A Philosopher's Blog

Cooperating with Trump

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2017

It has been claimed that Republicans intended, from day one, to obstruct President Obama in all things. This is supported by John Boehner’s remark about Obama’s agenda: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” However, the defining quote for the obstructionist agenda belongs to Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The Republican narrative, as might be imagined, tells a different tale. In the Republican version, Obama is the villain who refuses to compromise with the Republicans.

While the truth of the matter is important, the practical fact of the matter is that Obama and the Republicans often ended up in deadlocks. Obama’s go-to strategy was the use of executive orders—some of which ended up being challenged by the courts. Now that Trump is president, the question is whether the Democrats should adopt the Boehner-McConnell approach and try to kill or at least slow down everything Trump tries to achieve in the hopes of making him a one-term president.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should take this approach. One reason for this is purely pragmatic politics, devoid of any concern about moral values, that has as its goal the acquisition and retention of power. While the Republicans are generally more adept at this than the Democrats, the Democrats can avail themselves of the well-stocked Republican playbook and simply do to Trump what the Republicans did to Obama.

The obvious problem with the approach is that it is devoid of any concern about moral values and is thus very likely to be bad for America as a whole. If one accepts the Lockean view that the leaders of the state should act for the good of the people, then the power justification is out. But for those who regard power as the supreme good of politics, the obstructionist approach makes considerable sense—after all, the Republican strategy landed them the White House and Congress.

Another reason for this is revenge and payback:  Republicans obstructed Obama and Democrats should treat Trump the same way. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an obstruction for an obstruction. While this is certainly appealing in an Old Testament sort of way, this justification also runs afoul of the idea that the leaders are morally obligated to act for the good of the people and not engage in seeking revenge. For John Locke, using a political position to seek revenge would be an act of tyranny that should be resisted. As such, the revenge justification is certainly problematic.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should set aside their lust for power and their desire for revenge and cooperate with Trump. This does not mean that the Democrats must cooperate in all things; just that the Democrats should cooperate and resist in a principle way. As the above considerations should indicate, the cooperation and resistance should be based on what is regarded as good for the people. This is, of course, a rather vague notion but can be worked out in utilitarian terms in regards to specific issues (with due attention to concerns about the tyranny of the majority). This is not to say that the Democrats will always be right and Trump always wrong; but it is s statement of principle for how opposition and cooperation should operate.

This suggests an obvious counter-argument: Trump’s agenda is harmful to the general good and thus it must be obstructed and every effort must be made to make him a one-term president. While my general dislike of Trump inclines me to feel that this is true, I am obligated to be consistent with what I tell my students: truth is not felt, but must be established through reason. Unfortunately, reason seems to indicate that much of Trump’s agenda will not be good for Americans in general. But, this does not entail that everything in his agenda will be bad for America and his specific proposals should be given due and fair consideration.

To use a specific and oft-spoken-of example, Trump claimed that he wants to rebuild the aging and failing public infrastructure. While it is tempting to point out that Obama wanted to do the same thing and that Trump might be thinking of how he and his allies can personally profit from the massive flood of public money into private coffers, addressing the infrastructure woes would be generally good for America. As such, the Democrats should not follow the lead of the Republicans and simply obstruct his proposals. This is not to say that the Democrats should rubber stamp everything, but it is to say that they should not simply reject the proposals simply because they are coming from Trump.

As far as making Trump a one term president; I think Trump will see to that himself.

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Is Trump’s Presidency Legitimate?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2017

Representative John Lewis, a man who was nearly killed fighting for civil rights, has claimed that Trump is not a legitimate president. While some dismiss this as mere sour grapes, it is certainly an interesting claim and one worth given some consideration.

The easy and obvious legal answer is that Trump’s presidency is legitimate: despite taking a trouncing in the popular vote, Trump won the electoral college. As such, he is the legitimate president by the rules of the system. It does not matter that Trump him denounced the electoral college as “a disaster for democracy”, what matters is the rules of the game. Since the voters have given tacit acceptance of the system by participating and not changing it, the system is legitimate and thus Trump is the legitimate president from this legal standpoint. From a purely practical standpoint, this can be regarded as the only standpoint that matters. However, there are other notions of legitimacy that are distinct from the legal acquisition of power.

In a democratic system of government, one standard of legitimacy is that the majority of the citizens vote for the leader. This can, of course, be amended to a majority vote by the citizens who bother to vote—assuming that voters are not unjustly disenfranchised and that there is not significant voter fraud or election tampering. On this ground, Hillary Clinton is the legitimate president since she received the majority of the votes. This can be countered by arguing that the majority of the citizens, as noted above, accepted the existing electoral system and hence are committed to the results. This does create an interesting debate about whether having the consent of the majority justifies the acceptance of an electoral system that can elect a president who does not win a majority of the votes. As would be suspected, people tend to think this system is just fine when their candidate wins and complain when their candidate loses. But, this is not a principled view of the matter.

Another standard of legitimacy is that the election process is free of fraud and tampering. To the degree the integrity of the electoral system is in question, the legitimacy of the elected president is in doubt. Since the 1990s the Republican party has consistently claimed that voter fraud occurs and is such a threat that it must be countered by such measures as imposing voter ID requirements. With each election, the narrative grows.  What is most striking is that although Trump won the electoral college, he and his team have argued that the integrity of the election was significantly compromised. Famously, Trump tweeted that millions had voted illegally. While the mainstream media could find no evidence of this, Trump’s team has claimed that they have evidence to support Trump’s accusation.

While it seems sensible to dismiss Trump’s claims as the deranged rantings of a delicate man whose fragile ego was wounded by Hillary crushing him in the popular vote, the fact that he is now president would seem to require that his claims be taken seriously. Otherwise, it must be inferred that he is a pathological liar with no credibility who has slandered those running the election and American voters and is thus unworthy of the respect of the American people. Alternatively, his claim must be taken seriously: millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election. This entails that the election’s integrity was grossly violated and hence illegitimate. Thus, by Trump’s own claims about the election, he is not the legitimate president and the election would need to be redone with proper safeguards to keep those millions from voting illegally. So, Trump would seem to be in a dilemma: either he is lying about the election and thus unfit or he is telling the truth and is not a legitimately elected president. Either way undermines him.

