Trump vs. The Pendleton Act

Donald Trump is in the process of trying to remove political appointees and career officials who are not loyal to him, and in support of his crusade, the head of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Mike Rigas, is now claiming that the Pendleton Act of 1883 is unconstitutional. You heard that right. I was wondering when we would hit this point.

Trump began this purge after being acquitted in his his mid-February impeachment trial, leaving much of the task to John McEntee, the head the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) which recruits candidates for the executive branch. On March 17, McEntee forced the director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Dale Cabaniss, to resign, replacing her with Michael Rigas. The change from Cabaniss to Rigas happened just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the nation hard — on St. Patrick’s Day, the day my library in Nashua shut down. Since then Rigas has been the one overseeing the two million workers in the federal government. Yesterday, April 22, he stated publicly that the Pendleton Act is unconstitutional. Many Americans have never heard of the bill.

The Pendleton Act

Also known as the Civil Service Act (1883), it replaced the spoils system that had been in place since the presidency of Andrew Jackson (for 54 years), with a system of merit, and it allowed government employees to stay secure in their jobs no matter which party was in power. It’s astonishing that it got passed when it did. In 1883 both parties in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, derived much of their political power from the Jacksonian spoils system. President Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881) had crusaded against the spoils system, but it was his successor Chester Arthur (1881-1885) who got Congress to abolish it and pass the Pendleton Act — despite the fact that Arthur himself was a mighty beneficiary of the spoils system, and a Stalwart Republican (a faction of Republicans at the time loyal to the legacy of Ulysses Grant, and the Jacksonian spoils system). For him to reform the spoils system was career suicide, and it cost him a second term.

But Arthur did what was right, rather than cater to his constituency. His signing of the Pendleton Act marked a watershed moment in America. Civil servants were to be appointed because of their capacity to do the job, not because of whom they knew and what they could pay. Their performances were to be assessed by objective standards and discerned by examinations. These exams were to be administered by a neutral civil service commission and graded by boards that were unaffiliated with factions. Once appointed, civil servants were to serve society rather than parties. They would no longer be subject to mandatory contributions during the elections, and they were given job security without having to worry about losing favor with the party bosses. It was now illegal to fire or demote federal employees for their politics. As a civil servant myself, I cherish this historical moment, and the roles of both Presidents Hayes and Arthur in making it happen. (Hayes and Arthur, in my assessment, were the fourth best and fifth best presidents of the U.S.)

Giant Steps Backwards

The system of Jacksonian spoils hasn’t been the way of things for 137 years now. But Trump and his man Rigas want to bring back that antiquated system, and staff the entire executive branch with partisan appointees.

While I believe the U.S. president should have the right to fire or dismiss cabinet members (or anyone that he appoints) at will if he feels he can’t trust them, that right should not extend to just any officers or career civil servants or special prosecutors, etc. The Pendleton Act and civil service reform under Chester Arthur is one of the most important landmarks in U.S. history. Should that be reversed and the spoils system of Andrew Jackson resurrected, it will be giant steps backward.

More here.

Ranking Donald Trump (So Far)

Donald Trump’s first term isn’t over, and he will probably have two, but I’ve decided to score him for the period of January 21, 2017 – April 15, 2020, to see where he falls in my president series. As I post this today, the Covid-19 virus is peaking in New Hampshire and is close to peaking in other states. The political climate is tumultuous to say the least, and who knows how things will look months down the line. This evaluation is obviously subject to change. For now, here’s how I rate our current president.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Of the three categories, Trump scores highest in this one. That’s not saying a lot.

The Moratorium (“Ban”) on Immigration

Trump used his authority over border control to keep out thousands of Muslim immigrants from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Later Iraq and Sudan were removed, and North Korea and Venezuela (non-Muslim majority countries) added in. The moratorium (often incorrectly called a “ban”) was hardly justifiable in the interest of security, and it didn’t even include the critical country of Saudia Arabia, which spends millions of dollars promoting jihadist warfare all over the world, and where most of the 9/11 hijackers came from. All Trump did was lift a template from an executive order signed by Barack Obama against the same nations two years before: the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, listing Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and North Korea. (Obama’s order had been as needless as Trump’s.)

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court was correct in upholding Trump’s order. In Trump v. Hawaii (6/26/18), the majority ruled that Trump lawfully exercised the broad discretion granted to him to suspend the entry of aliens from countries construed to be jihadist hotspots. The Supreme Court has no power to second-guess the president’s executive decisions, no matter how disagreeable, only to decide if the president’s decisions are constitutional or not. Aliens who have never set foot on U.S. soil have no constitutional rights, and nor should they. While the Constitution prohibits discrimination in the issuing of visas, it does not limit the president’s authority in any way to block the entry of nationals from certain places — just as several presidents have done before Trump. And while the Establishment Clause prohibits unduly favoring one religion over another, there were many majority-Muslim countries that were not subject to Trump’s order. The moratorium was not a sweeping ban against any and all Muslims, but a suspension against certain countries for purpose of national security. Whether or not one agrees that such a suspension was necessary or effective (I do not), the Supreme Court was correct that the president has the right to enforce such suspensions as he sees fit. Presidents have wide discretion on questions of alien entry into the U.S., and that is as it should be.

In sum, Trumps’ executive order wasn’t unconstitutional, but it was misguided and pointless, especially without the inclusion of Saudi Arabia.

Jerusalem: Recognizing Israel’s Capital

After the failures of three presidents, Trump upheld the law passed by Congress in 1995, which stated that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the state of Israel and the US embassy be moved there, by no later than May 31, 1999. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had invoked waivers to this law every six months, postponing the move (absurdly) on grounds of national security. Trump had also signed a waiver in June 2017, but in December of that year ended the stalling.

Personally, I wish the state of Israel had never been created. Not because Israel is the Big Bad in the Mid-East, but because the two-state solution has made a battleground of Palestine. What the Allies should have done in 1947 was carve out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust) and given that land to the Jewish people. But for better or worse, Israel does exist, and has controlled the entire city of Jerusalem since 1967 — for over 50 years now. Every other nation on earth gets to choose its capital, and Israel should be treated no differently.

Protesters claimed that making Jerusalem the capital of Israel would play into the hands of jihadis, but that’s kowtowing to thuggery. When groups like Hamas threatened to launch a new intifada, they were doing as they do anyway, per the Islamic mandate for holy war. Trump should be applauded, not criticized, for standing up to jihadist intimidation. Repeating failed solutions in Middle-East — the failed solutions of all Trump’s predecessors going to back to Jimmy Carter at Camp David — will only continue to bring failed results. Muslim jihadists will never be satisfied or agree to work towards a peaceful goal as long as the state of Israel exists at all, regardless of where its capital is. It was about time that the Congressional law of 1995 be enforced.

