Pardons, the Law, and America’s Future

The United States of America sprung full grown from the Enlightenment as a nation-state like Athena from the mind of Zeus. It became a nation without going through the complexities of the European nation-states, which grew through feudal and class systems under aristocracies and absolute rulers to form modern states. America’s ideological foundation is firmly centered on the idea of the supremacy of ideas and ideals – primarily the idea of the nation as a system of laws and legally-established structures.

Intellectuals driving the ideology of the Trump movement (people like Steve Bannon) believe that the US is held together by white, Anglo-Saxon, and Judeo-Christian values. They are terribly wrong. They have misread the diversity of America as a weakness, or as a threat to the life of the nation. In the United States there has been diversity for much of the history of the nation, and fears that immigration from Latin America threatens the values and cohesiveness of the nation are histrionic. Without the concepts of justice and limited government, there is nothing to hold the nation from spinning apart.

Trump has consistently played to his base, and his pardon of Joe Arpaio is no different – many politicians and presidents over the history of the United States have played to their key supporters. But this is different than previous pardons and pandering. In several key ways the pardon undermines the rule of law.

Firstly, Joe Arpaio is a key political supporter of President Trump, especially on the divisive issue of immigration. Pardoning any key political supporter convicted of ignoring a federal court order is weighted with undermining the impartiality of the justice system. By doing this Trump is essentially placing political allegiance above the law and the separation of powers.

Secondly, the specific crime which Joe Arpaio was convicted for violating was a court order. “America’s toughest sheriff” flaunted the judiciary’s authority to determine whether or not his actions were constitutional. So the pardon was a direct challenge to the constitutional position of the judiciary, one of the three pillars of balanced government.

Thirdly, Joe Arpaio was pardoned without going through the normal legal process. Normally pardons are issued after a person has been sentenced and after they have appealed to the president to be pardoned. Furthermore, the individuals are normally pardoned in the interests of justice.

A key argument of Trump supporters is one of equivalency. This is an argument used with consistency by those supporting Donald Trump, and it is a dangerous form of sophistry. False equivalency blurs obvious moral and legal boundaries. In philosophical logic this is known as the “tu quoque” fallacy. Rather than addressing the logic of the argument presented against them, in this case “President Trump used his power to pardon to undermine the separation of powers and the ‘rule of law,'” supporters of the President will respond: “where was the outrage when Obama pardoned thugs and criminals?”

To address this fallacious argument it is instructive to examine some of the most controversial pardons and acts of clemency in recent American history. The first one that comes to mind is the pardon of Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate Scandal and forced to resign the presidency, was pardoned by President Gerald Ford shortly after he took office. Because Nixon had so poisoned the public perception of the Republican Party and the reasons for pardoning him were for the interest of the nation, it has generally been excused and vindicated by historians and politicians. This act, though enormously controversial at the time, was not made to a political supporter, and could not have been made for any feasible reason besides to move the nation past the tragedy of Nixon’s presidency. There was no personal loyalty, quid pro quo, or undermining of the law – the outcome of Nixon resigning the office and the implication of guilt were more in the public’s interest than his conviction in a trial.

Faction and partisanship have always been a threat to democracy and good government in America. Our Founding Fathers were concerned about the establishment of political parties and their ability to undermine the principals of republican government. Instead of ruining the government however, parties throughout the history of the United States have tended to operate within general bounds of fairness and legality, and as institutions have helped to channel a diverse and dissimilar population into orderly groups that can fight for general political principles. Several times the political parties have broken down, most catastrophically before the Civil War, where the regional demands on a single government became so great that the country was torn in half. Recently the rise of Donald Trump both displayed the weaknesses in the modern Republican and Democratic parties, and then tore them to shreds. Without the political parties channeling differences into governmental policy and actions the United States is left with the aimless politics of the dynamic politicians who rise to the top. In this case we have Donald Trump – not attempting to placate a political party who is willing to work within governmental structures, but appealing directly to his loyal, self-made political base of disaffected white Americans. Without a tradition, understanding, or respect for the government and law, he appeals directly to this political base. This is how democracy is undermined in America: it is done by breaking down the legal and heuristic edifices that keep the passions of people channeled and within recognized bounds of justice and fairness. Donald Trump doesn’t need to abolish the Constitution or rule by fiat to crack the United States of America’s foundations of individual liberty, limited government, and sharing of power.

