Counterproductive Protests? Electoral College Automatons? Hamilton Haters?
Luigi Zingales, in his New York Times op-ed dated November 18, 2016 entitled “The Right Way to Resist Trump,” opines that the recent anti-Trump protests are counterproductive and that the petition to ask the Electoral College to think before it casts its votes will make us all less able to resist the “awful” things Trump has planned for us later on. Although Mr. Zingales raises a number of other points in his op-ed with which I agree, the scope of my article is limited to these two stated topics. I close the article with a brief look at how Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to the cast of Hamilton addressing Mike Pence is a Zietgeist moment in the history of assaults on logic and the meaning of words.
Zingales: “There will be plenty of reasons to complain during the Trump presidency, when really awful decisions are made. Why complain now when no decision has been made? It delegitimizes the future protests and exposes the bias of the opposition.”
The problem with this logic is that this election was unique in deciding which direction to take not just on local U.S. politics but on fundamental questions of where the entire civilized world should go. The decision to protest is the steam escaping from an engine that has been leaking lubricant and coolant for far too long. Take for example the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that gathered strength in reaction to ongoing social, political and economic wrongs. That march is credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was not simply a reaction against the failure of that legislation to pass. If we accept Mr. Zingales’ argument here, we agree that only reactionary protest should occur instead of any preventative version.
The analogy in medicine would be to stop doing anything that is preventative in nature like wearing sunscreen or taking aspirin to prevent heart attacks, and take the position that it is best to do nothing at all until the skin cancer breaks out or the heart attack sends you to the hospital.
When Trump “won” a majority of electoral votes on 11/8/2016, that served as the spark for disgruntled Millennials worried that Trump will continue to gut their future, ethnic minorities concerned about Trump’s stated policy of rolling back civil rights and voting rights, for disgruntled scientists and informed citizens concerned about Trump’s agenda that will severely threaten human health and planetary habitability, and for disgruntled people of all stripes who worry about the rise of fascism and corporate oligarchy which now threatens the nation. All of these subjects of protest have been gnawing away at the fiber of America for years now. These protests are not simply expressions of regret over one’s favored candidate not “winning” the electoral vote (N.B., the electoral votes have not yet been cast).
There is no loss of credibility or bias here in the simple act of protesting in the street. When individual acts of rudeness and violence occur at such protests and detract from the message of the protest, that fact should not be sufficient to indict the cause of the protest itself. Those are simply lapses in individual behavior and judgment that are properly criticized or punished under concepts of personal moral responsibility by going after the individuals at fault.
The Selma Voting Rights Movement was not in reaction to the failure of a particular piece of civil rights legislation to pass. Under Mr. Zingales’ system, there would never have been a March on Washington or protests in Selma which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. SCOTUS and Congress have taken turns knifing the Voting Rights Act for years now, like a slow-motion version of a prison shivving or reinactment of the murder of Julius Caesar. Are we not supposed to protest until the man keels over and says “Et tu, GOP?” These protests challenged ongoing problems and exposed the limitations of the normal procedures of getting anything done in a representative democracy, namely voting for representatives likely to be friendly to your position and privately lobbying members of Congress and Administrations with arguments and proposals. In a sense, the election of Trump was itself a protest against the Establishment. I’ve heard it from many quarters that they voted for Trump as a way to “shake up Washington” and not to elect the candidate that they would be happy to have as President. Doesn’t that rationale for voting in elections delegitimize the electoral process itself?
ELECTORAL COLLEGE AUTOMATONS?
Mr. Zingales thinks that asking the Electoral College to exercise its Constitutionally-protected discretion when voting is equivalent to a President committing impeachable acts like illegal tricks to obtain what he wants. This comparison is one of the most blatant attempts at false equivalence I have read in the pages of the New York Times. How can these two things be more different?
Here’s Zingales: “Even the petition calling for members of the Electoral College to violate their mandate and not vote for Mr. Trump could play into the president-elect’s hands. This idea is misguided. What ground would we then have to stand on when Mr. Trump tricks the system to obtain what he wants?”