It could be countered that while the Republicans allege voter fraud and that Trump claimed millions voted illegally, the election was legitimate because the fraud and illegal voting was all for Hillary and she lost. That is, the electoral system’s integrity has been violated but it did not matter because Trump won. On the one hand, this does have some appeal. To use an analogy, think of a Tour de France in which the officials allow bikers to get away with doping, but the winner is drug free. In that case, the race would be a mess, but the winner would still be legitimate—all the cheating was done by others and they won despite the cheating. On the other hand, there is the obvious concern that if such widespread fraud and illegal voting occurred, then it might well have resulted in Trump’s electoral college victory. Going back to the Tour de France analogy, if the winner claimed that the competition was doping but they were clean and still won, despite the testing system being broken, then there would be some serious doubts about their claim. After all, if the system is broken and they were competing against cheaters, then it is worth considering that their victory was the result of cheating. But, perhaps Trump has proof that all (or most) of the fraud and illegal voting was for Hillary. In this case, he should certainly have evidence showing how all this occurred and evidence sufficient to convict individual voters. As such, arrests and significant alterations to the election system should occur soon. Unless, of course, Trump and the Republicans are simply lying about voter fraud and millions of illegals voting. In which case, they need to stop using the specter of voter fraud to justify their attempts to restrict access to voting. They cannot have it both ways: either voter fraud is real and Trump is illegitimate because the system lacks integrity or the claim of significant voting fraud is a lie.

 

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Charter Schools I: Preliminaries & Monopolies

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on January 6, 2017

In November of 2016, president elect Trump selected Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education. While this appointment seems to have changed her mind about Common Core, DeVos has remained committed to expanding charter schools. Charter schools operate outside of the public-school system but are funded with public money. They can be privately owned and run as for-profit business. As might be suspected, they tend to be rather controversial.

Before discussing charter schools, I need to present the biasing factors in my background. Like most Americans, I attended public schools. Unlike some Americans, I got a very good public education that laid the foundation for my undergraduate and graduate education. Both of my parents were educators; my father taught math and computer science and my mother had a long career as a guidance counsellor. I ended up going to a private college and then to a public graduate school. This led to my current career as a philosophy professor at a state university. I belong to the United Faculty of Florida, the NEA and the AFT. As such, I am a union member. As might be suspected, my background inclines me to be suspicious of charter schools. As such, I will take special care to consider the matter fairly and objectively.

As with most politically charged debates, the battle over charter schools tends to be long on rhetoric and short on reasoned arguments. Devoted proponents of charter schools lament the ruin of public education, crusade for choice, and praise the profit motive as panacea for the woes of the academies. Energized enemies of charter schools regard them as plots against public good and profiteering at the expense of the children.

While there is some merit behind these rhetorical stances, charter schools should neither be accepted nor rejected based on mere rhetoric or ideological stances. As liberals and conservatives have both noted, there are serious problems in the American education system. Charter schools have been advanced as a serious proposal to address some of these problems and are worthy of objective consideration. I will begin with what can be called the monopoly argument in favor of charter schools.

Proponents of charter schools often assert that the state holds a monopoly on education and employ arguments by analogy to show why this is a bad thing. For example, the state monopoly on education might be compared to living in an area with only one internet service provider. This provider offers poor service, but residents are forced by law to pay for it and competition is forbidden. While this is probably better than not having any internet access at all, it is certainly a bad situation that could be improved by competition. If the analogy holds, then poor quality education could be improved by legalizing competition.

This analogy can also be used, obviously enough, to argue that people who do have children in school should not be forced to pay into the education system. This would be, to stick with the analogy, like making people who have no computers (including tablets and phones) pay for internet access they do not use. This is, however, another issue and I will return to the matter of charter schools.

While the analogy does have some appeal, the state does not have a monopoly on education. There are, obviously enough, private schools that operate without public money. These provide competition to public schools, thus showing that there is not a monopoly. By going through the appropriate procedures, anyone with the resources can create a private school. And anyone with the resources to afford a private school can attend. As such, there is already a competitive education industry in place that provides an alternative to public education. There is also the option of home schooling, which also breaks the alleged monopoly.

Supporters of charter schools can counter that there is a monopoly without charter schools. To be specific, without charter schools, public schools have a monopoly on public money. Charter schools, by definition, break this monopoly by allowing public funds to go to schools outside the state education system.

This can allow privately owned charter schools to enjoy what amounts to state subsidies, thus making it easier to start a privately-owned charter school than a privately funded private school. Those who are concerned about state subsidies might find this sort of thing problematic, perhaps because it seems to confer an unfair advantage over privately funded schools and funnels public money into private hands.

Supporters can counter these criticisms by turning them into virtues. Public money spent on charter schools is good exactly because it makes it easier to fund competing schools. Private schools without public funding need to operate in a free market—they must compete for customer money without the benefit of the state picking winners and losers. As such, there will not be very many privately funded schools.  Charter schools benefit from the largesse of the state, although they do need to attract enough students. But this is made easier by the fact that charter school education is subsidized by public money.

As such, charter schools would break the public-school system’s monopoly on public money, although there is not a monopoly on education (since privately funded schools exist). The question remains as to whether or not breaking the funding monopoly is a good thing or not, which leads to the subject of the next essay in this series, that of choice.

 

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White Nationalism I: The Family Argument

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 25, 2016

While more mainstream supporters of Trump insist he is not a racist, white nationalists and their ilk have rejoiced in his victory. Regardless of what Trump believes, his rhetoric has carved out a safe space for what has been dubbed the “alt-right.” While this term is both broad and, perhaps, misused, it does serve to bundle together various groups that are perceived as racist and even neo-Nazi. I will not endeavor to break down the fine distinctions between these various groups, but will focus on the white nationalists. As the name indicates, they have an ideological commitment to creating a nation consisting solely of whites.

Since Nazis and other hate groups have advocated the same goal, it seems reasonable to regard white nationalists as racists and as a group based on hate. Not surprisingly, they often claim they are not racists and are not a hate group. They even advance some arguments in support of these claims. In this essay, I will consider the family argument.

