to know little to nothing about ethics. Compliance masquerading as ethics substitutes a shallow proceduralism in the place of substantive moral reflection. After all, rules shouldn’t be followed if the rules themselves are unethical.

Power, Pollution, and Golf

Photograph of a golf course showing a pond in the foreground, a distant person with a bag of clubs, and trees in the background

Despite the closure of over 800 golf courses in the last decade and the fact that young people have virtually no interest in the sport, golf may be the emblematic pastime of the 21st century. So many of the key issues our society must grapple with in the next hundred years or so, from environmental change to the concentration of wealth and political power in the hands of an elite few, are borne witness to on the vast stretches of meticulously maintained green. Given the ethical ramifications of those issues, it’s pertinent to ask whether or not the continuation of the sport of golf itself is ethical, and what the prevalence of this sport might say about our future.

The first and most pressing objection to golf is its environmental impact. Apart from impact of pesticides, environmental scholars note that “Golf course maintenance can also deplete fresh water resources [… and] require an enormous amount of water every day,” which can lead to water scarcity. A golf course can take up nearly 150 acres of land and can displace the area’s native flora and fauna in favor of an artificial and homogenized landscape. Furthermore, the impact of a golf course can be felt beyond the land it physically occupies. From 2017 to 2019, a teenage diver found over 50,000 golf balls underwater off the coast of California, the byproduct of five nearby golf courses. This is especially concerning to environmentalists, because, as the NPR reporter who covered the story noted, “golf balls are coated with a thin polyurethane shell that degrades over time. They also contain zinc compounds that are toxic.” They eventually break down into microplastics, an especially insidious form of pollution.

However, some argue that golf courses enclose and protect rather than damage fragile ecosystems. One such often-referenced paper, “The Role of Golf Courses in Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management,” was written by Johan Colding and Carl Folke and published in 2009. After examining the effect of golf courses on local insect and bird populations, Colding and Folke concluded that “golf courses had higher ecological value relative to other green-area habitats,” and “play essential role in biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management.” They argue that golf courses can be a refuge for wildlife that’s been pushed out from other areas, and that golf courses can foster biodiversity by working hand-in-hand with conservationists. However, this paper was published by Springer Science+Business Media, a global publishing company of peer-reviewed scientific literature that had to retract 64 scientific papers in 2015 after it was discovered that the articles hadn’t actually been peer reviewed at all. Seen in that light, this research (and the conclusion it draws) becomes questionable. Another study, “Do Ponds on Golf Courses Provide Suitable Habitat for Wetland-Dependent Animals in Suburban Areas? An Assessment of Turtle Abundances, published in The Journal of Herpetology in 2013, examined the potential for golf courses to contain turtle habitats with mixed results. The researchers noted that turtle habitats within golf courses did have the potential to foster wildlife, but were negatively impacted by residential development projects, which many golf courses today contain. To summarize, there is no clear consensus on this issue, though researchers uniformly note the very act of building a golf course in the first place does disrupt wildlife, whether or not conservation efforts are made after the fact.

Golf may have an ultimately negative impact on the environment, but its continuance has ethical implications for our social and political landscape as well. Golf has long been considered an elite pastime, and President Trump’s fondness for the sport is often used to demonstrate his insufficiencies as a leader. Rick Reilly, a contributing writer for ESPN’s SportsCenter and ABC Sports, released a book in early April of this year entitled Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump. In an article for The Atlantic explaining how Trump has sullied the reputation of golf through his propensity to cheat and tasteless displays of wealth, Reilly laments,

“[The situation] stinks because we were finally getting somewhere with golf. It used to be an elitist game, until the 1960s, when a public-school hunk named Arnold Palmer brought it to the mailmen and the manicurists. Then an Army vet’s kid named Tiger Woods brought it to people of color all over the world. We had ultracool golfers like Woods, Rickie Fowler, and Rory McIlroy, and pants that don’t look like somebody shot your couch, and we’d gotten the average round of golf down to $35, according to the National Golf Foundation.”

However, it’s difficult to stand by Reilly’s assertion that golf has entirely outgrown its elitist roots. In an interview with Golf Digest, Trump remarked,

“First of all, golf should be an aspirational game. And I think that bringing golf down to the lowest common denominator by trying to make courses ugly because they want to save water, in a state that has more water […]

I would make golf aspirational, instead of trying to bring everybody into golf, people that are never gonna be able to be there anyway. You know, they’re working so hard to make golf, as they say, a game of the people. And I think golf should be a game that the people want to aspire to through success.”

Replace the word “golf” with “power,” and you’ve got an almost eerily succinct and transparent summary of capitalist conservative dogma (in which the playing field is never intended to be even, the environment is devalued in favor of aesthetics, and the American dream is only illusory for the masses). But furthermore, Trump’s comment encapsulates many of the elitist attitudes and expectations that still attend golf today, regardless of the price for a single round at a public course. The resorts and country clubs frequented by Trump and his ilk are beautifully manicured arenas of power, places where politicians and businessmen can solidify ties and network over club sodas. When he was attacked for misogynistic remarks about women, Trump’s defense was that he’d heard Bill Clinton say worse things about women on the golf course, going so far as to call Mar-a-Lago, the resort attached to a golf course owned and frequented by Trump, the “The Southern White House.” The words “golf course” have become shorthand for private spaces of leisure for powerful men, a place for unethical behavior sheltered from the public eye and more traditional structures of power by miles of dense greenery.

Unlike sports that are not as white or monolithic, like basketball and football, contemporary golf is not fertile ground for political or cultural resistance. Golfers are notably non-vocal about politics. As golf correspondent Lawrence Donegan points out, many famous pro-golfers are pressured to play golf with the president, and show almost uniform deference to him out of fear of losing corporate sponsorships. This deferential attitude is taken up by most elites who play golf. Donegan says,

“The acquiescence of golf’s leading figures and governing bodies [to the Trump administration] is amplified […] down the sport’s hierarchy, especially in the (sometimes literally) gilded country clubs of states such as Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, which depend on a narrow, and narrow-minded, membership of wealthy, white couples who pay their subscriptions as much for the social cachet as for the sport. Within the confines of the club, they are free to rail against minorities, free to declare Trump the greatest president since Lincoln, free to act like the genteel segregationists they prefer to be.”

The fact is that golfers tend to be wealthy, and that the golf course is a place where hierarchy and prestige are not only respected but built into the very foundation of the culture.

Many agree that golf is both a waste of resources and a symbol for the mechanisms of capitalism, but these two issues have become intertwined in recent years. Golf, some have argued, has been yoked in the service of capitalism and corporate “greenwashing.” Rob Millington explores this idea in his paper “Ecological Modernization and the Olympics: The Case of Golf and Rio’s ‘Green’ Games,” published in the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2018. He defines ecological modernization as “the idea that capitalist-driven scientific and technological advancements can not only attend to the world’s pending environmental crises, but even lead to ecological improvement, thus allowing sustainability and consumption to continue in concert.” This idea is promoted by corporations who want to greenwash themselves, or to appear green to consumers without changing their essential business models. It is very similar to the conclusion drawn by Colding and Folke, who argue that environmental destruction in the name of leisure and consumerism can take place alongside conservationist efforts without contradiction.

Millington notes that “In response to the growing tide of environmental opposition since the 1960s, the golf industry took up an ecological modernist approach to promote golf as a natural, green, and environmentally friendly sport that allows people to connect with nature.” According to Millington, this is precisely what happened in 2016 Olympic games at Rio De Janeiro, for which a golf course was built on environmentally protected land in the spirit of ecological modernization. The design of the course was presented as enhancing rather than fighting the natural landscape, despite the fact that any incursion into a natural space can disrupt the ecosystem. In this sense, the continuing relevance of golf can be employed for neoliberal ends, under the guise of environmentalism or unity between nations.

