Commentary

Halsey Frank: An unhappy anniversary

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Last year on January 6, I took the day off to go skiing with my son. We got up early and drove west across Maine to the mountains. On the way, we passed a number of Trump – Pence signs, some as large as tractor trailers. We skied all day and had no idea what had been going on, until we got back to the car around 3:30, and my phone started blowing up. On the drive back, we listened to the news and talked on the phone, catching up on the day’s events.

We learned how former President Trump met the crowd he had summonsed to D.C., at the Ellipse. How he repeated that he had won by a landslide, but the election had been rigged.  It was corrupt, crooked, criminal, he said. His victory had been stolen. The republic was at risk.

Trump told his audience that they were patriots. They shouldn’t stand for it. All they had to do was get the Vice President to reject Congress’ certification and send the electoral votes back to the states. He urged them to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, and be strong, not weak.

On the drive home, we passed signs with Pence’s name crossed out.

How did we get to the point that an incumbent president would call for his followers to march on Congress? That eight hundred people would respond by storming the Capitol in an attempt to thwart an election? That none of them understood or accepted how we elect a president? 

It has been a long time coming. The siege was just the most extreme manifestation of a downward spiral that both parties and the media had been propelling, with no end in sight.

The force motivating the spiral is resentment. As improbable as it seems for someone so fortunate, the former President harbors a longstanding and deep sense of grievance. He is bitter that he wasn’t taken seriously in the 2016 campaign (and before), that for more than four years, he was investigated, his election was undermined, his policies were attacked by the Democrats and the media, and he was impeached. Twice. 

In truth, he has some cause to feel resentment. He also shares some of the blame.

His followers feel similarly aggrieved. They feel that their values are under siege, that people from away are taking their jobs, that the media is prejudiced against them, that the government wants to take their guns, that the government disfavors their religion, that it favors people who are different from them, that the government has taken away their freedom, that their elections are tainted by fraud. They feel that no one stands up for them. 

And in Donald Trump they find their champion.

The central feature of Donald Trump’s personality, and the one that appeals to his constituency the most, is that he is a fighter. He lets no slight go unanswered. 

Few things are more appealing to people who feel oppressed than a person who is willing to fight. It is the key to Donald Trump’s political success. So much so that it almost got him reelected, notwithstanding all the forces that allied against him.

If that’s the explanation of how we got to this point, how do we back away from it? Not by ignoring the forces at work. Not by banning the former President from Twitter and other social media platforms. The relative calm may be welcome, but such measures are misguided. They will only fuel the resentment. And the former President has too many followers to ignore.

The answer is to resist the impulse to get mad and hit back. Instead, to engage and inform; be understanding, consistent, rational, and fair. It is incredibly hard to do in the context of such a large, complicated system, with so many constituencies, each with their own competing agendas, all of which have become intensely polarized. But the alternative is likely to backfire.

I moved from DC to Maine 22 years ago. It had two moderate, conservative Republican women senators, two Democratic representatives, and an Independent governor. Once here, I got involved in local affairs and became the chair of the Portland Republican City Committee, a member of the Cumberland County Republican Committee, the State Committee, the Platform Committee, and president of the Cumberland County Lincoln Club.

The fact that I was able to get so involved was good for me, but not necessarily a good sign. My committee represented the state’s largest city. But it was sparsely attended, and most of those who did attend were older. The few young people who got involved tended to be more extreme. They were confident that they understood how our democratic republic was supposed to work. They wanted the government to leave them alone, not to tax and regulate them. They eventually took over the committee, at least for a while. They were able to do so because more moderate elements weren’t willing to get involved.

The phenomenon is not peculiar to the Republican party. People across the political spectrum are disaffected. They have lost faith in their leaders, their institutions, the experts, the elites. It’s understandable. Our systems have grown too large and complex. Too many people don’t understand how their government is designed to work, and too many of the people who do understand aren’t using that understanding to operate the government as intended.

Our predicament reminds me that when asked what sort of government he and his fellow delegates to the constitutional convention were creating, Benjamin Franklin is reported to have responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin’s point was that a republic requires an informed and engaged citizenry for its continued good health. 

Citizens must share some basic values and understandings. At this point, too many of us do not. A good place to start to make a comeback would be to require that all high school students be taught the basic things that a person needs to know in order to be a citizen of our constitutional, federated, democratic republic.

Those things include understanding that self-government begins with governing yourself. Every citizen has a responsibility to inform themselves, involve themselves, and regulate themselves. To recognize that no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes; that government enables us to work together to improve ourselves. And to use that insight to restrain yourself in your dealings with others and your government.

Beyond that, to understand that at all levels of our federated republic, we govern indirectly. We make our laws through elected representatives. They represent constituents who did not vote for them as well as constituents who did. The laws they make are the product of numerous compromises, including compromises needed to form majorities. 

To use all those understandings to play your part and to accept the rule of law when it operates against your interest, because in the long run, overall, as imperfect as it is, it is better than the alternatives.

Photo: TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About Halsey Frank

Halsey Frank was born and raised in and around New York City and nearby Englewood, NJ. He graduated from the Dwight Englewood School, Wesleyan University and the Boston University School of Law. After law school, Halsey worked for the Department of Justice for 34 years, first as a civil litigator and later as a criminal prosecutor and civil attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. In 1999, Halsey moved to Maine where he worked as a civil attorney and criminal prosecutor in the U.S Attorney’s Office until 2017, when he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to be Maine’s U.S. Attorney, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the District of Maine. Halsey retired from the Department of Justice in February 2021. Prior to becoming a U.S. Attorney, Halsey was active in local affairs, including the Portland Republican City Committee, the Friends of Portland Parks, the Friends of the Portland Public Library and the Maine Leadership Institute. He previously authored a column entitled “Short Relief” that appeared in The Forecaster regional newspaper. His views are his own.

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