Involvement in the Middle-East, The Iran Nuclear Deal, Striking at Soleimani

Trump isn’t consistent about much, but on the singular issue of war in the Middle-East he has been absolutely consistent and reliable. He doesn’t want it. He has dramatically reduced the number of troops in certain U.S. war zones overseas, and kept America out of war. He ended the vain, costly and counterproductive nation-building strategies of Bush and Obama that sank the American economy and made things far worse in the Middle-East, and indeed for the world. The dictators toppled by Bush (Saddam) and Obama (Mubarak and Gaddafi) gave us ISIS in Iraq; unrest and instability in Egypt; chaos and anarchy in Libya; the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups all over. Trump is to be applauded for putting an end to our misguided Mid-East ventures. The Arab Spring rebellions were never about democracy and pluralism; they were about imposing Islamic law.

And as Trump kept America out of quagmires, he also knew when to strike, as he did at the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. This was in response to (a) Iran burning the American embassy on top of (b) engaging for a full year in other aggressions — attacking ships in the straits of Hormuz, shooting down American drones, firing on American bases, and arming terrorist groups across the Middle-East. The accusations that Trump was looking for an excuse to go to war in the Middle-East were proven empty, when the next day Trump announced there would be no declaration of war on Iran by the U.S.

Withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal (in 2018) was also a good move. The appeasement under Barack Obama — in bringing Iran to the table and giving Iran money — had born the expected rotten fruit. I had mixed feelings about the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015. On the one hand I could justify it as a lesser of two evils, especially coming as it did in the midst of Obama’s pointless war-mongering in every other corner of the Mid-east. But while negotiating with a terror-sponsored nation may have kept us out of conflict, it increased Iran’s determination to escalate conflict, and that is what Soleimani and others had been doing.

Trump’s strike against Soleimani was risky in the manner of most military strikes, but it was the right move. On moral grounds, if I had to decide between taking out a threat like Soleimani and bending over backwards for Iran — which allows the ayatollahs to continue being as violent as they want with impunity — my compass aligns with the former.

Saudi Arabia

On the downside, if Trump has broken with most of the policies of his predecessors, he has followed them in cultivating warm relations with Saudi Arabia — calling the nation a “great ally”. The Younger Bush held the hands of Saudi King Abdullah, and Barack Obama bowed to him. Trump did neither for King Salman, but he has nonetheless treated the Saudis as allies when they should be America’s #1 enemy.

North Korea

When North Korea stepped up its missile testing efforts in 2017, Trump threatened the country with “fire and fury”, using shockingly inflammatory language that no other president has ever used in the context of nuclear armaments. His incendiary aggressiveness — on top of the missile testing and mounting military presence on the Korean Peninsula — sparked fears of a nuclear conflict. Even members of the White House staff were appalled. Though a friendly détente began to develop between Trump and Kim Jong-un in March 2018, the year of 2017 was a harrowing one that yielded the speculative novel, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, by Jeffrey Lewis. The novel portrays a realistic nuclear attack by North Korea against the U.S., triggered in part by Trump’s tweets on Twitter.

In sum, Trump’s first year was one of reckless brinkmanship with North Korea, and we are fortunate that missiles didn’t end up flying.

Russia

Trump has cultivated warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and denied collusion with Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, despite the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies. On whole, his policies towards Russian have been a mixed bag.

In terms of his presidential actions (though not his rhetoric), Trump has been harsher on Putin than Obama ever was. Trump armed the people of Ukraine against his “friend” Russia with deadly weapons, which Obama would not do. Two hundred Russian soldiers were killed in Syria by U.S. forces under Trump, not Obama. Obama was the one who said (to Dmitry Medvedev) that he wanted to be flexible with Russia in 2012. Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia not under Trump, but under Obama, who turned a blind eye. The list goes on. Throughout his entire presidency, Obama underestimated the challenge posed by Putin’s regime. Obama dismissed Mitt Romney for “exaggerating the Russian threat”, and his foreign policy was grounded in the premise that Russia was not a national security threat to the U.S.

So while Obama didn’t like Putin, those personal feelings never translated into policy. Trump has had better policies on Russia (Obama apologists have made fools of themselves fumbling over this), but that does not excuse Trump’s reverential praise for Putin, his cozying up to the Russian president, nor his refusing to endorse the mutual aid clause of NATO (Article 5), which requires that other NATO allies come to the aid of an ally under attack.

Mexico: Immigration and the Border Wall

The worst stain on Trump’s foreign policy record is Mexico. From day one he has crusaded for an expanded wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, in efforts to stop illegal immigrants, gangs, and drugs from entering the U.S. A border wall is an impractical and expensive way of addressing those issues. The largest border challenge involves the hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees applying for asylum. They travel as family units and voluntarily surrender to US authorities. A wall wouldn’t stop anyone from claiming asylum at a port of entry, only border crossings. Nor would a wall stop the flow of drugs, most of which are smuggled through legal ports of entry. The only way to stop drug traffic from Mexico would be to completely shut down trade with Mexico. The drug war (which was always wrong to begin with) has taught that as long as there is a demand for drugs, there will always be a supply and ways of getting through.

The most hideous outcome of Trump’s border-wall crusade came in April 2018, when he enacted zero-tolerance for illegal border crossings, leading to mass detentions and the separation of children from their parents. The public outcry was so great that the administration pledged to end the family separations; but that doesn’t undo the ugly stain on Trump’s record.

Then came the government shutdown. When the House of Representatives refused to give Trump money ($5.7 billion in federal funds) to build the border wall, he shut down the federal government so as to force the congressional funding. It was the longest government shutdown in American history, lasting 35 days (December 22, 2018 – January 25, 2019). When that strategy failed, he then declared a national emergency on the border, which allowed him to divert funds from various sources (the Pentagon, anti-drug funds) to build the wall. (The House and Senate voted to end the national emergency, in February and September of 2019, but Trump vetoed their bills each time.) The Border Wall remains a national embarrassment.

The Paris Climate Agreement

By withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate, in which nearly two hundred countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Trump showed his disdain for global welfare.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

If Trump’s foreign policy record is a mixed bag, his domestic policy record is a disaster.