While specific presentations of the family argument take various forms, the gist of the reasoning is that it is natural for people to prefer the company of their family members and that it is right to give precedence to one’s family. In their family analogy, the white nationalists take whites to be a family. This, as they see it, warrants having a white nation or, failing that, giving precedence to whites. Some white nationalists extend the family argument to other races, arguing that each race should act in the same way. Ideally, each race would have its own nation. This helps explain the apparently inconsistent claims advanced about Jews by white nationalists: they want the Jews to leave America for the whites, but they support Israel becoming a pure Jewish state.

The family analogy gains much of its appeal from human psychology: as a matter of fact, humans do generally prefer and give precedence to their own family members over others. This approach is also commonly used in solving ethical problems, such as who to save and how to distribute resources. For example, if a mother is given the choice between saving a stranger or her daughter from drowning, the intuitively right choice is her daughter. While the family approach has considerable appeal, there are some obvious concerns. One is whether whites constitute a family. Another is the extent to which being family morally warrants preference and precedence.

In the biological sense, a human family is made up of humans who are closely genetically related to each other. This is something that can be objectively tested; such as with a paternity test. In this regard, family identity is a matter of the genetic similarity (and origin) of the members. There is also the matter of distinguishing the family members from outsiders—this is done by focusing on the differences between the family members and others.

To argue that whites are a biological family requires establishing that whites are genetically related to each other. This is easy enough to do; all humans are genetically related because they are humans. But, the white nationalist wants whites to be an exclusive family. One obvious problem with this, especially in the United States, is that most whites are closely related to non-whites. To use one well known example, Thomas Jefferson has many descendants and they thus constitute a family. However, many of them are supposed to descended from him and Sally Hemings—thus would presumably not be regarded as white by white nationalists. While one might quibble about whether Heming and Jefferson had children, it is well-established that the genetic background of most “white” Americans will not be “pure white.” There is also the fact that the genetic background of many “non-white” Americans will include white ancestors. This will mean that the “white family” will include people who the white nationalists would regard as non-white. For example, Dick Cheney and Barack Obama are related and are thus family. As such, the biological family analogy breaks down in terms of the white nationalists’ approach.

A possible counter to this is to focus on specific white genes and argue that these are what define being white. One obvious point of focus is skin color; white skin is apparently the result of a single letter DNA mutation in the 3.1 billion letters in the human genome. As such, white nationalists could rally around this one letter and use that to define what it is to be white. This would certainly seem like an absurd foundation for preference and precedence; but perhaps the absurd would suffice for the white nationalists.

While families are often defined biologically, there are also family members that are adopted and, of course, people marry into families they are (hopefully not) closely related to. As such, a family need not be genetically defined. This provides an alternative way to try to make whites into a family.

White nationalists could argue that the white family is not defined by white genes, but by a set of values or interests that constitute being white. That is, being white is a social construct analogous to a political party, religion, or club. While there is the obvious challenge of working out what would be the values and interests one must have to be part of the white club, this could in theory be worked out. After all, the white nationalists have set up their own little white club and they presumably have ways of deciding who gets to join. The obvious problem with this approach is that it does not seem to capture what the white nationalists want in terms of being white. After all, anyone could have those values and interests and thus be white. Also, there are many people who have white skin who do not share the interests or values of the white nationalists and would thus not be white on this approach.

The white nationalists could always go with the traditional approach of regarding as white anyone who looks white. Potential whites would presumably need to provide some proof that they do not have any non-whiteness in their background—there is, after all, a long history of people passing as whites in the United States. Since white nationalists tend to regard Jews as non-white, they would also need to sort that out in some way; after all, Jews can have very white skin. Presumably they can look to the Nazis for how to work this all out. There is also the concern about using technology to allow people to appear white, such as genetic modification. Presumably white nationalists would really need to worry about such things. After all, they would not want non-whites in their white paradise.

One obvious problem with this approach is that it is like accepting as family anyone who looks like you in some specified way. For example, embracing someone as a relative because they have a similar nose. This seems like a rather odd way to set a foundation for preference and precedence, but white nationalists presumably think in odd ways.

Given the above discussion, there seems to be no foundation for regarding whites as a family. As such, the white nationalist family analogy fails. As should be expected. I will close by saying that I am horrified by having to engage in arguments about white nationalism; such a morally abhorrent view should be recognized as such by anyone familiar with history and moral decency.

 

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Trump, Terror and Hope

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2016

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

After Trump’s victory, my friends who backed him rejoiced in their triumph over the liberal elite and look forward in the hope that Trump will do everything he said he would do. Many of my other friends look forward in terror at that same outcome. As one might imagine, Hitler analogies are the order of the day—both for those who love Trump and those who loath him. While my political science studies are years behind me, I thought it would be worthwhile to have a rational discussion about what Trump is likely to do within the limits of his powers. This assumes that he does not hand the office over to Pence and get to work on Trump TV when he finally finds out about what he’ll need to do as President.

One thing that will disappoint his supporters and give hope to his opponents is that politicians rarely keep all their promises. Trump also has quite a track record of failing to follow through on his promises and his ghost-written The Art of the Deal lays out how he regards hyperbole as a useful tactic. As such, his promises should be regarded with skepticism until there is evidence he is trying to keep them. If Trump plans to run in 2020 he will need to work on keeping his promises; but if plans on being a one term president, then this need not concern him very much. Then again, people voted for him once knowing what he is, so they might well do so again even if he delivers little or nothing.

Trump also faces the limits imposed by reality. He will not be able to, for example, get Mexico to pay for the wall. As another example, he will not be able to restore those lost manufacturing jobs. As such, reality will dash the hopes of his supporters in many ways. Assuming, of course, they believed him.

There are also the obvious legal limits on his power as set by the constitution and laws. His supporters will rejoice in the fact that since 9/11 the powers of the presidency have expanded dramatically. While Obama originally expressed concerns about this, he did little or nothing to rein in these powers. For example, he made extensive use of executive powers to conduct drone executions. As such, Trump will be stepping into a very powerful position and will be able to do a great deal using, for example, executive orders. While these powers are not unlimited, they are extensive.

