Save this column because it applies to every federal election. And you can probably figure out how to use at the state and local levels as well.
The responsibility of every citizen at election time is to cast a vote for the candidate who, in the voter’s opinion, can best pursue the mission of the United States. And what exactly is that mission? Fortunately, our founders left us with two documents that make it clear: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Both speak broadly and both provide plenty of weeds to get into. But if you want to know why we are America, you need only look to the preambles of each.
In the Declaration, these words declare the purpose of the endeavor: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
And the Constitution is even clearer: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
That’s the job every candidate is applying for – to advance the mission statement. There is plenty of debate about how to accomplish the mission, but the mission itself is indisputable. A candidate who proposes eliminating liberty, or who encourages insurrection, or who wishes to throw open our borders to hostile forces is patently unqualified to hold office. Moreover, such a candidate does not understand that the oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution precludes opposing the Constitution.
So it is simple, right? Just vote for the candidate who pledges life, fortune and sacred honor (that’s the end of the Declaration) to the Constitution!
Would that it was so simple. Here is the essence of a conversation I had with a very wise elected official. I am tempted to drop a name here, but the individual is “in cycle” as they say and maybe this would be perceived as electioneering.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration, was careful to say that we held certain truths to be self-evident, including that all men are created equal. But that truth never found its way into the Constitution. Women, African-Americans and others found themselves excluded from the rights and privileges afforded to white men. And that truth never found its way into the life of the man who declared it. Jefferson was a slave owner and sexually active outside of marriage with women who dared not refuse him.
It took three generations of the American experiment before the President of the United States could state that our nation was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Abraham Lincoln might very well have been accused of violating the three-fifths rule in the Constitution, but history validates that a commitment to anything less than full equality would not long endure. He went about implementing the proposition.
The larger values – the founding values – might rightly be used to advocate for correctives to the details. Does gun ownership provide for the common defense or disrupt domestic tranquility? That’s a better question than “how do we protect the Second Amendment?” Does profiling promote the general welfare or disestablish justice? It is on such a question the debate should center rather than on fear and indignation.
But some things don’t fit so neatly into the broad categories of the mission statement. Perhaps I believe that certain economic policies are dangerous to me and my posterity. It could be that I see the unalienable right to life as superseding all others. Maybe I am convinced that a particular foreign alliance has an extra-constitutional claim on my vote. What do I do?
A person who does not vote his interests is a fool. And a person who votes only his interests is a scoundrel. The balancing act can sometimes be uncomfortable, but, in the end, you must evaluate your vote by the same standard as the candidate. Am I advancing the blessings of liberty that are to be vouchsafed to us and the generations to come?
Agree with me? Then get out there and vote. Disagree with me? Then get out there and vote. In other words, vote, dammit.
The brilliant word in Donald Trump’s campaign slogan is “again.” “Make America great again” is a different statement than “make America great.” The shorter suggests that we have never been as great as the candidate could make us. The longer suggests that we have fallen from a prior greatness.
I am not going to litigate the campaign. Like you, I imagine, I am pretty sick of it. Like you, I imagine, I have my theories of how we came to this moment. Like you, I imagine, I am hopeful but not convinced that we have seen the worst of the behavior by the candidates.
But I keep circling back to the word “again.” In my determination to understand how so many people could overlook the documented falsehoods and history of bad behavior that have sunk so many political careers before now, I have been looking for the mitigating factors.
Secretary Clinton has her long-time admirers and a record of public service that enthuses some and satisfies others. For some, I am sure, the potential to live during the administration of the first woman president is animating. And for many, and that includes me, the transgressions of which she is accused seem without compelling evidence of malice aforethought or afterthought. I get it.
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has admitted to being a serial philanderer, a tax manipulator and a predator in both business and interpersonal relations. His lies have been documented, which is not disqualifying for a politician, but his insistence that the documentation is what is false rather than his statements is astonishing. And he has no record of competence in public service on any issue that has not provided a direct benefit to himself (see: tax code for real estate holdings). I don’t get it.
I think it all comes back to that word “again.” Mr. Trump landed on a word that affirmed what many Americans – maybe as many as 45%, according to the latest polls – are feeling. Our best days are behind us, and we want them back.
And depending on how you measure “best days,” he has a point. I will avoid the trigger terms “privilege” and “politically correct,” but I have to mention them if I am going to be honest. For a long time, which includes almost the entire life of anyone who remembers the 20th century, things were a certain way. Yes, there was unrest over wars and civil rights. But America had it both ways – the old structures sustained us while new and overdue ideas that were more consistent with our values took root.
Take a silly example: the situation comedy on television. The generation that was raised on “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” gave way to “All in the Family” and “Maude.” So-called traditional values may have been challenged by Ricky and Bud, but they ended with a hug each week. When Archie and Maude confronted race and reproductive choice and human sexuality and faith, they did so in the same 26 minutes and most weeks ended with the same hug.
Sitcoms were never real, and still are not. But they have been supplanted by reality television that makes entertainment out of body issues, sexual predation, “real wives” who struggle with each other and, let us not forget, attempts to get a foot in the door of Trump Tower.
