Richmond’s revenge

Because Lincoln was there, all of his biographers describe it. Here’s how Stephen Oates’s account starts:

At last Richmond came into view, with columns of smoke billowing up against the sky. When Lincoln stepped onto the docks, followed by a dozen sailors armed with navy carbines, black workers recognized the tall, gaunt man with the stovepipe hat. “Glory!” cried a black woman. “Glory glory!”1

The fall of Richmond is still tough for many to swallow down here. Last month, Corey Stewart won the Republican nomination to unseat Senator Kaine in part by defending the Confederate monuments built in defiance after the fall along Richmond’s Monument Avenue. And my aunt corrected me years ago when I told her of my plans to live in Northern Virginia: I was to say “Upper Virginia.” After Richmond, north was no longer on the Old Dominion’s compass.

We wish to indulge this regional pride, of course, without considering its source: an historicist (i.e., lacking a moral compass) account of the Constitution that gives legal sanction to white supremacy. This attack on the Founders’ natural-law principles didn’t stop with Richmond’s fall; on the contrary, as conservative political theorist Harry Jaffa points out, “if ever there was a nation annihilated politically on the battlefield that nonetheless imposed the yoke of its thought upon its conquerers, it was the Confederacy.”2

It seems that the movement toward moral relativism among American conservative leadership that Jaffa warned of3 is complete, and Washington only awaits its conqueror. Those who never gave up the Lost Cause may not have the satisfaction of watching Jefferson Davis stroll the singed streets of Georgetown and Capitol Hill. But they’ll have something better this fall: the world’s greatest exponent of white fascism, Vladimir Putin, will enter our abject capital in triumph, receiving the hosannahs of his vassal and his congressional supporters.

  1. Oates, Stephen B., With Malice Toward None (1977), p. 420
  2. Jaffa, Harry V., A New Birth of Freedom (2000), p. 86.
  3. See, for instance, his 1999 book Storm Over the Constitution, which accounts for the conservatives’ internecine struggle that seems to have ended with Mr. Trump’s election.

If memory serves, Mr. Trump shouldn’t

I remember. I supported Mr. Clinton’s impeachment and, once he was impeached, I wanted him removed from office. It wasn’t only the perjury, after all; it was also the obstruction of justice.

The case for Mr. Trump’s impeachment is exponentially stronger than the one that persuaded me twenty years ago. While Mr. Clinton’s actions diminished his office, Mr. Trump’s actions threaten our republic’s existence.  Tom Steyer puts the case for Mr. Trump’s impeachment into eight categories, and I incorporate his summary herein by reference thereto. However, this week alone merits the president’s immediate removal from office. In his continuing effort to make our nation’s intelligence apparatus his own, he forcefully denigrated our intelligence services before a hostile, foreign power.  He also expressed his willingness to hand over American citizens to a foreign adversary for questioning regarding vengeful, trumped-up charges. We learned this week also that Mr. Trump had clear evidence of Mr. Putin’s direct involvement in the 2016 presidential election scandal even before Mr. Trump was inaugurated the following January. Mr. Trump’s many statements exculpating Mr. Putin and the Russians since then — statements we now know to be disingenuous — deaden any political will to defend ourselves from a like attack on our elections this year or two years hence. His preference for the Russian dictator over his own intelligence services suggest that our executive branch is being undermined by a resourceful enemy. Mr. Trump is an existential threat to our country.

We shouldn’t wait to learn from the Mueller investigation why Mr. Trump puts our enemy’s interests ahead of our own. We must act now to remove him from office on the clear evidence that he does put our enemy’s interest ahead of our own. Mr. Trump’s relationship with the Russian government is demonstrably a clear and present danger.

Yet the political, social, and financial dynamics that led to Mr. Trump’s election remain with us, and they make it difficult to discuss impeachment with about half the country. How can we reach people like me, who supported Clinton’s impeachment, with the argument for Mr. Trump’s?

One step toward reaching them would be to separate the issue of impeachment from our longstanding, divisive policy issues.

The day after Helsinki, I participated in a rally outside the White House gates. All of the speakers mentioned Mr. Trump’s craven actions before Mr. Putin. But two of the three speakers spent most of their time talking about the kind of issues that have been knocked about left and right for the past thirty years. These issues are important, but they don’t represent immediate dangers to the republic.

Listening to the usual liberal rhetoric, most open-minded conservative listeners at such a rally would find themselves re-riveted to their one-dimensional, left-right framework that they share with most liberals, and these conservatives would become effectively powerless to hear the argument for impeachment. Put another way, if they hear most voices for impeachment link the issue with the liberal side of well-worn unraveling-era issues (campaign finance, gun control, tax cuts, etc.), they’ll consider the call for impeachment merely the desperate scream of a political party currently shut out of power.