Those who oppose Trump will certainly hope that the legal limits on the office, such as they are, will restrain Trump. They can also hope that the system of checks and balances will keep him in check. Trump’s rhetoric seems to indicate that he thinks he will be able to run the country like he runs his business, which is not the case. The legislative and judicial branches will resist incursions into their power; at least when doing so is in their interest.

There is, however, an obvious concern for those worried about Trump: his party controls the House and Senate. His party will also control the Supreme Court, assuming he appoints a conservative judge. As such, there will be no effective governmental opposition to Trump, as long as he does not interfere with the goals of his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate.

This is where matters get a bit complicated. On the one hand, the Republicans will presumably try to work together, since they are all in the same party and claim to accept the same ideology. On the other hand, Trump has said things that are contrary to traditional Republican ideology, such as his rejection of free trade and his view of American defense commitments to our allies. Trump and the Republican leadership also have had their conflicts during the primary and the campaign; these might flare up again after the honeymoon is over. So, America might see the Republican House or Senate opposing some of President Trump’s plans. This is, of course, not unprecedented in American history. A key question is, of course, how much the Republicans in congress will stick to their professed ideology and how much they will go along with Trump. There is even the possibility that some of what Trump wants to do will be opposed on the grounds of principle.

While Trump ran on the usual bullshit rhetoric of going to Washington to “blow things up” and “drain the swamp”, doing this would involve going hard against congress and the established political elites. As much as I would love to see Trump getting into a death match with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, I think we can expect Trump to settle into politics as usual. Even if he does get into it with congress, Trump has no real experience in politics and seems to lack even a basic understanding of how the system works. As such, Trump would presumably be at a huge disadvantage. Which could be a good thing for those who oppose him.

While predicting exactly what will happen is not possible, it seems reasonable to expect that the total Republican control will allow them to undo much of what Obama did. Trump can simply undo Obama’s executive orders on his own and Trump will certainly not use his veto to thwart congress to protect Obama’s legacy. So, expect Obamacare to be dismantled and expect changes to how immigration is handled.

The restoration of conservative control of the Supreme court will initially not be much of a change from before; although the advanced age of some of the judges means that Trump is likely to be able to make more appointments. Unlike Obama, he can expect the Senate to hold hearings and probably approve of his choices. That said, the Senate will probably not simply rubber stamp his choice—something that might frustrate him. However, as long the senate remains under Republican control he will have a far easier time getting judges that will rule as he wants them to rule into the court. This is, of course, what the evangelical voters hope for—a supreme court that will overturn Roe v Wade. This is also the nightmare of those who support reproductive rights.

If Trump can shape the court, he can use this court to expand his power and erode rights. Because he is thin skinned and engages in behavior that justly results in condemnation, he wants to loosen up the libel laws so he can sue people. Trump, despite being essentially a product of the media, professes to loath the news media. At least reporters who dare to criticize him. If he had the sort of supreme court he wants, we could see the First Amendment weakened significantly.

Trump has also made the promise of going up against the elites. While he certainly has a dislike of the elites that look down on him (some have described him as a peasant with lots of gold), he is one of the elites and engaging the systematic advantages of the elites would harm him. Trump does not seem like the sort to engage in an altruistic sacrifice, so this seems unlikely. There is also the fact that the elite excel at staying elite—so he would be hard pressed to defeat the elite should they in battle meet.

Trump is also limited by the people. While the president has great power, he is still just a primate in pants and needs everyone else to make things happen and go along with him. He also might need to be concerned about public opinion and this can put a check on his behavior. Or perhaps not—Trump did not seem overly worried about condemnation of his behavior during the campaign.

Citizens can, of course, oppose Trump in words and deeds. While the next presidential election is in four years, there will be other elections and people can vote for politicians who will resist Trump. Of course, if more people had voted in the actual election, this might not be something that would need doing now.  Those who back him should, of course, vote for those who will do his will.

As a rule, people tend to err significantly in their assessments of politicians—they tend to think they will do far more good or evil than these politicians deliver. For example, some hoped and others feared that Obama would radically change the country. His proponents had glorious dreams of a post-racial America with health care for all and his opponents had feverish dreams of a Muslim-socialist state taking away all their guns. Both proved to be in error: America got a centrist, competent president. In the case of Trump, there are fears and dreams that he will be an American Hitler. The reality is likely to relieve those having nightmares about and disappoint those dreaming of people in white hoods advising Trump in the White House (although the KKK is apparently planning a parade for Trump).

In closing, while I suspect that the Trump presidency will be a burning train wreck that will make America long for the golden years of Obama, it will not be as bad as some fear. That said, history shows that only fools do not keep a wary eye on those in power.

 

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After the Election

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2016

The systematic efforts to demoralize American voters and to create a toxic political environment have resulted in perhaps the most vitriolic election cycle in modern memory. While some people do like their candidate, much of the electorate seems to be motivated by their loathing of the opposing candidate. As such, most voters seem to be voting against Trump or Hillary rather than for them.

The demoralizing of the electorate has proven to be an effective but ultimately destructive strategy. On the “positive” side, demotivating voters through suppression tactics (such as voter ID laws and cutting back on early voting) and fostering an attitude that voting is ineffective has proven beneficial to certain candidates—they get elected. On the negative side, the foundation of democracy is being eroded as people lose faith in the democratic process. This disinvestment on the part of citizens contributes to the decay of American society and will no doubt to prove to be a significant factor in the decline and fall of the American empire.

The creation of a toxic political environment through such means as exploiting fears of race, class and religion has also proven to be beneficial to some in the short term. There have also been sustained attacks on key institutions, ranging from the government in general to the election process in particular. The political parties have enjoyed fevered victories through poisoning the political body. Trump provides an excellent example of this—his willingness to go beyond the moral limits of other Republicans (and his free media coverage) helped h7im grope his way towards the White House. These victories come at a price in the form of divisiveness and the fanning of the fires of hate. Institutions that are essential to the functioning of the nation have also been corroded and eroded, thus weakening the United States.

