A speech delivered at the Boston March for Truth on June 3, 2017
Donald Trump is the most ignorant and deceitful person ever to inhabit the American presidency, and he seems to despise many of the basic norms of democratic governance.
I am not going to talk today about the egregiousness of Trump’s policies: the unconscionable health care bill that would cost over 20 million Americans their health insurance in order to finance a trillion dollar tax cut for the wealthy; the shameful Muslim travel ban that no reputable counterterrorism expert in the world thinks contributes to national security; the incomprehensible unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of global climate change and the consequent withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate agreement; or the seemingly deliberate effort to alienate our traditional American allies, lavish praise upon some of the world’s worst authoritarian leaders, and abandon our long tradition of international engagement and leadership.
I’m not going to talk about any of that today; instead I’m going to focus only on the president’s mendacity and on the threat he poses to basic norms of democracy.
The president lies in the same way you and I breathe—without even knowing that he does so.
Trump lies about small things: the size of the crowd at his inauguration, the weather at his inauguration, whether local dress shops had sold out of inauguration gowns, and the size of his victory in the electoral college.
But he also lies about big things that really matter: whether three to five million illegal voters cost him victory in the popular vote, whether the U.S. murder rate is the highest it’s been in 50 years, whether President Obama wiretapped Trump’s offices during the election campaign, whether Trump opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and whether President Obama was born in the United States.
One wants to be careful before agreeing too frequently with Senator Ted Cruz, but he had it about right when he called Trump “a pathological liar” and an “utterly immoral” man, before, incredibly, deciding to campaign for him in the final months of the election.
Democracy depends on transparency; whether it can survive a pathologically deceitful president is an interesting question—the answer to which we would have been better off never having to discover.
Trump is not just a compulsive liar, but also, apparently, a disbeliever in the basic norms and institutions of democracy.
He plainly does not believe in the virtues of an independent judiciary.
During the presidential election campaign, he denounced Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University for allegedly defrauding students.
Trump called Curiel a “Mexican” and a “disgrace” (the judge, in fact, was born and has lived all sixty-three years of his life in the United States; his parents were Mexican immigrants).
Since the election, Trump has denounced Judge James Robarts, the federal district judge (appointed by President George W. Bush) who invalidated his first executive order on immigration, as a “so-called” judge, and he called the federal circuit court that affirmed that order “disgraceful.”
In all likelihood, the president is laying the groundwork for (1) defying future judicial orders; and (2) blaming the federal judiciary for the next terrorist attack.
Trump said after his Muslim travel ban was enjoined, “Because the ban was lifted by a judge, many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country. . . If something happens blame him and [the] court system.”
(Note to the president: if you and your advisers would not have described your Muslim ban as a “Muslim ban,” you might have fared better in court.)
Nor do Trump’s statements suggest a belief in the virtues of a free press. During the campaign, Trump promised that if he won he would “open up our libel laws.”
He also threatened to sue the New York Times for its clearly first amendment-protected reporting on Trump’s alleged serial sexual assaults upon women.
Since the election, Trump has regularly denounced mainstream news media for their “fake news” and called reporters of the New York Times and other news organizations the “enemy of the people” (which, if the president were not so ignorant of history, he would recognize as a call for their extermination).
Further, unlike any other presidential candidate in American history, Trump cast doubt on the legitimacy of an election before it happened. At a campaign event in New York in September 2016, Trump said, without presenting any supportive evidence, “They’re letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote.”
In October, Trump told a nearly all-white gathering in Pittsburgh that “other communities” (i.e., black people) would try to steal the election in Philadelphia, and he encouraged his supporters to challenge illegal voters at the polls (an activity that itself may well be illegal).
Such statements culminated in the extraordinary scene of presidential-debate moderators asking Trump whether he would accept the legitimacy of a Clinton victory at the polls. After the first presidential debate, Trump replied that “We’re going to have to see. We’re going to see what happens.” At a subsequent debate, Trump’s reply was, “I’ll keep you in suspense. . . . We’ll see what happens.”
Unsurprisingly, in light of such statements, 70 percent of Trump supporters reported that they believed that voter fraud occurs very often or somewhat often in the United States, even though political scientists are agreed that it almost never occurs.
Prior to the election, 50 percent of Republicans said they would not regard Hillary Clinton as a legitimate president if elected.
One presidential historian stated at the time, “I haven’t seen anything like this since 1860, this threat of delegitimizing the federal government, and Trump is trying to say our entire government is corrupt and the whole system is rigged. And that’s a secessionist, revolutionary motif. That’s someone trying to topple the apple cart entirely.”
