Hail Caesar!

Is America sliding toward dictatorship?

In response to my article ‘Requiem For a Once Great Nation,’ some people called me a scaremonger for suggesting the American Republic could break apart.

“It can’t happen here!”

I’m sure the citizens of the Roman Republic in 44 BC, those of the Italian Republic in 1804 and Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1930s thought the same.

All that was needed to tear those republics apart was a little anarchy and a self-proclaimed “savior.”

Rome had emperor Julius Caesar, Italy was “rescued” by Napoleon Bonaparte, and Hitler promised to restore Germany to its previous glory. In all three cases, the result was greater anarchy and bloodshed.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana

The American Republic is particularly vulnerable because its citizens no longer share a common story nor believe in the ideals which underpinned its foundation. Most don’t even know what those ideals are or what they stand for. Not even the military, it seems. Former Navy pilot Ken Harbaugh recently said that when he joined the Navy, he swore to support and defend the Constitution. But not once, in all of his training, did he receive meaningful instruction on the document to which he had pledged his life.

In ‘The Irony of Democracy,’ its authors state that “if the survival of the U.S. system depended on the active, informed, and enlightened citizenry, [it] would have disappeared long ago, for the many are apathetic and ill-informed about politics and exhibit a surprisingly weak commitment to democratic values.”

As it stands, the vast majority of Americans now get their ‘facts’ and ‘enlightenment’ through the venomous drip feed of caustic propaganda which masks itself under the deceptive guise of news. Like tarantula hawk wasps, our current-day peddlers of deception find the country asleep and deposit their lies in the minds of its citizens which slowly devour their capacity for independent thinking.

Writing for The Atlantic, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld report the pernicious effects:

“Many progressives have turned against what were once sacrosanct American principles. Freedom of speech is [now considered] an instrument of the dehumanization of women and minorities. Religious liberty, an engine of discrimination. Property rights, a shield for structural injustice and white supremacy. In a recent poll, two-thirds of college-age Democrats said that a diverse and inclusive society is more important than protecting free speech. Only 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s believe that living in a democracy is essential, compared with 72 percent of Americans born in the 1930s.

From the [extreme] right, there have been calls to define America’s national identity in racial, ethnic, or religious terms, whether as white, European, or Judeo-Christian. President Trump routinely calls the [press] “the enemy of the American people.” In a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, less than half of Republicans said that the freedom of the press to criticize politicians was very important to maintaining a strong democracy.”

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” warned Abraham Lincoln.

No clearer proof of how far the nation has come apart than during — and right after — the recent impeachment trial. There were no victors, in my view. Just one more collective step down a dangerous slope to mayhem and authoritarianism.

So how vulnerable is American democracy?

In ‘How Democracies Die,’ authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt say “extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. An essential test of this kind of vulnerability isn’t whether such figures emerge, but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power. When established parties opportunistically invite extremists into their ranks, they imperil democracy.”

“Once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power, democracies face a second critical test: Will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them? Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended — by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms, or unwritten rules of toleration and restraint. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Instead, institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not. This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy — packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to permanently disadvantage their rivals. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s enemies use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, and even legally — to kill it.

If, 25 years ago, someone had described to you a country where candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of election fraud, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. It wouldn’t have been the United States of America. — From ‘How Democracies Die.’

In the face of disorder and no common ground on which to stand, people panic and cower behind intolerant fortresses of tribalism making them easy prey for silver-tongued demagogues who promise to restore order and bring about a new era.

Caesar did it, so did Napoleon and Hitler.

Afraid, paranoid, stoked by hatred and willfully ignorant and powerless, millions saw these individuals as saviors and handed them absolute power.

The rest, as the say, is history.

But it can’t happen here, can it?

Everyone’s Doing It

So it must be okay

In the face of new and more damning evidence in the impeachment trial against the Trump administration, I’ve begun to hear exculpatory comments from a few of his staunch supporters, like, “Every president has used the power of the office for personal gain; what’s the big deal?” or “Democrats are a bunch of hypocrites! Once in power, they all do the same thing,” or “Don’t tell me the Clintons didn’t use the presidency to line their pockets or help them get re-elected!”