The battle between Hillary and Trump is the logical result of these approaches and one of them will be president. While there is always talk of reconciliation after elections, the last eight years have revealed that the Republican Party is quite comfortable with obstruction and the Democrats have not proven strong enough to remove the blockage in the pipes of government. While some have pointed to racism as a factor in the case of Obama, the Republicans seem to be even more intent on blocking and thwarting Hillary if she wins. John McCain, once known for being willing to work with Democrats, has already vowed to block anyone Hillary nominates to the Supreme Court. While this would yield short term political advantages to some Republicans, this approach is fundamentally damaging to the country. In addition to damaging peoples’ confidence in the institutions, keeping the court at eight judges will be problematic. This would only get worse as judges die. In theory, the senate could eliminate the court in this manner, which would be disastrous.

If Trump gets elected, the Republicans might do the same to him, depending on who he selects as his nominees. If the Democrats take the senate, they might decide to block Trump’s nominees and point at the Republicans when they are criticized. Naturally, a senate controlled by Democrats would most likely approve Hillary’s nominee. From the standpoint of restoring the court to its full membership, the election of Hillary and the success of the Democrats in the senatorial races are probably the best bets. Of course, conservatives might not be happy with her choice—at least in regards to social issues. However, Hillary is essentially a moderate classic Republican, so she would probably appoint a fairly moderate judge. Who would be perceived as a radical liberal by those on the right. Of course, there is more to the presidency than just appointing judges—there is also doing the business of the executive branch. This could also prove problematic.

Trump is already scheduled for court dates, so those will presumably interfere a bit with his presidency. While Hillary is not yet scheduled for any court appearances, the Republicans are already planning out years of investigations. In addition to wasting time and millions of dollars in public money, these investigations will (as intended) most likely greatly dampen the effectiveness of her presidency. After all, spending countless hours testifying will eat up her time and the investigation will damage her reputation more and weaken America’s standing in the world. After all, foreign leaders will realize that such a divided government will be weaker, less effective and not paying as much attention to the world. But, the Republicans will gain a short term political advantage at the cost of eroding America’s power and standing in the world—which is presumably totally worth it. Of course, Hillary could have elected to forgo running for the good of the country; but she is also very focused on her own advantage. The Democrats probably will not take the House, but if they do, then Hillary will have much smoother sailing. This might be good for the country. Or not.

While Republicans have not planned years of investigations into Trump (should he be elected), some have claimed that they intend to oppose him when he goes against the party ideology. Trump is likely to do just that and Democrats will certainly oppose him, so a Trump presidency will also almost certainly result in the continuation of the standoff between the presidency and Congress. But, perhaps the next president will be able to do some things.

Hillary has, of course, many detailed plans and policies and an established track record. As such, it is easy to predict what she will do and this is business as usual. While not great for the working people of America, business as usual is not the worst option. Continued growth and increased employment seem like good trends. She will also presumably keep the Obama social programs on track, which is not the worst thing that can happen.

Trump has no track record in politics, but he does have an awful record in business—presumably he will use his business skills in office. This would seem to be a bad thing. Trump speaks in vague generalities and untruths and often makes no sense, so it is difficult to say exactly what his policies will be. Presumably he will try for the wall, try to kick out illegals, and use his secret plan on what is left of ISIS. Or whatever—one cannot really say what he will do. However, given his complete lack of experience, his temperament, and the skill set he has displayed in his reality shows, it would be reasonable to predict that he would be a disaster as a president. But, perhaps he will do shockingly well. His supporters claim he will surround himself with good people—perhaps they can run the country for him and do a good job.

Regardless of who gets elected, the next four years could be really bad. So bad, in fact, that future historians might mark this election as a key point in the decline and fall of the American Empire. If so, it is also on us—democracy gives us the government we deserve.

 

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Rigged Election

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 21, 2016

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been asserting that the presidential election will be rigged. He seems to have three main assertions regarding the rigging. The first is that the election is being rigged by “the dishonest media” who support “crooked Hillary.” The second is that the polling places are rigged. The third is that there will be widespread voter fraud.

Despite Trump’s assertions about a rigged election, Trump’s vice presidential pick Mike Pence has tried to assure the public that he and Trump will honor the results. Other Republicans have been critical of Trump’s remarks about the election being rigged and there is concern that such remarks are damaging to the American democratic process. There is, of course, a certain irony in the Republican reaction to Trump. This is because Trump is using hyperbolic versions of established Republican tactics.

The idea that the media has a liberal bias which puts conservatives at a disadvantage in the polls dates back to at least the time of Nixon. However, more traditional Republicans have not gone as far as Trump in their attacks on the media. He is thus not breaking new ground, but going to new distances on that ground. Trump does, however, differ in that he seems to merge the alleged media bias in with the rigging of elections. These are, obviously enough, two distinct matters. While the media presumably influences people, this is different from rigging an election. Such rigging involves improper tampering with the actual voting process and not influencing voters.

It is also somewhat ironic that Trump is pre-blaming the media for his possible defeat, given that he is partially a creation of that same media. While estimates do vary, it is believed that Trump received $2-3 billion in free media coverage. While it could be argued that Trump would have become the Republican nominee without this media support, it certainly seems reasonable to consider this a significant factor in his success. This past largesse from the media does not, of course, prove that the media is not biased against him now.

The question of whether the media is biased against Trump is somewhat problematic. On the one hand, most people in the media (liberal and conservative) seem to dislike Trump considerably. This is certainly worth taking into account when critically assessing media coverage of Trump. On the other hand, the majority of the negative coverage is negative because of what Trump does and says and not because the media is twisting the stories. This matter can be settled with considerable effort by having objective experts review all the news coverage of Trump for factual accuracy and the presence of negative bias against him. However, if the results of such an analysis revealed that the coverage was generally accurate, Trump would presumably dismiss the expert analysis as biased and the experts as stupid losers.

Trump’s claim that the electoral process itself will be rigged is one that is quite unusual—Democrats and Republicans generally do not question the integrity of the general process. While rare and isolated incidents are not unknown, the integrity of the system itself seems solid. As others have claimed, this unwarranted attack is potentially dangerous to the American political process and could have harmful consequences. Trump’s use of this tactic would thus seem to indicate either his ignorance or his lack of ethics. Or possibly both.

