Monday, January 11, 2021

Donald Trump’s Assault on Democracy: A Day that Shall Live in Infamy


A Response to Donald Trump’s Assault on Democracy

America is an idea. An idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant.  Joseph R. Biden

On January 6, 2021, my wife and I joined millions of people who turned on their television sets to witness what most thought would be a contentious but traditional event at the U.S. Capitol.  This was the day when the entire Congress would assemble, count, and accept the electoral votes for President of the United States.  The task of the presiding officer, Vice President Mike Pence, was to open the envelopes containing the votes and announce the results. 

We knew beforehand that the electoral votes of some states won by Joseph Biden would be challenged  by a minority of Republican representatives and senators on the grounds that the voting procedures in those states were “unconstitutional,” even though these complaints had been adjudicated in state and federal courts as “without merit.” We also knew that the real objective of the complainants was not to overturn the election of Joseph R. Biden as president of the United States.  They did not have the floor votes that would make this happen.  Rather, their objective was to curry favor with Donald Trump so that he would continue to support them in future elections. 

At the same time, we knew that after many hours of tiresome debate, reality would prevail and the results of the electors would confirm Joseph R. Biden as our next president.

There was another group of people on that day who also wanted to overturn the election.  At the behest of the president, about 10,000 of his supporters had assembled in the ellipse of the Mall, located within a short walk to the Capitol building.  This group was not there to protest the election results.  They were incited by the president to ignore the lawful procedures followed by Congress and use intimidation and other means to change the vote. 

To our astonishment, horror and disbelief, as we were watching, the scene on our television set turned from a congressional debate to a riot taking place at the U.S. Capitol.  Trump’s rally audience had gone en masse to the Capitol,  breaching doors and windows, threatening the lives of members of Congress, fighting Capitol police, killing one officer, while destroying and looting Capitol property.  It was if we were watching a coup taking place in a banana republic. This was not a protest.  It was an insurrection, a violent domestic uprising against the government of the United States of America.

The aim of Trump and the insurrectionists was to intimidate Congress into rejecting the final results of the election.  The ultimate goal of some was to destroy democracy itself and replace it with a dictatorial monarchy headed by Donald Trump. Some carried signs or wore shirts announcing their allegiance not to America but to the Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan.  Others carried the flag of the Confederacy, as if the Civil War was to be revived.   Many of the insurrectionists carried and waved the American flag as a way of showing that their patriotic duty included breaching and looting the U.S. Capitol.

The latter group of insurrectionists did this because (some said) they wanted to force Congress to give Trump the electoral results that he (falsely) said he had won.  This lack of trust in the electoral process was shaped by a year-long Twitter campaign from Trump that the November election would be “rigged” in favor of his opponent Joseph Biden.  Trump convinced his followers, without giving evidence, that he, not Biden had won.  Their conviction about this was not based on objective evidence of the election results but on what they were being told many times, on a daily basis by Donald Trump and his far-right media supporters. 

When told that all of the governors had certified the election results in their state, Trump answered that the governors and election officials in the states that he had lost were corrupt or confused.  When told that he had lost all 60 lawsuits in federal and state courts claiming election errors and fraud, Trump answered that the judges were either incompetent or co-conspirators in a dark scheme to swing the election to Biden. 

As a result of this drumbeat of lies, Trump’s followers at his January 6 rally had already accepted his claims about the election results (“I won the election by a lot, by millions of votes”) instead of believing what they heard from mainstream news outlets.   Why?  Because Trump had told them multiple times that the official news they were hearing about him or about the election results was “fake” and news reporters were “enemies of the people.”

What brought them to accept these false beliefs?  Why did the insurrectionists not trust the rules and procedures of our constitutional democracy?  In his press conference of January 8, Joe Biden conjectured that the Capitol rioters are the victims of “The Big Lie,” referring to the tactic of the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels who infamously said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”  Goebbels also conjectured that for a dictatorship, truth was much more dangerous than a lie.

But even if it was true that some states had voting procedures that were arguably unconstitutional, why did Donald Trump and his gang of insurrectionists think that the patriotic solution was to invade the Capitol and force members of Congress to overturn the election in his favor?  A true patriot would not confuse the rule of law with the rule of force.  A patriot would know that democracy itself would be destroyed if elections were always decided by those who had the most power (physical ability) to determine winners and losers.

Looking to the future, here is the most important question.  Assuming that Americans want the U.S. Capitol and other government buildings to be protected from further assault, what can be done to prevent attacks like the one we witnessed on January 6?