In one respect, at least, Mr. Trump is like the Apostle Paul: he can count on a crowd’s divisions to get out of hot water:

But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. (Acts 23:6)

Paul’s accusers then began bickering over the doctrine of the resurrection. Paul ended up with the backing of half the crowd, which had forgotten why Paul was before the Roman counsel in the first place. The captain removed him before things really got out of hand. The genre here is almost comic.

Paul later expressed regret for his role in the incident — read Acts 24:21 — but I doubt Mr. Trump will ever regret using such a tactic. He retreats to unravelling-era issues to make an implicit claim to half of us. “You need me to win the issues for which you’ve fought so hard for a generation,” he seems to say. “Your part in this bargain is to ignore the clear evidence that I’m undermining our nation’s security.”

To remove the president, we — liberals, conservatives, and centrists — must focus on the arguments and evidence for removing him and not remain distracted by what divides us. To avoid this distraction, we need to discover life outside of the one-dimensional, left-right framework that cramps our public space. We need to remember not only Mr. Clinton’s crimes and punishment but also the restorative principles, perspectives, and experiences of our nation’s founding. We need to start to read and talk about those principles, and we need to act according to them, too. The Declaration of Independence might be a good place to start.

I must love this author

I find most of my books while reading other books’ footnotes. Winton Solberg’s 1958 book The Federal Convention and the Formation of the Union, which came in the mail yesterday, is the latest example. I discovered it while rereading Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book On Revolution. Arendt cites Solberg’s book four times in her footnotes.

She sites him enough to tell me that she’s a magpie of a researcher. A main point here, an inference Solberg never made there, and an overall appreciation for the writer in all four notes. Her sources seem fewer and better considered than most academics’ sources. Her appreciation reminds me that all books are commonplace books; some are just better footnoted.

As I thumbed through this first-edition Solberg, which I got for pennies over the Internet (plus shipping), I thought about Arendt’s reading of Solberg. It occurred to me, pacing in my little library, that I was holding a copy of the very edition Arendt had held. And in a sudden bout of reverence, I almost dropped the book.


We may be dreaming of great acts of displacement while failing to notice in the displacements of our own lives the first indications of God’s presence.

– Henri Nouwen

When I woke up day after Helsinki, I wanted to act. So I made a sign and took it to the White House.

There I met two women who had woken up the same way. They had met as I met them: their signs had served as signals. The three of us became a fast people.

We would separate, walking along the fences, and return. When things were quieter, we told one another something of our stories. We were heckled a little, not much. Many tourists, mostly from overseas, took pictures of their families standing with us. After a couple of hours, when it started to rain, we turned again to one another. “I’m coming tonight. Are you?” And we left.

I thought of the big tree in whose branches refugees from the town found one another in Capote’s The Grass Harp. I thought of Henri Nouwen: “Displacement is not primarily something to do or to accomplish, but something to recognize.”1 And Hannah Arendt’s concept of freedom in action separated, ultimately, from its consequences.2 And Rosa Parks, and all the Rosa Parks before and after her who were stoned and sawn asunder.

We didn’t see one another at the big rally that night. The big rally was kind of like a big rally. An overseas media outlet interviewed me. There were television cameras, a short speech, chants, a longer talk that, with its pacifying drone, frustrated the crowd. The rally was purposeful and strategic, as necessary in its way as the senseless act of faith.

Then I waited for the train home. Another woman sat beside me on a concrete bench and put her own sign at her feet. When the train came, we walked into separate cars.

  1. Nouwen, Henri. Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, p. 145.
  2. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, pp. 166 – 167.

Maybe why writing is hard

This morning, the more I write, the more my thoughts jump ahead of what I’m writing. The writing is making me think, and the thinking is making the writing very difficult.

Writing is hard anyway. Some people would like to hire ghostwriters to capture their thoughts. These people mistake writing for the visual transmission of one’s thoughts. Instead, writing is thinking. Writing makes us think, and the process of writing makes us discover realizations and examples and exceptions and connections that slow down the writing.

Ghostwriting carries an essential fraud, and not because one person is writing in another’s name. The fraud is the illicit self-protection the ghostwriter provides, similar to the self-protection each spouse can access in marriage counseling. If I am in marriage counseling, I have an out: when the counseling gets too close, I tell myself and my counselor that it’s my spouse’s fault. If I hire a ghostwriter, I have an out: I’m not challenged to fix the words and the thinking they represent because they’re never thrown back at me. The best marriage counselors treat “marriage counseling” as a necessary euphemism and get their clients to take responsibility for their own lives. And the best ghostwriters insist on involving their clients in the writing process.

Our president and his immediate predecessor wrote important memoirs. President Obama wrote Dreams from My Father, and President Trump wrote The Art of the Deal. President Obama wrote his memoir. President Trump hired a ghostwriter to write his, and the ghostwriter latter admitted that he never challenged his client. The two presidents couldn’t be any more different in their integrity and capacity for reflection.

