Monthly Archives: February 2017

Commentaries After the Speech

Trump was well-behaved, as Trump goes.  He reaffirmed the hypernationalist rhetoric, but he didn’t insult anybody and didn’t spew any gross factual inaccuracies.

Text of the Speech (as submitted in advance, with little deviation)

Politico Fact-Check

More Politico Commentary

NPR commentary

And there’s more.  See the news feed at the right of this page on OpenLab, and post your own thoughts on the Discussion Board any time.

Trump’s Speech to Congress Tonight

Tonight, Tues. Feb. 28 at 9, President Trump will be delivering his formal annual address to Congress, the speech which in all years other than the president’s first is called the “State of the Union” address.  Two things that need to be understood about this ritual:  (1) It is traditional for everybody to be polite and respectful to each other, regardless of party, and (2) that tradition was already getting eroded in the last decade.  The biggest breach of that was when Republican Representative Joe Wilson yelled out “You lie!” to Obama during his 2009 speech, and there was also evidence of Republican contempt for Obama in his 2015 speech.

It’s going to be interesting to see how things go tonight.  If you are watching, I strongly encourage you to post your thoughts here on the site Discussion Board:   If you’re not watching, I don’t blame you, but please do at least listen to the news recaps of it tomorrow.


Not All Supreme Court Decisions Are Divided

Not all Supreme Court cases break down according to liberal and conservative, and not all are even divided at all.  (Some cases are divided without any pattern of ideology.)  The Supreme Court just issued a unanimous ruling that the family of a girl who was not allowed to have her service dog in school can sue the school district for damages.

Federal law requires that school systems make reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities.  From the point of view of the school, they met that requirement by having a staff person assigned to help her get around, which significantly included helping her on and off the toilet.  For the girl, though, there was more dignity and sense of independence in having the dog do it.  Apparently there were some problems with having a dog in the school, though ordinarily service animals are allowed to go anywhere that humans can go, not subject to the restrictions on dogs that are merely pets.

This doesn’t mean they’ll win the suit, only that they can bring it.  But my main point here is, again:  not all Supreme Court decisions have the liberals on one side and the conservatives on the other.

Yahoo News story, February 22, 2017

Texas, Planned Parenthood, and a Federal Court

Medicaid, as we’ve discussed, is a prime example of fiscal federalism: a social welfare policy created by the national (federal) government, administered through the states, with both federal and state policies and money coming together in the running of it.

Republicans have been expressing the desire for several years now to deny federal money to services offered at Planned Parenthood, even those that have nothing to do with abortion, because Planned Parenthood also provides abortions.

Texas passed a law providing precisely that ban in the Lone Star State, but a federal court has just told them that no they can’t.  This doesn’t permanently settle the matter, but it’s at least a temporary defeat for conservatives at the state level.  Congress may well get a law passed accomplishing the same thing nationally; it’s far from over.

NPR story, February 22, 2017


A Personal Reflection and Statement of Intent

Hello, esteemed associates, it’s your American Government instructor here, Ben Alexander, with a few words of personal reflection about my job.  I’m here to answer a question that nobody has asked me, just in case anybody thinks it should be answered.

Under normal circumstances, in the past, when I have met with one of my classes right after I had been to the ballot booth for an election, if a student asked me whom I voted for, I replied, “I don’t remember.”  I have, in the past, taken great care to keep my own opinions out of my teaching, not giving students a clue to how I felt personally about anything. In fact, years and years ago, when I was brand new to the trade, I gave a summary in class of the basic positions of the Republican and Democratic parties, to which the student whose question i was answering said, “Thank you, and I think I just became a Republican.”  I took that as a huge compliment because it told me that, even though I was (and still am) a Democrat, I had done a good job of talking fairly about both parties.  And I am definitely comfortable talking about the two parties and the economic theories and policy preferences they represent, holding both up to critical scrutiny, without preaching the virtues of one and the vices of the other.  I’ve done it many times, and I’m comfortable doing it.

But I need everybody to understand:  I am not capable of pretending to be neutral about Donald Trump.

Now, I get the impression that most students at City Tech don’t like Trump either, and that some would even say I’m too nice about him at times.  But I know there are some Trump supporters at City Tech, so there’s a fair probability that there are a handful in my current classes.  I would guess that those students probably think I’m too “biased” on the subject, and that I should be “objective” instead.

With most other presidents and other office holders and candidates, I can do that.  I’ve done it for years.  But I cannot help regarding Trump as a special case.  It isn’t just that, as a Democrat, I disagree with his policies.  Rather, as a professional historian, it is my professional opinion (not to be confused with thinking I have the absolute truth) that Mr. Trump has an unprecedented lack of fitness for the position, respect for the country, respect for the office he is holding, knowledge of how things work, willingness to learn how things work, and basic character. And please be clear, I’m only saying this to explain my own behavior on the subject, not to ask anybody else to think differently.