 One obvious answer is to bolster the physical protection of government buildings, government events (like the inauguration of the president), the people who serve the government, and those who attend political events.  At this writing, I understand that this is already taking place.  We cannot risk another assault on our democracy. 

Second, we must practice deterrence by making sure that all of those found guilty of crimes committed during the breach of the Capitol on January 6 are punished to the fullest extent of the law.  These punishments must be advertised loudly and far, so that those who would attempt to repeat these assaults on democracy will know that their behavior will be met with severe fines and lengthy imprisonment. Again, steps are now being taken to punish the instigators and it will continue for several months.

Third, and perhaps of most importance, we must find a way to restore faith in democracy.  This cannot be accomplished by force.  Might makes fright but it does not make faith.  We can frighten a Trumpian rioter to say the words “I support the Constitution,” but we cannot force him or her to believe in it and our other democratic institutions. 

The rejection of force as a cure for restoring faith in democracy leaves us with two voluntary paths we might take: the restoration of community in our society and the revival of civic education in our public schools. 

When people see themselves as members of a community, they treat one another in the way that they would treat members of their family, their friends or their neighbors.   In a community, the relation people have to one another does not arise from a contract.  It arises from the very nature of the communal relationship.  If my cousin, friend or neighbor needs my help, then I attempt to provide this help, not because I have made a promise or signed a contract to provide help.  I help them because they are a cousin, friend or neighbor.  Political and religious differences are irrelevant.  If my Trump-supporting neighbor needs help, I would go to her aid as quickly as I would go to the aid of my Biden-supporting neighbor.

Now try to imagine a large society in which each member conceives themselves as a member of the same community.  Let’s call this society “the American community.”  As members of the American community we would go to the help of one another in times of need and we would expect such help from others members when we are in need.  We would see one another as friends not as political enemies.  When we argue with one another about law and policy differences we would treat one another with respect. 

Americans have a history of protecting one another when the community is in danger of serious harm.  We saw the universal desire to protect when we feared invasion by foreign countries during World Wars I and II, and when the twin towers were attacked by foreign actors on September 11, 2001.  During these wars and attacks, Americans set aside their political differences as they rushed to help the fallen and take up arms to protect their country. 

The second component of the path toward restoring faith in democracy is to revive civic education in public schools.  “Civics” was once a permanent component of public-school education because  the Founders insisted that all children should be prepared to be active participants in the democracy when they reached the legal age to vote.  But it has steadily dropped off the curriculum in the last 50 years.

Civics courses do not teach “blind devotion to the state or its leaders.”  And it is not enough to teach a child how to cast a vote, to memorize the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights.  Our young people must understand the content of what they are reading and saying.  They must understand the significance of these great documents.  They must be shown how to think critically about various forms of government, including not only constitutional democracy but how the Founders came to reject monarchy and oligarchy through argument and discussion.

Can we do this?  Can we protect our democracy by restoring the soul of America, understood here as a community of citizens, devoted to democracy, who will help and protect one another?  Can we re-establish a system of civic education of our young people who are prepared to think critically about candidates and issues before they cast their first vote? 

The American idea of which Biden speaks in the epigraph is the idea of democracy, an idea that is “stronger, bigger and more powerful” than the insurrectionist mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6.  This daring idea, enshrined in the Constitution, survived the burning of the Capitol by the British in 1814 and the constant threat of the Confederate Army to destroy the Capitol building during the Civil War. 

The good news is that the idea of American democracy, an idea that reflects the soul of America, will long survive Donald Trump and the traitors he incited to breach and loot the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.  Our democracy has survived several damaging foreign attacks on our soil. It can surely survive this act of domestic terrorism.  We shall always overcome.



Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Descartes' Mind and Plato's Cave

Prisoners of Solipsism and Prisoners of the Cave

In meditation II of his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes writes that the only things he knows with certainty is “I am," "I think” and “I am a thinking thing”. 

I am--I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be. I now admit nothing that is not necessarily true. I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing, that is, a mind (mens sive animus), understanding, or reason, terms whose signification was before unknown to me. I am, however, a real thing, and really existent; but what thing? The answer was, a thinking thing. [4.2.1]

At this point in  his meditations Descartes reports that he does not know anything else that is certain, including his lifelong belief that there are things “external” to him, for example, physical objects, human bodies, other thinking things, and God.  Descartes finds himself quite alone. But not alone in the universe because for all he knows, he is the universe.  He does not know if there is a universe that exists apart from the content of his own mind.