In “Is Golf Unethical?”, a 2009 article published in The New York Times, writer Randy Cohen covers the basic environmental impact and bourgeois ethos of golf. On the question of whether or not the sport itself is ethical, he concludes that “perhaps the only moments of grace and beauty and virtue in any game occur during actual play, and we should not look too closely at its broader culture and implicit ethics without expecting to be dismayed.” This is just one defense of the sport, that the skill that goes into mastering it outweighs any moral scruples we should have. Another thing often said in defense of golf is that it, like any sport, builds bridges and creates a sense of fellowship across the world, that it gives us a common language in which to communicate our values and abilities across international lines. But does it actually build bridges between nations or just import elite bourgeois culture and sources of pollution to other parts of the world? The act of swinging a golf club has no objective moral value attached to it, but the trappings of golf, the privilege and waste and unnecessary consumption of resources, certainly do.  

Classics in the Era of Trump

Photograph of a bookshelf of uniform "harvard classic" books; visible titles are Don Quixote and The Aeneid

Classical studies, generally thought of as an elite and isolated corner of academic study, has been surprisingly prominent in headlines over the last few years. Victor Davis Hanson, conservative classical scholar and senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has a new book coming out in March 2019, in which he draws parallels between ancient and contemporary politics. In The Case For Trump, as he explained in an interview with The New Yorker, he argues that we ought to think of Donald Trump as a tragic hero straight from the pages of Greek drama. The tragic hero, he says, is defined not by their bravery or altruism. Rather, “the natural expression of their personas can only lead to their own destruction or ostracism from an advancing civilization that they seek to protect. And yet they willingly accept the challenge of service.” As Hanson defines them, heroes are those who solve problems at the risk of vilification, which is exactly what he sees Trump as doing.

In all tragedies, Hanson explains further, “the community doesn’t have the skills or doesn’t have the willpower or doesn’t want to stoop to the corrective method to solve the existential problem,” so the community brings in an outsider, someone willing to get their hands dirty. Hanson is coy about what exactly our “existential problem” is, but the ambiguity is dispelled when he launches into an ill-informed and biased polemic against Mexican immigrants. We’re also left to wonder what “community” he’s referring to, as if the country wasn’t deeply fractured across political lines during and after the presidential election. When did all of us collectively agree that Trump was a necessary evil? Ultimately, we’re left to scratch our heads and ask ourselves why we ought to listen to a classical scholar’s opinion on politics and immigration at all.

The specific argument of his book is perhaps less important than the fact that a classical scholar is presenting an argument about modern politics. Classics has a reputation for being a bulwark of conservatism within academia and culture at large, a tool for enforcing power rather than dismantling it. This understanding is becoming less accurate as the discipline expands; writers from Virginia Woolf to Michel Foucault have used classical literature and mythology to challenge the hegemony of Christian belief (especially in relation to gender and sexuality), and scholars from increasingly diverse backgrounds contribute to ongoing research and debate. Emily Wilson’s version of the The Odyssey, the first English translation of the epic poem by a woman, was released only last year, an indication of how the demographic makeup of classical studies is shifting. Still, elements of conservatism persist within the field. The question becomes whether we should tell classical scholars to “stick to writing papers” (or whatever the equivalent here would be of telling football players to only focus on sports) without running the risk of anti-intellectualism. What do we gain and lose by these historical comparisons, and do they enrich or limit our political discussions?

In many cases, this discourse serves to express anxieties over the “fall of Western civilization.” Ancient Rome and Greece are well-established cultural touchstones, the foundation of our political institutions and beliefs. We want to place this tumultuous moment within a kind of historical continuity, which serves to both reify it and hold it at a safe distance.

This was evident in the production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that caused in controversy in June of 2017. The director created unmistakable parallels between Trump and Caesar, even giving Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, an Eastern-European accent. Gregg Henry, the actor playing Caesar, told The Washington Post that the point of the play is “that when a tyrant comes to power and the way you fight that tyrant, it’s very important how you then try to deal with the problem because if you don’t deal with the problem in a proper way, you can end up losing democracy for like, 2000 years.” It’s debatable whether this production is truly referencing classical antiquity or the English literary canon (are we reaching for Shakespeare as a touchstone here or Roman politics, or something else, that nebulous thing called Art?). Either way, the production lended a historical importance to our present moment that both paid homage to the particulars and lent it a timeless and universal dimension. One could argue that Hanson’s book serves a similar function, albeit with a different agenda. He’s trying to understand the Trump presidency through Greek mythology, to explain Trump as an archetypal figure. He pins him down as a definitive “type” while glossing over certain individual facets of Trump’s character (namely, racism, misogyny, and financial greed).

The intersection between classical studies and modern politics also reflects growing anxieties over populism. When democracy falters, we rush back to the source to understand what is happening and why. David Stuttard, scholar and Fellow of Goodenough College, London, published a book in late 2018 that served just that purpose. In Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, he writes that Alcibiades, a divisive Athenian statesman associated with the disintegration of Athenian democracy, wanted to “Make Athens Great Again.” Stuttard calls him the “Donald Trump of Ancient Greece” in another article, further driving home the point. While the comparison (an imperfect one, as pointed out by Ryan Shinkel in the LA Review of Books) is hardly the crux of Stuttard’s book, it is certainly another attempt to bring the past into the present, to make sense of 21st century populism by looking backwards. We see surface-level similarities, “strong men” shaping history, populist politics driven by forceful personalities, and the connections practically make themselves.

These are, in a sese, old problems amplified in our era but not altered beyond recognition. As famed classical scholar Mary Beard points out in her book SPQR, anxiety over shifting boundaries and national identity, of what it means to be a citizen in an ever-expanding world, is a question of perennial concern. Some classical scholars have even used global warming to link our world with antiquity; Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire examines the role climate change (albeit climate change beyond the control of the Romans) had in the fall of the Roman Empire, prompting us to consider the impact global warming might have on contemporary politics.

Most of this discourse relies on view of antiquity as a place of primacy, of visceral and material immediacy. Most of us assume that ancient history tells us what universal behavior is, that it gives us a no-frills look at human nature and is therefore useful for navigating our current political climate. This viewpoint assumes, however, that our experience of reality isn’t shaped by historically-specific institutions and social movements. Dr. Richard Cherwitz, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote an article in 2017 called “Why Classical Theories of Rhetoric Matter in the Trump Presidency” in which we see such thinking at work. He asserts, “While we think our discourse today is unique to the times and circumstances in which we live, the reality is that patterns of thinking and talking are inherent in the human condition and therefore may be time invariant.” He zeroes in on the Roman idea stasis, an ancient Roman theory by lawyers to assess guilt in the courtroom, specifically determining guilt from the way someone behaves. He writes,

“Many legal observers and members of the media reasonably ask: If Trump isn’t guilty of wrongdoing and subsequently of covering it up, why would he say and do the things he does?  After all, as the Romans knew, only a guilty person would behave that way. […] [This] indicates why we should remind ourselves and our students that the ways we think and argue are deeply rooted in the human condition and are explained by the rhetoricians who lived thousands of years ago.”

In other words, Cherwitz says, there is such thing as universal behavior, and the human condition (and rhetoric, a practice shaped by centuries of discourse, education, and specifically Western understandings of the public sphere) has remained virtually unaltered since the Roman Republic.

So what do these comparisons mean as a whole, and is it entirely ethical for us to make them? On the one hand, scholars are working to untangle the often inscrutable world of modern politics, to provide some solid ground in a civilization that seems to be losing faith in itself. They are reacting to and attempting to remedy our cultural anxiety, which can hardly be condemned. On the other hand, a troublingly one-dimensional view of the current administration can be gleaned in many of these examples. It is a gross oversimplification of reality to claim that authoritarianism, white supremacy, and discrimination against minorities are rooted in basic “human nature”. This pushes the workings of very specific historical processes and institutions to the background, erasing centuries of structural oppression and sidelining factors like class and gender. In that sense, comparisons with the ancient world can be employed as a tactic to deflect rather than elucidate, to shift the blame for our current political climate to human nature, something that is fundamental and immune to the influence of power.