Now, if you ask me if I have any great amount of respect for Hillary Clinton’s character, I’ll tell you honestly that no, I don’t.  I’ve never liked either Hillary Clinton or her husband Bill all that much, and I think there is loads of self-servingness and arrogance in Clintonville.  But I volunteered for her campaign this past fall, to a degree that I would not have bothered to do if her opponent had been Rubio or Kasich, because I saw great urgency in not having Trump for a president.  (He won anyway, of course.)

Given that my professional opinion as a research and teaching scholar of the American experience is that Trump is in a class by himself of unfitness for the office and lack of even basic good intentions in his approach to the office, I would not feel comfortable with not letting students hear it.   Moreover, given the way Trump distorts the truth and insults his critics left and right, I’m not even sure I’d know how to pretend to be neutral about the Trump presidency.

Does this mean I’ll have a tirade and humiliate a student in class if a student speaks up and disagrees with me, praising Donald Trump and agreeing with him that the press really is the enemy of the people?  Absolutely not.  Does this mean I’ll find some excuse to give a student a bad grade if I learn that a student is a Trump supporter?  Absolutely not.  Students should always feel free to speak up and disagree with me in class, and I will always make sure their views are respectfully listened to by everyone in the room, including me.  I will never say anything more harsh than “Well, we see things very differently.”  I won’t even try to change anybody’s mind.  But again, if anyone wishes that I would be more subtle about the fact that I consider the Trump presidency to be a horrible catastrophe, I can only say that I wouldn’t know how. Therefore, for those who regard this as a character flaw on my part, I can only hope that I have other qualities that will make up for it, and make my class bearable to sit through for those who are pro-Trump.

Again, nobody has complained or questioned me (except one student who wrote the words “extremely politically biased” on an evaluation form a year ago), but I still wanted to say this, to answer what there have got to be one or two students in my current classes thinking.

And, Happy Presidents’ Day, whether you are happy about the current president or not.

The President and the Press–When Things Are Not Normal

When things are normal, there’s some tension between the president and the press, including the White House correspondents.  After all, it’s the job of the press, especially the White House correspondents, to hold the president’s positions and actions up to critical scrutiny, and to some extent, at least, to give the president a hard time at press conferences.  It’s fitting that Sam Donaldson, who was best known for giving Ronald Reagan a hard time as ABC’s White House correspondent in the 1980s, titled his memoir Hold On, Mr. President.

But when things are normal, there’s a degree of civility and cordiality, not to mention a sense of humor about it all, and when things are normal, the president and the press share lots of congeniality and mirth at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner.

That’s when things are normal.  But things are not normal at all this year.  Our current president has called the reporters covering his administration “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” and journalists have explicitly referred to statements by Trump as “falsehoods” again and again.  And now, there’s a movement among White House correspondents to boycott that dinner.  Because it’s for charity, they would still buy seats there, but those seats would be empty. One of the journalists spearheading this possible boycott wants to “let the ratings- and crowd-obsessed narcissist freak address an empty ballroom.”  (Yahoo News Story, Feb. 12, 2017)

This is bizarre.  Things are not normal in the American political scene this year.  And the one thing I’m sure of is that they’ll keep on getting more bizarre with time.

Oh…and in the professional bet-taking world, guess whose impeachment they’re taking bets on!  (Politico story, Feb. 12, 2017)

While you’re on this page, please click onto some of the other news updates at the right.  There’s a lot happening, and very little of it is normal.


Trump’s Latest Defeat in Federal Court

As we approach the case of Washington v. Trump, a couple of things need to be understood.  First of all, so far (as of Feb. 10, as I write this post) no court has ruled yet on the actual question of whether Trump’s executive orders for a travel ban and refugee suspension are legal. That’s what’s pending. The only rulings so far have been on the question of whether the orders could stay in effect while pending a ruling on their legality. Second point: putting personal opinions aside, the legal issues themselves are complicated, and there really are some viable arguments on Trump’s side, though at the moment such arguments are not prevailing in the courts.

Here’s the full text of the February 9 ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  If 29 pages seems long, it needs to be remembered that this is just the preliminary ruling on the temporary restraining order; the rulings on the actual case, on the legality or illegality of Trump’s executive orders, can be expected to be considerably longer.