Taxes

Trump’s tax cuts aren’t as bad as some have claimed, or at least in principle. Here’s the problem: tax cuts mean nothing without cuts to federal spending, and like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (though not George H.W. Bush), Trump has deficit-spent up the wazoo while giving tax breaks. It’s always astonishing to me, as a fiscal conservative, when self-avowed “fiscal conservatives” make tax cuts a priority, and yet willingly overlook the more sly tax increases and massive federal spending.

Trump’s tax cuts could have been a good thing — if he had cut federal spending significantly, and if he had substantially paid down the the trillions of dollars of national debt. Trump has done neither. But voters love government programs from which they benefit and for which they don’t have to pay; and because the impact of budget deficits is severe but mostly invisible in the short term, presidents like Reagan, the Younger Bush, and Trump easily win their second terms. The ones who really pay are America’s future generations. They’re the ones who will have to repay the borrowed money (plus interest) while not benefiting nearly as much as their sires. And of course they’re too young to vote.

Those who fancy themselves “small government Republicans” are not in fact for small government when they endorse spendthrifts like Reagan, the Younger Bush, and Trump (especially Bush and Trump). Eisenhower was the last really good Republican. After him, no Republican president has cut federal spending as a portion of U.S. economic output. The Democrat Bill Clinton did, however, putting all post-Eisenhower Republicans to shame.

Tariffs

Trump called the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the worst trade deal ever made, and he has launched trade wars by enacting tariffs. This is backwards. Tariffs are bad, because global free trade is ultimately better for everyone, businesses and consumers alike. Tariffs increase the prices of imports to consumers and decrease their buying power, and also cause U.S. exports to decline as other countries retaliate with tariffs of their own.

The irony about tariffs is that they are considered a “conservative” policy, but they often lead to non-conservative fiscal rescue operations. For example, Trump’s tariffs have hurt farmers in particular, and to compensate for that, the Trump administration has tried to steer government funds towards some of those areas — which is far from a conservative economic policy.

Free trade and low tariffs are the truly conservative policy, and are best for everyone. The only post Eisenhower Republican president who understood this was the otherwise less than impressive George H.W. Bush.

Health Care

While there is much in Obamacare that can be criticized (not least: it has caused healthcare costs to skyrocket), Trump’s war on the Affordable Healthcare Act was counterproductive, and it’s just as well that it largely failed. However, I do applaud Trump’s success in removing the individual mandate that forced people to buy health insurance and fined them if they didn’t. That part of Obamacare had to go.

Department Appointments

Trump appointed department heads whose agendas oppose their mandates. For the Labor Department he chose a serial violator of labor law (Eugene Scalia); for the Education Department a woman with contempt for the public education sector (Betsy DeVos); for the Environment Protection Agency a climate change denier (Scott Pruitt), then replaced him with someone hardly better (Andrew Wheeler); for the Energy Department a former state governor who had called for its abolition (Rick Perry).

In other words, the Trump Administration was set up from the start as a self-parody. It would be amusing if it were satirical fiction, but this isn’t a novel, it’s real life.

Pandemic Response

As if that weren’t bad enough, Trump fired the Pandemic Response Team in 2018. This spelled serious consequences with the recent outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. As late as February, Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, comparing it to influenza and saying that the disease was well under control.

In March he wised up and declared a national emergency, allowing states to access more than $40 billion in additional funding from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). He signed a bill providing for free testing, paid sick leave, and expanded unemployment insurance, as well as a $2 trillion stimulus that includes direct payments of up to $1,200 for individuals, hundreds of billions of dollars in loans and grants to businesses, increases to unemployment benefits, and support for health-care providers.

On April 15, he announced that the U.S. was placing a hold on funding to the World Health Organization (for 60–90 days) for “failing in its basic duty” to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever WHO’s shortcomings in the early period, it’s an appalling decision to cut funding to the organization best equipped to fight pandemics.

Trump’s handling of the crisis has left much to be desired, but there has also been misplaced outrage, not least over his calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus”; as if pointing the finger at China is necessarily racist. That Trump himself is a racist in no way mitigates the root cause of Covid-19, and the necessity of speaking honestly about the way Asian dietary habits have killed millions of people: SARS, the bird flu, the Hong Kong Flu, the Asian Flu, Covid-19 — and there will be more if exotic foods continue to be marketed and eaten.

There are hand-wringing Americans who insist that Chinese people don’t eat bats — that it’s a racist myth — even though the diet has been known and documented for some time:

“Bats are not specifically protected in China and many species are eaten, especially in southern China, where bats are found regularly in markets. Requests from international agencies following the SARS outbreak, (which resulted in several hundred human deaths) that wildlife legislation be introduced in China prohibiting inter alia hunting and sale of bats have been ignored.”

That being said, Trump has reveled in finger-pointing China for the wrong reasons. His primary concern has been deflecting blame away from his administration’s poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Environment

Besides withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump has taken actions that prove he is no friend of the environment — nor even something so basic as clean water. In February 2017, his administration reversed the Obama administration’s decision to deny permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline, approving its construction. In June 2019, he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to rescind the Clean Power Plan (2014), a regulation that would have required states to move away from coal-based power plants. In January 2020, his administration rolled back the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) requiring government agencies to carefully consider public health before permitting projects on federal lands, and which gave the public a voice in that process. Later that same month, his administration rewrote the Clean Water Rule (2015), removing protections for more than half of America’s wetlands, along with many rivers and streams — threatening the drinking water for millions of people.

This environmental record speaks for itself. Green isn’t Trump’s color.

3. Liberty (Freedom, Justice)

The worst danger of the Trump presidency has been his unbridled authoritarianism. He has played the boorish king since his presidential campaign, and in the past year has defended his monarchical attitude with startling appeals to the constitution itself. In July 2019, he said that “Article II (of the U.S. Constitution) gives me the right to do whatever I want.” The article in question establishes the powers of the executive branch, as well as the powers of Congress to oversee the presidency. Obviously it doesn’t make the president a king.

More recently, in April 2020, Trump reaffirmed that “the authority of the U.S. President is total”, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. He believes that he can decide when to lift quarantines and shutdown restrictions imposed by local officials. In fact, it is those same local officials — governors, mayors, and school district heads — who have the power to decide when to lift their own restrictions. There is no legislation that gives the president the power to override states’ public health measures. Trump can order federal employees to return to their offices, and to reopen national parks and other federal property, but he cannot order state, city, and district employees in the way that he imagines. That won’t stop him from trying.