We see a particularly insidious example of this in Hanson’s New Yorker interview, in which he essentially parrots the president’s famously blasé remarks on the Charlottesville riots. He argues that the Alt-right isn’t “monolithic,” that it’s more or less made up of unknowable people with no discernible common ground. In his view, they become a shifting amorphous crowd with no ideological foundation, and are therefore without personal responsibility.

Classical scholars, not without exceptions, generally speak from a position of privilege and are considered worthy of being listened to. We certainly shouldn’t tell them to stick to academic conferences and keep out of politics, as that places limits on the scope of our political discourse, but we ought to remind ourselves of the prestige enjoyed by classical scholars the next time we criticize an athlete (usually a non-white athlete) for “stepping out of line” and speaking out about oppression.

Classical studies is a deeply fascinating and multifaceted field, and includes scholars from all backgrounds and political opinions. It can be both a hotly-contested battleground and fertile terrain for making sense of the present day. However, we need to scrutinize the claims of classical scholars just as we would the claims of any other public figure, and understand the motivations and assumptions that underpin their ideas.

Unpacking the Tactic of Shutting Down the Government

A woman holding a sign that says "stop the shutdown"

800,000 federal employees furloughed, $5.7 billion demanded, and $11 billion of the American economy wasted over 35 days. These numbers dominated headlines in January as President Donald Trump entered a stalemate with Congress that launched the U.S. into its longest ever government shutdown. The stalemate occurred when Trump demanded that funding for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico (one of Trump’s campaign promises) be included in an end-of-the-year Congressional appropriations bill. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives swiftly shut down this demand, to which Trump responded by partially shutting down the federal government, putting 800,000 federal employees out of work: that is, 380,000 employees could not go to work, and another 420,000 were considered “essential” employees and had to work without pay. Vital government services were disrupted including the TSA, National Park Service, and Coast Guard. This shutdown lasted 35 days, costing the American economy about $11 billion and 0.2% of the nation’s GDP during the first fiscal quarter of 2019.

While Trump remains adamant about acquiring funding for his border wall, the American people seem uncomfortable with using a government shutdown to do so. In a CBS News poll, 70% of Americans did not believe the U.S.-Mexico border wall to be an issue worth shutting down the government for, and in a different poll, 53% of Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown. From these numbers, it is clear that the American people are not supportive of shutting down the government for a border wall, but how can government shutdowns be assessed as a political tactic in general? Is it ever ethical to shut down the government in order to reach certain political means, despite widespread public disapproval? To more accurately weigh this question, it is imperative to step away from partisan language, which can be done by comparing Trump’s shutdown to another shutdown that occurred under a Democratic administration: the government shutdown of 2013.

From October 1 to October 17 of 2013, the federal government was shut down under President Barack Obama over disagreements about the federal budget for the 2014 fiscal year. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives refused to adopt a budget that included funding for the implementation of one of Obama’s benchmark policy achievements, the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). While the 2018-19 shutdown was almost twice as long, this shutdown occurred before funding for many more federal services could be secured in the year, meaning the shutdown cost a lot more for the American economy. In fact, it cost over twice as much at $24 billion. The government opened back up after 16 days when Congress compromised on a bill that included Obamacare funding, but ensured stricter income verification rules for those trying to access health insurance exchanges.

To wade through heavy partisanship, these two shutdowns must be compared by their objective facts. Firstly, both of these shutdowns put about the same number of people out of work: 800,000. Additionally, while the 2013 shutdown cost significantly more than the one in 2018-19, it’s difficult to dispute that both shutdowns were incredibly costly to the American economy. By these facts, and the history of American government shutdowns in general, government shutdowns can be accurately described as wasteful, expensive, and harmful to many American workers, and the American public realizes this. As stated earlier, 70% of Americans disapprove of the most recent shutdown, and even more (81%) disapproved of the shutdown in 2013. What is more concerning is the fact that these shutdowns have become longer-lasting in recent decades. In the past 10 years, the government has been shut down for a total 55 days, as opposed to 29 days in the 1990s, and 14 days in the 1980s. Not to mention, government shutdowns almost never achieve their intended purpose. The 2013 shutdown failed to block Obamacare funding, and Trump had to use executive action to acquire funding for his border wall rather than successfully working with Congress to pass a bill into law. The American public sees the failures of government shutdowns, with seven in every ten Americans saying that shutting down the government is not an effective strategy for reaching policy solutions. With such low popularity and chances for success, why do politicians continue to utilize shutdowns? Is it ever permissible to shut down the government? Under what circumstances might a government shutdown be an effective tool?

While the causes of shutting down the government are variable, the effects seem to be the same: great cost to the U.S. economy, hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed, and an American public that is even more distrustful of government. Therefore, because the duty of the government is to help provide for the welfare of its people, it must be weighed what will bring more welfare to more people, or rather, what will bring less harm to fewer people. In the case of 2013, it was argued by congressional Republicans that Obamacare would limit individual freedom and collapse the American economy. So, they temporarily sacrificed the welfare of some for what, in their eyes, would be the prolonged welfare of many. Similar logic followed with the shutdown of 2018-19. Trump holds that there is a national security crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, claiming that many of the illegal drugs in the U.S. come from Mexico over the border, and that thousands of violent criminals enter the U.S. via illegal border crossings. Subsequently, he ordered a government shutdown because he is convinced that the temporary setbacks caused by a shutdown are worth preventing what he perceives as a national security crisis at the border.

However, whether or not an issue is worthy of a shutdown is dependent upon how one prioritizes national concerns. For instance, while Trump believes there is a security threat at the border, congressional Democrats see this threat as minimal, if there is even a threat at all, and do not see a border wall as an effective way to alleviate this threat. More central to the issue of government shutdowns in general, however, is how one defines “welfare of the people” as the government is supposed to provide. Trump and other border hawks may define welfare as security and protection of a nation’s citizens and adopt policies in line with what they believe will fulfill that definition. Alternately, Obama and Democrats may define welfare as a right to health under any circumstances, which would justify their push for the Affordable Care Act. Regardless of partisan alliances, shutting down the government is a drastic measure that should be reserved for drastic issues. The core of the debate lies in what one defines as a “drastic” issue.


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The Rise of Political Echo Chambers

Photograph of the White House

Anyone who has spent even a little bit of time on the internet is no doubt familiar with its power to spread false information, as well as the insular communities that are built around the sharing of such information. Examples of such groups can readily be found on your social media of choice: anti-vaccination and climate change denial groups abound on Facebook, while groups like the subreddit “The Donald” boast 693,000 subscribers (self-identified as “patriots”) who consistently propagate racist, hateful, and false claims made by Trump and members of the far-right. While the existence of these groups is nothing new, it is worth considering their impact and ethical ramifications as 2019 gets underway.

Theorists have referred to these types of groups as echo chambers, namely groups in which a certain set of viewpoints and beliefs are shared amongst its members, but in such a way that views from outside the group are either paid no attention or actively thought of as misleading. Social media groups are often presented as examples: an anti-vaxx Facebook group, for example, may consist of members who share their views with other members of the group, but either ignore or consider misleading the tremendous amount of evidence that their beliefs are mistaken. These views tend to propagate because the more that one sees that one’s beliefs are shared and repeated (in other words, “echoed back”) the more confident they become that they’re actually correct.

The potential dangers of echo chambers have received a lot of attention recently, with some blaming such groups for contributing to the decrease in rate of parents vaccinating their children, and to increased political partisanship. Philosopher C Thi Nguyen compares echo chambers to “cults,” arguing that their existence can in part explain what appears to be an increasing disregard for the truth. Consider, for example, The Washington Post’s recent report that Trump made 7,645 false or misleading claims since the beginning of his presidency. While some of these claims required more complex fact-checking than others, numerous claims (e.g. that the border wall is already being built, or those concerning the size of his inauguration crowd) are much more easily assessed. The fact that Trump supporters continue to believe and propagate his claims can be partly explained by the existence of echo chambers: if one is a member of a group in which similar views are shared and outside sources are ignored or considered untrustworthy then it is easier to understand how such claims can continue to be believed, even when patently false.

