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Tuesday, January 31, 2017


In October, 1973, after Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox because he had subpoenaed the Oval Office tapes, Richardson resigned. When Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus also resigned rather than obey Nixon's order, Nixon ordered Solicitor General Robert Bork, then acting head of the Justice Department, to fire Cox, and Bork did so, to his eternal shame.

The firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates is not comparable, in many ways, most notably because she is a hold-over from the Obama Administration, on her way out anyway.  Nixon was in his second term and all of the players in that affair were his appointees.  Nevertheless, the sequence of events yesterday is genuinely frightening, not least precisely because Trump is a newly inaugurated President clearly being guided by, if not under the thumb of, a White Nationalist fascist with openly expressed desires to seize control of the American government.

I have no idea how this is going to play out, but let me reiterate and expand on the observation I made yesterday, this time without cute allusions to a footnote in a book one hundred and fifty years old.  The power of the President [or of any other figure in a modern government, democratic or otherwise] consists at bottom in his or her ability to get large number of other people to do what he or she says.  We are so accustomed to regular, predictable obedience that we unthinkingly suppose that it is a property of the office, inseparable from that office.  Whether it is a policeman directing traffic or a group of legislators passing a law or a military commander ordering troops or a court issuing a stay of a presidential directive, we take it for granted that the order will be obeyed.  We talk about the "powers of the presidency" or the "powers of the Supreme Court" or even the power of a bureaucrat in an office to stamp a passport or approve a zoning variance, as though the mere occupancy of the position automatically conferrs the power to compel compliance.

What happens, then, when a President issues a directive, a court orders a stay, and the President simply ignores the stay?  One possibility is that the men and women actually carrying out the directive in airports and elsewhere ignore the court order and continue doing what the President has said, even though that is a violation of the rules supposedly governing our nation.  This in turn might lead to massive popular protests at airports, say in New York City, interfering with the ability of the immigration officials at the airports to carry out the President's directive.  This might stop the President from doing what he has announced that he intends to do.  But it might also lead the President to order Governor Cuomo to call out the New York National Guard to disperse the crowds, using all force necessary.  Governor Cuomo might order the New York National Guard, of which he is the commander, to stand down.  President Trump might then order the New York National Guard federalized, and Cuomo might countermand that order.  And so forth.  It all comes down to the same question:  Will the people with the weaponry and physical capacity to enforce the President's commands obey him, or side with Governor Cuomo and the demonstrators?

I am not kidding, folks, this is what we could be looking at, and I genuinely do not know how it come out.  That is why I describe it as frightening.


Paul B said...
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levinebar said...
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levinebar said...

Thousands of years of autocracy has been justified implicitly or explicitly by peoples' terror of slipping into the Hobbesian state of Nature, the "war of all against all".The entire biblical Book of Judges is an agitprop argument for the necessity of raising up our own Leviathan. Against this background, the American experiment in self-rule is still an unproven venture.
In such straits, I turn to prof. Wolff to explain what makes a form of rule "legitimate" and who has actually signed on to/is bound by our hypothetical "social contract"

where Richardson demurred, Bork swung the ax
that felled our prosecutor, Archie Cox
the Nixon fiction couldn't stand on facts
preferring faith for its foundation blocks
no officer can be beyond Law's writ
if our republic's to belong to us
to be sufficiently legitimate
the president can't be felonious
but now, an amateur ascends the throne
unfettered by a scruple, or a doubt
intent on turning profits of his own
and Congress lacks the balls to throw him out
the same law binds the mighty and the weak
but chances of enforcement look damned bleak

Barry H. Levine (levinebar)

Tom Cathcart said...

In your scenario, Bob, the sheer number of people willing to take to the streets, willing to face gas or bullets or jail, willing to disrupt the conducting of business, will be the deciding factor.

Paul B said...
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Robert Paul Wolff said...

Certainly that, but also the presence of people in the chain of command prepared not to obey orders from higher ups. People like Blue State governors, or simply patriotic military men who really are committed to defending the Constitution.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Barry, why would you ask an avowed anarchist to explain why the state is legitimate?!

levinebar said...

"legitimate" is probably the wrong word, but I lack the right word to describe a construct (might as well call it a "state") in which we participate to raise ourselves out of the Hobbesian "state of nature" yet without ceding our own moral authority.

Tom Cathcart said...

One of the few useful things about capitalism is that it depends on order. If people are in the streets, it's hard to sell cars. The storeowners and hotel owners of Birmingham finally got behind the civil rights agenda because they were losing their shirts.

Chris said...

Well, it depends on political order, but relies on total market disorder (hence all the boom and busts and the decline in the rate of profit via mass increases in productivity).

s. wallerstein said...

Barry Levine,

I've read and enjoyed your poetry before, but I never realized until now how rapidly you compose them, in less than 3 hours, judging from when Professor Wolff first posted above. I also imagine that you did not read Professor Wolff's post the minute it appeared online. That's quite a talent that you have. Do you write
more personal or more lyric poetry too?

levinebar said...

the Saturday Night Massacre and the curbs on Executive power were on my mind before prof. Wolff's post; the sonnet is a couple of days old. But if you like sonnets, there are more at:

I've appended keywords so that you can search by theme e.g. on

or on

s. wallerstein said...

Thanks. I'll take a look.

Jon Culp said...

Puts me in mind of this gem: Etienne de Boetie's "Contr'Un." He was a friend of Montaigne's. Here are some selections from it that are up on