At the dedication of his Library, President Ronald Reagan, then 80 years old, reflected on the pendulum swings he had seen in his lifetime, such as the rise of big government and totalitarianism. “I also remember a time when America was advised to keep a low profile in the world as if by hunkering down and muzzling her deepest beliefs she might avoid foreign criticism and placate her enemies,” Reagan said.
Just a week into his infant presidency, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that affirmed his deepest beliefs loudly to the world: He will rule an incompetent, huge government dependent on fear-mongering, which (for starters) means banning lawfully admitted immigrants based on their birth nationality. It could mean a wall on our border with Mexico, whether it’s a new tax on Americans or diplomatic fallout over who picks up the $40 billion tab. It may mean reversing protections for LGBT government employees.
As we witness daily public panic caused by a White House possessing not enough professionalism and a toxic abundance of narcissism, a crisis of character is quickly becoming a crisis of the American experiment.
Operating in a command climate of Trumpian instability, the most senior and public White House officials are party to profoundly destabilizing acts. The most consistent characteristic of senior officials charged with communicating the goals of the Trump administration has been a flagrant disregard for the truth, though a more charitable interpretation would be that the new policies are so dysfunctional that no one in the administration understands them. Which petrifies you more: willful lying, or gross incompetence?
The Trump White House is eerily reminiscent of a homeland version of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the disastrous initial effort to rebuild Iraq with a staff front-loaded with ideological supporters instead of technocratic experts. Similar to what we wrought in Iraq by disbanding the Baathist officer corps, ideologues empowered by a President who cares more about his Inauguration crowd size than upholding the Constitution are similarly dismantling our sacred democratic institutions.
We saw the dogmatists gorge themselves in the candy store of executive power when our new Commander-in-chief signed his sloppy executive order banning certain Muslims from America. One would have to be under media blackout to have missed the ensuing disaster: young children separated from their parents, military translators detained for hours at the airport, protests erupting across the country.
The ideologues were too busy gobbling up the goods to bother with sound policy and common sense. According to press accounts, chief strategist Stephen Bannon and speechwriter and policy aide Stephen Miller took it upon themselves to invent a solution to a problem that doesn’t even exist, since the chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack by a refugee are about one in 3.64 billion per year. No matter.
Also no matter: That the order hadn’t been cleared or even deliberated by the arms of the U.S. government that are designed to protect our economic, diplomatic and physical interests. As NBC News reported, the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, State and Justice, as well as the lawyers of the National Security Council, were left out of the policy-making process.
If anything, such big-government incompetence will make us less safe by denying safe harbor from those who flee radical Islam and encouraging crackdowns on American travelers and businesspeople abroad. That’s likely what security and diplomacy professionals would have advised — had they been consulted.
The new President and his team should remember that standing for the American ideas of personal liberty and equality means protecting our national interest. Those twin ideas have been the most powerful carrot of U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of our democracy. Without them, there’s true risk that the world dissolves into a dystopian nightmare of competing national interests bereft of the rule of law and respect for human rights.
After leading the world to victory in World War II, the future President Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that journalists be taken to witness the horror of Nazi death camps and the atrocities committed against the Jewish people. He forecast that without witnesses, the magnitude of the horror would be forgotten with time. This is the kind of leadership we need right now: those who are willing to stare down raw truths and speak to the threat of what happens when we sacrifice our basic humanity and Constitutional rights for political fear-mongering.
President Barack Obama’s use of executive power drew great criticism (including from me) while he was in office. Democrats should be incentivized to see that executive authority overreach isn’t okay just because you agree with who is in office. And Congressional Republicans must restrain Trump. If Republicans want to emerge from the Trump presidency with any semblance of a party, never mind a conscience, they should start asserting principled opposition.
That’s likely to anger Trump’s small but vocal base of support, and so be it — if Reagan could stand the anger of the world, the Republican Congress can, too, and not worry about who is offended.
In the meantime, the rest of America, no matter our party, privilege or place of worship, will fight for those freedoms.