Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 November 2016

Jeff Sessions: Trump’s First Big Mistake


As we all know, Donald Trump is the least experienced pol ever to become president-elect. The first controversial action of his transition team—nominating Senator Jeff Sessions as our attorney general—confirms and underlines his inexperience. More important, it puts in jeopardy his “honeymoon” and his chance for a successful presidency before it even starts. Let’s analyze how.

We should make one thing clear at the outset. Sessions is no great legal scholar. Trump’s claim that he is is one of Trump’s biggest whoppers.

I was trained as a lawyer and legal scholar at Harvard. I have taught law in Berkeley, Hawaii, New Mexico and (on a Fulbright) at Russia’s Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). Not once in the 42 years since I went to to law school have I heard Jeff Sessions’ name mentioned in the context of legal scholarship. He is a regional pol and an extremist, not a legal mind. He is as different from John Roberts, for example, as Trump himself is from Antonin Scalia.

In his youth, Sessions was a classic Southern cracker. He reportedly called a white lawyer who represented blacks a “disgrace to his race.” And he reportedly called a black prosecutor “boy.”

For these reasons and others, Sessions was rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986, after his tolerance and/or sympathy for racist causes and organizations became public. His extreme views have not changed over the years, even if his language has become more guarded. He has been a consistent, if not rabid, supporter of diluting civil rights, advancing “states’s rights” to discriminate and disadvantage, and promoting the bellicose foreign policy for which our South is noted. If Sessions had his way, his native Alabama and all the South would return to their “exalted” state before our Civil War. The deaths of some 700,000 Americans in our most violent war ever—against ourselves—would ultimately come to naught.

We all know how inexperienced and unschooled in politics Donald Trump is. Now, in his second big appointment as president-elect, he has proved the point by nominating Sessions.

Trump’s new political coalition rests on the strong backs of millions of skilled workers whom globalization and our rigged economy have left behind. They are the force behind his victory. They are the ones with whom our nation and our elite must reckon, at best with a huge infrastructure-building plan that will put them back to self-respecting work.

The racists and white supremacists were behind Trump, too. But they were, and are, free riders. They are the extremist fringe, who, in much smaller numbers, hitched a ride on Trump’s wagon when it seemed to be going nowhere.

Sessions, whose career had been rightly mired in Alabama with little chance of moving beyond, hitched a ride on that wagon, too. Like the white supremacists, he got lucky.

But these free riders are not the ones behind Trump’s win. Nor are they the ones who could bring Trump’s presidency back into the mainstream and make it a success. They are the ones who will ultimately make it fail.

After eight years of scorched-earth opposition to a president who ran on hope and change, the public is tired of obstructionism. It’s tired of perpetually getting nothing done. It’s tired of division and discord.

But there are limits. The public is not ready to go to Hell to provoke some action. It’s one thing to support Trump in rebuilding our broken and dilapidated infrastructure by putting the skilled workers who build our postwar prosperity back to work. It’s quite another to put renegade Southerners in charge and take us back to a time before Brown v. Board of Education, before desegregation, and in some respects before our Civil War.

Darth McConnell may want that, in his heart of hearts. Maybe that’s why recent pictures show him smiling. Maybe that’s why he appears to be lukewarm, at best, to the infrastructure-(re)building plan that might make Trump’s presidency and that everyone knows we need.

Nominating Sessions is gross overreaching for a president-elect who lost the national popular vote by a substantial margin. But it’s worst than than. It plainly contradicts his conciliatory victory speech, in which he promised to bring us all together after the lowest, most vulgar, most disgusting campaign for supreme leader in American history. By nominating Sessions, Trump has thrown down a gauntlet at the feet of all the millions who voted for Hillary, or for anyone but him. He has broken the olive branch of his victory speech in the strongest way, by deeds, not words.

Make no mistake about it. Sessions will be “Borked.” He should be. On any rational basis, he’s far worse than Bork, who at least was a credible legal scholar and has a good mind.

Trump’s opponents must “go to the mattresses” on this nomination. They have no other choice. They cannot abandon, after 151 years, the North’s and the Union’s victory in our Civil War. They cannot abandon civility, equality and the idea that we are all Americans, regardless of our race, origin and religion. They must fight Sessions with all they’ve got.

If they do so, Sessions cannot become AG unless Republicans abandon the filibuster, something their instinct for self-preservation, long term, makes them unlikely to do. And Trump’s beneficial program of infrastructure (re)building cannot begin with such a challenge to history and decency.

If Trump does not withdraw this ill-advised nomination, his “honeymoon”—and the chances of success of his presidency—will end when public hearings on Sessions’ nomination begin. It would be a shame if a man in whom so many placed their last hope of beneficial change betrayed their hopes in a futile attempt to refight the Civil War and undo history. And it would be a shame if an inexperienced, overconfident man poisoned his presidency early on by pandering to the extreme fringes of his supporters.

It’s also ironic to the point of laughter. A businessman who has been so clever and ruthless in using his investors, customers, employees and “students” is letting himself be used by political grifters to further goals that neither he nor anyone else from New York shares.

If Trump can figure this out before his transition period ends, perhaps he can jettison Sessions and the other grifters. Then, since anti-nepotism laws don’t clearly apply during a transition, perhaps he can rely on his smart offspring and family to find and vet savvy pols he can trust to “make American great again.” The only people who think that means helping the South rise again are Darth McConnell and the likes of Sessions, who drifted toward Trump’s campaign for lack of any other place to go.

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