While Trump’s broad attack on the presidential election is unfounded, his attack does borrow some credibility from legitimate concerns. One is the revelation that the Democratic Party seemed to be stacking the deck for Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. This does raise concerns about the fairness of the party—but it would be something of a leap to take this as evidence that the general election will be rigged against Trump.

Another concern arises from all the various tricks, such as gerrymandering, that are used to modify local elections in favor of certain candidates. While methods are a problem, these tactics would generally not work on a national level. For example, gerrymandering is out. Also, rigging the election in enough states to cost Trump the election would be rather difficult and all but impossible to hide. This is not to say that there are not people who would like to rig it against Trump (or Hillary), just that there are massive logistic and secrecy challenges that they could almost certainly not overcome. In light of this, it seems certain that the election process itself is not rigged against Trump. This is something Paul Ryan and I agree on.

While Republicans are broadly opposing Trump’s assertion about a rigged election, his assertion about voter fraud is a page from the established Republican playbook. While Pence has not backed Trump on the idea that the election is rigged, Pence does support voter ID laws. These ID laws and other methods (such as reducing early voting opportunities) are defended by arguing that voter fraud presents a threat to the integrity of elections. While it is true that voter fraud is not non-existent, all the evidence shows that it almost never occurs. Given that the fraud is almost entirely mythical and the methods proposed by Republicans to combat it disproportionally impact groups more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans, the logical inference is that these methods are aimed at “rigging” elections in favor of Republicans. As such, Trump is right to be worried that there is something going on aimed at unfairly influencing the election. Ironically, these attempts would seem to be in his favor and not to his disadvantage.

Trump has thus created yet another problem for Republicans. The traditional Republicans generally do not want voters to doubt the legitimacy of elections, but they do want voters to believe that voter fraud exists and must be countered by the means they propose. However, to the degree they succeed in raising fears about voter fraud, they serve to undermine confidence in elections and thus they feed Trump. Trump’s gift to the Republicans has been connecting their notion of voter fraud with his notion that the election will be rigged. This is not a gift they want.

To combat this alleged fraud, Trump has urged his followers to go to polling stations to keep an eye out for it. While voters do have the right to a fair election process, Trump seems to be implying that his followers should engage in voter intimidation—a tactic often used against minority voters in the past. Trump, of course, does not directly say this and his wording, as it so often does, allows him to deny that he is directly urging his followers to do such a thing—even though the message seems to have been received by some.

In addition to being illegal, such intimidation is fundamentally immoral in a democracy. It would also be a form of election rigging, something Trump professes to hate. At least when the rigging is supposed to be against him.

 

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Trump & Evangelicals

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 17, 2016

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

On the face of it, Trump’s behavior and the values he espouses seem inconsistent with the professed core values of Christianity. These values include a condemnation of adultery and lying as well as injunctions to love neighbors and care for refugees. Trump was, however, born again behind the podium of the candidacy, professing a sudden acceptance of Christian values and a sincere opposition to abortion. This move initially won over many evangelicals.

While American evangelicals are often cast as a monolithic group, there is actually considerable diversity among them. This has been illustrated quite vividly by the responses to Donald Trump within the evangelical camp. While some evangelical leaders condemned Trump when he was but one of many Republican candidates, Trump initially enjoyed considerable support from the evangelical membership. In light of the infamous tape from 2005, Trump’s support among some evangelicals has eroded. As would be expected, Trump’s support among evangelical women has eroded considerably. He has also been strongly condemned by Christianity Today, which will presumably have some negative impact on his support.  However, Trump still enjoys the support of many white evangelicals and some of the leadership. While this matter raises various religious concerns, many of these overlap into philosophy and are worth discussing.

One rather interesting moral problem is how those who support Trump reconcile his seemingly utter inconsistency with Christian values with their support. Their solution is drawn from Christianity itself, specifically Christian forgiveness. Since I also accept the moral value of forgiving people and the strength of character this can sometimes require, I can certainly accept that evangelicals should forgive Trump for his transgressions. However, using this forgiveness to justify continued support is problematic.

Forgiving Trump for past misdeeds is one thing, taking this forgiveness to somehow be relevant to his fitness for the presidency is quite another matter. To use an analogy, I might forgive someone who misused my trust and did considerable harm to me, but I would not thus take my forgiveness to show that they would now be worthy of a position of trust.

It could be countered that Trump is otherwise an exemplary candidate, aside from some past flaws. To use an analogy, if someone misused my trust years ago and afterwards redeemed themselves into a virtuous person, then it would make sense to forgive the person and trust them now. The easy and obvious reply is that Trump does not seem morally redeemed nor does he appear to even be able to see minimal competency for the presidency from where he is.

Those that forgive Trump on the grounds that people should be forgiven for their misdeeds are also morally obligated to extend this forgiveness to Hillary Clinton (and Bill Clinton). As such, those who forgive Trump (and thus do not hold his misdeeds as disqualifying him) must extend the same consideration to Hillary, thus putting the candidates on equal footing morally. That is, forgiven for all their misdeeds.

It could be objected that Trump has professed a new found faith and is thus entitled to the forgiveness that Hillary is not. However, Hillary has a well-established record of faith, although she is rather private about this. While some might doubt her faith and accuse her of hypocrisy in contrast to Trump’s alleged sincerity, this would presumably be yet another sin that must be forgiven.

Assuming that such consistent forgiveness would put Trump and Hillary on equal moral footing, the decision between them would seem to come down to a difference in policy and competence. After all, relentless forgiveness would seem to take moral character out of the equation (which is certainly not something I agree with).

In terms of competence, there is objectively no contest. If I were to claim that I am competent to play professional football on the grounds of my running achievements, I would be no more absurd than Trump claiming that his business achievements qualify him to be president. In contrast, Hillary is an established professional. As such, what is left is policy.

While Trump does not do policy in the traditional way of having fully developed plans, he does say things he wants to do, such as building a wall, banning Muslims, keep out refugees, and put Hillary in jail. While I am not an expert on theology, I do not think that Jesus would do these things. However, born-again Trump has also expressed opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

While some religious leaders, such as Pope Francis, have taken efforts to broaden Christian concern beyond same-sex marriage, bathrooms and abortion, these matters tend to dominate public discussions involving religion in the United States. Abortion does, however, seem to be the most important.

