State of the Nation

Vice President Mike Pence.

Everything that ought to be down is up.
Everything that should be up is down.

Al Gore, 1992

Only a week ago a man with an assault style rifle* and hundreds of rounds of ammunition walked into a Texas church on a Sunday morning and began shooting. When he was done 26 people were dead and two dozen were wounded. One of the dead was a year and a half old. Another was pregnant. Another had survived on this earth without facing the horrors of a mass shooting for 77 years. His 68 year old wife died alongside him. None had any reason to believe they would face a violent death on that particular day.

By mid-week the country had moved on. With the president on a trip through Asia it fell to the vice president to travel to Texas to perform the ritual of consoling the community. Mike Pence barely got a mention in the rush of daily news as he delivered the standard cliches about good vs. evil, offered hugs for the cameras, and empty promises about America standing with the victims.

For politicians who are afraid to confront the issue of gun control the Texas shooting offered a convenient way out. The shooter had a history of violent behavior that led to his less than honorable discharge from the Air Force. Within hours of the violence government leaders — including the vice president — were blaming bureaucratic failures for missing three opportunities to prevent the gunman from buying weapons. It is therefore implied by the protectors of the Second Amendment in its most literal form that the U.S. Air Force killed the church victims — the gun itself was incidental.

Some gun rights advocates cynically used the heroism of church neighbor Stephen Willeford, who ran to the scene of the shooting and shot the gunman as he exited the church, to buttress their position. Willeford’s actions played right into the long time view of the National Rifle Association — and others — that the best way to end gun violence is to have the good guys shooting back. While Willeford’s courage may have prevented additional violence at another location, it did not prevent the initial shooting. Twenty-six people are dead.

In 1992 when Al Gore declared “everything that ought to be down is up…everything that should be up is down,” he was talking about economic statistics, but the phrase can now be applied to political discourse in the United States. Some seem willing to lean on the most implausible arguments if that is what it takes to win a debate or an election.

In this environment, the vice president of the United States is willing to attack the U.S. Air Force if it means he can avoid the more difficult issue of gun control. The Air Force should take responsibility for any mistakes it made, but the Air Force is not the problem behind the frequency of mass shootings. The problem is the availability of high capacity weapons.

One of the news stories pushing the Texas shooting to the background is the late week revelation that Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore has been accused of inappropriate sexual contact with a 14 year old girl. He has been accused by several women of seeking relationships with them when they were in their teens. In a disgusting display of party loyalty over common decency several Alabama Republicans and a few national Republicans continue to support Moore despite the highly credible reporting of this story by the Washington Post.

Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, who is using Moore in his attempt to burn down the Republican Party, says he will stand by Moore until he sees sufficient proof of wrong-doing. He further claimed in a public speech that the Post story is part of a conspiracy by the news media to defeat Moore.

The most ludicrous defense of Moore came from Alabama Auditor Jim Zeigler who said if Moore did pursue sexual relations with a 14 year old, the Bible offers a plausible defense. “Take Joseph and Mary,” he said. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

In fact, the law says there is no such thing as consensual sex with an underage child, because by definition a child — including a 14 year old — is not capable of consenting. In the Moore case, control of the U.S. Senate may be at stake, so some Republicans are willing to cling to any thread to prevent a Democrat from winning the special election.

To his credit Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said as forcefully as possible that if the allegations against Moore are true, he should immediately end his candidacy. Other Republican senators, including Jeff Flake and John McCain were more adamant. For those wondering what it takes for partisans to put their own power at risk in favor of doing the right thing, the Moore case may provide the answer.

When it comes to an upside down view of the world, President Trump continues to lead the way. At the Asia-Pacific Summit in Vietnam, Trump said he once again confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin over the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Once again, Putin denied Russian involvement and Trump said he believes him. He told the press corps traveling on Air Force One that he does not intend to bring the issue up again, because there are more important things to deal with when it comes to U.S./Russia relations.

Putin’s denials suit Trump just fine, because they support his position that there was no Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, meaning he won without outside help and there was no collusion between Russia and his campaign. There are many problems with Trump’s view beginning with the fact that his own son met at Trump Tower in New York with a Russian lawyer in the hope of getting compromising material on Hillary Clinton and a former campaign worker, who Trump identified as part of his foreign policy team, has entered a guilty plea to lying about similar meetings.

On the subject of general interference, as opposed to collusion, the entire U.S. intelligence and law enforcement community is convinced beyond doubt that Russia did interfere in the U.S. election. Congressional investigations have come to the same conclusion and the leaders of the top internet companies in the United States have testified before Congress that their platforms were used by the Russians to influence U.S. public opinion. But let’s consider the implications of Trump’s willingness to side with Putin.

President Trump believes the president of Russia over his own Central Intelligence Agency, the FBI and a Republican led Congress. Trump stands alone inside his own government in the belief Russia did not interfere. What does this say about his judgement, his competence, and whether he is fit for the office he holds? (Answer: He has poor judgement, he is incompetent and unfit).

This week Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee will convene a hearing looking into the president’s war powers and specifically the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons. The decision to call the hearing comes a few weeks after Corker publicly broke with the president, questioned his truthfulness and suggested Trump was moving the country toward “World War III.” It was a phrase Corker thought about carefully before using. Corker’s willingness to hold a hearing that by its nature raises public questions about the president’s mental stability should be alarming to all Americans.

Trump’s inability to discern the truth, never mind tell the truth, may be significant in terms of his mental state. An unstable leader is a threat to this country and the world. Just as troublesome is the way in which Trump’s abuse of language and violation of established norms has infected political debate and coarsened American culture. On the one year anniversary of his election, Trump has succeeded in destroying sincerity, truth, and a baseline expectation of courtesy as cornerstones of public debate.

* There are some gun rights defenders who take issue with the term “assault style rifle.” Let me make clear what I mean when I use the phrase. An assault style weapon is one that is designed to look like and perform like a military grade weapon even if it falls short in terms of performance. They are marketed based as much on appearance as performance.



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