Balderdash! The key phrase here is “violate their mandate.”
In politics, a mandate is the authority granted by a constituency to act as its representative. Electors are granted authority to vote for the candidates they believe are the best choices to protect and advance the interests of the constituency that they represent. If their only authority was to vote for the candidates who received the majority of votes cast by the registered voters of their state, there would be absolutely no need for the Electoral College. In that case the Secretary of State of a particular state would simply transmit the final vote tally to the President of the Senate. The Electoral College would merely delay that transmission process and would be so much of a joke as to be inexcusable. The reality is that there is a bit more to the Electoral College than meets the eye.
Probably the most important function of the Electoral College, if we’re going to pretend that electors should be human beings and not just ones and zeroes in a software program that automatically emails state election results to the President of the Senate, is to prevent a Trojan Horse from sneaking through the gates of the White House and plundering and destroying our nation from within. In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton urged that electors should exercise such careful judgment and watchfulness when casting their votes. Now we have a President-elect wealthier than any person to ever hold that office whose wide-ranging conflicts of interest and self-described business savvy (e.g., it’s “stupid” to pay taxes) make it very rational to assume he is planning to use the White House mainly as the biggest business perk ever enjoyed in the history of business enterprise: namely, taking personal control over the one entity that stands in the way of the Dream of the Lost Paradise (i.e., unregulated, unrestrained short-term profit seeking behavior). What an amazingly successful businessperson Trump would be if he were to pull off that stunt! There’s no denying that he would be in line for Time Magazine’s Businessperson of the Century. Those who are calling for watchfulness over Trump’s financial entanglements are no different than those guards in theaters of war who keep watch to protect their fellow soldiers from harm. We should not be taken in by such tactics as Trump forgoing salary as President. These are ploys to avoid things like scrutiny of his taxes and ways for him to fool the working class with claims like, “How can I be taking advantage of the White House when I’m not taking any salary??!” When George Washington opted to forgo salary in light of his wealth and comparative emptiness of the new government’s treasury, that was an act worthy of Cincinnatus.
Some states have laws that impose a fine on electors who don’t vote for the candidates who won the most votes in their state’s popular election. But the fine is small and those state laws do not act to disqualify the elector or negate the elector’s vote in the case of casting a “faithless” vote. In other words, the state statute punishing faithless voting by electors does not even pretend to deny the Constitutional validity of electors voting the way they want. For human beings to exercise discretion and judgment, they need information and different perspectives. The petition asking electors to second-guess Trump and Pence is nothing more than sharing an outside perspective with human beings who will exercise discretion and judgment. Hopefully none of these electors are currently under any form of duress or improper pressure or coercion by agents or operatives of Trump, the GOP, or even (gulp) Russia.
A petition asking electors to consider not blindly casting votes and to prevent a catastrophe that could lead our nation, our planet even, to rapid destruction, is nothing more illegal than writing a letter to your member of Congress asking him or her to consider voting one way or another on a bill. It is akin to the cast of Hamilton, through the words of one of their own, Mr. Dixon, politely asking Mike Pence to consider the interests and fears of large swaths of the American public. Even that bastion of conservatism the Federalist Society agrees that Trump is flat out wrong in lambasting the cast of Hamilton for exercising the wonderful freedom of speech we enjoy by using the occasion of a play about the Founding Generation and the American experience by asking the new leadership of this country to carefully consider issues of great importance for American society. What could be more American?
Mike Pence has already announced that he was not offended by this non-offensive exercise of free speech that was relevant to themes explored in the very play that he had just attended. To compare the Electoral College to the council of clerics in Iran is just about as ridiculous as anything I’ve been hearing from the alt-right these days. If that were the case, why isn’t Trump complaining that the election was rigged by these electors who voted for him despite the popular vote going to Secretary Clinton? He did tweet several years ago that the “Electoral College is a disaster for democracy.” Yet not a peep out of Trump challenging what he attacked as the deeply flawed basis that is now the only thing giving him access to White House secrets and the cloak of being a proto-President-elect (i.e., not yet a true President-”elect” if the EC votes him in on December 19th). What is preventing Trump from going public against the EC he hates so much? Why isn’t he railing against it and declaring that he won’t allow his Presidency to be based on an institution so very dangerous to the democracy that we all cherish.
