From the Jan. 18, 2017, edition of The Dallas Morning News:
The danger of Trump’s tweets
By Robert J. Howell
SMU Professor of Philosophy
I don't think we should worry too much about Meryl Streep. Her cred can withstand some silly tweets from our President-elect, and she has chosen to live in the public eye. But this recent episode of twitter abuse is merely the tip of the iceberg and we need to think about its implications.
A government should not use intimidation to suppress criticism and dissent. Private citizens are entitled to criticize their leaders without fear that those leaders will retaliate in a manner that jeopardizes their lives. Of all of the checks on governmental power enshrined in democratic institutions, this is perhaps the most important.
It is easy to recognize traditional methods of suppressing civilian dissent. In Argentina in the 1970s citizens were famously "disappeared" based on their political views. In the former Soviet Union dissidents found themselves freezing in Siberian gulags, and in modern day Russia opponents of Vladimir Putin find themselves arrested on obscure charges with their financial holdings confiscated by the state. During the Mao era, China engaged in public shaming of those who stepped out of line, forcing them to offer "self-criticisms" that left them pariahs.
Contemporary China is subtler. As reported in a recent edition of The Economist, China might be using technology and surveillance to build a "social credit" monitoring system that would undermine the ability of "problematic" citizens to travel and do business.
I suspect we Americans are wise to this sort of governmental intimidation and are committed enough to the tenets of democratic governance that we will not let such tactics take hold here. But are we aware that we are facing a subtler, but still significant danger in Donald Trump's tweets?
Read the full commentary.
From the Jan. 18, 2017, edition of The Dallas Morning News
Trump’s presidency won’t be unprecedented
By Jeffrey A. Engel and Aaron S. Crawford
SMU Center for Presidential History
He was an outsider, and he was about to become President. Sedate Washington, D.C., trembled. "Nobody knows what he will do," a leading Senator lamented. "He will bring a breeze with him. Which way it will blow, I cannot tell. He will either go with the party," or else "will be President upon his own strength. My fear is stronger than my hope."
Daniel Webster might just as well have been talking about Donald Trump. But in January 1829, Andrew Jackson was the source of his anxiety as the capitol's chattering class prepared for a new kind of leader with limited government experience: brimming with confidence, yet simultaneously unable to ignore even the slightest hint of criticism.
Trump is unusual in the annals of presidential history, but not unprecedented. Jackson shared many of the same qualities, and his time in office offers insights into what the next four years may hold. No comparison is ever perfect.
Jackson was a soldier; Trump's battles are waged in the boardroom and twittersphere. But both rode populist waves to victory in contentious elections: both railed against banks and moneyed elites they in truth represented; both championed but did not embody the common man.
Jackson was additionally thin-skinned and uninterested in opinions that contradicted his own, in a way that might seem familiar today. Surrounded by supporters (and sycophants), he "appears always to have meant well," his first and arguably best biographer concluded. "But his ignorance of law, history, politics, science, of everything which he who governs a country out to know, was extreme. ... His ignorance was a wall round about him--high, impenetrable."
Fighting was what Jackson knew best.
"I was born a storm," Jackson told a friend en route to his inauguration, "and a calm does not suit me." If ever there was a president from the past whom, if born into a digital age, would have spent the long dark hours of night venting his spleen in 140 characters, it was this man from Tennessee, and woe be it to the aide who might have tried to pry his phone from his hands. He'd killed men for less. Victor in numerous duels, long after they'd been outlawed and deemed uncivilized by polite society, many a would-be insulter had felt the crash of Jackson's iron-tipped cane.
It was this wholesale inability to let any slight pass that roiled Jackson's presidency, especially when coupled with the premium he placed on personal loyalty. In 1829, for example, he appointed John Henry Eaton as Secretary of War, deeming the younger man "like a son." Political observers looked in vain for any other qualities that might have warranted the appointment.
Read the full commentary.