Trump and the Wall

Trump’s Wall is similar to JFK’s call to put a man on the moon.  It is big, it is ambitious, and it is declared in the face of tremendous skepticism.  It promises a great sense of accomplishment for our nation, a great act of self-assertion.  Gingrich last time around tried something like this in proposing to start a colony on the moon.  It was ambitious, but there wasn’t any appetite for it.  A great nation project can’t just be big, it has to match the taste of the nation.  Romney called Gingrich “zany” for proposing it, as I recall, and it hurt his campaign.

The Wall has sustained Trump’s campaign and shows that it does match the current taste of the nation.  Why is that?


It serves a variety of purposes.  One, the Wall is the cornerstone of any Republican plan to fix illegal immigration.  This is the lesson of history from Reagan’s amnesty for illegal immigrants — the border wasn’t secure and the problem returned.  The problem matters to blue collar Americans because it is hard enough to make a living while competing with those here legally.  Employers will hire illegal immigrants because they will work for cheaper wages.

The Wall appeals to our national pride and the desperation of many to find a good job, to get a better car, to pay down some debt.  We’ve had 9/11, the recession, and a transforming global economy.  The Wall isn’t just functional.  It’s symbolic of a country than can do anything it puts its mind to and is willing to take care of its own.

So why does Trump take so much heat?  The answer is simple: he used the idea of the Wall to go hard after a big slice of the white vote.  He depicted Mexico as the great villain.  Mexicans coming into the country illegally were called rapists and drug dealers.  The drug epidemic in places like New Hampshire is said to be the work of Mexicans.  Many of the jobs leaving the country are said to be going to Mexico.

He made Mexicans into villains in order to justify tough anti-Mexican policies.  Mexico will pay for the Wall or suffer a trade war. Mexican illegal immigrants, along with all other illegal immigrants, are going to be deported.  Even the children of illegal immigrants born here will be deported.  The precedent he cited for this government action was Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback.”  He threw Jorge Ramos out of a press conference, got in a public dust up with Telemundo, later said he doesn’t trust anything Univision says.

There have been no olive branches extended by Trump or his campaign to Mexico, to the Mexican-American community, or to the Latino community, beyond saying that “the good ones can come back in.”  He proudly accuses everyone else running for president as being “weak on immigration.”

There are a lot of good reasons why we probably should build some sort of Wall on the southern border.  Trump acknowledges some of them.  But he goes way beyond that because he clearly doesn’t believe that a great national project matching the taste of the nation will win him the election.  He therefore self-consciously juices his sales pitch by appealing to white Americans in a racist way.  This embarrasses his supporters, and they often admit to feeling the heat, because 1. they are seen as biting on a racially infused message, and 2. we all see them cheering as much or more at his anti-Mexican applause lines and confrontational theatrics as they do at his calls for jobs, national pride, and taking care of our own.

It’s too bad Trump estimated America’s current greatness as non-existent.  He might have calculated differently, that a respectable campaign would be the key to victory.  He might have worried about the harm such a campaign would cause.  Instead, he’s motivated by a dog-eat-dog attitude, and he doesn’t care.

“Discovering” the Right to Gay Marriage

The United States has just discovered in its Constitution the right to gay marriage.  So, this raises the question: what does it mean to discover a right?

This immense national event having many dimensions, I’m going to dance around several things here, beginning with the concerns over constitutional democracy.  My confession is that I’m basically now stuck between the opinion on one side that the writers of the Constitution never contemplated a right to gay marriage and the opinion on the other side that the writers of the Constitution did nevertheless contemplate the limits of their own contemplation.

But the Constitution, it has thus occurred to me, does, generally speaking, invite philosophical discovery.  James Madison, some scholars argue, for a time opposed the idea of a Bill of Rights because he thought it might dampen such discovery.  Listing out a bunch of rights might suggest that those mentioned were the only rights, or maybe the way the amendments were written would leave Americans with a deficient and narrow understanding of them.  Madison also worried in the Federalist Papers about the cloudy medium of language and how poorly it communicated meaning, and how limited the mind was at discerning ideas in the first place.  Hence (more or less, I’m certainly not an expert here) we get the 9th (and 10th) Amendment, which the Court has relied on sparingly because it basically writes a blank check to the people allowing ideas of rights to expand as necessary.  It is so wide open that, as far as I understand it, the Court doesn’t know what to do with it most of the time.

Justice Thomas in his dissent tried to say that the “liberty” protected under our Constitution is strictly negative liberty, but rather than arguments in favor of negative liberty he leaves us with definitions of how Framers and philosophers have used the term.  A point I don’t think he sufficiently makes is that trustworthy philosophers don’t come along very often.  In that sense, we should keep in mind what certified trustworthy philosophers have said in that past, like John Locke.  New philosophical discoveries cannot legitimately or logically occur by simply forgetting previous philosophical discoveries.

Chief Justice Roberts is likewise very skeptical of the practice of philosophical discovery in his dissent, and repeatedly points out that the Supreme Court is comprised of lawyers (not philosophers or theologians or prominent social scientists).  Furthermore, he ties this case with Lochner, seeing it as another case of where pop-philosophy wrongly becomes a catalyst for judicial activism.  C.J. Roberts thus seems to be even more against philosophical discovery than J. Thomas.  Rather than counsel us to remember what previous philosophers have discovered, C.J. Roberts counsels the Court that lawyers are not suited for philosophical discovery at all.  It isn’t clear how strong he means this — if perhaps philosophers were serving on the Court, would then he perhaps be more comfortable?