The threat Trump poses is beyond the scope of contemporary conservative or liberal issues, he is his own class of threat. It started with denigration of the media – this allowed his supporters to feel that Trump was being misrepresented and victimized no matter his actions or words – making him nearly immune from criticism from his new political base; it was followed by the destruction of the coalitions that made the political parties (which they themselves are largely responsible for by growing so far from the people and interests they purport to represent); and now has moved on to the elevation of his political views over the laws of the nation.

Pornography is not Harmful

A resolution was passed condemning pornography in Utah several months ago and a number of conservatives have recently spoken out about the harmfulness of pornography. Pornography is not inherently harmful, though studies show that many people view it as immoral. In that way it is similar to drugs and drug use. It can be harmful, and may be viewed as immoral, but it is not necessarily so. Leaving out outdated notions of sinfulness, pornography does produce something that doesn’t exist in nature and releases endorphins in a rush familiar to drug users – and it also reveals men’s connection to ancient dominance and misogyny.

Sex is hardwired into some of the deepest and most animal parts of our brains, and it makes sense that the pleasure derived from sexual gratification would be so similar to the euphoria provided by drugs. Some of the most popular search terms for pornography on the internet involve acts that are commonly seen as degrading to women. In modern society, largely based on systems and law, which have replaced bestial and pack nature, or sublimated them into unseen systems – raw expressions of dominance, sexual desire, and pleasure are connections directly to our ancestry. Men are, apparently, inherently misogynistic and violent.

Perhaps people are afraid of biblical sin, but it seems like some conservatives and politicians are horrified by the idea of unfettered access to the deepest parts of our minds, untouched by modern social and political systems.

If there is actually a problem with pornography it is the same problem that is permeating the rest of our culture and society. An abundance and easily accessible cache of drugs, media, food, and pornography has either been designed or made available on demand and drives deep into our pleasure centers. Our potential for addiction to pornography, and everything else, has never been greater. This is the true threat of pornography, not misguided and outdated moral outrage.

Homelessness and Nazi Rallies

In my previous post I discussed how extremist groups have managed to elevate themselves to a semblance of respectability and find common cause with regular conservatives, in this one I will discuss how to best counter their propaganda.

We should all just stay away. That is the obvious solution to preventing the rise and spread of extremist groups in the United States. It is unlikely in this country that popular support for Neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan could reach a proportion where they could take over the country, a la Nazi Germany. So with that in mind, the best way to prevent them from gaining any sort of mainstream foothold is to do what experts have recommended for years: ignore them. Without the massive counter-protest, which exacerbated and enflamed the violence, the extremist protestors would have gotten little press.

People want to resist, they want to do something to show their disapproval of neo-Nazis, but by doing that they’re playing directly in to their marketing strategy. For years advocates for homeless people have told citizens that the best way to prevent the scourge of panhandling in cities is to stop giving homeless people money. Without the incentive to panhandle the homeless are more likely to seek help and to leave commuters alone. Honest, good people contribute to the social problems of homelessness because of their impulses to help people, or to be seen as virtuous and moral. It is that same twinge of self-interested moralism that leads people to protest a Nazi rally.

I can’t help but think that if people weren’t going to post things on social media, they wouldn’t attend such rallies in such large numbers. Our society is obsessed with displaying each individual’s personal morality and virtue over communications technology, and because we are obsessed we can’t starve the beasts of extremism of what they crave most: exposure.

