Thursday, February 2, 2017

Presidential Overreach

A clear and focused example of the kind of presidential malfeasance we must expect from President Trump appeared in one of his recent Tweets:

"If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?"
This is about campus protests opposing a scheduled appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, famous for the extremity of his right-wing views. Scheduling Mr. Yiannopoulos as a speaker at a major university is not a choice I would have made, not because I disagree with his views, but because of his habit of spouting opinions without bothering with factual support. Discourse such as his lacks academic value. But no matter. U.C. Berkley scheduled him, and many students on campus protested peacefully. Up to that point, all was as it should be.

The situation turned ugly when some individuals chose to use violence to express their opposition to Yiannopoulos. This left the university with little choice but to cancel Yiannopoulos' appearance. This is a point worth emphasizing: the university had allowed Yiannopoulos to speak, and revoked that permission only after physical violence broke out on campus.

This brings us back to the Trump's problematic Tweet, which spins and blames and threatens. Trump makes it appear that Berkeley was selecting which parts of the political spectrum to allow to be heard, which is clearly NOT the case. Trump makes it appear that the university itself organized the violence, which it simply did not do. These, obviously, are just more examples of this administration's "alternative facts."

But that's just spin-doctoring. The worst part of the tweet is its very last phrase: "NO FEDERAL FUNDS?" The President of the United States just threatened to withhold federal funds from a major American university unless it allows a speaker the President is promoting.

Could he do it? Absolutely! There are aspects of U.C. Berkeley's funding the President can't touch, because California state tax dollars get mingled with federal funds in ways that are not easy to separate. But a large school and major research institution like Berkeley also receives a vast array of direct federal grants, and as the Chief Executive of the all the granting departments, the President most certainly can interfere.

This wouldn't necessarily make such interference legal. Such selective and discriminatory interference in academic freedom is probably prohibited by a vast array of rules the President can change and laws he cannot. But Trump has already demonstrated his lack of concern for the rule of law.

This is the kind of micromanagement we are fast coming to expect from a President who has yet to learn what the powers and responsibilities of his office are. When a particular incident gets his attention, or the attention of one his cronies, he will act in a most non-presidential way, jumping over layers and layers of his own administration, disrespecting state and federal boundaries, and imposing his own brand of "political correctness" on others.

Welcome to the Trumpocene!

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