In the mid-1970s, Professor Gilmour occasionally wore a Nehru jacket and, behind his back, was called “H. Rap,” referencing his liberal politics with the name of a black power activist.
Some days I amused myself in the back of his class by thumbing through copies of William F. Buckley’s National Review piled on a bookcase shelf, an exercise in simultaneously considering multiple points of view.
One lesson that Professor Gilmour imparted to his students in American politics was that constraints prevent the president of the United States from veering too far to the left or the right, from going off the rails.
(Mind you, this was as the nation recovered from the trauma of Richard Nixon’s resignation, his administration disgraced by its abuse of legal processes in the Watergate burglary cover-up.)
Think of these constraints as the bumpers that prevent a bowling ball from rolling into the gutter. Moral considerations aside, the most obvious constraints are the legislative and judicial branches of government.
Congress passes laws (and can override presidential vetoes) and controls the purse. The courts, ultimately the Supreme Court of the United States, determine whether laws or presidential actions meet a test of legality based on interpretation of the Constitution.
There is much a president can do on his/her own. In addition to vetoes, presidents from both parties have employed executive orders and signing statements. As commanders in chief, presidents have sent American troops into harm’s way with or without congressional approval.
Professor Gilmour’s lesson echoes through the years as pundits, politicians and the public wonder aloud how a President Donald Trump might behave in office.
In large measure because of comments by (but not limited to) candidate Trump, political discourse in this country has veered toward the vulgar. I am repulsed by the labeling of Mexican immigrants as rapists, calls for police patrols to target neighborhoods of American Muslims, and comments about women that have sent many to look up the dictionary definition of a misogynist.
And we’re still seven months from Election Day.
Which brings me to Godwin’s Law.
In the mid-1980s, “when the Internet was still a pup,” author and lawyer-to-be Mike Godwin posited that as an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference to Hitler or Nazis nears certainty.
On a Jewish news website, in the comments after an article on Trump’s appearance before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, I found Jews calling other Jews “kapos,” evoking an ugly aspect of the Holocaust. A kapo was a Jew who organized regulation of other Jews in concentration camps for the benefit of Nazi overseers.
Think about this. In 2016, a Jew uses a term that accuses another Jew of complicity in Nazi atrocities to make an argument about an election for president of the United States.
I have compared online comment sections to graffiti on bathroom walls, displays of bravery and wit by people unwilling to sign their work. The applications of Godwin’s Law this campaign season have plumbed such depths.
Two years ago, journalist and author Kurt Eichenwald wrote the following in an essay for Vanity Fair: “It is hard to fully comprehend the magnitude of the Nazi death camps and their impact on the lives of untold millions. But, even so, there are a few things I can say for certain: the Nazis, and the Holocaust they brought were nothing like Obamacare. Or the national debt. Or political correctness. Or criticism of economic inequality. Or the Tea Party. Or the Internal Revenue Service. Or the Obama administration. Or the Bush administration. Or any of the other masses of infinitesimal flotsam spewed up in self-pitying and hysterical analogies by vulgarians with more mouth than brain.”
By all means, debate the issues to the nth degree and argue the merits and demerits of candidates for public office, but leave out the Nazi and Hitler references. There is plenty that can be said without invoking that incomprehensible horror.