It seems character no longer matters in these United States.

Raised in a third-world country under military dictatorships for most of my adult life, I know well how corruption works. I also know how it slowly infects every sector of society until turning it into a cesspool. I just thought America was different.

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” — George Washington

It appears the little voice of conscience is dead in America too.

Give a little whistle,” said Jiminy Cricket to Pinocchio.

Take the straight and narrow path

And if you start to slide

Give a little whistle

Give a little whistle

And always let your conscience be your guide.”

So here’s my whistle: Children are listening and watching what adults say and do, and they are masters at imitation.

It should surprise no one that according to a recent survey on the moral attitudes of young people conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 45% of boys agreed that “a person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed,” and that twice as many boys as girls agreed, or strongly agreed, that “it’s not cheating if everyone is doing it.”

Since I agree with American statesman Frederick Douglass that it is easier to grow strong children than repair broken men, my focus is on the youth in America, particularly its boys.

In thirty years of working with children,” says Dr. Michael Gurian, author of Saving our Sons, “I have never been more worried than right now for our sons. Nearly every problem we face in our civilization intersects in some way with the state of boyhood in America.”

I share Michael’s concern, and it seems many do so as well.

As a preface to their comprehensive and brilliant handbook on character strengths and virtues, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman say their project coincides with heightened societal concern about good character.

“After a detour through the hedonism of the 1960s, the narcissism of the 1970s, the materialism of the 1980s, and the apathy of the 1990s, most everyone today seems to believe that character is important after all and that the United States is facing a character crisis on many fronts, from the playground to the classroom to the sports arena to the Hollywood screen to business corporations to politics. According to a survey by Public Agenda, adults in the United States cited “not learning values” as the most important problem facing today’s youth.”

Strengths of character, the authors suggest, provide the the stability and generality of a life well lived.

“The good life reflects choice and will. Quality life does not simply happen because the Ten Commandments hang on a classroom wall or because children are taught a mantra about just saying no. What makes life worth living is not ephemeral. It does not result from the momentary tickling of our sensory receptors by chocolate, alcohol, or Caribbean vacations. The good life is lived over time and across situations, and an examination of the good life in terms of positive traits is [essential]. Strengths of character provide the needed explanation for the stability and generality of a life well lived.”

They also underpin democracy, the rule of law, civic discourse, and the conscience of a nation.

In ‘Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools,’ educator Amanda Litinov says, “one of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government. The responsibilities of each citizen were assumed to go far beyond casting a vote; protecting the common good would require developing students’ critical thinking and debate skills, along with strong civic virtues.”

“Until the 1960s,” Litinov adds, “it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. But civics offerings were slashed as the curriculum narrowed over the ensuing decades and lost further ground to ‘core subjects’ under the NCLB-era standardized testing regime.”

Civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low, reports the Center for American Progress. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years. Not surprisingly, public trust in government is at only 18 percent and voter participation has reached its lowest point since 1996. Without an understanding of the structure of government; rights and responsibilities; and methods of public engagement, civic literacy and voter apathy will continue to plague American democracy.

While knowledge and understanding is essential to democracy, I argue that they are no substitute for virtue and strengths of character.

“A good moral character is the first essential in a man. It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.” — Letter from George Washington to George Steptoe, December 1790

Pressured regularly by Alexander Hamilton to participate in the first presidential election, and worried Americans would view him with distrust and think he simply desired power, Washington wrote this to Hamilton: “Still I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles: the character of an honest man.”

In its rapid plunge into the cesspool of moral relativism, the United States seems no longer willing or interested in forging its boys into virtuous men of character, like Washington. It also doesn’t seem much bothered by the blatant disregard for decency, honesty, and decorum of its elected officials on both sides of the aisle.

So I’m giving a little whistle.

