Friday, February 19, 2021

American Democracy in Crisis – Video

Hear the “American Democracy in Crisis” webinar sponsored by the Boulder OLLI Speaker Series held on February 3. The insurrection on January 6, 2021 was a 9/11 event for democracy. The transition of power – a bedrock element of American democracy from George Washington through Barack Obama – was directly challenged by a mob motivated, assembled and inspired by President Donald Trump, his family and retainers.

The OLLI webinar describes the four years of damage to American democracy and the serious threats that lie ahead. 

WATCH VIDEO

See blog posts on the presentation:

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Video Now Available on “The First Week: Biden vs. Trump”

President Joe Biden has inherited a formidable set of challenges, from a pandemic still spreading, a crippled economy, a social justice crisis, an injured political system and a weakened position in a threatening world.

A February Crossley Center Zoom event on the transitions, the inaugurals, and President Trump’s and President Biden’s first weeks in office provided a perspective by former Ambassador Christopher Hill, now at Columbia University; Colorado College professor (retired) and Presidential Scholar Tom Cronin; and Crossley Center Director Floyd Ciruli.

The Feb. 9 program was supported by the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Trump and Biden First Appointments

At the Crossley Center’s session comparing the Trump and Biden first weeks (February 9), Professor Chris Hill and Professor Tom Cronin opined on the top personnel of the respective administrations.

A comparison of the first teams of former President Trump and President Biden offer some dramatic contrasts, largely borne of the chaotic transition of Trump in 2016 and his impulsive methods of selection. As Tom Cronin said, “It is unlikely Trump had more than a brief familiarity of many of the selections. And, they are mostly outsiders.” Of the seven top positions shown below, only Steve Mnuchin made it all four years in his original position. Mike Pompeo went the distance, but switched to State after Rex Tillerson was unceremoniously removed by Tweet in March 2018.

Nikki Haley managed to leave without controversy and showed some modest independence from the White House, but was largely ineffectual due to Trump not actually believing in the UN’s purpose.

We all recall the travails of Jeff Sessions after he recused himself from the Russian investigation. He resigned under pressure (Nov. 2018). Trump then dedicated considerable attention to ending his political career.

Jim Mattis made it longer than most expected – longer than Tillerson and Sessions (Jan. 1, 2019), but it was clearly painful at the end. He joined nine other Defense Secretaries in January of this year declaring the election was decided and the threat to the transfer of power should stop.

The most infamous person on the team was Michael Flynn, who lasted slightly more than three weeks until he had to resign due to misleading about the nature and content of conversations with the Russian ambassador. From the shortest term in the job’s history, Flynn went on to a lengthy high-profile legal battle with the Justice Department, finally securing a pardon from Trump in November 2020. Flynn joined President Trump and his attorney, Sidney Powell, after the election for discussions on how to overturn the results, including using the military.

History will fill in the story on President Biden’s team, but selection was organized and the group mostly has strong backgrounds for their positions. As Chris Hill pointed out: “This is not a team of rivals, but rather friends and colleagues. It should increase coordination and reduce leaks.”

Inaugurals: Trump and Biden

Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama with spouses were present at the inaugurations of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden. When asked why attend the Trump inauguration given his treatment of them in the campaign. both the Clintons and Bush said it was to “honor the peaceful transition of power.” At the end of the short dystopian speech, George W. Bush was reported to have summed up the general reaction with: “That was some weird shit.”

Not surprising, since it was written by Steven Bannon and Steve Miller, Trump’s two leading proponents of populism and nationalism. The speech began with an attack on the Washington establishment sitting behind him and then described a vision of the country he labeled “American carnage.” It proposed a nationalism that closed borders and put “America first.” He ended with a pledge that he was the singular leader to start the winning and would never let people down.

Shortly after the speech, a long-running argument raged around Trump’s claim that he had the largest crowed in inaugural history. It wasn’t – estimated at 600,000. President Obama had one million in 2012 and 1.8 million in 2008. The speech was quickly received by European populists, anti-globalists, Euroskeptics and others as an affirmation of their movements.

Biden’s subdued inauguration had little audience, but a record number of troops and everyone was masked. It was a longer speech and offered a much more hopeful vision of the country. Given the pandemic and recent transition culminating in a riot in the Capitol, he spoke more of unity and the relief democracy had survived the last four years. He focused his speech on the hardship the virus had caused and promised it would receive his full attention. Also, he pressed on the desire for racial justice and the need to defeat political extremism.