Since there is a biblical injunction against killing (although there are numerous exceptions), it is certainly reasonable for people to oppose abortion on religious grounds. It is thus also rational for people to oppose capital punishment and war on religious grounds (something that Pope Francis does). There is also a lot of other stuff in the bible; but people tend to be exceptionally selective when it comes to what they focus on—and many focus on abortion as their defining issue.

Born-again Trump claims he opposes abortion and some evangelicals hope that when he is president he will appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. To achieve this goal, some evangelicals are willing to ignore other Christian values and support Trump. While some might suspect that they would vote for Satan himself if he promised to appoint justices opposed to abortion, I certainly hope that this is not the case.

Not being an evangelical, I am looking at this matter from the outside; but I would think that violating so many other core values in the hope that Trump might appoint justices that might be able to overturn Roe v. Wade would be morally unacceptable. And this is not even considering what a Trump presidency would be like morally beyond the single issue of abortion. After all, he has expressed a desire to engage in torture and to commit war crimes by taking out the families of suspected terrorists. Trump also claims that he never said this. Trump is, of course, unrelenting in saying that he did not say what he has been recorded saying. Though I am not a professor of religion, I am reasonable sure that lying might be against something in the bible.

While I understand that for some the issue of abortion is of great importance, it is not the only issue of importance. It is certainly not worth the moral equivalent of a deal with the devil in the vain hope that Trump will be able to have Roe v. Wade repealed. As such, I certainly agree with the evangelicals who refuse to support Trump and condemn his misdeeds.

 

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Trump & Abortion

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 14, 2016

The release of the 2005 tape of Trump apparently bragging about sexually assaulting women proved to be the final straw for some Republicans, most especially women Republicans. While it might seem inconceivable that Trump would have any female supporters left outside of his family, he has a few left. Some defend him by saying that they have heard men say worse. This not so much defends Trump as shows that there are other awful men out there—something that is obviously the case. This is analogous to defending a thief by pointing out that there are people who steal more than that thief does. This is hardly a good defense.

Outside of his family, one of Trump’s strongest female supporters is the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, Marjorie Dannenfelser. She has penned an essay in support of Trump based on the claim that he will be a staunch supporter of the pro-life cause. She did, however, condemn Trump’s words in the tape during an interview with NPR in October, 2016. Backing Trump is a change of position for the Susan B. Anthony List. On January 26, 2016 the organization condemned Trump as unacceptable on grounds that seem quite reasonable given the group’s values. Specifically, concerns were expressed about his lack of commitment to the goals of the pro-life movement as they see it (overturning Roe v. Wade and defunding Planned Parenthood). Trump was also condemned for his treatment of women.

It is certainly tempting to dismiss Dannenfelser’s current view of Trump on the grounds that she held the opposite view in the recent past. However, this would be to commit the tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy occurs when it is inferred that what a person claims now is false because it is inconsistent with what they said in the past. While two inconsistent claims cannot both be true at the same time, their inconsistency does not show which claim is false (and both could be false). In the case at hand, the past claim was that Trump could not be counted on to support the pro-life cause and the current claim is that Trump can be counted on to do so. While both cannot be true at the same time, there still remains the question of which claim is true now.

As noted above, Dannenfelser has argued that Trump can be trusted to support the pro-life cause and will, if elected, act in ways that the Susan B. Anthony List would approve, such as defunding Planned Parenthood and appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. From a logical standpoint, the question is whether there is adequate evidence to believe that the Trump who was condemned on January 26, 2016 has changed substantially on policy so that he is, in fact, the Trump that she claims he is today. Alternatively, it could be contended that the SBA List was wrong about Trump then and is right about him now.

Since Trump has never held any office, there is no record of actual public policy actions in his past regarding abortion or anything else. As such, the only evidence that he means what he says now is that he is saying it and claims he means what he says. Since candidates routinely say what they believe will get them elected, there is an obvious credibility concern in play here. It is, of course, possible that Trump’s views changed since January—people do change their minds. But, there seems to be a dearth of evidence regarding his commitment to the pro-life cause and willingness to act upon his claims. This is especially worth considering in the face of past promises by politicians on these maters.

Dannenfelser and others who are dedicated to the pro-life cause can also make an argument in favor of Trump by contrasting him with Hillary Clinton. Clinton does have an established record as being pro-choice and it is almost certain that anyone she would appoint to the Supreme Court would uphold Roe v. Wade. She is also favorably inclined towards Planned Parenthood. Since Trump and Hillary are the only viable options, and Hillary is clearly pro-choice, then Trump would seem to be the only viable choice for someone choosing between the two on the basis of the abortion issue. As such, Dannenfelser’s backing of Trump makes sense in the context of the issue of abortion.

While Trump has claimed he supports the anti-abortion cause, the SBA List also condemned Trump on the grounds that he treats women poorly. Dannenfelser did condemn what Trump said in the 2005 tape, but gave reasons as to why anti-abortion people should back Trump over Hillary. Dannenfelser accepts that Trump has moral problems in regards to how he treats women. She counters this by contending that Bill Clinton’s past misdeeds and Hillary Clinton’s role in criticism the women involved shows that Hillary Clinton also has moral problems in regards to how she treats women. Because of this alleged moral equivalence in regards to their treatment of women, this factor cannot be used to pick between them. As such, other factors must be used to justify picking one over the other. For Dannenfelser, the decisive issue is that of abortion and, as noted above, she claims that Trump’s expressed views match her own. Thus, Trump is the rational choice for her.

Dannenfelser is right in terms of her method: if two candidates are equivalent in regards to one factor, then that factor cannot warrant picking one over the other. To use an analogy, if a person is picking between two SUVs and they have the same poor gas mileage, then that factor would provide no rational basis for picking one SUV over the other. The decision would need to be based on other factors, such as safety or features.

