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Blake Burleson: It's high time for Americans to set better example

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When Donald Trump shocked the nation, the world and himself by being elected president by American voters in 2016, I found myself in a dark place the day after. I could not go to work that morning and I knew of friends, family and neighbors who also felt this blow to the gut. Colleagues at work noted my absence and divined how deeply this had affected me. When I got to work, a well-intentioned colleague (a Republican who did not vote for Trump) pulled me aside and said, “Don’t forget there are checks and balances in our system of government. Things will be OK.”

Unfortunately for our country and the world, things did not turn out “OK.” Trump, with the surprising support of elected and appointed Republicans, has eviscerated the Constitution’s check and balances, its precedents and norms. By some reckonings, our very democracy now hangs by a thread. By the testimony of many who have served our government under the Trump administration — individuals such as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former Chief of Staff John Kelly, former National Security Advisor John Bolton — the president is unhinged, demonstrating authoritarian tendencies once deemed unimaginable. Who could have imagined this four years ago?

While I was shocked in 2016 that white America had elected in Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s words “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot,” I did not think we would ever see such decline to where a white terrorist group in Michigan would be arrested by the FBI for plotting to kidnap and execute the state’s Democratic governor. This emboldened hate group heard Trump’s call to “liberate Michigan” loud and clear. I could never have imagined a national pandemic in which the federal response only exacerbated an admittedly challenging crisis and caused more deaths, not fewer.

While many polls predict a Biden-Harris victory, elected Republicans in many states are doing everything they can to put their hands on the scales. That includes Texas, now seen by more and more as a battleground state. As the Biden-Harris ticket’s chances have improved, Democratic senatorial candidate MJ Hegar and Democratic candidates for the U.S. House such as Rick Kennedy in our District 17 see improved prospects. Given such prospects, Gov. Greg Abbott — following Trump’s panicky signals to Republican governors and legislators to suppress the vote — has issued an executive order that counties can only have one election outpost each for mail-in ballot dropoffs. His reasoning behind stated fears about ballot security? Hard to fathom. He apparently wants us to believe one election dropoff location can be secured safely but multiple locations cannot. For the rationally grounded, the tactic is clear: This is a naked attempt to make it harder to vote in heavily populated Democratic strongholds such as Harris, Travis and Dallas counties. Yet Republicans, many of whom see themselves as freedom fighters, express no shame in this strategy to suppress the vote. The situation becomes crazier when one considers that Republicans in California were recently caught installing fake dropoff boxes for mail-in votes in predominately Democratic areas.

It is possible, however, that despite these bad-faith, even illegal tactics by some Republicans that a landslide election will bury the Trump administration. Would such a landslide also bury the Republican Party? New York Times columnist David Brooks, a conservative, argues the Republicans are no longer a political party interested in governing but a social movement whose only goal is to wage culture wars. I agree. I wish we had a principled conservative party in America, but we no longer do. America needs a conservative party that values preservation of democratic ideals and responsible stewardship that can engage in dialogue and debate with a progressive party that supports change and evolution. This kind of tension is healthy in a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Instead the Republican Party is the Party of Voter Suppression. Desperate to retain power at all costs, elected Republicans have gerrymandered, stacked courts, shattered democratic norms of fair play and suppressed voting. The white base which now defines the party has shrunk. Yet this segment, based on population counts and electoral results (rather than just political polls), now controls the presidency, the Senate and the Supreme Court. Has America ever faced a situation where the less popular of the two parties controls almost all power at the national level and most governorships and state legislatures?

Disenchanted Republicans may join Democrats and independents to vote for a change. But would a decisive landslide victory in November end this nightmare? While Trump would, of course, go away (and turn his attention to defending himself against criminal and civil accusations from New York state and elsewhere), Americans who vote for Trump, who support Trump and who love Trump are not going anywhere. Trump-Pence signs, flags and banners are proudly displayed in the neighborhoods of Robinson, Woodway, West, Lorena, Marlin and Crawford. Few have appeared in my Anglo-prevalent Waco neighborhood where I’m pleased to say there are four or five times as many Biden-Harris signs. Even with an overwhelming Democratic victory (which might just be wishful thinking), America’s flirtation with authoritarianism will not likely end in January. It may take decades to reestablish some democratic norms. It’s possible some will never be fully reestablished and the so-called American Experiment will be deemed a failure. This is a grievous wound.