Either listen, and act, or prepare yourselves to witness your once-proudful country being taken over by villains and their legions of lily-livered and unscrupulous sycophants.

Choose Your President Like You’d Choose a Governess

America’s choice 2020

Governess: a woman employed to teach children in a private household.

President: a term deriving from the Latin prae, before, and sedere, to sit. Thus, “to sit before.” A public sitter, if you will; a head of state or symbolic embodiment of a nation. A man, or woman, who sets the moral tone for a country. By no definition a redeemer or savior, and certainly no silver-tongue demagogue who promises to single-handedly restore a nation’s power and glory. Germany once elected a guy like that. Didn’t work out too well.

So what exactly does a president do?

Although constitutionally ambiguous, the presidency of the United States is inherently dual in character. The president serves as the nation’s head of state and as its chief administrator.

Under Article II of the Constitution, the president’s administrative duties are limited to:

1. Serve as commander in chief of the armed forces.

2. Grant reprieves and pardons for federal offenses (except impeachment).

3. Ensure laws are faithfully executed.

4. With consent of the Senate, nominate and appoint ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States.

5. Make treaties, by, and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Note these duties do not include issuing laws, creating jobs, fueling stock markets, declaring wars, or imposing immigration, monetary, industrial, and environmental policy. Having freed the colonies from the yoke of monarchy, the founding fathers made damn sure not to grant their leader overreaching powers.

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. — Excerpt from the ‘Declaration of Independence’

The constitutional constraints on presidential power thus gave immediate rise to the practice of issuing executive orders to achieve policy goals, manage the executive branch, or outline a view intended to influence the behavior of private citizens. Bear in mind the U.S. Constitution does not define these presidential instruments nor explicitly vests the president with the authority to issue them.

One of the first executive proclamations was George Washington’s call for a Thanksgiving holiday, something I suspect most of us are grateful for.

However, there have been others who have used the ambiguous characterization of executive power to issue directives contravening the Constitution and/or Bill of Rights. Such was Roosevelt’s 1942 directive ordering the removal and internment of all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Over one hundred thousand people — 70,000 of whom were American by birth — were imprisoned in a network of camps across the Southwest. The government made no charges against them nor could they appeal their incarceration. All lost personal liberties; most lost their homes and property.

The 5th Amendment states no person shall be deprived of liberty without due process of law.

Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, I get it. I also get that Congress and the Supreme Court backed Roosevelt’s draconian order, making it lawful.

My precise point is that the founding fathers could not cross all the t’s nor dot all the i’s while writing up the instructions on what a president can and cannot do. They could not foresee all the exceptional circumstances which a changing world would bring about. To wit, the assassination of foreign nationals, like the Jan 3rd drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani.

“No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in assassination.” — Executive Order 12333 issued by President Ronald Reagan.

“What constitutes assassination, however, is left undefined, writes Scott R. Anderson for Lawfare. “Subsequent presidential administrations have reportedly interpreted it to mean unlawful killings, which would not necessarily [include] targeting decisions during armed conflicts. Notably, while most of these interpretations are not public, we know that the Obama administration concluded that killings in self-defense are not assassinations in the context of drone strikes against al-Qaeda-affiliated targets in Yemen — a conclusion that likely bears on the decision to kill Soleimani.”

Things are certainly more complicated than they were in 1787. Leading the most powerful country on earth in an increasingly messy and complex world, is, well, messy.

Think back, for example, to the Cold War (1947–1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union. A time when the U.S. was in the grip of mass hysteria about the spread of communism across the world. Any foreign leader who dared espouse progressive ideals was labeled red and a potential enemy of U.S. interests.

In 1954, President Eisenhower directed the CIA to launch a covert operation in my country that toppled a popularly-elected, progressive president, ushering-in a civil war lasting over thirty years that cost the lives of close to two hundred thousand people and forced me into exile.