The harms of echo chambers, then, are wide ranging and potentially significant. As a result it would seem that we have an obligation to attempt to break out of any echo chambers we happen to find ourselves in, and to convince others to get out of theirs. Nguyen urges us to attempt to “escape the echo chamber” but emphasizes that doing so might not be easy: members of echo chambers will continue to receive confirmation from those that they trust and share their beliefs, and, because they distrust outside sources of information, will not be persuaded by countervailing evidence.

As 2019 begins, the problem of echo chambers is perhaps getting worse. As a recent Pew Research Center study reports, polarization along partisan lines has been steadily increasing since the beginning of Trump’s presidency on a wide range of issues. Trump’s consistent labeling of numerous news sources and journalists as untrustworthy is clearly contributing to the problem: Trump supporters will be more likely to treat information provided by those sources deemed “fake news” as untrustworthy, and thus will fail to consider contradictory evidence.

So what do we do about the problem of echo chambers? David Robert Grimes at The Guardian suggests that while echo chambers can be comforting – it is nice, after all, to have our beliefs validated and not to have to challenge our convictions – that such comfort hardly outweighs the potential harms. Instead, Grimes suggests that “we need to become more discerning at analysing our sources” and that “we must learn not to cling to something solely because it chimes with our beliefs, and be willing to jettison any notion when it is contradicted by evidence.”

Grimes’ advice is reminiscent of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who considered the type of person who forms beliefs using what he calls a “method of tenacity,” namely someone who sticks to one’s beliefs no matter what. As Peirce notes, such a path is comforting – “When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches,” Peirce says, “it very likely takes the happiest course. It hides the danger, and then calmly says there is no danger; and, if it feels perfectly sure there is none, why should it raise its head to see?” – but nevertheless untenable, as no one can remain an ostrich for very long, and will thus be forced to come into contact with ideas that will ultimately force them to address challenges to their beliefs. Peirce insists that the we instead approach our beliefs scientifically, where “the scientific spirit requires a man to be at all times ready to dump his whole cart-load of beliefs, the moment experience is against them.”

Hopefully 2019 will see more people taking the advice of Grimes and Peirce seriously, and that the comfort of being surrounded by familiar beliefs and not having to perform any critical introspection will no longer win out over a concern for truth.

Why You are Wrong to Donate to the #BorderWall GoFundMe Campaign

Photograph of President Trump looking at a book with other people gathered

As of the writing of this story, the federal government has been shut down for just over forty hours; similarly, as of now, the GoFundMe campaign attempting to raise money for President Trump’s wall across portions of the southern border of the United States has raised over $16 million after just six days of funding (differing considerably from the president’s proposed plan of Mexico’s paying). Much has already been said about the current administration’s unusual inability to accomplish its agenda, despite its party controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress; much has also been said about the irresponsibility of a nearly-unprecedented third government shutdown in one calendar year (particularly in the face of a unilaterally controlled Congress and the impending holiday); and much more has been said of the ill-conceived nature of the “Border Wall” itself (whether concerning its cost, its desirability, its efficacy, or its morality). I aim to discuss none of that.

Instead, I want to argue that, regardless of whether the so-called “Border Wall” is a good idea on its own terms or not, it is morally inexcusable to give a charitable donation to fund its construction; at this point, nearly one million people appear to disagree with me (judging from the minimum estimable number of times that the GoFundMe’s site has been shared). Put bluntly: if you are able to give money to charity, then there are only bad reasons to donate to this one rather than to others.

There’s a popular philosophical thought experiment that helps to illustrate the choice of humanitarian aid: imagine that while you are on your way to work or school you must pass by a shallow pond. One day, you see that a child has fallen into the pond and is drowning; you can easily rescue the child without putting yourself in any physical danger (you are much taller than the water level and also know how to swim), but if you move to do so, you will ruin your shoes (or cell phone, or some similarly valuable item) and perhaps make yourself late to wherever it is you are going. Do you believe that you have a moral obligation to, nevertheless, help save the child, even at the expense of your shoes? Many people will, unthinkingly, answer ‘Yes,’ to such a question – we tend to value human life over things like possessions or schedules.

What, then, should we think of the child who is drowning in a shallow pond that is not directly in front of us – say, one in the war-torn landscape of Syria or the water-stricken neighborhoods of Flint, Michigan? If we are able to act in a way that is similarly inconvenient to our possessions or schedules at the cost of saving a child’s life, how could the geographical location of that child bear any weight in the moral calculus? In the words of Peter Singer, “we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.”

It is indeed possible to criticize the utilitarian assumptions behind Singer’s argument in an effort to deflect a conclusion which obligates charitable action, but if you are already committed to donating your money somewhere, then such criticisms are irrelevant to you. That is to say, if you are already willing to get your shoes wet, then you are already on board with Singer’s basic point.

As far as I can tell, there are essentially two reasons why you might want to donate to the “Border Wall” GoFundMe campaign:

  1. You believe that the “Border Wall” is the single greatest good towards which your money could be directed.
  2. You believe that there are other good purposes towards which your money could be directed, but you happen to value the construction of the “Border Wall” above all of them.

(Again, I am taking for granted that the “Border Wall” itself is morally unquestionable; a premise I could not possibly hope to defend, but simply assume for the sake of argument.)

Therefore, the “Border Wall” GoFundMe conundrum offers an extra wrinkle to the pond scenario: imagine, now, that there are two children in need of your help: the first is about to drown as before, but the second is older, knows how to swim, and is merely in danger of muddying his own shoes. If you are willing to act, but only able to save one, in what world could it possibly be better to help the second rather than the first? This is essentially what you are doing if you ascribe to option (2) from the above paragraph; if you instead prefer option (1), then you are simply denying (against the evidence of your own eyes) that there is any second child to even consider.

Surely, there are many different, well-established aid organizations that could put $16 million (and counting) to demonstrably better use. The drowning child in this scenario could be long-established relief efforts in Afghanistan or Syria, malaria prevention in sub-Saharan Africa, eye care programs in nearly two dozen countries, or even just your local food pantry preparing to help feed your city’s unhoused population a Christmas dinner. Despite frequent cries that “veterans should be helped first,” this campaign is not directed to the Wounded Warrior Project, the Fisher House Foundation, the Semper Fi Fund, or any of the other nonprofit groups geared towards helping members of the military and their families in need. The many victims of the  hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the continental Southeast could certainly benefit from these funds and, it’s true, Flint still does not have clean water.

So, even if we grant that a “border wall” would do what its supporters want (which it wouldn’t, but, again, that’s beside the current point), the idea that hundreds of thousands of donations should be directed towards such a wall’s construction cannot be affirmed without tacitly claiming that all of these other causes (and many more) are less important. That is to say, you cannot donate your money to the #BorderWall GoFundMe campaign unless you are willing to agree that it is, in fact, the most important current charitable need – a proposition which is, clearly, false.

Because it’s one thing to argue about whether hurricane relief or veteran’s medical bills better deserve your money, but both are a level of need apart from hollow attempts to salvage broken campaign promises by a politician whose term is swiftly coming to a premature end. Either we must conclude that all $16 million was previously earmarked by its owners to be donated somewhere else or that it was not originally intended to be donated at all: neither of these options entails that diverting the money towards the “Border Wall” is morally commendable. If you are willing to donate your money, it is better to help those currently suffering than to cast it hopefully towards the promise of constructing a toilet paper tiger.