We can only reestablish democracy and continue our quest for a “more perfect union” if citizens who voted for Trump and his Republican colleagues do some soul-searching. Do they really want a democracy or do they just want to win at all costs? Will they continue their current trajectories to rewrite the rules so they can govern as a minority party, as essentially a white party? Trump did not win the popular vote in 2016. He will not win the popular vote this year.

While most of those who voted for Trump in 2016 will almost certainly vote for him in 2020, some Republicans, independents and, yes, even Democrats who voted for Trump are not voting to re-elect him. This gives me hope the Grand Old Party can be redeemed. We have all watched some Republicans rise from the mass of collective madness and confront colleagues now supporting authoritarian tendencies. I applaud them. I admire them.

American historian Timothy Snyder in “On Tyranny: Twenty Lesson from the Twentieth Century” provides concise but straightforward guidance for those questioning their own party. Snyder studied the techniques of courageous individuals who — against all odds — stood up to authoritarian regimes in Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries. I list here three of his 20 valuable lessons and I offer examples of brave Americans who challenged their own party. Readers will no doubt think of other Republicans who have stood up to Trump and what he represents.

Do not obey in advance. Snyder writes: “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked.” While many Republicans such as U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have taken Trump’s cues and obeyed in advance Trump’s stated wishes to find an alternative story (however flimsy) to the unanimous conclusions of our federal agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to favor Trump, a few Republicans have objected to such fanciful fabrications. Notable examples exist but former Secretary of State Colin Powell is one of the highest-profile Republicans who called out Trump’s alternative Russian reality-TV explanations. Republican congressional candidate for Texas District 17 Pete Sessions, on the other hand, seems in bed with Trump insiders who deal in this kind of misinformation. Sessions admits to being a longtime friend to Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s most ardent disinformation peddlers regarding Russian interference. Sessions has admitted that Russian operatives Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman gave money to his campaign.

Be wary of para-militaries. “When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader para-military and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.” This year not only have we seen white supremacist groups with AK-47s trying to intimidate peaceful protests but we have seen government-sponsored units with no visible insignia dispatched to American metropolitan areas that Trump attacks as “Democratic cities.” After Trump ordered U.S. military to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square in our nation’s capital so he could hold up a Bible outside St. John’s Church as if defending Christianity against impending attack, National Guard commander Adam DeMarco testified before a House committee that “excessive use of force” was employed against protesters. Trump’s former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned earlier from this administration in protest, denounced the president for dividing the nation and accused him of ordering U.S. military to violate the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley later expressed regret for accompanying President Trump that day, calling the decision “a mistake.” Have Republicans running for re-election to the Texas statehouse such as Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson or Sen. Brian Birdwell, who revels in his own military background, condemned para-military thugs or misuse of military forces against citizenry? Have your elected sheriffs? Have they spoken against Trump’s call for unofficial “poll watchers” in certain locations? Will individuals with guns show up at local election sites?

Be a patriot. “Set a good example of what America means for generations to come. They will need it.” Think of Republican Sen. John McCain turning thumbs down to the last major Republican attempt to eliminate Obamacare and take health care away from thousands of folks in Central Texas. Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn is again set to vote to on a Supreme Court nominee who will very likely cast a deciding vote on a case currently before the court to strike down Obamacare. Think of Republican Sen. Mitt Romney voting to remove Trump from office for his glaringly obvious attempt to bribe Ukraine to provide dirt on Joe Biden. Where was Sen. Cornyn on that day of reckoning?

While it may not take as much courage for my Republican neighbors to cast a secret ballot for a Democrat in this pivotal election as it did for those Republicans cited above who took public stands at great personal cost, it is nonetheless an act of bravery, an act of patriotism. I tip my hat to those making this choice because I recognize they may disagree with many of the policy positions of Joe Biden, Hegar, Kennedy or Texas House of Representatives candidate Katherine Turner-Pearson. But these genuine patriots recognize it’s time to clean up this mess and start anew. America cannot endure four more years of this chaos, chicanery and conflict. And the Republican Party will not survive without change in policy and principles, beginning with a greater respect for the vote of the people.

Blake Burleson is an ordained Baptist minister and a faculty member in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. The fifth-generation Texan enjoys carpentry, painting, backpacking and travel.

Blake Burleson is an ordained Baptist minister and a faculty member in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. The fifth-generation Texan enjoys carpentry, painting, backpacking and travel.


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