Durbin Remarks At Oxford University On The State Of American Politics

U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) delivered the following remarks today at the Oxford Union at the University of Oxford on the state of American politics in the Trump era:

I want to thank the Oxford Union for inviting me to join you this fine evening.  You know, it can do funny things to one’s ego to be invited to speak at the Oxford Union.  When I received your invitation, I showed it to my wife, Loretta, and said, “Can you believe it?  The oldest, most revered debating society in the world asked me to speak.”  I said, “Think of the company I will be in,” and I rattled off the names of others who have spoken here before me, including Prime Ministers, Presidents and kings, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Malcolm X, the the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa.

My wife stopped me and said, “Dick, last year they invited Anthony Scaramucci to speak.” Mr. Scaramucci is, of course, remembered for his historic six-day tenure as President Trump’s White House communications director. I’m sure his reflections on that six-day career in public service were noteworthy.

Over the years Oxford University has helped mold some of the great minds in modern history -- geniuses including Sir Christopher Wren, Thomas More, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, Dr. Samuel Johnson, John Locke.  The list goes on:  Adam Smith, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher and, of course, that legendary Oxford scholar, Michael Palin.  I don’t know about you, but I know the world would be a poorer place indeed without Monty Python.

Watching the news these days, I am often reminded of one of the famous Monty Python skits.  You may know it.  A workman tells a mill owner that a machine in the mill is broken.  The mill owner asks, “How in the world could that happen?’  The exasperated worker replies, “I don’t know. I’m just delivering a message.  I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!”  Suddenly, three 15th century, red-clad cardinals burst through the doors and announce, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!  Our chief weapon is surprise! Surprise and fear!

Let me tell you, almost nobody in America expected President Donald J. Trump, either.  That includes – by many accounts – senior members of the Trump campaign and possibly even Donald J. Trump himself.  But here we are -- 17 months into the most bizarre presidency in my nation’s history. 

To be an American abroad in the age of Trump is to be asked two questions over and over again. 

What was America thinking?

And what’s next?

I hope this evening to offer some answers to those questions - and to place what is happening in America in some context.

Before we talk about President Trump, however, I want to tell you a story about an earlier occupant of the White House.  His name:  Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  His statue stands in Grosvenor Square in London, just outside the old American embassy.  In 1948 – a time of hardship and rationing – 190,000 British citizens paid five shillings each to pay for that statue.  They raised the money in under a week.

It’s hard today for many people to even imagine how fearful Americans were in 1933 when FDR became our 32nd President.  America had been beaten to its knees – not by war or invasion but by a Great Depression that had broken the nation’s confidence.  The American economic system was failing rapidly.  Days before FDR’s inauguration, the New York Stock Exchange suspended trading indefinitely.  In the three years since the crash of the stock market, millions of American jobs had disappeared, and business investment had dropped 90 percent.  The nation’s official unemployment rate was 25 percent, but in some areas, as many as 80 percent of adult men were out of work.  More than 5,000 banks had failed.  Money that people had spent a lifetime saving was simply gone.

A reporter asked the great British economist John Maynard Keynes if there was any precedent for what had happened to the world economy.  He replied: “Yes, it lasted for 400 years and it was called The Dark Ages.”

There was a perception among many that democracy was too slow to deal with the dizzying pace of such dangerous change.  The Chicago journalist and author Jonathan Alter wrote a book that captures the panic of the times.  It’s called “The Defining Moment:  FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.”

Many influential voices in America in 1933 called for a sort of benevolent dictator – in Alter’s words, “a strong leader unfettered by Congress or the other inconveniences of democracy.”  They pointed to Italy, where Benito Mussolini had seized power a decade earlier and revived the Italian economy.  In Germany – on the very day that Franklin Roosevelt became President of the United States – German citizens ratified Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s hold on power in a legal election.  Around the globe, democracy appeared to be on the ropes.

In researching his book, Jonathan Alter found a long-lost copy of a speech which suggests that even FDR himself may have harbored private doubts about whether democracy was adequate to the crisis roiling America.

