The Week

April 1-8, 2017

Finding Hope in Trump’s Syrian Gesture       

Ever since Donald Trump became president (and no, it’s still not possible to write that phrase without a spasm of incredulity), gallows humor has been, for some of us, the only resort.  It’s a state of mind in which you find yourself assuming that, well, it’s been a good run, and it’s only a matter of time before this impulsive, insecure, inexperienced boor we’ve elected goes off half-cocked and ignites a major conflict with one or more nations entirely able to do us serious harm, and they and we proceed down the dark road that ends in a nuclear conflagration (which Trump, in his arrogant naïveté, has already identified as a plausible military option for a Commander-in-Chief).  But hey, we had almost 70 years of relative sanity in our in our use of military force – you can’t expect that to go on forever.

So when the news broke that Trump, in a complete reversal of his isolationist views of the world in general and of the Syrian conflict in particular, had ordered a missile strike on an air base in Syria in response to another of Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on his own population, one could be forgiven for thinking here we go, that this could be the first step down that short, dark road, the one every American president since Truman has found a way to avoid.  Putin sends planes in response to our missiles, our planes engage theirs, planes go down, and we’re in it, suddenly and irrevocably at war with no plan for how it ends.

Or, cooler heads prevail and everyone –even, secretly, the Russians – pats Trump on the back for a “proportional” response to a heinous act (though one of many that we’ve somehow managed to ignore over the years), and we all go back to the Sunday crossword, only mildly surprised that a guy who credits instinct over expertise would see pictures of dying children on TV (an almost daily occurrence, should he care to notice) and decide to launch some missiles.

But what does this tell us about Trump?  If you ignore the strategic dubiousness of Trump’s missile gesture, there’s the hopeful thought that a lot of us, on both sides of the political spectrum, clung to when the news sunk in that Trump would be our president: that his assuming the office might turn this inarticulate egomaniac into a more thoughtful, conventionally “presidential” person, one capable of ignoring his own past rhetoric and unbound by rigid ideology.  Even if, as seems likely, Trump’s missile gesture is a complete one-off, with no strategic thinking behind it other than Trump’s welcome but utterly ordinary loathing of evil done to children, the Syrian strike evidences a willingness to offend his isolationist base and ignore some of his closest political advisors that allows us to imagine that the office, little by little, might be working its transformational magic.

Who knows whether, down the road, this same President might think the better of an immigration policy that seeks to deny refuge to children like the ones he saw dying on TV.

The Final Politicization of the Supreme Court

In the long history of the politicization of the Supreme Court, previously examined in these pages, the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch must be seen as another watershed event.  It’s not that Gorsuch isn’t an entirely plausible nominee with a professionally –if not politically – impeccable resume; viewed in isolation, the effort on the part of Senate Democrats to prevent his confirmation by filibuster looks like pure obstructionism. But in light of the Republicans’ refusal to even hold hearings for Merrick Garland, a person of equally august –but more centrist– credentials who had the historical misfortune to be nominated by Barack Obama in an election year, the Democrats’ unsuccessful obstruction of Gorsuch looks like an exercise in parliamentary decorum.

The important point here is that, with the Republicans’ invocation of the rather overdramatically and uninformatively named “nuclear option,” the threshold for confirmation by the Senate of Supreme Court nominees of either party has, presumably forevermore, been lowered from 60 votes to a bare majority of 51, thus ensuring that whichever party has a bare majority of Senators is more than likely to determine the composition of the Court along partisan lines.

Even more importantly, this entire scenario underscores the degree to which we’ve allowed the Supreme Court to be degraded from its intended role as the ultimate source of dispassionate, decidedly apolitical judgment on important legal issues, to just another venue for the expression of our increasingly balkanized ideologies.  I say we’ve “allowed” this to occur, because we as citizens have sat by and watched it happen. Republican Senators and Donald Trump alike suffered no popular backlash from their openly-avowed plan to “delay, delay, delay” any consideration of Garland’s nomination for no other reason than that they hoped against hope that Trump would win and install someone who was more likely to carry out their ideological agenda from the bench.  Likewise, the implementation of the nuclear option to ensure Gorsuch’s confirmation was met with a vast popular shrug (preceded by a giant yawn at such dusty parliamentary minutiae as “cloture”).

But it’s a sad day for the Court. Gorsuch will take his seat and no doubt perform with slightly less slavish adherence to the politics of his supporters than they might wish; fine judges have a way of doing their damnedest to expunge their personal views from their opinions, and I think Gorsuch is a fine judge.

But what we’ve in effect told the Justices of the Supreme Court –every last one of them – is that we the people don’t care about all those lofty principles of jurisprudence that every lawyer learns in law school and some extraordinary few get to try to apply from the bench of the highest court in our land.  We don’t care about any of that.  We just want them to be vessels of ideology, scummy politicians like the yokels we elected, who put them there.

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