The Danger of Endorsing Political Conspiracies

Photograph of two tabloid magazines with headlines about Hilary Clinton, dated "election eve," 2016

Barack Obama isn’t an American citizen. Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS. Democrats orchestrated the Sandy Hook shooting to promote gun control. Conspiracies have plagued political discourse for centuries, and have grown especially more prevalent and harsh in recent years. There are multiple reasons behind this current uptick in conspiracies, the most obvious being the increased accessibility to the Internet and social media. However, even more unsettling is the very real damage that has been caused by belief in conspiracies in recent years. Continue reading “The Danger of Endorsing Political Conspiracies”

Trump, Puerto Rico, and the Ethics of Skepticism

Arial photograph of destruction caused by Hurricane Maria

In September, Donald Trump claimed on Twitter that the number of deaths in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria reported by the media was exaggerated: instead of the widely cited number of approximately 3000, Trump claimed that the real death toll was closer to 16. According to Trump the number was inflated by his political opponents with the intention of making him look bad. To support such a bold claim one would expect to be presented with a significant amount of evidence, but Trump presented none. Instead, it seems that he merely raised the possibility of a conspiracy and appealed to his supporters’ distrust of the political left in order to try to deflect criticism that he did not sufficiently address the problems created by Hurricane Maria.

Many interpreted Trump’s claims as abhorrent: not only was Trump apparently attempting to capitalize on a recent tragedy in order to score political points, he was also expressing a complete disregard for a significant loss of life. Carmen Yuliz Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, put the matter succinctly when she tweeted: “Mr Trump you can try and bully us with your tweets BUT WE KNOW OUR LIVES MATTER”.

While many from those on both sides of the political spectrum repudiated Trump’s claims, responses from some diehard Trump supporters differed. It is common to find comments on articles and tweets made by those that praise Trump for what they take to be expressions of truth, and chastise what they take to be bias in reporting. Here are some representative responses on Trump’s follow up to his original tweet:

“I think Puerto Rico needs to show a list of the names .. just like when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 … It  only took 5 to 6 days…”

“It’s a rabbit trail designed to distract. Don’t waste time beating that dead horse Mr. President. Time to start tweeting out your MANY success. Let the mainstream media chase its tail.”

“Our President Mr Trump had done nothing wrong when Maria hit Puerto Rico he did exactly what he was supposed to. All the goods he had sent there sat in haulers no one wanted to drive them and you blame this on our President. It was their President that failed them.”

“I am amazed that “fake news” has infiltrated the weather channel. News reporters acting like the wind is about to blow them down with people walking in background at a normal pace. Then, reporters telling about a death toll with so much exaggeration. Shameful scaring of people.”

Of course, these claims are not generally supported with evidence, either. Instead, in the wake of Trump’s tweets, many of his followers have responded in the following way: it is really impossible to know, exactly, how many people died in Hurricane Maria, perhaps because it took a significant amount of time for the death toll numbers to come in, or perhaps because there are suspicions that those in charge of reporting such numbers are corrupt or incompetent. Since his supporters see Trump as trustworthy and his opponents untrustworthy, they claim that it is more plausible that Trump’s numbers are accurate.

It is unclear whether Trump truly believes what he is tweeting, or if he is trying to purposely mislead people. At the very least, what Trump appears to be doing is sowing seeds of doubt in his supporters, in this case by raising the possibility that the officially reported death toll numbers are wrong, solely on the basis of egotism and distrust. He is, then, engaging in a disingenuous form of skepticism. It is sometimes a good thing to be skeptical – we do not want to believe just anything that anyone tells us without thinking about it, and so it is often a good idea to scrutinize information we’re given or to look for additional evidence ourselves. But skepticism without cause and that is based not on trying to get to the truth can be detrimental and, in some cases, even unethical.

When philosophers talk about skeptics they have in mind someone who attempts to convince us that we do not know something (or in general, that we do not know anything) by reminding us of all the ways that we could be mistaken. For instance, the classic philosophical skeptics challenge us to consider whether we could merely be dreaming, or raise that possibility that we could be living a life in the computer simulation like the Matrix. Since these are possibilities that I can’t rule out – I really can’t tell whether I’m dreaming right now or whether I’m awake, and if I were in a computer simulation I would never know it – it seems like I’m stuck: for all I know I could very well be wrong about everything I thought that I knew.

In the real world, skepticism is typically much more narrowly focused: someone expresses a belief, and that belief is called into question because of the possibility that someone could be wrong. Again, this can be a good thing: it is a good practice to call one’s beliefs into questions and to make sure that one has good reason to believe them. But it can also be unhelpful: when we have a significant amount of evidence, raising the mere possibility of being wrong can be a distraction, something that prevents us from believing what’s true. Conspiracies are often based on unfounded skepticism: that the moon landing was faked in a Hollywood studio, or that the roundness of the Earth is a NASA plot are both possibilities, but not ones that most people take seriously. We should only pay attention to the skeptic, it seems, when they have good reasons for their skepticism.

Trump’s skepticism seems to fall squarely into the category of that which we should ignore, as there is significant evidence for the numbers that are widely reported to be accurate – for instance, in the form of an independent report conducted by The George Washington University – and no evidence that they have been fabricated. While it is still true that it is possible that the report was conducted incorrectly, and that it is possible that there is a conspiracy at play in an attempt to further discredit Donald Trump, these possibilities are not ones that we really need to take seriously: there is no evidence for these claims, and so much evidence that they are false, that we should not be worried about being wrong.

One worry with Trump’s recent tweets, then, is that he is spreading false information. However, expressing his skepticism in this way has moral consequences, as well. By convincing others not to believe that the reported death toll is correct, they will not only be less inclined to provide any assistance (say, in the form of donations to those affected by Hurricane Maria), but also threatens to strip from Puerto Ricans the right to seek such assistance. The people of Puerto Rico should be considered victims of a natural disaster, and as such we have certain obligations to help them. Trump’s skepticism, however, attempts to relinquish himself and his followers from any such obligations. The more significant problem behind Trump’s tweets, then, is not merely a dispute about numbers, but rather that an unfounded skepticism of reliable reports can result in lasting damage to people in need of aid.

On The Times Op-Ed: Ethics of Anonymous Sources

PHotograph of Trump at desk in Oval Office surrounded by people

In light of a recent op-ed published by The New York Times, the validity of using anonymous sources in journalism has once again been brought into question. The op-ed, released to the public on September 5, was allegedly written by a senior official within the Donald Trump administration, and details an underground resistance against the President within his own staff. “[M]any of the senior officials in his [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” reads the piece. “I would know. I am one of them.”

The author then goes on to detail why this resistance is being executed, saying that Trump has blatantly attacked conservative values of “free minds, free markets, and free people,” and that his notion of mass media as the enemy of the people is “anti-democratic.” Further, the anonymous writer stated the goal of the White House resistance as being “to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing.” Sometimes this could be as simple as swiping papers from the President’s desk. In his book, Fear: Trump in the White House, celebrated journalist Bob Woodward details how Trump’s ex-economic advisor, Gary Cohn, stopped the President from terminating a trade deal with South Korea by taking a letter off his desk in the Oval Office.

Perhaps more intriguing than the contents of the op-ed itself, however, is the shrouded identity of its author. A number of theories about who in the administration could have written it have surfaced, including opinions from filmmaker Michael Moore and former aide to Trump Omarosa Manigault Newman. The President responded to the breach in his administration’s loyalty by lashing out on Twitter and at public events, going so far as to label the op-ed as “treason” and a threat to national security. Trump also told reporters that he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the source of the article.

Despite the current drama surrounding the Trump administration, however, The New York Times has refused to disclose the author’s identity. A statement preceding the op-ed reads:

The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

The Times’ refusal to give up the author has undoubtedly been met with criticism both by the President himself and by his supporters, boiling down to controversy over when it is permissible for publications to distribute anonymously-produced content and when it is not.

Anonymous sources are, at their root, tools for journalists to get closer to exposing truth to the public. Although not preferable, anonymity protects people who hold incriminating or scandalous information from consequences upon revealing this information, which may sometimes be the only way of getting those people to talk. However, in today’s era of intense beat journalism, anonymous sourcing can sometimes be used haphazardly. In May of 2005, Newsweek published an article using anonymous sources who claimed that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran to intimidate Muslim prisoners, which sparked a riot in Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of 14 people. Lawyers later disproved these statements from anonymous sources, and Newsweek retracted its article.