His declarations of executive supremacy actually aren’t that surprising to those who know American history. Other presidents have believed as Trump does and acted as if they were kings. Teddy Roosevelt — who is undeservedly enshrined on Mount Rushmore — openly flouted the Constitution, and was railroaded by congressmen for having no more use for the Constitution “than a tomcat has use for a marriage license”. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson maintained that it was actually his Constitutional job to do as he damn well pleased — that a president should behave more like a British prime minister, or even a king, than a leader constrained by the American system of checks and balances. Most presidents who have feelings of executive supremacy follow the Wilsonian tactic rather than Roosevelt’s. They at least try to preserve the illusion that they are doing their Constitutional duty, as they really expand their power that the document does not bestow on them. The Teddy Roosevelts and Donald Trumps are just more honest about it.

It doesn’t help matters that lan Dershowitz — a modern liberal Democrat, who was one of Trump’s defenders in the Senate impeachment trial — tossed in the following grenade: “The president is far more powerful than a king. The president has the power that kings have never had. He has a very, very powerful office, and the framers wanted it that way.” No lie: Dershowitz actually said that. The framers are rolling in their graves.

Trump and his Democratic defender — and indeed many Americans — are clueless as to what the Constitution says about executive power, and sadly many people are used to the idea of an uber-powerful president bearing no resemblance to what was envisioned for the office at the nation’s founding. We have primarily Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) to thank for that, though certainly others set horrible precedents in this regard: Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945), and George W. Bush (2001-2009). This catalog is party-blind; there have been as many power-happy Democrats as Republicans.

Free Speech

So far under Trump there have been no blows against free speech or the press, but there has been cause for alarm. He has repeatedly bashed the news media, and even threatened to pull NBC’s nonexistent “license”. He has used the Stalinist phrase “enemy of the people” against NBC. This sort of rhetoric, coupled with his authoritarian complex, leaves no room for doubt: if he could get away with censoring the media he would.

Habeas Corpus

It’s not being paranoid to worry about a martial law under Donald Trump. In March 2020, his attorney general, William Barr, submitted a proposal that would strip American citizens of their habeas corpus rights during the Covid-19 pandemic. If the bill passes, American citizens could be held indefinitely without a trial, for whatever reason, without being able to challenge their detention.

Only two presidents have suspended habeas corpus, Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush, and both wrongly. Bad enough as a violation of civil liberty, the suspension of habeas corpus could be a stepping stone to martial law — which would be a nightmare under an executive like Donald Trump.

Overseas Detention

Trump has supported the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, signing a 2018 executive order to keep the prison open. Obama had tried to close the facility, but was blocked by Congress (Obama can be criticized for much, but not this). While the Trump administration has sent no new detainees to Guantanamo Bay, Trump did make noise about using it to jail captured Islamic State fighters.

Transgender in the Military

Trump overturned the Obama-era policy of allowing transgender personnel to serve openly in the military. Another setback.

Native American Indians

Trump’s treatment of the Indians has been disgraceful. He routinely insults Native Americans and ignores their concerns about his plans for drilling on sacred land. In 2017 he approved slashing the protected Bears Ears site by 200,000 acres, and later announced that it would be opened for oil and gas bidding.

His most recent targets are the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, who are losing their reservation status for more than 300 acres of land. That land will no longer be held in federal trust, and the tribe won’t have any tribal authority over it.

On a minor plus side, in November 2019, Trump did sign an executive order (“Operation Lady Justice”) for creating a task force to address the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, in particular women and children. A small amelioration for a mountain of sins.

The Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch

Trump’s positive contribution to the cause of liberty has come in his appointment of Neil Gorsuch, who replaced Antonin Scalia after thirty years of service on the bench. Anyone who doubts Gorsuch’s rightfully earned place can refer to my detailed look at how he has ruled since joining the court. His model of jurisprudence is exemplary; he is the best justice who has served on the court in my lifetime.

He has often been the lone conservative ruling with the four liberals against the other conservatives. He joined the liberals, for example, in favor of Indian tax exemptions (Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den Inc.); then again for the Indians on the question of Indian treaties (Herrera v. Wyoming); on a ruling about guns during crimes of violence (United States v. Davis); and in upholding the right to a trial by jury for a man convicted a second time of carrying child pornography (United States v. Haymond). If Gorsuch is conservative, he’s certainly no ideologue; he rules with the right kind of conservatism, interpreting the law, not legislating his personal views.

He has also gone where his fellow justices fear to tread. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was the famous case involving the baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. The court correctly ruled for the baker (in a 7-2 decision), but on a technicality more than on the merits of the case itself. Gorsuch, in a separate concurrence, addressed the issue head on, affirming the free expression rights of a private business owner. There is a huge difference between (a) equal access to a commodity and (b) obliging someone to do creative work. If the baker had been in violation of (a) — in other words, refusing an available service or sale to a gay person — then the baker would be in violation of discrimination laws. That wasn’t the case. The baker, rather, was refusing to create something that he does not provide, period. Gorsuch rightly affirmed the baker’s First Amendment right.

We need more Gorsuchs on the Supreme Court. It’s not that the liberal justices are necessarily bad, but they tend to be more tribal. The judiciary by its nature is a conservative institution, designed to interpret and uphold laws already in place. It’s the nature of a progressive liberal to seek favorable change, but the best place for that is the legislature. The judiciary is restrictive. On issues of civil liberties, abortion rights, and separation of church and state, liberals like Ginsburg have usually ruled well, grounded in constitutional acumen and firm legal precedent. But on questions of economic liberty, and separation of the public and private sectors, the liberal justices have left much to be desired.

Conclusion

Here is Donald Trump’s report card, reflecting his presidency from January 21, 2017 – April 15, 2020. The scoring is subject to change.

Peace (Foreign Policy). For keeping the U.S. out of war (an immense change from the previous 16 years), Trump deserves serious credit. Most of his policies in the Middle-East are also impressive, but must be weighed against his mediocre policies with Russia, his reckless brinkmanship with North Korea, his hideous detainment polices for migrant families, his foolish crusade for the Mexican border wall, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. All of this weighs to a score of 9.

Prosperity (Domestic Policy). For fake tax cuts, trade wars, tariffs, crony capitalism, undermining departments by appointing them lousy leaders, mismanaging the Covid-19 crisis, and torpedoing environmental progress, he almost gets a goose egg. I throw him a single point for making Obamacare non-mandatory.

Liberty (Freedom, Justice). For his anti-Constitutional authoritarianism, believing himself to be entirely above the law, threatening the press, trying to suspend habeas corpus, supporting Guantanamo Bay, opposing transgender rights, and routinely stepping on Native Americans, he gets a putrid liberty score of 4. The appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch alone earns him 3 points, and I graciously throw him one more for creating the task force to investigate murdered indigenous peoples.

