My Dear Colleagues and Friends:
Growing up, I was spellbound by the images of “carpet baggers” and Tammany Hall “fat cats” I saw pictured in history books in my elementary and junior high school history classes. Of course, that was back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, when California was ranked first or near there in terms of quality education. Last time I checked, we were ranked 9th worst in the U.S.
In any case, I never thought I’d live to see those “glory days” revisited that resulted in Black Tuesday and Thursday and the stock market crash and dust bowl era, in my lifetime.
To set the context less we get distracted by the President-elect’s showmanship and sleight of hand. I have always and will continue to honor the office of the President and the person occupying it. But that does not excuse the boorish behavior and character of the incoming President-elect. It is important that we remember, and continue to remind ourselves of the occasions when Mr. Trump maligned Mexicans, and Muslims, and women, and people with disabilities. We should keep talking about those cases because they will fade from public awareness as the press no longer references them, and—here is the very real danger—the practice of “scrubbing” the internet of indiscretions and faux pas and boorish behavior will soon make it unlikely to document what we all just lived through, as all the president’s men (and women) attempt to rewrite recent history. How many times have we heard Mr. Trump himself deny previous statements, although confronted with video evidence?
You can still find anecdotes about President Bush, and President Reagan, but the cabinet taking shape for the 2017 incoming administration may finally achieve a goal of “net neutrality” that allows more direct control of internet content.
The Growth of Corporate America in the 1800’s
For now, you can still view and download the images that help tell the story of what happens when greed motivates our public “servants.” And if that wasn’t enough, there is a fundamental change in governance as the incoming president surrounds himself with generals and fat cats, in the case of the Pentagon the generals being something expressly forbidden by the Constitution and reaffirmed by previous Congressional action. It has always been a principle of democracy that civilian control of the military is one of the pillars that makes democracy work.
In this case, the reasonable assertion that a president should be entitled to pick his cabinet officials, or that we need to “give him a chance to prove himself” falls flat. It reminds me of the bankers and financial leaders who refused to swear under oath when testifying about the Financial Crisis of 2007- 2008. I still don’t understand why they were allowed to keep their jobs, and none went to jail. Thousands of individuals have been imprisoned for much less.
First, we need to remember who the man is who will be president after January 20th, 2017. Remember the tweets—which continue—and the racist remarks? To me, his actions have all the markings of the overweight sixth grade bully I encountered when I was in third grade. Today, I understand the emotional and psychological reasons that scarred that little boy, but at the time it was just scary. However, the evidence of President-elect Trump’s fragile ego (remember the continuing tweets) should underscore our responsibility to hold the man and future president accountable.
And since by all reports, the incoming president eschews security briefings and prefers to get his news from social media, we have to take a look at the people who surround him for the details of a Trump administration’s policies. A close look.
Generals. It is here that past policy and the Constitution are explicit about civilian oversight of of a defense/war/military department. The reasons are clear to anyone who remembers the history lessons of Imperial Rome, and Julius Caesar, etc. Only once has Congress exercised the option of granting a waiver, in the case of General George Marshall 60 years ago. But even then, they gave the caveat that a future Congress should not do likewise. In the case of Caveat Emptor, we are clearly in the realm of the “buyer beware.”
Let’s be clear about what we have bought with a Trump administration and what the incoming president is proposing.
A general to run the Pentagon as Secretary of Defense. A general to serve as National Security Advisor. A general to fill the office of Homeland Security. At least one more general and other retired military high ranking officers to key subordinate positions.
Most of the rest of the Cabinet and subordinates are multi-millionaires and billionaires, hence visions of 19th and 20th century “fat cats,” and robber barons.
For the EPA, a climate change denier. For HUD, Dr. Ben Carson who averred he was unqualified to run an agency. Etc., etc., etc.
It is our task to remember what we just lived through—the election. And what the country can be. Who ever would have thought we would look longingly to Mitt Romney as the voice of reason and stability for the legacy of the great reformers, including JFK, Lyndon Johnson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt?
Our duty is clear. We must recall and call out, every day the story of how we came to this lest a new generation think that this is business as usual. That this is the best we can do in the United States of America.
The outlook for Secretary of Agriculture is no different. With one political party in control of all branches of the federal government we should take a page from our own proud history. The suffragette movement and the Million Man march. The War on Poverty and the marches against the Vietnam War. And, more recently, the tribes and veterans and heroes at Standing Rock.
Our President-elect appears to favor the mass rallies of his electoral campaign even though that campaign is over, which for those of us who remember the black and white images of film strips from Europe before WWII that our teachers showed us in elementary and junior high school, it is hard to escape a feeling of impending dread.
But we also know that form of populism does not have to stand unchallenged.
We also saw black and white and eventually color images of the civil rights activists who helped change the world. Women and allies who won the right for women to vote.
I suggest we start by holding President-elect Trump accountable for his candidacy.
First, continue to press for release of his tax returns. Until we know what he owns and who he owes, how can we accept his assertions that he will appropriately separate himself from his business interests?
Second, hold the press accountable for questioning his penchant for using superlatives in every sentence. He seems to use words like “tremendous” and “most amazing” for every idea or person he likes. And we know all too well how he likes to demonize those who disagree or criticize him.
Third, demand specifics. We will certainly continue to do so in every aspect of food and agriculture and climate change and social justice policy. But each one of us has to do so as well.
Fourth, just as we must organize and speak out to inform our countrymen and countrywomen about the kind of country we want and are willing to work for, we must not ignore people who do not agree with us. It is our responsibility to listen and reach an accommodation with them. In the long run, that will do more to help achieve our goals than debates and divisive elections.
Fifth is a codicil to number four. We cannot pretend it doesn’t exist, or ignore the reality that corporate greed and frankly, a fear that the ethnic minority population of the U.S. will soon overtake the “white” majority. Just engage in conversation and it won’t be hard to understand why we cannot ignore those fears. Even with your next-door neighbors, you may be surprised to learn not everyone sees the world as you do. And that is alright, as long as we are listening to one another. It is the critical first step.
So, sixth, we must make a practice of organizing or convening venues where dialogue can take place. I call on foundation and other funders to support any organization willing to engage in these activities.
That is probably enough to chew on for now.
I want to finish by acknowledging that CFJC like every other organization needs your financial support. But I won’t beg you for your support, or try to sensationalize the need. The truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and we need to start to create a better economic model that serves our communities and families better. Please spread your financial support as you deem appropriate. But more importantly, please look to those venues and activities where you can participate in the work of reclaiming the promise of our country.
Look to your place of worship, your local government, your business environment, and especially, your local community. Start and/or continue the conversations we began during the year-long (plus) election season.
The high holidays are almost upon us. By all means, celebrate with family and loved ones with our very best wishes. This reminds us of what we value most. Then return to the work of rebuilding a country of which we can be proud to live in, and to leave for our children.
We shouldn’t forget the lies and tirades hurled during the 2016 election. We won’t. We need to work to address the very real fears that underlie the hurtful words.
It is our responsibility to remember, and to hold our elected and their agencies accountable not just to big business and a ruling class. The lines that divide us have never been clearer, at least not in our lifetime. It is up to us to fight for the society to which we aspire.
On behalf of everyone at CFJC, again, all the very best to you and your families and loved ones. We look forward to walking this new road to a better future now, and into the new year.
Y. Armando Nieto
CFJC Executive Director