Worthy of the saving

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. Let us turn slavery from its claims of “moral right,” back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of “necessity.” Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south — let all Americans — let all lovers of liberty everywhere — join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.

 – Lincoln (Peoria, 1854)

Democrats are split on what to amputate. Some would simply cut off the head, so to speak — the head being the current president. The public understands this sentiment so long as the president is removed the usual way, by defeating him in his bid for reelection. But some Democrats would go further. They would eliminate ICE, for example. Instead of eliminating only the head, who has been misusing ICE, they would eliminate ICE itself, which both the president uses and his immediate predecessor used to extensively limit illegal immigration. The Democrats are split on eliminating ICE, and the Republicans sense a winning issue leading up to this year’s midterms.

There are other points of potential amputation to save the patient, the American polity. Sue the president under the War Powers Act. Amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College. Amend it to nullify Citizens United. And so on. All of these issues needed addressing before 2016, of course. President Clinton violated the War Powers Act in Kosovo. President Bush II won the presidency while losing the popular vote in 2000. And money has been running national politics long before Citizens United, which only made a deplorable situation worse.

The current Democratic despair is reminiscent of its despair during much of the second term of the second Bush administration. It’s more intense now because the financial, political, social, and media walls seem to be closing in on the Democratic Party. The president makes frequent, unprecedented attacks on democratic and republican norms and institutions (e.g., elections, legal immigration, the FBI, the free press), but none of this bothers a large segment of Americans. Democrats — and many independents and Republican never-Trumpers, too — are left defending democracy itself as well as these institutions that have long been eroding in the public’s estimation. But how to save democracy?

This question about means quickly turns into a question about ends, however. “How to save it?” points to “What are we saving?” Is the Union, the Constitution (as it survives today) and its brand of republicanism worth saving? Have we washed our republican robes sufficiently to make our Union, in Lincoln’s words, “forever worthy of the saving”?

From a political standpoint, this conversation is unfortunate. The president and his supporters attack those seriously discussing these greater issues that his own election and conduct raise. It’s ironic, yes. Even as the president’s attacks on democratic and republican institutions give rise to his opponents’ reexaminations of those institutions, the president characterizes his opponents as un-American for doing so. Particularly for Democrats, who have been as guilty as the Republicans since World War II of turning our republic into a corporate-run empire unresponsive to its people, this is a difficult conversation. But covering up the big questions with a campaign platform of “Us, too, but we’re nicer about it” didn’t win in 2016, and it shows even fewer signs of prevailing in the future.

These issues have been discussed in certain circles before. For instance, George W. Bush’s blind eye toward torture, his invasion of Iraq, and his support for encroachments on individual rights in the name of national security lead to at least an academic debate about how to fix our system and what in the system is worth fixing at all. Movitvated to write in part by Bush’s push against the executive branch’s constitutional limits, political theorist Dana Villa in 2008 concluded that “the only way to prevent ‘legitimate’ structures of political power from devolving into structures of domination is to make sure we provide for both individual rights and the institutionalization of public freedom” — i.e., a public space where men and women can develop their political voice and practice.1 One of political theorist Sheldon S. Wolin’s last essays, “Agitated Times,” urges the immediacy of democratic agitation at the local level in order to challenge national assumptions. He concludes his 2005 essay with this ironic sentence: “Democratic agitation takes time.”2 Democracy must begin again at the local level — in many cases it must recreate a local level — and it must tune out the noise of those who would silence it.

Actions of post-World War II Democratic administrations raised issues similar to those raised under Republican administrations, and to fail to admit it is to fail to address those issues. Wolin wrote about some of them during the latter years of the Carter administration. In his 1980 essay “The People’s Two Bodies,” he concluded that Carter’s  “historical mission” was “to prove a mass basis for a new state — corporate, bureaucratic, technocratic, and managerial.”3 Every modern presidency seems to have made Wolin, who wrote for over half a century, question the responsiveness of our institutions, including some major aspects of the Constitution’s federal system, to the American people.

Issues involving empire, racism, xenophobia, and public participation won’t disappear with the current president. We must admit, despite the president’s desire for the country’s entire attention, that he is only another floor built perilously higher on a bad foundation. Moving from merely examining his dizzy, tottering eminence to also inspecting matters down closer to the foundation may be a short-term political loser, but in the long run, such self-examination is our only chance to make our Union worthy of the saving.

  1. Villa, Dana, Public Freedom, p. 300.
  2. Wolin, Sheldon S., “Agitated Times,” in Fugitive Democracy, p. 448.
  3. Wolin, Sheldon S., “The People’s Two Bodies,” in Fugitive Democracy, pp. 390 – 391.