Peace — 9/20
Prosperity — 1/20
Liberty — 4/20

TOTAL SCORE = 14/60 = Bad

This makes Donald Trump, in my estimation, the fourth worst president in history, perched above James Buchanan, George W. Bush, and Woodrow Wilson.

Bill Maher on China: Simple Truths

Bill Maher continues to host Real Time while quarantined inside his home. And he continues to offend the PC Police for making what should be non-controversial statements. In this case, that Covid-19 is a Chinese virus, which it obviously is, but the PC police find that racist. Maher refutes the silliness with his usual wit, facts, and common sense:

Scientists — yes, scientists — have been labeling diseases after the place they came from for a very long time. Zika is from the Zika Forest; Ebola from the Ebola River; Hantavirus from the Hantan River; there’s the the West Nile Virus, Guinea Worm, and Rocky Mountain Spotty Fever; MERS stands for Middle-Eastern Respiratory Syndrome — it’s plastered all over airports, and no one blogs about it. So why should China get a pass?

Jesus Fucking Christ, can’t we even have a pandemic without getting offended? When they named Lyme Disease after the town in Connecticut, the locals didn’t get all ticked off. It scares me that there are people out there who would rather die from the virus than call it by the wrong name. This isn’t about vilifying a culture. This is about facts. This is about life and death. We’re barely four months into this pandemic, and the wet markets in China — the ones where exotic animals are sold and consumed — are already starting to reopen.

The PC Police say it’s racist to attack any cultural practice that’s different than our own. I say that liberalism lost its way when people started thinking like that, and pretended that forcing a woman to wear a burqa was just ‘a different way’ instead of an abhorrent human rights violation. It’s not racist to point out that eating bats is batshit crazy. In 2007, researchers at the University at Hong Kong wrote:

‘The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.’

Dr. Fauci says we should force a global closure of the wet markets, because the current crisis is a direct result of that. On Monday the UN’s acting head of biodiversity said the same thing. So when someone says, ‘What if people hear “Chinese Virus” and blame China?’, the answer is, we should blame China. We can’t stop telling the truth because racists get the wrong idea. Sorry, Americans, but we’re going to have to ask you to keep two ideas in your head at the same time.

We can’t afford the luxury anymore of ‘non-judginess’ towards a country with habits that kill millions of people. SARS came from China. And the bird flu. And the Hong Kong Flu. The Asian Flu. The next one could be even worse.

Watch the entire segment here.

Habeas Corpus: Lincoln, Bush, and Trump

The writ of habeas corpus makes it illegal for the U.S. government to confine people in jail without their being able to challenge their detention. Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, has submitted a proposal that would strip American citizens of this fundamental right during the Covid-19 pandemic. If the bill passes, American citizens could be held indefinitely without a trial, for whatever reason.

Only two presidents have suspended habeas corpus: Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush. Lincoln acted in the context of the Civil War (in 1861), and Bush acted in the context of the War on Terror (in 2006). Each cited “invasion” and “public safety” as justification.

Lincoln

Both Lincoln and Bush were wrong to do this, but Lincoln was the more offensive. He suspended habeas corpus unilaterally, and without congressional approval, and then defied the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Robert Taney ruled that it was congress, not the president, who had the authority to suspend habeas corpus during wartime. Lincoln ignored the highest authority in the land and did as he pleased. He also created military tribunals to try civilians who had discouraged people from enlisting in union armies. The Constitution guarantees a jury trial for civilians, and these civilians were simply exercising their free speech rights.

After the Civil War was over in 1866, the Supreme Court rejected Lincoln’s argument that as commander in chief he held emergency powers during wartime that were outside the law or the Constitution. Justice David Davis wrote: “The Constitution is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and peace. No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government.”

There was more. Lincoln trampled on the First Amendment by shutting down newspapers, closing the mail to publications that opposed his points of view and his war policies, arresting journalists, and even physically attacking and eliminating a peace movement. Whatever one’s feeling about the Civil War, there’s no question that Lincoln prosecuted the war as a tyrant.

Bush

Bush at least had congressional backing when he suspended habeas corpus. But he still should not have done so.

Basically Bush believed that he could simply label anyone in the U.S., or elsewhere in the world, as an enemy combatant and detain them indefinitely. The bill passed by congress in 2006 (The Military Commissions Act) granted Bush virtually unlimited authority to do that — establish and conduct military commissions to try anyone who was considered an “unlawful enemy combatant” in the War on Terror, and to suspend the right of said “unlawful enemy combatants” to present court orders of habeas corpus in their own defense.

Trump

Barr’s proposal grants himself (the attorney general) and Trump the power to ask any chief judge to hold a citizen, “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.” What qualifies as “disobedience” or “emergency” is left completely to the attorney general. So he and Trump would be able to hold any American citizen — man, woman or child of any age — indefinitely at their own discretion, without trial, for any reason, whether related to Covid-19 or not.

I cringe at the thought of habeas corpus being suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic. Bad enough as a violation of civil liberties, it could also be a stepping stone to martial law — which under Donald Trump is something anyone in their right mind should be concerned about.

 

William Howard Heft (1909-1913)

William Howard Taft was so fat that he fell asleep everywhere — at important meetings, state funerals, even White House dinners as he was in the middle of feeding his face. He did not get stuck in the White House bathtub, but sweet Jesus, I’m not surprised people believe that urban legend. Taft clocked in at 332 pounds at the time of his inauguration, and reached 350 pounds toward the end of his presidency. But his heft was surely for the better. It kept him lethargic and far more restrained than his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt.

Taft was elected largely to carry out Roosevelt’s programs, and while he did continue on in some ways that were detrimental, he wasn’t nearly as aggressive in foreign policy. And though he prosecuted anti-trust lawsuits like Roosevelt, his lawsuits were at least grounded in legality (and not capricious views about “a greater good”). Taft was in fact a vast improvement over Roosevelt, for whom the Constitution was anathema.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Taft intervened unnecessarily in Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, using “dollar diplomacy” to champion business overseas. This was better than the belligerent policy of his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt, and especially his successor Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt and Wilson sent military troops into neighboring countries “for their own good” — i.e. to keep them from being invaded by European countries, even though most of the time that was an absurdly phantom menace. Taft’s policy was more benign, relying on money as a way of promoting American interests abroad. But it still wasn’t good: it burdened the U.S. to protect its investments abroad, and entangled the nation in worldly affairs it would have better to stay out of. Moreover, the dollar policy utterly failed. It failed to create new allies or open up new markets for American industries, and set a bad precedent for future administrations to imitate.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

Taft’s voice of reason allowed the country to recover from the Panic of 1907. Where Teddy Roosevelt scared the business community into panics and recessions — with scathing diatribes on wealthy capitalists (in 1903 and 1907) — Taft had no use for obnoxious bombast. Still, he did some harm by his own initiatives, in (a) reinstating the income tax and (b) approving high tariffs. When he did follow Roosevelt’s playbook, in (c) antitrust suits and (d) land conservation, he at least did things fairly and legally.

