A crowd of 250 students, faculty and community members packed into Kane Hall 220 on Tuesday, Jan. 17, to hear former U.S. Congressman and Jackson School Affiliate Faculty Jim McDermott talk about the President’s ‘first 100 days‘.
The speech focused on the president-elect’s campaign promises, a feasible timeline for getting those promises through Congress and the process of political compromise.
McDermott was introduced by Jackson School Director, Professor Reşat Kasaba. Kasaba gave a brief overview of the former congressman’s impressive public service record which included one term as a state legislator, three consecutive terms in the State Senate and 28 years as a congressman in Washington D.C.
“These times are extremely tumultuous, I do not remember anything close to what is going on today,” said McDermott in his opening comments. He emphasized that, looking at the younger people and students in the audience, he views himself as a recruiter for young students to pursue work in government and public service.
Listen to his description here of his new ‘first 100 days’ graduate student seminar at the Jackson School.
One of the core issues bothering McDermott is the threat that Trump poses to American democracy and democratic values:
“It is the first time the President-elect is superseding the President. It is against protocol and all the rules as we practice them,” he said. “Democracy is our power: the people’s power and the elected legislators are working for the people. This is a huge test to our democracy.”
He underscored President-elect Trump as a “narcissistic land developer with no experience in government.”
Democracy Under Attack
The former congressman expressed concern that the norms of self-restraint will be harmed. Quoting from a New York Times article by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University, McDermott spoke of the litmus test to our democracy with the first principle being opposing violence, Trump meanwhile ran a “lock her up” campaign in his rallies against Hillary Clinton.
The second principle of democracy, he said, is about respecting your opponents and avoiding curtailing their liberties. “He attacks reporters, entertainers and celebrities,” observed McDermott.
Terrorizing reporters by using libel suits as a threat is one of Trump’s main tactics, as he wants to loosen the laws and make it easier to sue and threaten the media, he added.
Worrying Foreign Policy Moves
On the issue of foreign affairs, McDermott reminded the audience of several moves Trump made that go against protocol, like bypassing the State Department when calling Taiwan, or going after Germany’s Chancellor Angela Markel and attacking her immigration policy.
McDermott seemed particularly worried about Trump’s attack on the Iran deal:
“He [President-elect Trump] has a Congress that wants to raise sanctions which would push Iranians to pursue nuclear weapons. He discredited the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and avoids intelligence briefings. What is worrisome in all this is his refusal to listen to advice and the appointments in his inner circle.”
Breaking Campaign Promises
In discussing Trump’s campaign promises, McDermott spoke of the plan to get rid of NAFTA and questioned how that may affect the U.S.’s biggest trading partner, Canada. There is going to be a lot of push-back from Congress, he surmised.
McDermott, a psychiatrist by training, also highlighted the complexity of health care in America.
Noting health care is responsible for one-sixth of the U.S. economy, he said: “It took me around 26 years to get to the top of the health care committee in the House, and the idea that such a complex issue will be replaced so fast is simply delirious.”
Speaking about day-to day congressional work, McDermott said as part of the political process U.S. Congress works with the president while remaining somewhat independent.
“Two years from now the House gets re-elected and the representatives will need to explain to the public their actions,” he said. “In the case of repealing Obamacare, for example, that is a lot to account for.”
The Responsibility of the Public
McDermott ended with a message about political participation and public engagement, highlighting that public responsibility does not end in voting.
“If anyone in the audience is asking what can I do, I say that we are going back to the 1960s, the American people need to get off the couch and organize, push back, press Congress, no matter if the issue is immigration, civil rights or anything else. You have to be willing to go beyond the easy stuff, and get out there.”
The talk ended with a brief Q&A session reflecting on issues such as the specifics of initiating an impeachment protocol, the divide in the democratic party following the Bernie Sanders campaign, and the implications of a Trump presidency on returning military personnel who served in several wars during the past two decades.