Descartes knows with certainty that he exists as a thinking thing, that is, a thing that has thoughts, doubts, affirms, denies, and has a multitude of visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile sensations, including the feelings of pain and pleasure.  What he does not know is whether there are any other thinking beings.  He might see or hear what appears to be another human being, but he does not know with any certainty whether he is dreaming or hallucinating the thing that he senses.  

This is a theory now known a solipsism, or as some would call it, “all-alone-ism.” It is the theory that although I can know with certainty that I exist, I cannot know with certainty that there are any other thinking beings, nor for that matter, any non-thinking beings. For example, I now have a mental image of a rose bush.  But this is not sufficient to allow me to draw the certain conclusion that there is an actual rose bush, existing external to my mind, that is causing me to have this mental image.  For all that I know, the rose bush I claim to sense might not exist at all.  I might be hallucinating or dreaming about a rose bush. 

In meditation VI, Descartes summarizes the reasons why he cannot confirm that physical objects are the cause of the images of physical objects that are in his mind.  His senses give him confusing information about the size and shape of objects.  He cannot distinguish between the ideas he allegedly gets through his senses and the ideas that he has when he is dreaming.  And although he cannot control the images that appear to come into his mind from his senses, this is not sufficient to confirm the existence of an external world because these images could just a well have been caused by some unknown faculty within himself. 

Descartes’ solution to these problems is to invoke both the existence and participation of God.  In meditations III and V, Descartes believes he has proved the existence of a supremely perfect God.  He asserts that God has created human beings who “naturally” assume that the mental images or ideas that they have of material objects are caused by real material objects in an external world. The dubious natural “habit” of believing that what we learn from the senses is true is a gift of nature, and “nature, … is nothing more than God himself.” Since God is all-good, he would not deceive us about our natural belief that there is a world external to our mind, populated by physical objects and human beings like us.   Although Descartes admits that the ideas (images) of objects that we receive from or through the senses do not always perfectly resemble the material objects that causes these ideas, he believes that he has made a convincing argument for the claim that solipsism is false.  We live in a world of material objects and other human beings.  We are not alone. 

This leaves the reader with two questions.  If there is no convincing argument for the existence of a supremely perfect deity and/or that God would not allow us to be deceived by our senses, are there alternative ways to avoid solipsism?  To be specific, based only on Cartesian assumptions about the large conceptual gap between the internal world of mental ideas (images) and an external world of other minds and material objects, is there a way to bridge the gap that does not involve the deity?

Plato might be of some help here.  In Republic, Book VII, Plato has the character Socrates entertain his friend Glaucon with one of the most famous thought experiments in the history of philosophy: The Allegory of the Cave.

In the allegory, the character Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine prisoners “living in an underground, cave-like dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself.  They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around” (Republic, VII, 514).  They stare at a cave wall on which images are projected. These images are cast from carved figures (puppets) illuminated by a fire and carried by people on a parapet above and behind the prisoners. They see nothing of themselves and one another.  They only see “the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them.”  If one of the prisoners is released from his chains “and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he would first see the puppets and the fire" (id., 515).

Plato's Cave

There is more to the allegory, and there are many interpretations of it.  I will not enter this debate.  I want only to indicate that in the allegory, the prisoners discover and can verify that the images they see on the wall are in fact shadows caused by puppets that are paraded in front of a fire.  The prisoners see all at once the images, the fire and the puppets, thereby confirming the causal connection between them.

Compare this to Descartes’ “prisoners of solipsism.”  They are thinking beings who live in the internal world of their own minds and yet have a “natural” habit of believing that there is an external world of material objects from which their ideas of material objects proceed.  But these prisoners have no way to confirm this causal connection. Unlike the cave prisoners who upon release, see puppets casting shadows on the cave wall, Descartes’ thinking beings cannot put themselves in another  location from which they can “see”  images being projected into their mind by material objects that exist outside their mind. Plato’s prisoners can turn around and see the puppets being manipulated in such a way that they cast shadows on the wall.   But Descartes’ prisoners are trapped in their own mind.  They cannot break out of their mind, go out into the external world and watch corporeal objects cause their mind to be populated with new images.

 If Descartes’ hypothesis of a causal connection between the external world and the mind cannot be verified or falsified,  then surely an agnostic solution of the solipsism problem collapses.  If there is no God to assure the prisoners that their senses can be trusted, then they will never know whether there is an external world and other minds.  They can theorize about an external world but there is no way they can either confirm or falsify these theories.

