“American Carnage:” President Trump’s Inaugural Address

Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox
The Surrender at Appomattox

The phrase “American carnage,” until now, would have evoked for me the Civil War, the great contest between the North and the South that led to the deaths of more than 750,000 Americans, Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites. Near the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln, by then aged almost beyond recognition by the stress of leadership during the crisis, delivered his great second inaugural address. It was clear by March 1865 that the war was won—Lee surrendered to Grant a month later. And the mood in the Union was triumphant: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” and all that.

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President Trump and the Unwritten Constitution

Thomas Paine
Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

If there’s one thing the election of Donald Trump has shown, it’s the strength of our formal political institutions. Do you disagree? Consider that in many states at many times in history, a democratically elected person so manifestly unfit for office would not have been allowed to take office. Yet there is no real risk of the American “deep state” carrying out a coup d’état or otherwise preventing Mr. Trump’s inauguration later this week. Once our formal constitutional process for election of the President concluded on January 6 (when Congress certified the electoral vote tally), that was that. We should be enormously proud of the strength of our formal institutions.

So if, when Representative John Lewis said, a few days ago, “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president,” he meant that Mr. Trump was not validly elected, then he was clearly and dangerously in the wrong. His comment would be dangerous in the same way that birtherism, the view that President Obama was constitutionally ineligible to be President because he was not a natural-born citizen of the United States, was dangerous: both views undermine confidence in the formal constitutional mechanisms that have allowed us to prosper for more than two centuries.

But maybe Representative Lewis had something else in mind. Maybe he didn’t mean that Mr. Trump’s election somehow violated the written constitution, but that his actions before and after election have violated the unwritten constitution. Maybe the phrase is a little misleading. The unwritten constitution is not the law. It’s the norms, expectations, and traditions that let the government work. Every country has an unwritten constitution in this sense.

How could we make sense of Rep. Lewis’s comment if this second reading is right? Here are some thoughts.

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Remember the Melians

δυνατὰ δὲ οἱ προύχοντες πράσσουσι καὶ οἱ ἀσθενεῖς ξυγχωροῦσιν. Credit: shakko

Remember the Melians? Melos was a city-state on an Aegean island that was besieged by Athens in the Peloponnesian War. During the siege, the Athenians and the Melians held a parley, which Thucydides dramatized in his History. Thucydides’ dialogue is one of the urtexts of realism in international relations. The Athenians gave the Melians an ultimatum: surrender, or else. They pointed out that they had the overwhelming advantage and that their surrender terms were reasonable. The Melians appealed to the Athenians’ sense of justice, noted their neutrality in the larger struggle between the Delian League (led by Athens) and the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta), and expressed an unrealistic hope that the Spartans, Athens’ enemies, would come to their aid. The Athenians told the Melians they were being foolish: “The strong do what they can,” they said, “and the weak suffer what they must.” The Melians persisted in their wishful thinking. Athens destroyed the city, killed the men, and sold the women and children into slavery.

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Sneak Attack!

USS Arizona under attack
Another sneak attack. Blogatory | Politics honors those who died at Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago today.

For a long time, President-elect Donald Trump has long made it clear that he views unpredictability in foreign policy as a virtue and a strength.

At a recent rally in New Hampshire, Trump promised his supporters a foreign policy that neither they nor America’s enemies could ever anticipate. “I want to be unpredictable,” Trump declared. “We want to go in, we don’t want them to know what the hell we’re doing. We have to go in, and people love it when I say that.”


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President-Elect Trump: The First Two Weeks

I would be interested in hearing from readers: do my recent political posts work for you? Are they a distraction? I am open to considering publishing them somewhere other than the front page of Letters Blogatory if you would prefer that I stick to my usual fare.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, I recommended giving President-elect Trump “a chance with a clean slate.” Mr. Trump doesn’t assume office for about two months, so I still want to try to reserve judgment. But a lot has happened in the last two weeks, so we can begin to make some judgments, and unfortunately what I see so far is distressing. I am not going to note all the issues I see, or even all the serious issues: I’m leaving aside the President-elect’s poor-quality nominations for important posts including Administrator of the EPA, National Security Advisor, and Attorney General, his apparent plans regarding tax reform, reform of the civil service laws, the possibility that he wants to privatize Medicare, his apparent intention to withdraw from the TPP (a position he shared with Mrs. Clinton), etc. Nor am I going to write about the troubling trends in foreign relations I see: our uneasy allies; moves by some Asian allies towards closer ties with China, and so forth. Instead, I’ll focus on a few hot-button issues: Nazis; the press; and conflicts of interest.

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The Electoral College For Dummies

As everyone knows by now, President-elect Donald Trump expects 306 electoral votes when the electors cast their votes. Since 270 is a majority of the electoral college, he will be the next president. And as everyone knows, there’s been a lot of heated talk about the electoral college in the aftermath of the election, particularly because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than a million votes. Here is Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe recently:

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Letters Blogatory’s Trump Listening Tour

A conservative blog called MercatorNet (“Navigating Modern Complexities”) was kind enough to repost my post-election reflections, where I focused on the need to reach out and listen to Trump supporters. Well, some Trump supporters, and some conservatives who did not vote for President-elect Trump, took the time to respond, for which I’m grateful. I think it important to engage with their responses in a way that is totally separate from reactions to the latest news about the Presidential transition (the awful and distressing appointment of Steve Bannon as a chief advisor, for example, or the President-elect’s threats of legal action against Sen. Reid). Here are some lessons I’ve learned and a non-exclusive list of themes I heard.

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