Income tax and tariffs

The Sixteenth Amendment legalized the federal income tax. The tax was first introduced by Lincoln to help finance the Civil War, and then was abolished under Grant. Then it was reinstated by Grover Cleveland but found to be unconstitutional. An income tax is pernicious for two reasons: (1) it punishes success, and (2) it’s an assault on privacy, requiring citizens to allow the federal government to investigate their entire financial history. One doesn’t have to be a libertarian to believe that such a tax violates the Fourth Amendment’s restrictions against unreasonable searches and seizures without just cause. The IRS has a license to audit anyone at any time. While Lincoln gets the heaviest penalty for the income tax (he’s the one who established the precedent for it), Taft gets a good measure of the blame for getting it established with permanence.

To his credit, Taft asked for reduced tariffs, but Congress sent back a law (the Payne-Aldrich Act) that increased tariffs, and Taft went ahead and signed it. So American citizens got the worst of both worlds: new taxes and high protectionist tariffs.

Antitrust initiatives and conservation

On the one hand, Taft outdid Roosevelt, by doubling the number of antitrust lawsuits against businesses in his single term as Roosevelt did across two terms. However, Taft’s antitrust policy was at least fair and grounded in the rule of law, completely unlike Teddy’s capricious and arbitrary policy of prosecuting certain trusts while leaving others alone.

Matching Roosevelt, Taft set aside about as many acres of land for conservation as Roosevelt had. This is a good policy to begin with, and Taft did it straight up. He didn’t sneak around Congress using arrogant executive orders like Teddy. He obtained Congress’s approval for the land.

3. Liberty

Aside from establishing the Income Tax which violates privacy, Taft made no assaults on American liberty. In fact he made some very good moves on citizen rights. Most notably, he got the Publicity Act (1910) — also known as the Federal Corrupt Practices Act — passed, which allowed the public to examine records of donors to campaigns for public candidates to the House of Representatives. This helped fight corruption and backroom dealing.

Conclusion

On whole Taft wasn’t a bad president, though he was born to be a chief justice rather than a chief executive. Warren Harding appointed him chief justice in 1921, and Taft ended up leading the Supreme Court through one of its best eras in the Roaring Twenties. As a president before that, he was for the most part middle-of-the-road. The policies that he did continue from his bad predecessor were diminished, toned down, and made subordinate to the Constitution rather than vice-versa. This is his report card:

Peace — 10/20
Prosperity — 12/20
Liberty — 14/20

TOTAL SCORE = 36/60 = Average

The Constitution be damned: Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

Teddy Roosevelt is on Mount Rushmore, but he sure as hell shouldn’t be. He was not a constitutional president and he brazenly flouted the document. Perhaps this is why the Younger Bush loved him so much, as Bush (like his right-hand Dick Cheney) disdained congressional checks on his authority. Dubya wasn’t candid about this, however, and he probably wasn’t even honest with himself on the issue. More probable is that Bush admired Roosevelt for his big-government conservativism. Most of the big-government “progressive” spenders have been Democrats, but in Teddy the Younger Bush found a kindred Republican. Roosevelt increased the number of government employees by a whopping 50%; Bush too was a flaming liberal in matters of domestic largesse.

In any case, Theodore Roosevelt set an extremely dangerous precedent — that it was okay for the president to go beyond, or ignore, the document he swore to uphold. He was blasted by the Speaker of the House for having “no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license”. Teddy was unfazed, stating that he could do what he wanted “for the greater good”. He thought he was above the law with unlimited powers. That mentality caught on like a contagion with later presidents, like Woodrow Wilson and FDR, and especially in the post World War II era, where executive overreach has often been the White House norm.

Donald Trump, however, is the first president since Roosevelt to be so candid in actually stating that he can “do whatever he wants” as president. Like Roosevelt, Trump has gone through his term like an executive bully, unmindful of anything the law might have to say about his actions. This is not to say that Roosevelt and Trump have committed the most egregious overreaches or the worst Constitutional offenses (those belong undeniably to Wilson and FDR), but they are certainly the two presidents who have been the most drunk on their own self-regard.

That drunken narcissism showed in all three areas of Roosevelt’s policies — peace, prosperity, and liberty — and I’ll go through each of them.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Roosevelt mediated a peace settlement between Russia and Japan to end the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05), for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was not a peaceful president. He enlarged the military and engaged in numerous incidents of unnecessary gunboat diplomacy. He was addicted to solving problems at gunpoint and had a bloodthirsty streak. He had fought in Cuba during the Spanish American War (1898), and one soldier described him as “reveling in victory and gore” during the charge up a hill at San Juan Heights. Jackson Lears (a professor of cultural history at Rutgers University) ranks Teddy Roosevelt the sixth worst president of all time, because Roosevelt actually “celebrated the regenerative effects of military violence.”

And to legitimate his violent actions, he began by perverting the Monroe Doctrine.

Monroe Doctrine Perverted

Since 1823, the idea of the Monroe Doctrine was that the U.S. and Europe were to remain separate spheres of influence. Specifically, the United States

  • would not interfere in already existing European colonies
  • would not interfere in European affairs
  • would forbid European colonization of new areas
  • would forbid European recolonization of former colonies

That was all fine and well until Teddy added the corollary that the United States should intervene in neighboring countries to stop any perceived wrongdoing, instability, or weakness that could become an excuse for European intervention. Bluntly speaking, these vague criteria meant that the U.S. could invade and occupy neighboring countries in order to preempt others from invading and occupying those countries. The U.S. didn’t have to wait for a European power to actually try intervening or invading; all that was needed was a loosely perceived threat. The hypocrisy of this corollary is gargantuan, for obviously the countries in question would see little difference between American or European occupiers.

Venezuela

Roosevelt’s most dangerous act of gunboat diplomacy was his first one in 1902-03, when Venezuela didn’t pay its debt to a German-British consortium. The two governments threatened a naval blockade until the money was paid. Both Germany and Britain made clear to the U.S. that they only wanted debt payment and not any foothold in Latin America. But when the naval blockade escalated, Roosevelt accused Germany of threatening war and got belligerent, until the blockade was lifted. He had recklessly courted war with Germany and Britain over an unlikely possibility of Germany establishing a minor toehold in Latin America.