Donald Trump was not at the speech. The peaceful transfer of power was never something he intended to “honor.”

Biden Defends Democracy

It is significant that Joe Biden’s first visit to a department was State. He wants to revive America’s diplomats and make diplomacy the centerpiece of the country’s foreign policy. Also, he spoke to the importance of supporting democracy worldwide.

“…American people are going to emerge from this moment stronger, more determined, and better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy…” and counter those “advocating authoritarianism.”

It is a timely shift. Democracy has been on the defensive for more than a decade. The list of smaller countries with fragile political cultures that have backslided on their modest democratic cultures is joined by major powers attempting to aggressively undermine democracy. The U.S. is not at the top of the list of democracies after recent deterioration.

Democracy today is not considered a yes or no condition, but rather a continuum. Many authoritarian countries hold elections, but they lack independent information and competition. The scale involves the examination of elements, like rule of law; pluralism; freedom of speech, assembly and religion; an independent judiciary; free press; and most important, the peaceful transfer of power.

Russia’s goal is to reduce the civic cohesion of the U.S. and Western Europe. China with its wealth, diplomacy and guile actively offers its technocratic authoritarianism as an alternative model for development. It is quashing democracy in Hong Kong and targeting Taiwan next.

Authoritarian countries use state power to silence critics and rivals. Russia has used security agents to poison critics in other countries and arrests rivals within the country. China applies its marketing power to coerce censorship in organizations that want access to its market, for example, the NBA.

American People Believe Democracy in Trouble

Only 16 percent of Americans believe democracy is working well. Nearly half (45%) believe it’s in trouble in a new AP-NORC poll.

Not surprising, a second presidential impeachment trial within a year is underway with the charge of insurrection to overturn the election.

Rep. Jason Crow (C) and other people shelter in the House gallery as a mob
of pro-Trump supporters try to break into the House Chamber at the
U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021 | Andrew Harnik/AP

Just to reinforce the trouble democracy is in, only 52 percent (Gallup 2021) of the public prior to the prosecution case believed former President Trump should be impeached and two-thirds of self-identified Republicans still adhered to the “big lie” that Trump won the election.

America Right on the Move

In four years, Donald Trump has become nearly a cult leader of the American far right. An examination of his speeches, tweets and behavior is a textbook instruction on organizing a right-wing political movement. The effort weaves together three important political themes: populism, or defending ordinary people’s interests against the elite, which often needs a strong leader to successfully espouse; nationalism, loyalty to nation above other nations; and authoritarianism, submission to an authoritative, strong leader. Among the communication and organizing themes and tactics are:

Civilization Threatened
The anti-immigrant strategy was good politics in the 2016 Republican primaries and a key part of the general messaging that Western values and civilization are threatened by outsiders. Close the borders and keep out the “other.” (Populist slogans, nationalist themes)

Sovereignty
In policy and numerous speeches, sovereignty is praised, especially at the UN, Trump declared that each country should serve its own interests. It led to opposition to multilateralism, including the UN, but also criticism of U.S. alliances like NATO. He believed alliances are costly constraints. The slogan “America First” sums it up. (Populist slogans, nationalist rhetoric, authoritarianism)


Anti-establishment
Beginning with the inaugural address references to Washington elites taking advantage of the people, anti-establishmentism continued through draining the swamp and the endless attacks on legacy media, Trump regularly used populist rhetoric to target institutions and individuals that constrained him and critics and opponents. He conducted generalized attacks on professionals, scientists, military leaders and legal institutions. He removed critical administrators, whistleblowers and inspector generals. (Populism, authoritarianism)

Macho Politics
Trump’s language and actions are ill-tempered and hostile. He’s a master in the attacks and weaponized social media. He favors rallies and revels in chants: “lock her up,’ and “build the wall.” Violence is often rationalized and even welcomed. (Populism, nationalism, authoritarianism)

Polarize Electorate
A key strategy is to divide the public and focus affection on that segment that supports him and his agenda. The outsiders are identified, disparaged and isolated, if possible. (Nationalism)

In the end, the movement blended some establishment Republicans, many average Americans, especially in the white working class, and some extremist groups. How long it lasts as a political movement may depend on Trump’s ability to inspire and manage it, but the elements of populism, nationalism and authoritarianism are always present.