What separates the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times from Newsweek’s Guantanamo debacle are the articles’ respective intentions. Newsweek published their article to establish fact: interrogators at Guantanamo desecrated the Koran to intimidate Muslim prisoners. Conversely, The New York Times’ article, published as an op-ed, serves the primary function of declaring the author’s opinion: Donald Trump is failing as a president, and “there are adults in the room” who want to protect the rest of the country from his shortcomings. The point could be raised that op-eds deserve known sources as well. Opinion articles come with their own claims that, if issued by reputable publications, should be written by verifiable experts. The editors of The New York Times, however, know the identity of the op-ed’s author, and given their reputation as a responsible publication, can be trusted to have thoroughly vetted their source’s claims. Given that The Times is a left-leaning publication, some of this criticism may be indirectly stemming from partisanship. Had this op-ed been published from a right-leaning publication, its relationship with public trust may have looked different. Moreover, it could be argued that the article’s groundbreaking content and consequences that will arise if the author’s identity is compromised outweighs the need for a publicly-known source.

Whether one believes this to be an act of heroism or treason by The New York Times, it is difficult to refute that this piece could change the way the public and journalists view anonymous sources. An anti-establishment culture that has budded in the past few decades has heightened the need for anonymous sourcing in journalism, and facing this phenomenon is essential to rebuilding the relationship between mass media and the public. Even if The New York Times was wrong in publishing this op-ed, they sparked conversations around journalism ethics that need to be had outside of the newsroom.

 

What’s the Story with Fake News?

Photograph of Donald Trump speaking into a microphone

Every day U.S. President Donald Trump calls “fake news” on particular stories or whole sections of the media that he doesn’t like. At the same time there has been a growing understanding, inside and outside the U.S., that “fake news”, that is to say fabricated news, has in recent years had an effect on democratic processes. There is of course a clear difference between these two uses of the term, but they come together in signifying a worrying development in the relations of public discourse to verifiable truth.

Taking the fabricated stories first – what might be called “real fake news” as opposed to Trump’s “fake fake news” (to which we shall return) – an inquiry concluded by the UK parliament in recent weeks that sheds further light on the connections between lies and disinformation, social media, and hindrance of transparent democratic processes makes sobering reading.

On July 24 the British House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee released its report on ‘disinformation and fake news’. What began as a modest inquiry into recent developments and trends in digital media “delved increasingly into the political use of social media” and grew in scope to become the most detailed look yet to be published by a government body at the use of disinformation and fake news.

The report states that

“…without the knowledge of most politicians and election regulators across the world, not to mention the wider public, a small group of individuals and businesses had been influencing elections across different jurisdictions in recent years.”

Big Technology companies, especially social media companies like Facebook, gather information on users to create psychographic profiles which can be passed on (sold) to third parties and used to target advertising or fabricated news stories tailored to appeal to that individual’s beliefs, ideologies and prejudices in order to influence their behavior. This is a form of psychological manipulation in which “fake news” has been used with the aim of swaying election results. Indeed, the DCMS committee thinks it has helped sway the Brexit vote. Other research suggests it helped to elect Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential Election.

The report finds that

“…urgent action needs to be taken by the Government and other regulatory agencies to build resilience against misinformation and disinformation into our democratic system. Our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act, to protect our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions.”

It’s not easy to define what “fake news” is. The term is broad enough to include lies, misinformation, conspiracy theories, satire, rumour or stories that are simply wrong. All these categories of falsehood have been around a long time and may not necessarily be malicious. The epistemic assumption that the problem with fake or misleading news is that it is untrue is not always warranted.

Given that information can be mistaken yet believed and shared in good faith, an evaluation of the epistemic failings of false information should perhaps be judged on criteria that include the function or intention of the falsehood and also what is at stake for the intended recipient as well as the purveyor of misinformation. In other words, the definition of fake news should include an understanding of its being maliciously produced with the intention to mislead people for a particular end. That is substantively different from dissenting opinions or information that is wrong, if disseminated or published in good faith.

The DCMS report recommended dropping the term “fake news” altogether and adopting the terms ‘misinformation’ and/or ‘disinformation’. A reason for this recommendation is that “the term has taken on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader.”

The ethical dimensions of fake news seem relatively uncomplicated. Though it is sometimes possible to make a moral case for lying – perhaps to protect someone from harm, for fake news there is no such case to be made, and there is little doubt that its propagators have no such reasoning in mind. We don’t in general want to be lied to because we value truth as a good in itself; we generally feel it is better for us to know the truth, even if it is painful, than not to know it.

The thorny ethical problems arise around the question of what, if anything, fake news has to do with freedom of speech and freedom of press when calls for regulation are on the table. One of the greatest justifications for free speech was put forward by the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill thought that suppression of error (by a government) could never rule out accidental (or even deliberate) suppression of truth because we are not epistemically infallible. The history of knowledge is, after all, a history of having very often to correct grave and, sometimes, ludicrous error. Mill convincingly argued that unrestricted discussion allowed truth to flourish. He thought that a “clearer perception and livelier impression of truth [is] produced by its collision with error.”

However, on closer consideration, free speech may not really be what is at stake. Mill’s defense of free press (free opinion) ends where ‘in good faith’ ends, and fake news, as wielded by partisan groups on platforms like Facebook, is certainly not in good faith. Mill’s defense of free and open discussion does not include fake news and deliberate disinformation, which is detrimental to the kind of open discussion Mill had in mind, because rather than promote constructive conversation it is designed to shut conversation down.

Freedoms are always mitigated by harms: my freedom to swing my fist around ends where your nose begins. And the DCMS report is one of numerous recent findings that show the harms of fake news. Even if we grant that free speech doesn’t quite mean freedom to lie through one’s teeth (and press / media doesn’t quite mean Facebook) it still is not easy to come up with a regulatory solution. For one thing, regulations can themselves be open to abuse by governments – which is precisely the kind of thing Mill was at pains to prevent. The term “fake news” has already become a tool for political oppression in Egypt where “spreading false news” has been criminalized in a law under which dissidents and critics of the regime can be, and have already been, prosecuted.

Also, as we grapple with the harms caused by deliberate, targeted misinformation, the freedom of expression question dogs the discussion because social media is, by design, not a tightly controlled conversational space. It can be one of the internet’s great benefits that it has a higher degree of freedom than traditional media — even if that means a higher degree of error. Yet it is clear from the DCMS report that social media “platforms” such as Facebook are culpable, if not legally (since Facebook is at present responsible for the moderation of its own content), then ethically. The company failed to prevent use of its platform for targeted and malicious campaigns of misinformation, and failed to act once it was exposed.

Damian Collins, the Conservative MP for Folkestone and chair of the DCMS committee, spoke of “Facebook’s complete lack of moral responsibility”; the “disingenuous” responses from its executives, and its determination to “time and again… avoid answering… questions to the point of obfuscation”. Given that attention-extraction companies like Facebook are resistant to change because it is against their business model, democratic governments and regulators will have to consider what measures can be taken to mitigate the threats posed by social media in its role in targeted dissemination of misinformation and fake news.

At stake in the problem of fake news is the kind of conversational space necessary for a healthy functioning society. Yet the ‘”fake fake news” of President Donald Trump is arguably more insidious, and perhaps even harder to inoculate against. In what can only be described as an Orwellian twist in the story of fake news, Donald Trump throws the term at the mainstream media even as they report something much more answerable to epistemic standards of truth and fact than the fabricated stories propagated through social media or the transparent lies Trump himself so effortlessly dispenses.

Politicians have long had a reputation for demagoguery and spin, but Trump’s capacity to lie in the face of manifest reality (inauguration crowd size just for one obvious example) and to somehow ‘get away with it’ (at least to his supporters) is extraordinary, and signals a deep fissure in the relation between truth, trust, and civic discourse.

To paraphrase Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita: to deride the serious press as peddling fake news, to deride expertise that proves what justifiably can count as knowledge, is to undermine the conceptual and epistemic space that makes conversations between citizens possible.

J. S. Mill’s vision for a society in which, despite and sometimes through error, truth can be discovered, and where it has an epistemic priority in establishing trust as a foundation for a liberal, democratic life is lost in the contempt for knowledge and truth that is captured in the idiom of this “post-truth” era.