This brings us to a second question.   Is the problem of solipsism a problem of Descartes’ own making, based on false assumptions, or is it a genuine problem, worthy of our attention?  If it is a pseudo-problem, then Descartes (and those philosophers who he inspired) need to be liberated from their false assumptions.  As the twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously put it, the job of philosophy is “to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.”  Is Descartes a fly trapped by his own unsupported assumptions? 


For more commentary and critique on Descartes, see Laurence Houlgate's new book Understanding Descartes: The Smart Student's Guides to Meditations on First Philosophy, available through his website:    Also: once on the website, go to the tab that has a short video in which the allegory of the cave is enacted by clay puppets.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Rule of Law and the Obligation to Prosecute Donald Trump


United States Supreme Court

Would it be a violation of the rule of law not to prosecute Donald Trump after he leaves office on January 20, 2021?

In a recent opinion article in the New York Times, Andrew Weissmann gave a resounding “Yes” to this question.[1]   Mr. Weissmann was a senior prosecutor in the Mueller investigation. Enough evidence to support a charge for obstruction of justice was found during the investigation. He also acknowledged that a renewed investigation “would further divide the country and stoke claims that the Justice Department was merely exacting revenge.” 

Should the next attorney general ignore this evidence by not appointing a special counsel to investigate? Weissman is aware of two reasons for sweeping the evidence under the rug.  The first is based on the principle of utility. Do the good consequences of not investigating and prosecuting outweigh the bad?

The good consequences of not investigating are that the country would not be further divided by an investigation of Trump’s behavior while in office.   A decision to investigate would have political consequences that would only make the divide wider.  Trump would be declared a martyr by millions of his followers.  This would both keep him in the headlines for several months and give him more encouragement to run for president again in 2024.

A bad consequence of ignoring evidence of obstruction of justice is that it "would make any future special counsel investigation toothless” (Weissmann).  A refusal to investigate Trump  would set a precedent from which proposals to investigate similar behavior of future presidents would be easily dismissed.

There is a different reason for not ignoring the accumulated evidence for Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice.  It has nothing to do with consequences.  It is based entirely on “the rule of law.”  Unfortunately, Mr. Weissmann does not explain what this familiar phrase means.  He writes that if Trump succeeds in pardoning himself from federal criminal liability, the “states like New York should take up the mantle to see that the rule of law is upheld.”

What does this mean?  What is the rule of law? 

As a first step toward answering this question, I will use Mr. Weissmann’s analogy of an imaginary U.S.  president who is immunized from prosecution for committing a “serious violent crime” while in office.Suppose, for example, he is suspected of shooting and killing his chief of staff on the last day of his presidency. What does it mean to say that the rule of law would not be upheld if the decision of the attorney general was not to launch an investigation that could lead to the prosecution of this president?  It means that the president stands above the criminal law and is free to act arbitrarily.  While in office, he or she can kill anyone he wants and get away with it.   

During a 2015 campaign rally, Donald Trump said "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.  But in a government that abides by the rule of law, he would and should lose his liberty, if not his life.  Whether he loses voters is irrelevant.  The rule of law demands that this imaginary president would and should be prosecuted and convicted of murder under the same laws and procedures that apply to all Americans.   

By analogy, the president of the United States of America is not free to obstruct justice while in office.  He is not above the law and he is not free to act arbitrarily.  He has no more right to obstruct justice than he has a right to shoot and kill his chief of staff.

Although the rule of law is not an explicit legal or constitutional obligation,  it is implicit in the oath of office: “I, _________ , do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”  This oath is not only taken by the president.  It is also taken by all appointees to the Executive branch, including the Attorney General.

When one swears an oath to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the U.S. Constitution they create an obligation to bear true faith and allegiance to the rule of law.  The latter obligation is found in the opening passage of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” 

The words “establish Justice” imply the establishment of the rule of law.  Justice is what the founders believed was sorely lacking under British rule and what they wanted to firmly establish in their new country.  Justice was lacking partly because colonial government did not always operate under the law.  The Declaration of Independence gives a long list of “a long train of abuses and usurpations” suffered by the people under the rule of the British monarch and Parliament.  Several of these abuses can be interpreted as violations of the rule of law.  Some of their complaints mention arbitrary refusal of royal assent[2] to  and others specifically mention obstruction of justice[3].

If violations of the rule of law were  part of what drove our country to rebel against the British colonial government, then surely the next Attorney General appointed by the President of the United States should be driven to investigate whether Donald Trump obstructed justice while in office.  And if the adherence to the rule of law is implicit in the oath of office taken by attorneys general, then that oath would be “toothless” if they ignored evidence that might lead to the prosecution of Donald J. Trump.














[2] "He [King George] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

[3] "He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.”