Jan 6th 2021

Power vs. Duty in American Politics

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

To anyone paying attention the last four years, Trump’s refusal to accept that he lost the 2020 presidential election fair and square could not truly come as a surprise. That he would never concede was practically a given. What we could not know (and still do not know) with any certainty is just how far Trump will go to maintain his grip on power.

He has been willing to shower the courts with specious lawsuits – a cynical, dishonest and shameless act, but not in itself unlawful. Trump and his minions tirelessly spewed a steaming mess of debunked conspiracy theories and bogus claims about voter fraud, rigged voting machines, dead voters, underage voters and so on. This was mendacious, divisive and damaging to the public’s trust in our democratic institutions and electoral processes – it showed a lack of respect for the most basic moral principles, but it too was not technically unlawful.

Trump, who demands absolute loyalty from those around him, has demonstrated since the election that he will viciously turn on his most loyal followers if they are not prepared to renounce every last vestige of decency and integrity for his sake; if they are not willing, so as to maintain his presidency, to disown the very oath they took to uphold the Constitution. On top of that, Trump by all accounts has raised staggering amounts of money by perpetuating the myth of vast voter fraud – money that he is free to spend in any manner whatsoever. Which is just to say that Trump has proven himself to be a man who believes in nothing, who abides by no principles, except the principle of self-interest.

But setting aside his obvious moral bankruptcy, his readiness to disenfranchise millions of voters, and his cynical and self-serving attack on our democracy, until recently Trump had still not clearly acted unlawfully. Although he clearly has no regard for the rule of law as such, Trump had sidestepped flagrantly breaking the law in his bid to overthrow the legitimate results of a fair election – one deemed “the most secure in American history” by Christopher Krebs, the administration’s most senior cybersecurity official. Of course, Trump fired him not long after he made that statement. And why? For being unwilling to forsake the law, his oath, and his duty in order to protect the president.

But as Trump’s desperation has grown, and the loss of his power becomes imminent, his last psychological impediments to breaking the law are crumbling. The revelation of Trump’s hour-long recorded call with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, over this past weekend crossed a new line – a line that not only set a high-water mark of moral reprehensibility, but a legal line as well, specifically in his pressuring Raffensperger to “find the 11,780 votes” that would hand Trump the state and his veiled threat (“it’s going to be very costly…”) if Raffensperger failed to comply. If Trump did not break the law outright, if he did not criminally solicit an official to commit election fraud, he certainly came closer to doing so than at any other time since the election. There are, in particular, the provisions of two federal election fraud statutes and one Georgia law that Trump may have violated during the call.

Raffensperger – who has been forced to endure intense pressure, intimidation and threats – has proven himself to be a man of integrity and principle. It may seem odd to suggest that we owe a debt of gratitude to a man for merely doing his job with honesty and to the best of his ability – but these are the dark times in which we live, when simply doing one’s job demands more courage and decency than many of Raffensperger’s Republican colleagues are apparently capable of mustering. But his remarkable example should remind us of something important – that we may profoundly disagree about what is best for the country, but there must be a baseline commitment to truth and integrity for genuine disagreement to even be possible. If I lack that basic commitment, then I am not arguing in good faith – for my real motives are not what I profess them to be; just as Trump’s motives are obviously not what he claims. Trump could not care less about the truth of voter fraud. He has only ever been interested in what will enable him to continue to be president.

In his efforts to compel Raffensperger to break the law, Trump was in effect demanding ‘Choose me, the president, over your country. Choose me over the rule of law and the will of the people. Choose me over the Constitution and this experiment in popular government. Choose me over the most fundamental principles that you live by. Choose me over your self-respect, over your honor and over your own good name. Choose me over the future of this Republic.’

As many as thirteen senators have indicated that they will oppose certifying the votes of the Electoral College, in light of the many “allegations” of voter fraud – never mind that to date not a single meaningful piece of evidence has been offered in support of these allegations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that his January 6 vote certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election will be “the most consequential I have ever cast.” McConnell has finally said something with which I could not agree more – as he is acknowledging that Trump is demanding that the GOP overturn the results of an election that he lost, in the electoral college and in the popular vote by as many seven million votes. Republicans are being told to directly and radically undermine our democracy in a manner representing the very antithesis of genuine conservatism.