A Harvard political scientist told the New York Times, with regard to Trump’s advance delegitimizing of the election, “To a political scientist who studies authoritarianism, it’s a shock. This is the stuff that we see in Russia and Venezuela, and that we don’t see in stable democracies anywhere.”
Does anyone believe that had Trump won the popular vote by nearly three million votes while losing the electoral college that he would have immediately conceded defeat, as Clinton did?
Another of Trump’s violations of basic democratic norms was his sly advocacy of violence at political rallies, usually in indirect ways that would enable him later to downplay his incendiary statements as jokes or sarcasm. Last August, Trump said, with regard to the Second Amendment, that if Hillary Clinton won the election and thus was in a position to appoint the replacement for the deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, “nothing you can do folks.” Then he quickly added, “Although the second amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.”
In February 2016, Trump stated with regard to a protestor being removed from one of his rallies, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” “In the old days,” he continued, “protestors would be carried out on stretchers.”
Trump told supporters at another rally: “if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato [at me], knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, ok? Just knock the hell—I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”
Trump is now being sued in federal court for inciting the violence that led to protestors being injured by his supporters at a campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky.
Trump also explicitly encouraged a foreign nation to intervene in the American presidential election, something that no other candidate in history had ever done before. Specifically, Trump encouraged the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s email: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
As you know, the FBI is currently investigating whether Trump or his staff actively colluded with Russian efforts to influence the election in his favor.
Trump, on several occasions, has actively sought to impede that investigation: He apparently asked the FBI director, James Comey, to drop the investigation into National Security Council Director Michael Flynn’s lies about his pre-inauguration discussions with the Russian ambassador; Trump fired Comey for what Trump admitted were reasons related to Comey’s pursuit of this story; then he told the Russians that firing Comey relieved the pressure the president faced from this investigation; and he threatened Comey by twitter if he went public with details of the story.
Obstruction of justice is an impeachable offense.
In addition, Trump promised, if elected, to have his opponent jailed, something that previously had occurred only in countries that do not practice the rule of law. In the second presidential debate, Trump declared, “If I win, I’m going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your [Hillary Clinton’s] situation, because there’s never been so many lies, so much deception.”
Then, a minute later, Trump said to Clinton that if he became president, “you’d be in jail.”
Charles Krauthammer, a conservative commentator, observed: “Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and a cavalcade of two-bit caudillos lock up their opponents. American leaders don’t. . . . It takes decades, centuries, to develop ingrained norms of political restraint and self-control. But they can be undone in short order by a demagogue feeding a vengeful population.”
Since the election, Trump has declared—again, without offering any evidence—that former Obama national security advisor Susan Rice is a “criminal” (this was for unmasking the identity of Trump aides caught on FISA-approved wiretaps of foreign agents—something that a national security advisor might ask intelligence agencies to do in the routine course of business).
Finally, throughout the presidential campaign, Trump expressed a bizarre admiration for foreign leaders who are authoritarian. In Raleigh, North Carolina, he said of Saddam Hussein that he “killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them their rights.”
Trump also praised Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has had political opponents assassinated, as a leader who exercised “very strong control over his country,” while expressing admiration for Putin’s 82 percent public approval ratings. When it was pointed out to Trump after the election that Putin has had his political adversaries murdered, Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent.” (Can one imagine another president in American history comparing the United States to Russia as an equal-opportunity murderer?)
Since the election, Trump has told Phillipine president Duterte, who has had thousands of drug dealers and addicts extrajudicially murdered and boasted that he has actually murdered people himself, that he has done an “unbelievable” job dealing with the country’s drug problem.
He has told the autocrats of the Middle East that he won’t lecture them on human rights (while he’s been happy to lecture our democratic European allies for their many alleged failures).
He has rooted for the election in France of the neofascist candidate Marine Le Pen and he offered a congratulatory phone call to Turkish strongman Erdogan, who has jailed thousands of political opponents and journalists, for winning a fraud-riven election that conferred vastly expanded executive powers upon him.
During the campaign, many Republicans responded to concerns about Trump’s apparent lack of commitment to basic democratic norms by emphasizing that the Constitution’s system of checks and balances would adequately constrain Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.
For example, in June 2016, Senator John McCain of Arizona said, “I still believe we have the institutions of government that would restrain someone who seeks to exceed their constitutional obligations. We have a Congress. We have a Supreme Court. We’re not Romania.”
How much confidence ought Americans to have that other branches of the government will control Trump?
That a Republican-dominated Congress would not exercise much constraining influence on Trump was made clear during the campaign and has been confirmed in the early months of his presidency.