Depending on which side you were on, the event was either justified to contain the spread of communism, or an unconscionable overreach of American presidential power that left a shameful stain on the country’s moral fabric and snuffed my country’s democratic aspirations. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover that the true motive behind the CIA-led coup was to protect the interests and profits of corporate America.

Eisenhower made a mockery of the principles of liberty and self-determination upon which the United States was founded. A president faithful to his vow to preserve, protect, and defend those principles upon taking office would’ve never given the order to oust a democratically-elected government in a foreign country. “Do as I say and not as I do” is a sure way to sow distrust, cynicism, and anger, at home and abroad. By the same token, “profit over principle” is a slippery road to a nation’s moral bankruptcy.

Don’t misjudge me. I am not that naive to think that everything is black or white. Geopolitics is a messy affair which often forces a leader to do what’s necessary and expedient even if it forces him or her to temporarily compromise on what is right. It is precisely when a dilemma arises where the end justifies the means that a nation needs a decisive and pragmatic leader but with a steady moral compass. Experience can be hired. A moral compass, however, cannot be purchased.

Which brings me to the governess.

In Victorian England, the governess was not hired to manage a household or to cook or clean. Her primary function was to educate children.

Depending on the age of her pupils, the governess could find herself teaching ‘the three Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) to the youngest, while coaching the older in French conversation, history and geography. If her pupils were teen girls, the governess was expected to instruct them in drawing, playing piano, dancing, and deportment, i.e., how to conduct oneself properly. The governess might also be in charge of small boys up to the age of eight, before they were sent away to school.

The governess was expected to look after her pupils’ moral education too. As well as reading the Bible and leading them in prayer, she was to set a good example of moral behavior. For that reason, employers put great emphasis on hiring a governess who shared their beliefs.

If you were choosing a governess for your children, what would you focus on? Her superb writing skills and knowledge of the world, or her moral character? If forced to choose, say, between a math wizard, previously convicted of child molestation, and a dunce with high moral standards, a clean record and impeccable references, whom would you entrust to guide and edify your children?

How about this guy for president of the United States?

· Four terms in a state legislature, one fairly disappointing term in the House of Representatives, and two unsuccessful attempts to win election to the United States Senate.

· No administrative experience. Never been a cabinet member, a governor, or even mayor of his hometown.

· Has filed for bankruptcy several times.

· Has never been abroad and knows no foreign languages. His education, he admits, is imperfect. The total time he spent in elementary school was less than one year. Not a great reader. Never finished a novel.

· By his own admission, the humblest of all individuals; a man without a name. Perhaps, he says, without a reason why he should even have a name.

His name was Abraham Lincoln, and while far from perfect, is considered one the great presidents by scholars and historians. Good luck trying to find the “perfect” candidate. We are all a little stained. Perfection often precludes the possible, and in my ledger, if forced to choose, values trump experience.

Of course experience is welcome, but not at the expense of virtuous and wise leadership, especially in a Republic, like the United States, with its sound system of checks and balances and judicious — albeit partly ambiguous — limitations on presidential power. Focus on experience when choosing your state’s representatives, governors, mayors, and city council members — the people charged with getting things done — but not when choosing your president.

The president is not only the leader of a party, he is the president of the whole people. He must interpret the conscience of America. He must guide his conduct by the idealism of our people. — President Herbert Hoover

Come November, Americans will choose their next head of state. The man or woman who will become the symbolic embodiment of their nation’s conscience. They will do so at a time when their country, its rule of law and the ideals for which it stands are being torn asunder amid a messy world that seems poised on the brink. Not a good time to focus on rigid ideologies or vote one’s pocketbook, in my mind. Not a good time either to allow fear, hatred, bigotry, or prejudice to mark the ballot. Default to any of these and you’ll soon end up with a tyrant.

When choosing, I suggest you check your emotions at the entrance of the polling station and walk clear-headed into the booth. Then, elect the person to whom you would entrust your children in your absence and further base that choice on the ideals which once made the United States the world’s beacon of hope and shining city upon the hill.


Read this related piece: Making America Whole Again