Litmus Test: An Essay About Freedoms & Rights Under Trump

President Donald Trump face on Constitution and American flag
Photo: Brot Mandel, Mike Flippo/123RF

When Donald Trump became president, there were those who said, and I was one of them, that as time went by, we the American people could lose our freedoms and watch our government drift into dictatorship. I think with two years gone, it’s time to have a look at how things are going.

Here goes.

1. Is there the right of free expression of opinion and of opposition and criticism of the government of the day?

ANSWER: Yes. There have been threats by Trump to tighten the ropes in this regard, both to the media and the judiciary, but so far it’s all been talk. This freedom remains unshaken. On the other hand, what we depend on to form our opinions have gotten very muddied. So many lies are presented as truth, and the man who is supposed to help us sort it all out is the biggest whopper-teller of them all. This is having an insidious effect and, if it continues on, it could lead us to bring our guard down.

2. Have the people the right to vote out a government of which they disapprove, and are constitutional means provided to do so?

ANSWER: Yes. There has been tampering with it, but no one in our judicial system tolerates it if it comes out into the open. It is one of our basic freedoms.

3. Are the courts of justice free from violence by the executive and from threats of mob violence, and free of all association with particular political parties?

ANSWER: Yes. Political parties in power have the right to choose who becomes a judge, and judges can be conservative or liberal, but they do not operate at the behest of any individual or political party. It is true that during the last administration, conservatives in Congress were able to manipulate levers to prevent a liberal judge from being nominated to the Supreme Court. Yet Brett Kavanaugh, in his first outing, sided with the liberals.

4. Is there a fair share for poor as well as for rich, for private persons as well as government officials?

ANSWER: Yes and no. Government officials who try to enrich themselves are often brought down and punished, and the same thing can be said of the rich in the private sector. On the other hand, the poor are not getting their fair share, and the gap between the poor and the rich, already wide, is widening further. It long ago reached the stage where one person working cannot alone provide for his or her family without help. Wages being what they are, today it takes two.

5. Is an ordinary working person who is striving to bring up a family free from the fear that some grim police organization under the control of a single party will tap him on the shoulder and pack him off to jail without a fair trial?

ANSWER: Yes and no. There is no secret police. But such guarantees are no longer assumed for those who snuck into this country without government approval. And ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), if allowed to spin out of control, could expand and cross a line. Furthermore, bigoted threats and behavior are not being condemned by our president right away. It takes a push.

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Thus, I think the basic freedoms that define America, in spite of the behavior of a particular person who has from time to time threatened them, is still holding up. It’s two years down and two to go.

This is not to say that there are not great troubles in this land other than our basic freedoms.

Don’t call them freedoms, though, call them “rights.” The first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. They are supposed to guide us. They give us the right to freedom of speech, assembly, worship and petition. They give us the rights to bear arms in order to maintain a well-regulated militia, a right to due process of law and a right to be free from self-incrimination and double jeopardy.

Yet fights have arisen about these “rights.” Americans do not agree whether some should be left as is or modified. Worse, others seek to create new “rights,” particularly in the area of whatever it is that they want at the time. It could be anything.

No, there is no right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, or, as recently has been stated, to not have your neighbor build a house that blocks your view. It’s not a right. There is no “right” to be free from being bullied, or a “right” that the disabled have for a particular parking space. Nor is there a “right” to not have anything happen to you that upsets you. Things like this may be good things to pass as laws, but they are not rights. Shooting a person for being on your property without permission is not a “right.” A foreign-born person does not have a “right” to come to America by sneaking in. One of the most controversial rights being fought over is whether the right of a fetus to be born is equal to the right of a woman to choose to have that not happen.

I leave it up to you to decide if that’s a right. And maybe over there, you, too.

* * *

Donald Trump, in high drama, has changed things, yes, but in my opinion he has not hit on our bedrock freedoms, at least not yet. It will not be over, however, until the fat lady (or to be politically correct, the weight-challenged lady) sings.

He may soon face an alarming choice, though. As a sitting president, he is immune from criminal charges, but when he leaves office, he could be indicted for things he did before.

Trump comes from a world where money changes hands freely and sometimes illegally. It’s a world of offshore bank accounts, money laundering, tax avoidance, investments where prices asked are lower than they should be and you buy the bargain and then sell high for the profit. Look at Mar-a-Lago. An elaborate palace owned by a fading, rich, old lady, it was put on the market for a song, and lucky Mr. Trump noticed it before anyone else and pounced.

People in this Wild West world often get others to take the cash crunch if things go poorly. Trump did that with Trump University, as we all know, until forced, in the end, to pay off the poor schlubs who he screwed. Surely, being in such a business world is why Trump won’t reveal his tax returns. But why did he ever run for president in the first place? No one from this world has ever done this. Hubris?

There’s no moral compass in high finance, except loyalty, as in keeping your word to the other foxes in the hen house. It’s not especially good training for being president. Indeed, as we have recently seen, those around the President are now going to jail for having done the illegal stuff others in the business do.

When he gets out of office, he could be next.

If my thinking is correct, Trump could be tempted into rousing the citizenry to help him declare himself President-for-Life. It would avoid these consequences. Just stay President until he dies.

I say, if we do see him considering this as he approaches term limits, we should, ahead of time, provide him assurance of a pardon if, after he retires, he’s indicted and convicted. Thank you for your service, Mr. President. It’s been wonderful having you. It’s the ultimate courtesy we can offer to save democracy. Ford did it for Nixon. We will do it for you. Not even a close call.

* * *

This has been an essay only about democracy. It is not intended to consider Trump’s efforts with the economy, foreign policy, immigration, global warming and the other stuff. That’s for another time.

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