For example, during the campaign, Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House, called Trump’s attacks on Judge Curiel the “the textbook definition of a racist comment” while reiterating his support for Trump’s candidacy. “I disavow these comments. . . . It’s absolutely unacceptable. But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not.”
Similarly, Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska said after the initial report of the Access Hollywood video in which Trump bragged of sexually assaulting women: “The comments made by Mr. Trump were disgusting and totally unacceptable under any circumstance . . . . It would be wise for him to step aside and allow Mike Pence to serve as our party’s nominee.”
Three days later, after hearing from her constituents, Fischer said, “I plan to vote for Mr. Trump. . . I never said I was not voting for our Republican ticket,” adding, “It’s not a tough choice.”
Little has changed since the election in this regard. Every day that he is in office, President Trump violates the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, and the conflicts of interest posed by his continuing ownership of Trump Organization are vast compared with those of any previous president. Republicans in Congress seem not to care a whit.
Similarly, the extraordinary lies that Trump has voiced as president—that three to five million ineligible voters participated in the presidential election, that President Obama wiretapped him during the campaign—have elicited hardly any objections from Republicans in Congress.
With regard to investigating alleged complicity between Trump aides and Russian intelligence officials bent on steering the presidential election Trump’s way, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said, “I just don’t think it’s useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party. We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans.”
Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah declared there was no need to investigate former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia because “it’s taking care of itself.”
And House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (before being forced to recuse himself from the investigation after being caught acting as a shill for the White House) was far more focused on figuring out who leaked details of the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials’ intervention into the American presidential election than determining whether such collusion (which would essentially constitute treason) had occurred.
Congressional Republicans have thus far manifested little interest in investigating or criticizing a Republican president who can advance their legislative agenda—mainly tax cuts for the wealthy, repeal of Obamacare, repeal of environmental and other regulations—regardless of the outrageousness of his lies, the general incompetence of his administration, the recklessness of his foreign policy actions and pronouncements, and his possible complicity with an enemy nation’s efforts to swing the presidential election in his favor.
When it comes to advancing the Republican political agenda, partisan considerations have thus far swamped the sort of separation-of-powers incentives that James Madison predicted would generally put Congress and the president at loggerheads.
What about the federal courts as a potential check on Trump? Thus far, federal judges have indeed stepped in to invalidate the president’s executive orders on immigration, and it is likely that all federal judges strongly disapprove of the reckless charges that the president has leveled at those federal judges who have held him accountable to law.
Yet, for two reasons, it would be a mistake to suppose that the federal judiciary, in the end, will pose a significant constraint on the president’s authoritarian tendencies. First, we know from the divisions manifested on the Supreme Court in those executive powers cases that arose during the Bush administration’s War on Terror that conservative Justices are inclined to defer to presidential actions (at least those taken by a Republican president) in the ostensible service of national security.
Trump has already appointed one Justice to the Supreme Court—a seat that, of course, was outrageously stolen from the Democrats by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Were he also able to replace one of the liberal Justices or Justice Kennedy, that might give the Court a conservative majority that would be more sympathetic to measures such as the president’s thinly veiled Muslim ban.
Most Republican-appointed judges on both the 4th and the 9th circuits have opined that that ban is within the president’s constitutional powers to safeguard national security.
Second and more importantly, throughout American history, the Supreme Court has rarely stood up to the president or Congress during times of war or terror.
For example, during World War I, the Justices upheld prosecutions of political leftists under the Espionage and Sedition Acts; during World War II, the Court approved Japanese-American exclusion and internment; and during the early Cold War, the Justices mostly rejected First Amendment challenges to criminal prosecutions and legislative investigations of alleged Communists.
Thus, recent federal court rulings against Trump’s executive orders on immigration are unreliable indicators of how courts might respond to presidential actions taken in response to a war or a major terrorist attack.
As James Madison famously noted in contesting the utility of adding a bill of rights to the original Constitution, “Should a rebellion or insurrection alarm the people as well as the government, and a suspension of the habeas corpus be dictated by the alarm, no written prohibitions on earth would prevent the measure.”
To sum up, we have elected as president a stunningly ignorant, pathologically untruthful demagogue, who fundamentally disbelieves in the basic norms and institutions of democracy.
Whether the structural safeguards the Framers inscribed in the Constitution are up to the task of constraining Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are anybody’s guess.
In the end, only the force of public opinion, especially as expressed in elections, can save American democracy.
People need to get out there and vote, organize, contribute time and money to Democratic political candidates, and pray that Democrats take control of the House in 2018, or else we may be bidding farewell to our democracy as we have known it.