Dozens of lawmakers have shown themselves willing to acquiesce to Trump, to stand with him and against the Constitution, to stand with him and with the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans – they have chosen Trump over honor, integrity and duty. And history will judge them harshly for it. But history will save its greatest opprobrium for the president, for it is he who was invested with real power and abused it, believing in nothing but the conviction of his own vanity.


Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jan 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Anthropos is Greek for human.... The term is used to convey how, for the first time in history, the Earth is being transformed by one species – homo sapiens. ...... The idea of the Anthropocene can seem overwhelming and can generate anxiety and fear. It can be hard to see past notions of imminent apocalypse or technological salvation. Both, in a sense, are equally paralysing – requiring us to do nothing. .. I consider the Anthropocene as an invitation to think differently about human relationships with nature and other species. Evidence suggests this reorientation is already happening and there are grounds for optimism."
Jan 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "During the second world war, Nazi Germany banned all listening to foreign radio stations. Germans who overlooked their duty to ignore foreign broadcasts faced penalties ranging from imprisonment to execution. The British government imposed no comparable ban which would have been incompatible with the principles for which it had gone to war. That’s not to say, though, that it wasn’t alarmed by the popularity of German stations. Most effective among the Nazis broadcasting to the UK was William Joyce. This Irish-American fascist, known in Britain as “Lord Haw-Haw”, won a large audience during the “phoney war” in 1939 and early 1940, with his trademark call sign delivered in his unmistakable accent: 'Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling'. "
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The revelation of Trump’s hour-long recorded call with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, over this past weekend crossed a new line – a line that not only set a high-water mark of moral reprehensibility, but a legal line as well, specifically in his pressuring Raffensperger to 'find the 11,780 votes' that would hand Trump the state and his veiled threat (' it’s going to be very costly…') if Raffensperger failed to comply. ........ Raffensperger – who has been forced to endure intense pressure, intimidation and threats – has proven himself to be a man of integrity and principle."
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "A final, perhaps more sinister, possibility is that Johnson knows exactly what he is doing. His political style evokes a unique blend of dishevelled buffoon and privileged Etonian. He is someone who likes to bring good news and doesn’t take life too seriously. Making tough, controversial decisions threatens this persona and so hiding in the shadows until his hand is forced helps him to reconcile his identity threat."
Dec 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "The resultant loss of land, the growing impoverishment of its citizens, and the hostile actions of Israeli occupation forces and settlers have forced many Bethlehemites to leave their beloved city and homeland. Given these accumulated violations of human rights and their impact on Christians and Muslims, alike, one might expect Christians in the West to speak out in defense of these residents of the little town they celebrate each year.  That, sadly, is not to be – most especially (and I might add ironically) among powerful Christian conservative groups in the US which, after all, claim to be the defenders of their co-religionists world-wide."
Dec 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "Worldwide, people donate hundreds of billions of dollars to charity. In the United States alone, charitable donations amounted to about $450 billion last year. As 2020 draws to a close, perhaps you or members of your family are considering giving to charity. But there are, literally, millions of charities. Which should you choose?"
Dec 1st 2020
EXTRACT: " The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde – From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, examining the immense influence of this art critic, editor, publisher, collector and anarchist............A crucial feature of anarchism is the emphasis on the individual as the fundamental building block, the essential point of departure for any human association whatever. The individual was characterized by Grave in 1899 as a social creature who should be “left free to attach himself according to his tendencies, his affinities, free to seek out those with him whom his liberty and aptitudes can agree.” "
Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."
Nov 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "I imagined America as the land of the free that gave voice to the forgotten. Where race, color, and creed do not matter and human rights are guarded with zeal. Where the ingathering of all cultures and people made it richer and human resources and talent knew no limits or constraints. Where opportunity awaits the able and generosity is extended to the needy. Where everyone is equal before the law and political differences are valued to make America better. Where sacrifices are willingly made to right the wrong morals and fortitude guide its leaders. Where caring about friends and allies is the hallmark of the nation and opposing oppression near and far is the emblem that distinguished America. This is the character of America. This is the soul of America. This is what made America great. The America that gave me a home. The America that fulfilled my dreams."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."