Brilliant Branding and the Far Right

Ask any conservative what the biggest problem they have with modern “liberalism” is and they will invariably tell you something about the left’s disdain for freedom of speech. To many, a sizable portion of Trump’s appeal was in his disregard for political correctness and his unrehearsed speech. A faction of, mostly, young liberals consider speech patterns encoded with racism and misogyny to be a form of institutionalized violence. People outside of this liberal group may consider the labeling of what was once considered regular speech as violent speech to be an exercise in imposing values on them which they do not hold. Liberals have, to a great extent, won the “culture war” of sensitive speech – a host of terms for different racial, disabled, ethnic, gender, and religious groups are widely considered offensive now where they were not even 20 years ago. Backlash against this, including by a variety of different political groupings to the right of the liberals who champion progressive speech, has been sustained and confrontational.

On the radical, or fringe, right openly declaring racism or other hateful ideologies has become too unacceptable and many groups of re-branded themselves to better fulfill their goals. Many declare themselves as part of the “alt-right” – a political grouping that has no real meaning and translates most accurately as “Trump-supporting.” Organizations like the NEI (Nazi ideology, operated by Richard Spencer) or American Renaissance (anti-black racism) are not immediately recognizable as hate groups if you glance through their websites. American Renaissance in particular is an excellent example of the modern “alt-right” re-branding strategy of hate groups. Their website repackages articles, columns, and blogs written by right-wing provocateurs like Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter as if they were writing for the American Renaissance website. Instead of saying overtly racist and hateful things about black people they refer to their ideology as “race realism.” By giving hate an intellectual veneer and a moderate web presence and it is easy to start agreeing with their agenda until you realize it’s hateful nonsense. All of this re-branding and sanitizing of language provides these groups with cover from the media, sympathetic minds, and politicians. Under the Trump administration they find themselves being elevated to near-respectability by being lumped-in with the rest of the amorphous “alt-right” and having their rallies and conferences covered by the media.

Erasing history, reverse racism, and a host of terms from Orwell’s 1984 have been rallying cries from the right on the issue of the liberal impulse to correct what are viewed as historical wrongs. And this is where the Nazis come in. Tearing down statues is another example, for many, of political correctness run amok. For Nazis and members of the KKK, the statues are a sinister marker of racial dominance and pride. It is either a brilliant maneuver or a stroke of luck that by having members of the extreme edge of the “alt-right” protest the removal of Confederate statues there are conservatives and Trump supporters who will reflexively come to their defense against the anti-free speech left. Finding these commonalities and dovetails increases these groups visibility and respectability and it is something which conservatives and Trump supporters should be careful of feeding in to.

Coddling White Supremacists

Trump’s unsurprising and despicable refusal to name and condemn violent white supremacists at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia demonstrate the composition of his political support. Trump’s statement condemning bigotry and violence did not mention the white supremacists who organized and headlined the event (which protested the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee). If he wanted to be sure to condemn the liberal groups protesting the white supremacists he could have done that as well, as long as he mentioned white supremacists by name, but he declined. During the campaign he similarly refused to disavow the support of white supremacist groups. This cannot be an accident. It is too obvious of a situation with too many political advisors knowing how it would be received if he did not condemn white supremacists to have been a mistake. There is now a trend of Trump engaging in this behavior, and there is only one plausible explanation. He does not want to lose the vociferous and strident support he receives from white supremacists and their fellow travelers, he just cannot name them as being amongst his supporters. Other supporters of Trump have started memeing and tweeting their theories defending the indefensible rally and the President’s indefensible response.

Various parts of Trump’s rabid internet following have decided that the event was a false flag operation by George Soros-funded groups to tarnish Republicans and conservatives. This kind of wild conspiracy-mongering was encouraged by Trump during his campaign and many of his close advisors in the White House have been spouting off similarly inane and insane conspiracy theories.

Unfortunately the decline of civil discourse in the United States has seen many liberals or Democrats accuse Republicans and conservatives of being “Nazis” or “racists.” Incidents like the one in Charlottesville make it clear that there are racists and Nazis supporting Trump but the previous (and current) hyperbole make it difficult to condemn and separate these groups from the main mass of his supporters.

As long as Trump himself continues to be the focus for support, his own cult of personality, then it will be hard to find a way to hold him accountable for his unethical and duplicitous behavior.