Panama

What is today seen as Roosevelt’s greatest accomplishment was in fact his most disgraceful offense. He fomented rebellion in the Panamanian province of Columbia, and supported it with U.S. troops, in order to steal territory for a future Panama Canal. The Spanish-American War (1898) had shown a need for the canal, and the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty (1901) paved the way for the U.S. to build it. But Roosevelt thought Columbia asked for too much money, and so he instigated a rebellion in Panama. He implied to the Panamanian rebels that if they revolted, the US Navy would assist their fight for independence. Panama declared its independence in November of 1903, and the US Navy impeded Colombian interference. The grateful Panamanians gave the U.S. control of the Panama Canal Zone on February 23, 1904, for $10 million.

Roosevelt’s cabinet members were thoroughly disgusted. Secretary of War Elihu Root said to Roosevelt, “You have shown that you were accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proved that you are guilty of rape.” Former Secretary of State Richard Olney said, “For the first time in my life, I have to confess that I am ashamed of my country.” Other critics called Teddy’s grabbing of the canal zone a “sleek and underhanded piece of national bank robbery”. Roosevelt had thoroughly disgraced himself, and the United States, to save a few million dollars.

Other gunboat diplomacy episodes: Turkey, Morocco, and Cuba

In Turkey (1904), the sultan refused to grant U.S. missionaries the same privileges that European missionaries had. Roosevelt sent navy ships until the sultan capitulated. A lame and presumptuous reason to threaten violence if there ever was one.

In Morocco (1904), someone claiming to be a U.S. citizen was kidnapped by a terrorist named Raisuli, who demanded a large ransom from the sultan in charge of Morocco. Roosevelt sent the naval fleet to Morocco to bully the sultan into negotiating with Raisuli for the hostage’s release. It turned out the hostage was actually a Greek, and Roosevelt’s secretary of state wanted him to back off. But since Raisuli still believed the hostage was a U.S. citizen, Roosevelt felt that the kidnapper was insulting the United States, and thus American honor needed avenging. So he kept pressuring the sultan to negotiate with a terrorist (negotiating with terrorists is almost always bad policy), all for the sake of besmirched honor.

In Cuba (1906), an insurrection broke out, and both sides in the conflict appealed to the U.S. for intervention. A U.S. senator reminded Roosevelt that the U.S.-Cuban treaty gave the United States, not the president, the right to intervene and demanded that Roosevelt seek congressional approval before committing troops. Roosevelt retorted that the “situation was evolving too rapidly”, and — with considerable balls — also candidly admitted that he was trying to expand the powers of the presidency. True to his word (and his balls), he launched a full blown intervention in Cuba. The Constitution makes clear that the president can take military action on his own only when the nation is defending itself from attack. In this case, not only was there a negligible threat to U.S. security, Roosevelt’s action was an imperially offensive strike, not a defensive one. It was carried out to bring stability to a region, so that other foreign powers would not gain a toehold there. Roosevelt was way out of line, and his actions clearly unconstitutional.

The Great White Fleet

Roosevelt was ceaseless in his efforts to display a swaggering macho presence on the world stage, and all of his gunboat diplomatic efforts culminated in his launching of the Great White Fleet — sixteen navy battleships that sailed around the globe from December 16, 1907, to February 22, 1909. The mission was nominally to make “courtesy” visits to many countries, but was in truth an unmistakable display of power — a warning to the world that the U.S. was not to be messed with.

The Philippines

The U.S. had won the Philippines in the Spanish-American War (1898), and when Roosevelt took office, the guerilla war from the Philippines insurrection was petering lout. He ordered military commanders to end the guerrilla war by any means necessary. They did this by burning entire villages; torturing and killing all Filipinos down to age ten; burning, whipping, and hanging the Filipinos by their thumbs. This caused a public shitstorm in the U.S., and Roosevelt tried to whitewash the whole incident, but there was no washing the blood from his hands. Another disgraceful legacy.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

To his credit, Roosevelt got Congress to pass reforms like The Meat Inspection Act (1906) and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), which served the much needed cause of sanitation and the proper labeling of ingredients in food and drugs. He was also an environmental conservationist and set aside 230 million acres of land into public trust; this land was used to create national monuments, parks, forests, bird refuges, and game preserves.

The rest of his reforms left much to be desired. The Elkins Act (1903) amended the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, and allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to impose heavy fines on railroads that offered rebates to large companies, and upon the shippers who accepted the rebates. Roosevelt maintained that rebates were price discrimination against smaller companies that used the railroads, but price discrimination is a standard business practice. (Even the small guy gets a discount for buying in bulk.) It is reasonable that railroads would give discounts to secure large customers. The Hepburn Act (1906), gave the ICC the power to set “just and reasonable” rates, which is absurdly subjective. The act had far-reaching consequences in regulating the marketplace, blocking rate increases that the rail companies needed to make, and leading to the panic of 1907.

Roosevelt was also a trust-buster. Trust-busting is counterproductive and decreases healthy competition in business. Anti-trust laws usually allow politically well connected companies to break up or keep out large potential competitors from a particular market. Even Roosevelt admitted that the economy did better when big business operated most of it and the government stayed out, but he had a strong pro-regulation constituency. The anti-trust laws were applied using Roosevelt’s “greater good” argument, meaning that companies were sued not based on whether they broke the law, but on whether they were “good” or “bad” companies — which was flagrantly unconstitutional, certainly unfair, and didn’t do the economy much good either.

3. Liberty

Worst of all — as I prefaced at the top — was Roosevelt’s repeated flouting of the Constitution. He stated boldly that he could do anything he wanted “for the greater good”. The idea that the president is above the law and has virtually unlimited powers is extremely dangerous, and it cuts at the heart of what a republic stands for. Roosevelt was saying that a president can basically do anything which the Constitution doesn’t explicitly forbid him from doing. The founding fathers were rolling in their graves; the Tenth Amendment states specifically that powers not specifically delegated to the federal government reside either with the states or with the people.

Federal coercion in labor disputes

Roosevelt established federal coercion by intervening in a coal strike in 1902, threatening both sides by saying he would use the army to seize the mines if they didn’t accept arbitration. The Pennsylvania governor had told Roosevelt that no federal assistance was necessary, and Roosevelt admitted that as president he “had no right or duty to intervene in this way on legal grounds”. But he jolly well did so anyway, and he went so far as to order an army general to be ready to use force to stop the strike, throw out the coal operators, and seize the mines.