There is, however, the question of whether or not Trump and Hillary are morally equivalent in regards to their treatment of women. On the face of it, Hillary seems to have a far better record than Trump—even if she did attack some of the women involved with Bill, her behavior does not seem to be as bad as Trump’s. There is also the fact that Hillary seems to be a fairly consistent supporter of women in regards to a broad array of issues and in regards to policy. Trump, of course, has no public policy track record—all that can be presented as evidence is what he has said and what he has done as a person and a businessman. If Hillary is not morally as awful as Trump, then this would provide grounds for picking Hillary over Trump on the matter of the treatment of women.

Even if it is accepted that Hillary is not as morally awful as Trump, then this need not be decisive. This is because other factors can obviously be of equal or greater concern. As such, if someone regards a candidate’s expressed position on abortion as being the determining factor, then it would still be rational for her to vote for him even if she regarded Trump as morally worse than Hillary. This would require having faith in Trump’s commitment to the anti-abortion cause. Since abortion is a moral issue, there is a certain irony in putting trust in the moral commitment of a person who is regarded as morally awful even by many of his supporters. That said, Trump has (like so many politicians before him) claimed that he backs the anti-abortion cause and this provides those who regard abortion as the decisive issue with rational grounds for picking one candidate over the other.

Trump & Misogyny

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2016

Watching Trump is rather like an observing a submarine test: you wonder how low it can sink. Like an amazing sub, Trump keeps reaching new depths. An old recording of Trump was recently released which features the Republican candidate saying rather awful things. This has cost him the endorsement of some Republicans, but he still seems to be incredibly resistant to damage: he had managed to spew forth a stream of awful things such that any one of which would have been a career ending injury for almost anyone else.

While there have been some calls for Trump to leave the race, Trump has so far decided that he is staying in. As should be expected, Trump has presented a reply to the situation that includes his usual tactics.  While most would not consider Trump philosophical, he does say things that are certainly interesting to discus in this context.

Trump begins his response by pointing out that the recording is from 2005 and he asserts that he has changed since then. As such, he should not be criticized now for what he did then. This defense potentially has merit: if he has reformed, then while the recording shows that Trump was awful, that was then and this is now. From a moral standpoint, the main concern is whether or not Trump is still the same sort of person he was in 2005. Interestingly, Trump’s initial defense did not include claims that his remarks were out of character; presumably he accepts that this behavior was in accord with his character in 2005.

While there are no known recent remarks about women by Trump that exactly match his 2005 remarks, he does not seem to have reformed in any morally meaningful way. He casually and routinely engages in misogyny and sexism and this gives lie to his defense. As such, the 2005 remarks do reflect both who he was and who he is. If Trump had shown signs of moral growth, then this defense could have merit—there are certainly cases of people who redeem themselves and become better. Unfortunately, there seems to be no evidence of this in Trump’s case.

Trump also endeavored to use a red herring (a rhetorical device in which someone attempts to divert attention from the original issue) to switch attention from his remarks. Rather, he hoped to get people to ignore them and focus instead on his assertions that “We are losing our jobs, we are less safe than we were eight years ago and Washington is totally broken.”

It could be countered that this is not a red herring because the character of a president does not matter in the face of such alleged problems. This approach does have potential merit and will be addressed in the context of Bill Clinton, who seems to have been used in another Trump red herring.

In his response, Trump also asserted that “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course.” This could also be regarded as a red herring—the matter of whether Bill has said worse things or not is a different issue from the matter of Trump’s remarks. Even if Bill has said worse things, this proves nothing about Trump’s remarks.

As mentioned before, perhaps Trump’s defenders could make the case that Bill Clinton was an excellent president despite the things he allegedly said. Given that many successful leaders have had awful moralities in regards to their views of women, a case could be made here arguing that a leader who will do the job well should not be assessed based on such alleged failings. Put crudely, it does not matter what the leader wants to grab, because “it’s the economy, stupid.” While this does have some appeal, Bill’s behavior did have damaging consequences for him and the country, so there is clearly a downside to this quality in a leader. There is also the moral question of whether or not the tradeoff would be worth it, especially if a good leader could be found who was not a misogynist.

If Bill were running against Trump, then showing that Bill is just as bad would be a relevant response. This is because if Trump and Bill were equally awful in this regard, then Trump’s awfulness would not disadvantage him relative to Bill—at least under a rational assessment. To use an analogy, if a HP laptop and an Asus laptop had equally short battery life, then battery life would not serve as a reason to pick one over the other. But, of course, Trump is not running against Bill. He is running against Hillary. As such, it is no surprise that he also attacked Hillary by saying, “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.”

While attacking Hillary can also be regarded as a red herring in that it proves nothing about the matter involving Trump, it is certainly relevant in assessing the two candidates against each other. Trump is, in effect, trying to establish that Hillary is just as bad (or worse) than he is in regards to treatment of women. Trump does have some ammunition here—he can point to Hillary’s alleged role in the handling of the “bimbo eruptions” that plagued Bill in the 1990s.

While there certainly seem to be some legitimate concerns about Hillary’s behavior, she can point to an otherwise solid record on women’s issue. Even if the claims about her misdeeds are true, she can certainly make a much stronger case than Trump that she has changed since the 1990s. After all, the recording of Trump is more recent than the 1990s and Trump relentlessly affirms his misogyny, thus showing that he has not changed significantly. As such, while Hillary can, perhaps, be justly criticized for her actions in the 1990s, it would be a false equivalence to say that she is as bad as Trump in this regard.

Some of Trump’s defenders have asserted that Trump did not say anything that other men do not regularly say. That is, what Trump did was not a problem because this sort of thing is a common practice. The easy reply to this defense is that an appeal to common practice is a fallacy: even if something is commonly done, it does not follow from this that it is good, justified or right. All that follows from something being commonly done is that it is, well, commonly done.

It could also be argued that it is hypocritical of men to criticize Trump because men have, no doubt, said or thought things equally as bad. While it is surely true that everyone has said or thought something awful, these tend to be anomalies for most men. Everyone has their awful moments and this should be taken into account when judging a person. If Trump had but this one blight on an otherwise decent character, then it would be reasonable to judge him by his consistent character rather than an inconsistent remark. However, these remarks are not an aberration for Trump—they are utterly consistent with his character.

 

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