Argue escapism versus realism another time. Ignore the fact that the actor who “knew best” succumbed to his own hand out of depression, or that America’s favorite TV bigot lost a child to drugs, or that too many of the children who lived that fantasy life on our screens spent later years in personal nightmares. And never mind Dr. Huxtable.
In the mind’s eye of so many, those were the good old days when the whole family could guess together if Rob would trip over the ottoman. And they want them back. Again.
For a segment of America, there was some modicum of truth to the fantasy. But for the rest of America, now pretty close to the majority, (to quote Carly Simon) these are the good old days. You can’t have an “again” for a “never was.”
And what is true about trifles like sitcoms is also true about larger matters like the environment and hunger and global conflict. Challenges yet face us, but nobody wants a time “again” when the Cuban missile crisis and Biafra and DDT dominate the headlines.
My cousin Adam is as smart as he is conservative, and that says a lot. I asked him about Mr. Trump’s appeal and he said replied, “Donald Trump is a poor person’s idea of what a rich person is like.” It would take another page of typing to unpack that critique, but it helps me to understand the appeal of “again.”
Living in this world is hard. Old typologies don’t work. Maybe they never did, but some folks seem to remember that they did, and that’s enough to go on. How much better would life be if some sugar daddy to the nation could return us to those days of “Honey, I’m home!” and “Holy mackerel dere, Sapphire!” and “Hillary, get me a cup of coffee.”
There is no “again.” So if we try to go there, it is a sure thing that we will be lost.
The official-sounding Loudoun Crime Commission is actually a small nonprofit in exurban Loudoun County, Virginia, about an hour outside the nation’s capital. Their motto is “Fighting crime is every citizen’s business,” and their primary activity seems to be holding a series of luncheons at a local country club, located inside a gated community, to which speakers on crime prevention are invited.
I attended their recent luncheon as part of an interfaith group organized by the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) out of concern over the message of the scheduled speaker, Frank Gaffney. Gaffney founded his own nonprofit, the Center for Security Policy, and has devoted his career to labeling Islam and Muslims as an existential threat to Western civilization. He claims that Islam is not really a religion, but a plan for the totalitarian takeover of the world through jihad, essentially “Communism with God.” And that was all in the first five minutes.
It won’t surprise you that I found him outrageous and specious. To counter his arguments point-by-point would require repeating those arguments, as if there were some credibility to them. Gaffney is a cold warrior, a former Reagan aide, who cast about for a new enemy when the Soviet Union collapsed. He found it in extremist interpretations of Islam, which he deems to be representative of a faith with over 1.7 billion adherents around the world. It is akin to defining Judaism by the actions of the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his supporters, or Christianity by the actions of guys in hoods who burn crosses.
Let me anticipate one of the possible responses to my analogy. Gaffney did not say what so many others put forward: not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslim (BTW, not true). What he said was that any Muslim who observes sharia law has the ultimate objective of replacing the United States government with an Islamic theocratic dictatorship in which non-Muslims are subjugated, women are sex slaves, criminals are maimed and Our Way Of Life disappears.
I am not overstating his position. He made this argument and then connected it to Imam Mohammed Magid of ADAMS, who was not in the room.
The presentation of about forty minutes leaned heavily on Gaffney’s hero, President Reagan. Gaffney is a believer in what Mr. Reagan said in 1961, when he was cooperating with the House Un-American Affairs Committee: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Gaffney was pretty direct about his belief that Islam aims to extinguish freedom.
Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy is designated by the government as a 501(c)(3) organization. It therefore pays no federal taxes, and supporters can deduct contributions from their taxes. In other words, like a synagogue or church, the government subsidizes the group.
There is one requirement that such an organization must follow in the public square: neither it nor those representing it may “directly or indirectly participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” That’s from the IRS.
Gaffney announced that he was prohibited from endorsing anyone, but then insisted that eight years of “Obama-Clinton malfeasance” had put the country at risk from Muslims and that only one candidate, Donald Trump, had proposed measures to uphold the oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic. Those measures included restricting immigration, excluding refugees, investigating places Muslims gather and naming the enemy: radical Islam.
Gaffney isn’t the problem here. He is well-known for his dark vision of the world and his carefully crafted depiction of the dangers of Islam. But seated around me at the luncheon were members of the Loudoun County community who forked over $25 or so to be enlightened. Many of them — I won’t say “most” because I can’t say for sure – seemed to be believers before they walked in.
They nodded vigorously at Gaffney’s every claim of danger. They laughed too loudly at his mild sarcasm about the current administration. They vocally agreed with the criticism of our Presidents Obama and Bush for calling Islam a “religion of peace” and for saying “we are not at war with Islam.” They clapped as if they were saving Tinkerbell’s life.
Sitting among their white neighbors in a country club in a gated community in semi-rural Virginia, these citizens in the business of fighting crime were convinced that their Muslim neighbors – even the ones born and raised in the United States – were engaged in sedition (Gaffney’s word) and a stealth infiltration of America with the purpose of conquest (Gaffney’s claim). The local law enforcement officers, there at the invitation of the LCC, listened politely. The deputy who left the dining room with me was unimpressed — I had the impression he was there to witness, not learn.
But the members of the Loudoun Crime Commission gathered to reaffirm the kind of America that guarantees the civil rights of people just like them and to cheer on a return to a time when Americans named one another as subversives. These are the small minds that came to see big hate.