Congressmen were aghast at this, and James Watson demanded of Roosevelt: “What about the Constitution of the United States? What about seizing private property without due process of law?” To which Teddy hollered back — as if he were Jesus Christ debating the sabbath — that “the Constitution was made for the people, and not the people for the Constitution”. This stream of bullshit was nothing more than Theodore Roosevelt remolding the Constitution on the spot for his own purposes.

Appalling race relations

It is true that Roosevelt angered the South by inviting Booker T. Washington (a prominent African American author and educator) to the White House, which was the first time a black was entertained there. But no one should be fooled into thinking that Roosevelt wasn’t a racist, as he most certainly was.

He believed that blacks were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”. And he showed his contempt for those “inferiors” on a particular occasion, by requiring black soldiers to prove their innocence to avoid dishonorable discharges from the military. The black soldiers were being blamed for shooting up Brownsville, Texas, and killing one man and wounding another. Though the evidence pointed to the black soldiers being framed, Roosevelt — in outrageous contradiction to the American tradition of innocent-until-proven-guilty — said that if none of the African American soldiers admitted to shooting up the town, they would all be assumed to be guilty and all of them discharged. None of them did, and sure enough, Roosevelt discharged them all. He stood firmly by his decision in the resulting furor, and needles to say, his popularity in the black community was forever nuked.

Conclusion

Here is Teddy’s less than glamorous report card:

Peace. For peacefully mediating the Russo-Japanese War and the European competition over Morocco, Roosevelt deserves credit. But he must be severely downgraded for his ceaseless belligerence — the never-ending gunboat diplomacy, the fomenting of rebellion in Panama, the reckless courting of war with Germany in Venezuela, and sanctioning war crimes in the Philippines. Worst of all was his perversion of the Monroe Doctrine, which has had lasting consequences throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. I score him 6 points for the two peaceful mediations. Aside from those two acts, there was hardly anything peaceful about Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency.

Prosperity. His positive contributions for healthy meat, the proper labeling of food and drugs, and conservation of land must be weighed against the vast majority of his “progressive” policies that were harmful to the country. In particular, his pernicious regulation of business and trust busting contributed to the recession of 1907. I split him down the middle for 10 points. He probably deserves less, but his positives for health and the environment carry enough weight, in my view, to balance out the bad.

Liberty. For openly disdaining the Constitution, continually disregarding its imperatives, setting one horrible precedent after another — and for presuming African Americans guilty until proven innocent — he gets a putrid liberty score of 4.

Peace — 6/20
Prosperity — 10/20
Liberty — 4/20

TOTAL SCORE = 20/60 = Bad

My Litmus Test for Presidential Rankings

Whenever I come across a ranking of the U.S. presidents, I run it through my initial litmus test:

(a) Are John Tyler and Warren Harding in the top 10? They were the two best presidents in history, but they are usually judged by the establishment to be among the worst, if not the very worst.

(b) Are Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush in the bottom 10? They were the most abysmal presidents to date, and yet the official C-Span historian survey puts Wilson all the way up at #11, and does not put Bush in the bottom 10.

I have found this to be a very reliable gauge, and it condemns the vast majority of presidential rankings out of hand. Those that do pass aren’t beyond criticism but at least get their priorities straight. They don’t overreact to sex scandals and graft scandals; they don’t elevate charisma over policies; they actually care about the Constitution and what it stands for. Here are three in particular:

recarving_2nd_1800x27001. Ivan Eland’s Recarving Rushmore passes the test. He has Tyler at #1, Harding at #6, the Younger Bush at #37, and Wilson the very worst at #41. To be sure, there is much I disagree with in Eland’s rankings. For example, he includes Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren in his Mount Rushmore (in the top 4), whereas I judge Cleveland and Van Buren to be very poor presidents. Conversely, he puts Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy at rock-bottom, where I think they belong in the top half. Nonetheless, Recarving Rushmore is an important contribution. It grades the presidents on their actual policies for a change — specifically, what they did for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty.

2. This blogger also passes my first swipe. He has Harding at #10 and Tyler at #11 (close enough), and Wilson as the very worst president. (He didn’t rate Bush, believing that at least two presidents need to pass through the White House to give an accurate ranking of any recent president.) I disagree with some of his rankings (the Senior Bush is way too high), but on whole it is a well thought out list, and far better than what mainstream historians have to offer.

3. Robert Spencer’s new book, Rating America’s Presidents, is another that passes at first glance (it will be published in August). In his blog preview, he lists Tyler and Harding in the top ten, Wilson and the Younger Bush in the bottom ten. Once again I have points of dispute, the most notable ones being Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump in the top 10, and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in the bottom 10. But even when I disagree with Spencer I respect his reasoning. Like the above two graders, he focuses on policies, not personalities or management styles — what the presidents did for the betterment of the American people. I’m looking forward to this book.

The problems with mainstream rankings

The establishment favors presidents who were charismatics, goal-oriented “managers”, foreign interventionists, and/or fiscally irresponsible globalists. I’ve been astonished by this. Ever since FDR especially, presidents have been evaluated primarily on the basis of their oratory skills, and their effectiveness in achieving ambitious goals — never mind whether those goals were good or bad. Take for example this statement from Stephen Ambrose in his book on Eisenhower:

“To say that Eisenhower was right about this or wrong about that is to do little more than announce one’s own political position. A more fruitful approach is to examine his years in the White House in his own terms, to make an assessment on the basis of how well he did in achieving the tasks and goals he set for himself at the time he took office.” (Eisenhower: Soldier and President, p 541)

This statement is absurd, but it could easily pass for boilerplate wisdom in the halls of the establishment. It’s absurd because you have to “announce your politics” when assessing political figures. You have to get your hands dirty. Otherwise your task has no meaning.

Here’s another one from Kenneth Davis’s rankings. In his analysis of James Polk, he gives him a perfect A, his lead reason being that Polk “stated what he was going to do and accomplished his goals”. (Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents, p 202). On that logic, any national leader can be great for simply doing what he sets out to do, no matter how dire his policies (not least Hitler and Stalin).

I see this stupid reasoning time and time again, and it finally led me to rank all of the presidents myself. Seriously, if no one else will do it right… I’m not interested in high-school class presidents who gave moving speeches or won popularity contests. Nor am I won over by global interventionists, spendthrifts, or those who curtailed freedom in the name of upholding it. I am impressed, rather, by chief executives who did what they swore to do in upholding the Constitution, and advanced the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty. For that reason, it is often (though not always) the presidents who are commonly judged worst who are in fact the best, and vice versa.