Posted by: ericgrimsrud | July 21, 2018

Arresting our skid towards political and planetary degradation

On our first 4th of July, Benjamin Franklin is said to have been asked by a citizen of Philadelphia, “Mr. Franklin, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy? – to which he responded “it will be a republic, if you can keep it”.

First, we should remind ourselves that the definition of a republic is “a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives”.  And if the Americans of that era did not understand what Franklin meant by his “if you can keep it” remark, anyone who has lived during the last century should.  By not sufficiently heeding Franklin’s warning, it is now clear that we have lost a lot of our respect for and confidence in our republic and, indeed, are in danger of not “keeping it”.

This lack of confidence in our republic today is regularly displayed by the frequent observation that our political system is not doing a good job of managing our country – followed by a litany of reasons for this. Most prominent among those reasons is the extreme level of polarization within our two-party system and the gridlock that has resulted.  If our differences are not sufficiently plentiful for some, they make up new ones.  An example of this is now being displayed on our football fields where one of America’s most revered pastimes used to be played out in relative harmony, void of political influences.  As our imagined as well as real problems grow, our democratic system becomes easier to undermine by those who prefer to change it to some sort of autocracy in which a powerful subset of citizens call the shots. In this way the democratic Weimar Republic of Germany was brought down in 1933 by that era’s greatest autocrat. If we lose confidence in our democratic system, our American republic could also be replaced by some version of Nazism. Therefore, we should all know by now what Franklin meant by his admonition, “if we can keep it”. 

To understand our present government, it is essential to note how and why it changed in recent decades. Contrary to the suggestions of some, major changes did not just instantly occur with the election of Donald Trump – whose lack of respect for and knowledge of our country’s history is, indeed, unique among previous American presidents. Trump had a great deal of help from at least two other recent Republican Presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Each of these men did much to undermine time-honored American principles of representative democracy and thereby paved the way for presidential candidate Trump.

Richard Nixon began his trip to infamy in 1968 by undermining the efforts of our sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, to end the war in Vietnam. Nixon’s success in this treasonous act, contributed to his victory in the presidential election later that year and also led to the deaths of some 20,000 American soldiers with 100,000 wounded and about one million additional Indochinese casualties in the four years of warfare that followed.  By this and other actions, Nixon taught his party that winning at all costs, even if resorting to treason, was acceptable.  Fortunately, he was eventually brought down by some of his other illegal activities in what became known as the Watergate Affair. Assuming the “Nixon era” is ever accurately portrayed in the history textbooks of our public schools, the confidence of future US citizens in our government will be appropriately diminished.

Just a few years later, Ronald Reagan also stooped to that low level of foreign affairs interference in order to get to the White House. While the then sitting President, Jimmy Carter, was doing his best to get 50 American hostages released from Iran, Reagan’s election team (which included the future president, George H. W. Bush) secretly urged the Iranians to hold onto those hostages until Reagan was in the White House. Then, Reagan did, indeed, win that election thereby reaffirming Nixon’s lesson of winning by any means, including treason.

As president, Ronald Reagan then continued to interact with foreign governments in ways that were distinctly illegal.  In what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, he orchestrated a complex agreement in which arms were illegally sold to Iran with the proceeds going to the right-wing dictatorship of Nicaragua. When exposed, Reagan admitted his role in this affair. Thus, his treasonous acts have now also been added to the public record and should appear soon in the history texts of our public schools. All of this, of course, has done great damage to the credibility of our American democracy.     

Another lesson Reagan imparted to his party was the suggestion that “government does not solve problems – it is the problem!” (this, while he was simultaneously increasing the size of government during his own eight years in office!).  This cynical and hypocritical view of government has also done great deal of damage to our representative democracy. By declaring that our government does not solve problems, what system was Reagan suggesting we replace it with? – perhaps some sort of autocracy led by himself and a group of business leaders? Have we forgotten what happened to Italy, also, when such system was adopted by Benito Mussolini in the 1920s?  We don’t know exactly what Reagan had in mind. We only know for sure that he significantly reduced our confidence in our representative republic thereby opening the door to other less democratic options.   

And so now we presently have another President, Donald Trump, who seems to have also gotten to the White House via the direct assistance provided by another autocratic foreign power (the details of this are presently emerging).  Both Nixon and Reagan might have been proud of Donald – whose motto is also winning at all costs and whose method is also to show no respect for public sector government (most of the officials Trump has selected during his presidency have been ill-suited to their tasks and have quickly been thrown under the bus by their boss, thereby leaving the boss as the only man left standing).  As the antidemocratic deeds of this American anomaly continue to play out, we should not be taken in by the “Great America” he promises. The autocrats of history have a well-documented tendency of taking their devotees down with them when their phony dreams begin to unravel.

Having lived his life at the very centers of English, French and American power, Benjamin Franklin became both a wise and worldly man. It is telling, therefore, that he knew not only what the best form of government was for the USA but also emphasized the type of vigilance that would be required to keep it. In the past, the greatest threats to our representative republic have come from within our political system.  While our founding fathers did not know Nixon, Reagan, and Trump, of course, they knew their ilk – that is, demagogues who seek support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by rationandal argument. Like it or not that is what we presently have and future elections provide our only means of “righting” our ship.  Yes, in order to “right” in this case we need the help of all, including those on the Right who value our representative republic. 