Oh, let me guess. Self-interest. The same concept that makes him such a great business man. Right? This is the same concept that should ring alarm bells in the heads of the electors. What does Trump know of the battle between selfless service to the nation and self-interest that rightfully rages in the hearts of power-hungry politicians whose consciences haven’t yet totally abandoned them. Again, not a peep out of Trump on this issue. Not a peep that would give us some shred of hope that he isn’t executing his business plan of using the White House as a sort-of ultimate bought-and-paid-for politician that will do more to boost his business empire than a whole room of bought-and-paid-for politicians could ever hope to do. That would be the crowning achievement of business savvy that would elevate his legacy to legendary status. There’s no way Trump doesn’t view business opportunities like this in this way. The biggest lollipop in the history of candy stores is dangling in front of a sweets-obsessed child, and you don’t expect him to take a grab at it?
Sticking with the Hamilton theme, I think it is terribly important to compare how Rush Limbaugh characterizes the message of the cast of Hamilton to what the cast of Hamilton in fact actually said. So I will present them back-to-back and then point out the instances and perils of false equivalence.
Limbaugh: “Democrat actors have have been attacking Republican elected officials in theaters — I don’t know, what, since 1865. The first known instance of a radical leftist Democrat actor attacking Republican elected officials — John Wilkes Booth assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Ford’s Theater in Washington, 1865. So these guys in Hamilton are following in what I’m sure they consider to be a rich tradition. But the condescension of thinking that they are telling the vice president-elect how to do it, how to be, what to think.”
Mr. Dixon: “You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening,” he said to audience laughter. “And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out. Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you, and we truly thank you for joining us here at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do,” Dixon said to further applause. “We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.”
Ok now, I’ll assume you read both of these quotes and have compared them. Let’s pop the hood and see what’s going on. I will focus on the three key words: attack, assassination, and condescension.
Attack: “To take aggressive action against (a place or enemy forces) with weapons or armed force, typically in a battle or war.” Softened definitions include certain forms of aggressive speech intended to cause harm.
Did Mr. Dixon’s statements amount to an aggressive action against Pence with weapons or armed force, or aggressive statements intended to cause harm? I’m thinking no.
Assassination: “The murder of a prominent person, often a political leader or ruler, usually for political reasons or payment.” Softened definitions include certain forms of speech that aim at doing harm seriously damaging to or lethal to ideas and notions.
Did Mr. Dixon’s statements cause Mr. Pence to die, much less die by design for political reasons? Did his statements amount to an act of speech designed to do grave injury to a person’s reputation or political viewpoint? I’m thinking no.
Logic shudders at Limbaugh’s comparison of Mr. Dixon’s words with Mr. Boothe’s murdering Lincoln by cowardly sneaking behind him and firing a pistol at the back of his head. How such statements get received by Limbaugh’s audience as possessing truth or logic is just mind-boggling and shows the depth of the risk to which an informed citizenry can devolve under the malevolent influence of propaganda into a stupor of anti-democratic mindlessness that leads to the rise of authoritarianism and worse.
Condescension: “showing feelings of superiority; being patronizing. Doing something in a haughty way, as though it is below one’s dignity or level of importance.”
Did anything in Mr. Dixon’s words project haughtiness or a sense of superiority over Mr. Pence? I’m thinking no. He even asked the audience not to boo Mr. Pence, and said that they “hope” Mr. Pence “will hear us out” and that they “hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.”
Mr. Limbaugh certainly shows plenty of condescension towards fairness, logic, and that fragile little thing called objective truth that can so easily get buried under heaps of stinking false equivalence and piles of logical garbage.