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Op-ed: What will I teach about U.S. morals and values next year?

First Published      Last Updated Mar 13 2017 02:19 pm

For five decades, I have taught United States history at the university level. This past year, I left my comfort zone and taught a course in the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. The course, designed as a Foundation for Leadership, emphasized integrity, ethics, morals and values by utilizing historical, literary and philosophical examples.

In the midst of the semester, the election of 2016 occurred. The campaign, election and now the first few weeks of a new administration repudiate and contradict most of what I believe and have taught about American political history. In a few months, my intellectual and personal world has been turned upside down.




Donald Trump's biographies, autobiography and business history should have sent warning signs to every American voter. In his book "The Art of the Deal," Trump outlined exactly how bullying, lying and manipulating create the leverage necessary to make the best deal. While the new president governs by executive orders, tweets his opinions, attacks anyone who questions and offends traditional allies, Congress is abdicating its constitutional responsibilities by inaction. The executive orders are announced as fulfillments of campaign promises, but have not been properly vetted by agencies responsible for administration.

Congress should carefully read Article One of the Constitution. When they do, hopefully they will realize that "this is us." Once reminded of their responsibilities, they have a duty to go to work for the nation. The United States is approaching a potential constitutional crisis, and the legislative branch's leadership remains unusually quiet. Congress must realize that regardless of party affiliation, they are colleagues, not enemies.

Trump and congressional leaders ask the nation to evaluate their performance after the first hundred days — a reference to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's response to the Great Depression. There was nothing in 2016 that resembled America in 1933. Roosevelt faced unemployment nearing 25 percent, unprecedented bank and farm failures and the rise of aggressive totalitarian states in Italy, Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan. There was no similar crisis that Trump, the nation and the Congress faced. Their crisis is self-­created because of political rhetoric generated in a heated presidential campaign. The president-­elect and congressional leaders squandered the lame-­duck period with self congratulatory victory tours and no legislative agenda.

Being elected president is not a reality show — this is the real world and congressional Republicans and Democrats must challenge potential autocracy within the executive branch. The United States has rarely had a chief executive who personalizes every criticism or responds in a petty manner to anyone who crosses him.

In 1922, Walter Lippmann wrote in his book "Public Opinion," "There is a world outside and there are pictures in our heads. Man behaves not according to the world as it really is, but to the world as he thinks it is." Trump convinced some Americans that their nation was not great, and by playing to their fears, prejudices and hatred, many believed Trump's "reality" could solve their problems.

Recently the New York Times published an essay by Charles J. Sykes, a Wisconsin conservative talk-­show host, entitled "Why Nobody Cares the President is Lying." Sykes chronicled the evolution of the media from fact-­based journalism that followed a process of verification and documentation to the current world of blogs, tweets, rumors, "alternative facts" and "fake news." In the process, truth has become irrelevant and Lippmann's thesis verified.

David Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, said the people deserve to know two basic things or the nation cannot move forward. First, the reality of Trump's personal business holdings and tax returns need to be explored and revealed. The transparency of any public servants' investments or obligations is absolutely essential in order to avoid conflicts of interest. Second, the world needs to know the details of any attempt by Russia to influence the 2016 election.

Vladimir Putin's goals have always been clear. He wants to weaken the U.S., destroy the EU and NATO and re-­establish control over many of the former Soviet Republics, especially the breadbasket, Ukraine.

America is on the verge of a crisis, and the legislative and judicial branches have a constitutional obligation to do their duty. An independent press protected by the First Amendment has the right to truthfully report all findings.

If Congress, including all six of the Utah delegation, fail to act, the debate will continue in the streets, and the possibility of an executive autocratic response is greatly enhanced. It is time for Congress to make a mark on history by becoming "Profiles in Courage."

I am left with the question, "What will I teach about integrity, ethics, morals, and values next year?"

Dr. F. Ross Peterson is an emeritus professor of history at Utah State University and is the past president of Deep Springs College.

 

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