While this preliminary ruling is not a decision on the case itself, it does deal with the merits of the case, because it takes the question of whether Trump is likely to win the case into account to decide whether the ban and the suspension can stay in effect pending that outcome. With that in mind, several key questions loom large:

  1. Given that immigration policy has always been a federal rather than a state matter, do states have a standing to sue in this instance?  This is, after all, Washington and Minnesota suing the federal government, claiming that the action not only is illegal but puts burdens on them.  (Keep clear as you read the case, by the way, that “Washington” means the state.)  Can they bring such a case?  The answer so far is yes: the states are found to have “third party standing”: that is, they’re not the parties whose rights are said to be violated, but as third parties, they stand to suffer injury from the violation of principal parties’ rights.  (The emphasis is on state universities, which are adversely affected by the restrictions placed on actual and prospective students and professors from these affected countries.)
  2. Do non-citizens have the right to due process of law?  According to this preliminary ruling, yes they do.
  3. To what extent does the executive branch have a free hand with the making of policies that affect national security?  In the final decision, this question will undoubtedly get a lot of emphasis.  Meanwhile, though, there’s an interesting observation.  The Trump administration lawyers have tried to argue, not that the courts should allow the executive branch a large degree of latitude in this area, but that when national security is involved the courts have no business involving themselves and hearing cases at all. The appeals court, in this ruling, says that there is absolutely no precedent for that, and points out that, in one case that the Trump administration cites for a precedent, the administration lawyers have taken lines out of context from a completely different kind of case than this.
  4. A fourth question takes two facts that are hard to dispute and asks whether, together, they add up to a violation of the Constitution. One is that several provisions have a strong likelihood of being applied by the administration with a negative impact on Muslims. The other is that Trump, in his campaign, was explicitly telling cheering crowds that he wanted to impose a Muslim ban (which would be unconstitutional by most standards). Taken together, do those two facts mean that the orders themselves are a thinly disguised Muslim ban and thus unconstitutional?  Again, the appeals court has not settled that question, but it sees enough merit to that argument against Trump that it is not letting the orders go forward until it has been decided.

NPR report, Feb. 10, 2017

Politico story, Feb. 9, 2017, on three mistakes by the Trump administration (In particular, item #3 occurred to me as I was reading the court’s decision.  It made me wonder whether he has the best caliber of lawyers working for him.)

NPR report, Feb. 9, 2017, on what Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security thinks should be done.  (Ironically, what he’s saying seems to be, Trump should have let me look responsible, and let me take the fall if things went wrong.)

(As you click these links, I recommend further browsing of the sites, because there is a lot more to be found.)

Trump’s Press Secretary and “Saturday Night Live”

Male political figures have traditionally cared deeply about looking masculine, and have treated aspersions on that masculinity as the worst kind of insult to receive or give.  So in a sense, it might seem to fit in with the American political tradition for the Trump White House to be disconcerted by seeing press secretary Sean Spicer played by a woman in a “Saturday Night Live” skit.  But even with those traditions in mind, this is just plain bizarre, as is so much of what’s going on.  The press is even speculating about whether this humiliation could cost Mr. Spicer his job!

(On a side note, the Senate just confirmed Elizabeth DeVos as Secretary of Education, with two Republicans voting against her and Vice President Pence breaking the tie.  For more of how bizarre things have gotten, see the news links at the right.)

The SNL skit, February 4, 2017

Politico story, February 7, 2017

Washington Post Story, February 7, 2017

After note:  There is a whole sub-specialty of historians and other scholars about how the language of masculinity relates to politics, especially in time of crisis.  One book that exemplifies this kind of history is Manhood and American Culture in the Cold War, written by Prof. Kyle A. Cuordileone, an esteemed colleague of mine here at City Tech.  Because one of the complaints of some Trump voters is that liberals have emasculated America’s manhood, you can definitely expect to see more such books written about the Trump era.

Meanwhile, though, poor Sean Spicer.  He knew he was going to work for a world-class sexist, but how could he have known that he might be on the losing end of it?

Checks and Balances in Action

As a result of a suit filed by two states against Trump’s travel ban, all it took was one federal district court judge out in Seattle, James Robart, to order a temporary stay on Trump’s executive order while both sides present their arguments.  The Trump administration has appealed to the circuit court in San Francisco to put a stay on the stay, but meanwhile, at least some of the banned travelers are traveling again.  Here in the CUNY system, Saira Rafiee, a doctoral student in political science at the Graduate Center who also apparently teaches somewhere in the system, is back in the U.S., with much celebration by CUNY PSC (Professional Staff Congress, of which I’m also a member).

Trump, of course, did what he always does when his will is thwarted: went right to his Twitter account and referred to Judge Robart as a “so-called judge.”  Judge Robart, by the way, is a Republican who was appointed by the younger Bush.  Generally speaking, opinion on the travel ban is along partisan lines, with Republicans more likely to regard it as a sensible security measure and Democrats more likely to regard it as unfair to the people affected and bad for the nation’s security too.  But I think most Republicans, especially in Congress, agree that when you’re the president of the United States, you don’t call a federal judge a “so-called judge” no matter what you think of the judge’s rulings.  But this is Trump we’re talking, and he has his own rulebook.

Anyway, though, this is checks and balances in action, with the judicial branch limiting the power of the executive branch.  It’s not over yet; the drama has just barely begun.


Further note:  Updates on the situation are on the news feeds at right, and here’s an op-ed piece by a former Bush adviser.  Note the references to Alexander Hamilton.

Not all Republicans are speaking up against Trump’s actions, but some certainly are.