The night before he was inaugurated, FDR had decided to give a speech the following evening to the American Legion – an organization of veterans of World War I.  In that lost speech, written by a member of FDR’s inner circle, the new President would claim the right to declare martial law and mobilize hundreds of thousands of war veterans -- apparently to guard banks, put down rebellions or do anything else the President commanded at “any phase” of the crisis, and the veterans would be duty-bound to obey.

Thankfully, in the end, President Roosevelt decided against giving that speech.   And rather than curtail democracy, he chose to energize it.  In his first 100 days as President, FDR and his allies in Congress enacted dozens of major bills that revived America’s economy, outlawed the sort of reckless speculation that caused the Crash and helped ultimately to create the largest, most prosperous middle class the world has ever known.

A Japanese diplomat negotiating his nation’s surrender at the end of World War II offered a powerful testimonial on the ability of democracy to withstand even the harshest tests.  “We were not beaten on the battlefield by dint of superior arms,” this Japanese diplomat said, “We were beaten in a spiritual contest by a nobler idea.”

In the years following World War II, while an “Iron Curtain” descended over Eastern Europe,  the United States, Great Britain and our western allies created new institutions to defend the “nobler idea” of democracy against a new form of tyranny:  communism.  The United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, NATO and the European Union were all parts of this shared, global defense of democracy.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Cold War ended.  In the long twilight struggle of totalitarianism and democracy, democracy prevailed.

According to Pew Research, in the first two decades after the fall of the Wall, the number of democracies in the world nearly doubled – and now include nearly six out of 10 nations.  Consider Latin America.  Only a few decades ago it was rife with military dictatorships, and now is almost entirely democratic. 

On November 9, 2017 -- 27 years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall -- Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States.

As you know, we have two main political parties in the United States:  Republicans and Democrats.  At times in the past, Donald Trump has been called a Democrat.  He ran and was elected President as a Republican.  The truth is, his disruptive politics don’t fit easily with either party.  From Day One of the Trump Presidency, we have witnessed a non-stop, tweet-fueled assault on the institutions and norms of American democracy.  Many of these attacks are right out of the autocrat’s handbook.   I won’t try to list them all now but let me give you a few.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a Senator from the state of New York.  He was a sociologist and diplomat, a public intellectual and a great wit.  During a debate in the Senate, he once famously told another Senator, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”  That proposition is being tested by President Trump and those around him.

It started even before the campaign with his nagging insistence that President Obama was born in Kenya.  It continued through the campaign.  One infamous example:  Candidate Trump asserted that the father of one of his opponents for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, was somehow involved in the assassination of President Kennedy.

The Washington Post has been keeping a running tally of President Trump’s departures from truth and reality.  The last count was over 3,000 lies.  That’s more than six public lies a day. He is indeed a busy President.

The day before America’s presidential election, the Oxford Dictionaries announced its 2016 “word of the year.”  The word was “post-truth” – an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief'.”  Oxford’s president of dictionaries – now there’s a great title – said that use of the word “post-truth” increased by 2,000 percent in 2016 – fueled in large part by the Brexit debate in the U.K and the Republican presidential primary in the U.S.

On Day Two of the Trump presidency, a White House spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, coined a classic Orwellian term.  She called the Administration’s outrageously inflated estimates of the crowd size at the President’s inauguration – quote: “alternative facts.”  But democracy depends on citizens knowing, and being able to debate, real facts.  Democracy cannot survive in a political atmosphere where you can’t tell truth from falsehood.

President Trump is deliberately undermining public faith in the traditional arbiters of America’s democracy – the institutions that exist to separate fact from fiction and hold those in power accountable.

He has called the media – quote – “the enemy of the American people.”  He dismisses any news that is critical of him as “fake news.”   And his broadsides against the press seem to be working.  According to a recent poll, one-third of all Americans – and nearly two-thirds of Trump supporters – agree that the media are the enemy of the American people.

President Trump has questioned the integrity of federal judges and the authority of federal courts.  One week into his Presidency, when federal judges ordered an emergency stay of his ban on people from predominately Muslim countries entering the U.S., the President expressed astonishment that a judge could overrule a Presidential order.  He has denounced America’s federal court system as “broken and unfair,” “a joke” and “a laughingstock.”  He attacks judges personally.  He has suggested that judges and the courts would be to blame for any future terrorist attacks.

