Several times each week, Americans are pressed with an odd question – how did we come to this? Who would have thought it possible, for example, that when the presidents of the United States and Russia give conflicting accounts of their joint discussions, most of us would assume that a murderous, dictatorial KGB operative was closer to the truth. Even Republicans seemed to wince: “It’s certainly conceivable Putin is lying, but we know Trump lies constantly – all day, every day, whether he needs to or not, he’s done it his whole life.” So my money, the theory goes, is on the Russian.
The New York Times now runs an updated compendium entitled “Trump’s Lies.” It likely had to add staff and computer capacity to shoulder the unwieldy burden. Constitutional law professors – like the eggheads we are – debate endlessly whether a president can be impeached for being a compulsive, perpetual and even psychotic liar. Many believe he has to add felonies to the cascade of mendacities – though, in a nuclear world, I agree with Justice Jackson that the Constitution isn’t a “suicide pact.”
I spent most of the last two weeks with Peace Corps volunteers in west Africa. (My youngest daughter is finishing her first year of service in a remote, 300-person village in The Gambia.) The young women and men astound. They’re paid tiny allowances for the 27-month commitment. They live among the resilient but intensely impoverished people they serve – without electricity, toilets or running water, typically in makeshift huts, defenseless against the brutal African heat. They master languages most of us have never heard of.
Their work is neither partisan nor glamorous. Building manageable chicken coops, planting and nurturing orchards, bringing potable water to isolated hamlets, introducing new crops and livestock, combating, first hand, the challenges of AIDS, teaching hopeful, if profoundly isolated students in dilapidated schools. They commit to unfamiliar and gigantically challenging lands. They do it largely on their own, with few nearby colleagues or available mentors – serving the cause of humanity in what John Kennedy called “the huts and villages of half the globe.”
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You can see the strength, openness and skepticism on their faces. They’re impatient with the excuses and failures of the past. They dream broadly but focus locally. They embrace new cultures rather than disdaining them. They’re convinced suffering is not alleviated by ideology. Their hearts are large. They deem sacrifice a virtue. They’re certain they’ve learned more from their hosts than vice versa.
And they foster our national mission. As Colin Powell put it: “we’re strongest when the face of America isn’t only a soldier carrying a gun but also a diplomat negotiating peace, a Peace Corps volunteer bringing clean water to a village or a relief worker stepping off a cargo plane.”
Donald Trump proposes to slash the Peace Corps budget by $12 million, some 15 percent, the largest cut to the program in over 40 years. He’d break a bipartisan presidential tradition of support for the corps that has endured for generations. The director indicates the ranks of volunteers (7,200) would be sharply cut in the years ahead; communities and projects would be abandoned. Trump is no fan of “soft-power.” And room has to be made for tax cuts for billionaires.
So what’s the connection, it’s reasonable to ask, between the Peace Corps and Trump’s character-denying perjuries?
There is a brutal existential discordance when one as base as Donald Trump can threaten and wound something as ennobling as the Peace Corps. Our ethical underpinnings slip a cog. A deep loss of moral standing is triggered – like when we bailed out Wall Street thieves, even paying their absurd bonuses, as waitresses, teachers and miners lost their jobs and homes, unremedied. What kind of people would accept such an outcome?
In Trump’s world these young heroes are losers. They toil in obscurity. They come home broke. They put others’ comfort and prospects above their own. They don’t want the world to quake in fear at America’s greatness. Their patriotism calls them to use marked skills, boundless energies and opened arms to forge partnership with less generously blessed peoples across the globe.
To our president, they’re chumps. For him, the only reason to deal with a place like Gambia is to exploit its people and resources. Winners take. They use. They grow the bottom line. They produce bigger buildings, larger portfolios. All the world envies them. Character, selflessness and service aren’t part of the framework. They never enter the calculus. They never have.
The Trump era poses one of history’s great challenges to American culture and the institutions and values it cherishes. Resistance, as they say, must come from every quarter. We’ve made a severe electoral mistake. But we haven’t surrendered the obligation to prove worthy of our ancestry. As Frederick Douglass explained, “the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those they oppress.”
Contributing columnist Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina. His daughter’s Peace Corps posting would be unaffected by Trumps proposals.