So, finally, how does all of this relate to the climate change problem?  Two of the latter-day Republicans discussed above have become symbolic and literal leaders of antienvironmental movements. Among the first things Reagan did upon reaching the White House was to remove the symbolic solar panels President Carter had installed on the roof of that building and then encouraged Americans to go back to driving large, gas-guzzling vehicles. He was clearly in the pocket of our fossil fuel industries. Our present Republican President Trump is even worse – that is, a hard-core denier of the science behind man-caused global warming.

While I used to be a political independent, I have now totally given up on the Republican Party. They have shown themselves to have far too few conscientious grownups in their midst even while they have controlled all three branches of our federal government.  Therefore, along with the intellectual leader of their party, George Will, I hope that all seats in the 2018 and 2020 elections go to Democrats. The Republicans have all too clearly shown that the problems of today are too much for them to address in any helpful manner and that their only real concern is to keep our nation’s wealth where it presently is – even if that means letting both our republic and planet go down the tubes.  



  1. I enjoyed this piece very much. There is one statement, though, that I think is incorrect. I was very surprised while preparing to go back to Vietnam for a month in the spring of 2017 to discover that the numbers accepted of Indochinese life lost in Vietnam is now reported in several more recent historical accounts of the American War in Vietnam (as it is named by the Vietnamese) to be much higher than previously reported. I have seen those numbers reported at between 3 and 4 million from Kennedy’s incursion to Nixon’s full scale retreat. Nixon ramped the war up to one of it’s highest levels of carnage during his term. I’m confident that you would find his leadership responsible for more than a million Indochinese deaths in Indochina if you looked into recent historical work. I can’t remember this morning the title of the history that most impressed me with it’s newest revelations of American dedication to the invasion and control theory of foreign policy. The domino theory was a massive hoax. Ho Chi MInh was nearly a god to most North Vietnamese because he loved them as much as they loved him. They were a country who had been ruled by Confuscian administrators, the French, the Japanese, and then in effect by the US. Uncle Ho knew the US Constitution better than most Senators and Congressmen today in the US government. He stood for no more foreign rule in a Vietnam united as one country. The same country that turned back Mongol invaders twice. I think of the beginning of the decline of the US democracy to have begun with the John Birch Society. That Society was popular in northern Montana and it’s seeds can still be found here across the state. They are still the intellectual backbone of the anti-intellectual movement dedicated to racist rule in the US and to war. The intellectual descendants of the Birchers represent fear and hatred very well but they do not represent democracy.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post Eric. Most of us agree our newly elected president is less than ideal when our environmental future lies in chaos and uncertainty. You made references to two past presidents (Nixon and Reagan) spreading their evil will and advancing global hostilities coupled with increased planetary disruption. However poor these three representatives have been, they simply have been part of long-time series of leaders that fight to keep their political party in power. Depending on our personal political leaning, we criticize our opponents and support our allies. Powerful political leaders and government agencies have been marketers and support vehicles for corporations for generations. I agree and enjoyed your reference to sport (football)and now how politics has changed the game. Eric, I think sport has accomplished more to advance social changes than all the legislation in the past century. In our lifetime we have witnessed an explosive display of diversity in sport. Just look at a recent photo of your favorite football, baseball or basketball team compared to one taken in our childhood. I played minor league baseball in the a southern league in the early 1960’s. Not only were whites and blacks segregated, but the era of Latin players were being groomed and we saw the beginnings of Japanese players seeking MLB. We’ve come a long way, but we must do more. I’ve been disappointed with our elected leaders for many years. The Hope campaign Obama promised was encouraging speaking of climate change being one of our greatest challenges and pleading for industry to invest in safe renewable energy, including clean coal. Technology will be the path for us to pursue. He also criticized our hostile involvement in the Middle East saying these were unjust wars and his administration will bring an end to them. We all know this was merely campaign propaganda.

    Author Dr. James W. Loewen’s books titled “Lies My Teacher Told Me” (1995) and (2005) convinces his readers that we have been lied to by those we give our most trust (teachers). School text books are censored to create a positive and patriotic youth believing in American exceptialism, defending our historical activities.
    Our involvement in S. E. Asia was more than a decade of planning. Building military bases and outposts, stockpiling weapons, arming militia groups with organized CIA operations. Not only did we become involved in Viet Nam we spent nearly a decade bombing Laos on a scale greater than all other military activities combined. It was called “The Secret War” and the after-affects are still being suffered today. We visited Laos three years ago and had no knowledge of that “secret” until then. still thousands of buried unexploded bombs litter the land and thousands are injured.

    Thanks Eric for posting your piece. I’m not sure if I added any credible comments but I appreciate your po(sition and maybe we can help make a difference


  3. I agree with your statements; we are in serious trouble because of all the “Make America Great Again” crap being foisted on the American public. I am reading the book mentioned above “Lies My Teacher told me” WE are losing our democracy partly because of the very unfair election process due to the Citizens United decision by the Supreme court and it will get worse under Trump, the Great Buffoon.
    The Washington Post says approximately 10 percent of the citizens own 90 percent of the wealth in the US currently.
    Good to hear from you,

    Arlo Skari
    Our Grandson came back to the farm and is now working with his Dad and we are living in Chester in new house with extra bedrooms. Please stop if you happen to come down Highway 2. 227 Van Buren Ave. (406) 899-0067.

  4. Good to hear from you. I posted a letter to you but am confused as to how it was sent .so will do it this way. We are losing our democracy because of the Citizens United Decision by the Supreme Court and because of a very confused public. I saw a bumper sticker today that stated “Another Christian voter for Trump” We live in Chester now after moving off the farm as our Grandson came back from his job as an actuary and he and his Dad are running the farm with hired help if they can get them.

    Arlo 899-0067 227 Van Buren Ave.

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