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, seems to think philosophical discovery is a crucial activity for the Court to engage in.  He himself, a la J. Thomas, even briefly cites a philosopher in Alexis De Tocqueville.  So what is philosophical discovery, and did J. Kennedy get it right?  What has happened when we say that a philosopher (or a Justice) has discovered something?

I can’t tackle this question now, but I do have a few closing thoughts on what I saw in J. Kennedy’s opinion.  He wrote about universal human dignity and the suffering that is loneliness.  He wrote about marriage in the strongest possible terms, as the fulfillment of the human experience, that it “embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.”  And he wrote about homosexuality as an immutable identity.  Somewhere in the intersection of all these ideas is the philosophical discovery that J. Kennedy believes has been now revealed.  Interestingly, the right to gay marriage has been revealed not by any particular leading philosopher in this case.  It seems to have been made visible by the slow erosion of once dominant beliefs, prejudices and social concerns.   It thus appears that democracy deserves a lot of credit here, but we must also remember that democracy is not a philosopher, and can never be.  Democracy leaves us no philosophical treatise to study, scrutinize, believe in, or teach.  This doesn’t mean democracy is wrong, but it does mean that democracy probably just received a dubious promotion in popular esteem, and that opponents to democratic will (minorities) will consequently look even more prejudicial and paranoid and intolerable.

The only way to fix this problem isn’t by taking back the right to gay marriage and going back to handling the issue “democratically.”  What we do need, I think, now more than ever, is actually a philosopher who can stand in as our newest moral-political authority, to present us with the philosophical roadmap, the necessary arguments, so this issue can evolve from a contest of wills to a contest of ideas, where all philosophical discoveries–past, present, and future–belong.  Perhaps such a philosophical roadmap already exists “out there,” but unfortunately I didn’t see it in J. Kennedy’s opinion, nor did any of the Justices writing in dissent.  Do you know of a good candidate?

Why Some Still Support the Invasion of Iraq

Jeb Bush is making news today for saying that he still supports the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  He says this, even while acknowledging that the intelligence that justified the invasion was faulty.  Political scientists have studied this resistance among Republicans to call the invasion a mistake or to accept that there were no WMDs in Iraq.  I have watched CNN’s Wolf Blitzer many times interview Republicans and conservative think tank experts on this topic and repeatedly ask them to acknowledge that the invasion was a mistake, and they never do.

This drives a lot of people crazy because they don’t understand why these people cannot just admit that the invasion was a mistake.  And it isn’t just Democrats that are annoyed by this.  Plenty of conservatives are strongly critical of George W. Bush and the Iraq war, and today they are going after Jeb Bush for supporting his brother and the war he started.  A large portion of the Republican party has worked very hard to disassociate themselves from W. and Iraq, and Jeb is threatening to undo much of that.

The question is can reasonable people still disagree about the invasion, or are supporters simply biased (some might say blinded) by partisanship or ideology?  Here are some thoughts:

There are hard implications to calling the invasion a mistake and saying it shouldn’t have happened.  This wasn’t a failed green energy investment like Solyndra.  This was a major world event that changed the course of history.  So much is now a direct or indirect effect of that event, that to deny it is to deny the world we live in today.  If the world were all bad, then maybe that would be an easier thing to do.  Maybe we (the exclusive “we”, the righteous “we”) would need to start over with a clean slate, and somehow re-construct the world with more moral nations and networks.  But most agree that this isn’t the case, that the world isn’t all bad, and that it would be suicidal to start from scratch.  Rather, the world is fully engaged in a major ongoing conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and the good need our support.

Many Americans view the United States as leading the forces of good, and they want us to be victorious.  This conflict is incredibly messy and requires a certain kind of attitude to persevere.  Mistakes are made, but these mistakes must be turned into opportunities.  All weaknesses must be turned into strengths.  All defeats must be turned into victories.  From every evil event we must pivot our attention to the heroes that emerge in response.  If we surrender our belief that this is possible, then we will lose strength and resolve.  But it is of no use overly embracing shame to vainly restore innocence, to return to a mythical Eden which, if ever existed, we were all banished from long ago.

This is why the shifting justification for the war came so natural to so many.  The point was no longer that there were no WMD; the point was that an evil dictator had been removed from power, and democracy had been introduced, and with our help, democracy could take root and eventually stand on its own.  Without the invasion, this never would have happened.  So, we are left to choose — do we sacrifice our lives for Iraqi democracy, or do we wish that this Iraqi democracy never was?  It is obvious how psychologically different these two attitudes are from each other.  It is not easy to support a fight where you, your loved ones, your fellow countrymen (and women) are sacrificing life and limb.  The fight must be justified.  It must be noble.  It must be honorable.  It must be a contribution to the good of America, the good of Iraq, and the good of the world.

Is this a dangerous fact about political psychology — that at this level of national action, we can’t so easily sacrifice our own life and well-being for causes that are mired in regret, despair, and self-doubt?  Yes, probably.  And that’s why those who can easily state that the invasion was a mistake are right to say so and serve as crucial shapers of public opinion.  Yet at the same time, such people inherently devalue the specific type of honor and nobility that participants in this war and their supporters believed they were fighting for all along.  We need to find a balanced understanding where we can continue fighting and winning the fight against evil, both around the world and within our souls.  Right now, it often seems like we can’t advance on one front without retreating on the other.