Both senses in which “fake news” is now pervading our civic conversational space threaten public discourse by endangering the very possibility of truth and fact being able to guide, ground and check public discourse. Big Technology and social media have no small part to play in these ills.

An epistemic erosion is underway in public discourse which undermines the conversational space – that space that Mill thought was so important for the functioning of a free society – which allows citizens to grapple with self-understanding and to progress towards more just and better forms of civic life.

Reputation over Potential: “Classic” Humor, Art History, and the Women on the Other Side

Black and white photograph of a cubist exhibition in a museum

As I explore in “The Unexpected Tension of Netflix’s Nanette,” Hannah Gadsby revolutionizes comedy with her show Nanette when she quits being funny. Gadsby works within a male-founded and dominated genre, using the same platform that so many white straight men before her have used to sell cheap jokes at the cost of marginalized groups.

Gadsby repeats occasionally during the hour-long show that she has to quit comedy. At first her proclamation seems like the central joke that the sketch keeps returning to; however, her assertion becomes to feel more real the more that people watch, and they may begin to wonder if her comedy is revolving around a truth. Midway through the show, Gadsby jokes that it does not look like she can quit comedy because she does not have a backup plan with just a 15-year-old art history degree on her resume. Gadsby goes on to say about the artists whom she studied: “They were dead then, they’re just deader.”

Gadsby discusses what she learned from her art history degree, explaining how she realized that women have two roles in the narrative of art: the virgin or the whore. Judged by sex, women see themselves through the male gaze in any introductory art history course. Men craft the pictures. Women lay naked on the bed. Men are the geniuses. Women are the models. Gadsby gives the example of Picasso, one of the most lionized artists in art history, providing one of his quotes: “Each time I leave a woman, I should burn her. Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents.” A prime example of a woman-hater that has reached historic idolization, Picasso and his infamous misogyny is often cast as tormented genius. “I understand the world that I live in because of art history,” Gadsby says. “I understand the world that I live in, and my place in it. I don’t have one.”As someone who is attracted to women, she does not fit into one of the two patriarchal categories that artists like Picasso worked to perpetuate.

Gadsby says in one of her jokes that she is often introduced “as that lesbian comedian.” Her identity separates her from other comedians because our society values heterosexuality and gender conformity. In one of her early self-deprecating jokes about lesbians lacking a sense of humor—the irony being palpable since Gadsby is the one providing comedy for the audience of an almost 6,000 seat theater—she comments, “That is not my joke. It is an oldie, oldie but a goldie. A classic, it was written, you know, well before even women were funny.” In the first half of her show, Gadsby provides a sample of the comedy that has motivated her decision to quit the career.

In order to work her way into comedy as a gender non-conforming woman, Gadsby has built her career on those jokes that do not belong to her because the genre of entertainment does not either. Gadsby asks, “Do you understand what self-deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak. In order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself. Or anyone who identifies with me. And if that means that my comedy career is over then so be it.” Patriarchal institutions are all about performing, conforming, and filling your destined role because they become incredibly challenging to change from the outside looking in.

Later in the show Gadsby challenges this kind of “classic” humor: “Do you know who used to be an easy punchline? Monica Lewinsky.” One of the many jokes about Lewinsky’s sex life and weight comes from the famous comedian Jay Leno: “Monica Lewinsky has gained back all the weight she lost last year. . . . In fact, she told reporters she was even considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah—she didn’t want to give up her sex life.” Bill Clinton, then a 49-year-old married man with the most powerful position in the United States, had an affair with a 22-year-old intern. But the criticism, humiliation, and focus came down on Lewinsky’s body and sexual agency.

Jessica Bennett’s Time article, “The Shaming of Monica: Why We Owe Her an Apology,” details the “slut-shaming” humiliation that Lewinsky faced, including a Fox News poll in which 46 percent voted that Lewinsky was an “average girl” while the other 54 percent chose the second option, classifying her as a “young tramp looking for thrills.” Fox News did not invent that dichotomy just for Lewinsky. That average girl or tramp dichotomy has been around through centuries of art history, bringing us back to the virgin or whore. The main poll that came out about Clinton in the wake of his impeachment was his skyrocketing 73 percent approval rating.

Gadsby diverts her criticisms to the man who abused his power and her own industry that helped him get away with it: “Maybe if comedians had done their job properly and made fun of the man who abused his power then perhaps we might have had a middle aged woman with an appropriate amount of experience in the White House instead, as we do, a man who openly admitted to sexually assaulting vulnerable young women because he could.” History repeats itself when powerful men learn about what they can get away with and women learn that that their worth will be determined by which category they fit into: the virgin or the whore.

Returning to a discussion of art history, Gadsby not only compares Trump to Clinton, but also to Picasso. In the article, “Hannah Gadsby on how Picasso is the Donald Trump of the art world, and why we need to rethink art galleries,” Dee Jefferson elaborates on the connection between Trump and Picasso—two powerful and untouchable men—that Gadsby hints at during Nanette through her comment: “The greatest artist of the 20th century. Let’s make art great again, guys.”

Gadsby brings up how she commonly receives advice to “[s]eparate the man from the art.” Yet that dissociation takes deliberate effort and a compromising approach to prioritizing what matters. In his article, published by The Telegraph in April of 2016, Mark Hudson, an art critic and writer, attributes the worsening of Picasso’s misogyny toward his first wife, Olga Khokhlova, whom he stayed with for 18 years: “As their relationship disintegrated and she became increasingly delusional, his depictions of her and women in general grew ever more hateful – tortured masses of teeth, limbs and vaginas.” Ten years into their marriage, Picasso began a relationship with an underaged girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, that lasted nine years. Khokhlova’s suffering mental health in her relationship with Picasso does not make her to blame for Picasso’s hatred of women, but rather a victim of it. This representation of Picasso is not specific to Hudson alone, and I do not mean to criticize Hudson specifically. His article is one of the many examples of how victim-blaming comes naturally in our society in order to preserve a famous man’s reputation.

A common argument to preserve Picasso’s notoriety favors excusing his misogyny as a symptom of the time period: Picasso was just a product of his sexist environment. However, that sexism stays alive in how we frame, praise, and preserve his genius and reputation today. Hudson describes the 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter—who met Picasso when he was 45—with unflattering superficiality: “[b]londe, of equable temperament and athletic physique – but completely ignorant of art – Walter was immortalised in images of melting, idyllic eroticism in which we feel her guiltless enjoyment of her own sensuality and the artist’s complete satisfaction in regarding it.” Even today, we still judge a 17-year-old girl in terms of her appearance and sexuality through the male gaze.

In his Vanity Fair article, John Richardson writes about Walter and Picasso’s courtship: “Although she always claimed to have resisted Picasso for six months, she was sleeping with him a week later. They needed to be very discreet, for she was six months under the conventional age of consent.” Richardson turns a predatory, law-breaking situation into a bit of gossip. Blaming Walter’s inability to “resist” Picasso’s seduction, Richardson liberates Picasso from any wrongdoing. In his language, Richardson implies that Walter did not fit in the Fox News “average girl” category. The problem with this language and logic is that Richardson is talking about a minor. The phrase “conventional age of consent” downplays the fact that she was a legally underaged individual, unable to give consent legally. The fact that their affair was secret — so secret that Picasso would take Walter to have sex in attics in various estates or in the garden shed behind her mother’s house — was not for modesty’s sake, but due to its criminal nature.

We do not cast Picasso as a sexual predator or a power-abuser using his age and fame to manipulate young women, but rather as a man dabbling in his appetites and finding muses to provoke his artistic genius. Gadsby discusses how Picasso justified the fact that Walter was not even half his age by claiming that they were both in their prime: his art career was flourishing, and Walter had youth and beauty. Perhaps the reasons that Walter “offered Picasso little on an intellectual level”—as Hudson claims—is due to their 28 year age difference and her limited life experience.

Similarly, Picasso’s affair with Walter parallels the power discrepancy between Lewinsky and Clinton.“[Clinton] was the most powerful man on the planet,” Lewinsky recalls. “He was 27 years my senior”—an age gap that is just a year shy of Picasso and Walter’s. She continues, “He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college.” The media and comedians slandered Lewinsky’s decision-making, failing to spotlight the judgement of the 49-year-old man with the job of making decisions for the future of a powerful nation. By adjusting our perspective from the innately patriarchal lens that so often filters the story to a rational and sympathetic approach, a different narrative arises out of Walter and Picasso’s and Lewinsky and Clinton’s affair.

Walter’s place in history melds with Picasso’s representation of her sexuality. We see her through his eyes, and she lives in the shadow of Picasso’s reputation. Hudson’s article provides a summary of each Picasso girlfriend and model at the end: after a sentence about she and Picasso met, Hudson summarizes “She gave him a daughter, Maia, in 1935, at about the time she was supplanted in Picasso’s affections by Dora Maar. She hanged herself in 1977.” This barebones synopsis of her life provides the only mention of her suicide.

Instead of analyzing the unhealthy strain of Picasso’s manipulation on two of his mistresses, Hudson describes the two women—one who would later have “suffered a complete mental collapse” and the other who would eventually kill herself—with reductive nonchalance and a sort of humor: “When Maar and Walter later met in his studio, the ensuing argument degenerated into an all-out catfight between the two women, an incident Picasso later described as one of his ‘choicest memories.’” With this kind of degrading diction, these two very young women’s suffering becomes solidified as self-serving entertainment for Picasso — who sought control over both women.

Hudson titled his article “Pablo Picasso: women are either goddesses or doormats”—a quote that the 61-year-old Picasso told a 21-year-old student and mistress, Françoise Gilot. Hudson affords Gilot the most flattering summary even though it relies on backhanded compliments: “This young aspiring artist – just 21 when they met – seems to have handled Picasso’s cruelties and perversities with amazing deftness, and was the only woman to leave him entirely voluntarily, with her dignity more or less intact.” Even though she does fit into the “virgin” category in the art historical narrative, affecting her “dignity” as Hudson hints at, Gilot earns Hudson’s approval through her ability to endure Picasso’s torment.

Deeming Jacqueline Roque as the last of Picasso’s mistresses and “the one most in control,” Hudson also credits her because she “finally got Picasso to behave, and created a tranquil base for his last years.” Roque married Picasso in 1961, but Hudson does not linger on the fact that she also eventually killed herself. About Roque, Hudson’s article ends on the idea: “Like the other six women, she had collaborated in what is arguably the greatest artistic oeuvre of all time. Whether it was worth the pain, only she would be able to say.” Despite the clear suffering that they encountered in their relationships with Picasso, these women reached the peak of traditional women’s involvement in art historical memory: model to the founder of Cubism.

Was Picasso’s Woman in Hat and Fur Coat worth Walter’s life? Was preserving Clinton’s approval ratings worth Lewinsky’s public shaming and humiliation? As Gadsby says, we need to stop prioritizing a man’s reputation over a woman’s potential. Khokhlova, Walter, Marr, Gilot, Roque, Lewinsky, the upwards of 80 women who have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual predation, the 18 women—according to Time—who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, and all the women who have been shamed, silenced, and prevented from speaking out against a powerful man deserve justice. “A 17 year old girl is just never ever in her prime. Ever,” Gadsby asserts. “I am in my prime. Would you test your strength out on me?”

My series on Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette will continue in my next article, in which I will analyze two of Picasso’s most revolutionary works, his Portrait of Gertrude Stein and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. I will address the question of whether we can truly separate the man from the art and if that objectivity would be more harmful or beneficial.  

 

DePauw in The Trump Era: Has Trump Influenced Racist Incidents on Campus?

Image of students with banner that reads "We are not safe"

Race. It’s an unavoidable topic in today’s social and political climate. After centuries of racial tension in the United States, it’s a subject that still persists, leaving many hurt or enraged. It seems almost ironic that amidst the swirl of racial tension, the President of the United States promotes racial tension through his actions. Now, racist occurrences have been happening across the country long before Trump took office. But, it seems as if racists have been more open about conveying their distaste for people of color, and it makes one wonder if Donald Trump’s’ presidency is the source of this open racism, or at least contributes to it. With that said, DePauw has experienced a plethora of racist occurrences on campus. Could it be that Trump’s condoning of– and even facilitation of– racism encourages individuals at DePauw to be racist towards people of color?
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Opinion: Non-Disclosure Agreements and the Ethics of Paying for Silence

An image of Stormy Daniels speaking at a conference

Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about hush money. A week before the 2016 election, Stormy Daniels, a porn actress, was paid to be silent about an affair she may or may not have had with Donald Trump in 2006, shortly after his wife Melania gave birth to their son Barron.

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) have also been in the news because they have been used by Harvey Weinstein and others to buy the silence of women they allegedly harassed or assaulted. And in the last few months, it’s also become public knowledge that this legal device has been used to insulate members of Congress from scrutiny after allegations of harassment.

Buying the silence of an accuser is evidently common practice and legally above board. It’s surprising, then, that it’s a misdeed or even a crime—the crime of blackmail—for an accuser to aggressively sell their silence. “I’ll pay you to keep my behavior a secret” is fine if Trump said it. But “I won’t keep your behavior a secret unless you pay me” is unacceptable if Stormy Daniels said it.

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Donald Trump and Twitter: A Turbulent Relationship, Here to Stay

An image of Donald Trump making a speech.

Many people across the United States have joked about Donald Trump’s Twitter. He is often brunt and open about his opinions regarding everything from foreign policy to his own political agenda. To the average American, Twitter is a place to get one’s thoughts out there and state opinions. However, Trump is not the average American. He is the President of the United States. Trump’s Twitter has become an immature platform for him to say essentially whatever he wants. Some of his tweets are harmless and ego-inflating. Yet, other tweets present danger to the United States as a whole.

 

On January 2, Donald Trump tweeted, “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Despite the playful nature of the tweet, Donald Trump made a threat to use nuclear weapons on North Korea. At this time, North Korea has significantly developed its nuclear program and could eventually have the capability to send nuclear warheads as far as the continental US. Trump’s tweet seems to further destabilize an already unstable relationship.

 

Lawmakers, diplomats, and security experts alike have offered mixed opinions on the tweet and what it implies.Some have expressed their alarm and scorn at the immaturity and the danger of the president’s current approach to foreign policy with North Korea. That approach is characterized mainly by his tweets directed towards Kim Jong Un. In August  2017, a similar threat was made towards North Korea when Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” down upon the country if it were to put the United States in any sort of danger. Eliot A. Cohen, former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice under President George W. Bush, said that he found the January tweet immature and dangerous for someone in such a position of power. He tweeted, “Spoken like a petulant ten-year-old. But one with nuclear weapons- for real- at his disposal. How responsible people around him, or supporting him, can dismiss this or laugh it off is beyond me.

Yet, Trump’s supporters and even some high level diplomats view the tweet positively as a message of strength. Ban Ki-moon, the former UN Secretary General called the tweets “a message from the international community.” In some ways, the tweet could be seen as a more aggressive tactic for relations with North Korea, as many presidents have seemed to take a passive role in response to the dictatorship.

Amidst the controversy surrounding Trump’s North Korea tweet (and many others), some have called for Twitter to ban Donald Trump. However, Twitter responded to the requests and said that they did not believe that it was beneficial to international discussions to ban political leaders from Twitter. In a way, banning public figures from Twitter silences them. So, in spite of the danger that Trump imposes by tweeting, his tweets are here to stay.

Despite the controversial tweets that spew from Donald Trump’s account daily, banning him from Twitter would be equally controversial. Twitter is right when it says that banning him would be silencing him. Like it or not, he is a powerful public figure and the President of the United States, and his opinions cannot be silenced. However offensive and dangerous his remarks may be, banning Donald Trump from Twitter would probably have negative implications.