This is not the design of a democracy.  Impartial judges and an independent judiciary are at the heart of our Constitution and laws.  They depend on public trust and confidence for their legitimacy and authority.

Oddly, one group the President refuses to criticize is the group that actually did attack American democracy:   Russian military intelligence agencies that waged a cyberattack on our 2016 elections.

The Russian interference was the most serious attack on America’s national security since 9/11.  U.S. intelligence agencies agree that the meddling was meant to harm Hillary Clinton, help the Trump campaign and sow division and chaos in American society.  President Trump calls investigations into the attacks a “witch hunt.”

He disparages the members of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. as liars and leakers.  The President sacked the head of the FBI when he refused to pledge his loyalty to the Trump team -- and then went on national TV to unabashedly declare his strategy.

Seventy years ago, America helped create multilateral institutions and agreements that have protected the peace in Europe and beyond, spread democracy and enhanced prosperity around the globe.  Today, America’s commitment to these institutions -- and to the very idea of working with other nations to advance shared interests – is in doubt.

Questioning the value of NATO and withdrawing America from the Paris Climate Agreement has strained our relations with our closest allies.  The decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement unilaterally – over the urgent pleas of Prime Minister May, Foreign Secretary Johnson, French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel …will add to that strain.  It will also force Iran to work more closely with China and Russia and I am afraid that it will make conflict in the region more likely, not less.

So, returning to the question that Americans are asked so often these days:  What were we thinking? One writer aptly described the appeal of Donald Trump to many Americans.  They may not have agreed with -- or even known -- his position on many issues.  On some matters, they may have flat disagreed with him. But they voted for him because they believed he would “shake things up.” As one writer put it, he was their own “personal Molotov cocktail” aimed at a system they believe is stacked against them.

I know statistics make the eyes glaze over.  But bear with me, because a few numbers may help explain this American frustration.  In the United States, the wealthiest 1 percent captured 95 percent of all the wealth created since the end of the financial crisis in 2009. During the same period the bottom 90 percent became poorer.  The wealthiest 1 percent now own 35 percent of America’s wealth, while the poorest half owns just 2.5 percent.

There’s more:  Income inequality in America is now greater, and more intractable, than it was in the 1920s, just before the stock market crash.  The chief executive officers of 350 top American companies are paid 332 times more than the average U.S. worker. Wall Street bonuses alone are twice the amount of all the combined earnings of minimum-wage workers in America.

In a poll two years ago, 71 percent of Americans said they believe the economy is rigged.  25 percent said they hadn’t taken a vacation in more than five years.  Seventy-one percent said they were afraid of unexpected medical bills and 51 percent were worried about missing a mortgage payment.  Fewer than 60 percent of American families have savings of $1,000 -- an amount which could be depleted easily by a major car repair or a trip to the hospital emergency room.

Louis Brandeis, the eminent U.S. Supreme Court Justice, warned nearly a century ago that “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few – but we can’t have both.”

That brings me to this sobering finding:   In another recent poll, 35 percent of American workers surveyed said that they would give up their right to vote in elections for life – and more than 9 percent said they would also give up their children’s right to vote for life -- in exchange for a 10 percent increase in pay.  If you listen closely, you may hear echoes of those Americans in 1933 – unsure whether democracy can solve the crises of our time and hoping for a strongman to set things right again -- willing to sacrifice freedom for security.

And we know that the doubts about liberal democracy today are not limited just to America.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has written a new book called “Fascism: A Warning” In it she tells us personal story of authoritarianism.  Madeleine was born in Czechoslovakia.   Three of her four grandparents were Jews who perished in the Holocaust.  Her parents raised their children as Christians to try to protect them.  Her own family survived the Holocaust by seeking refuge in England during World War II.  They returned home after the war only to be exiled again – this time to America – when communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948.

The foreword to her new book contains a haunting quote from the great Holocaust writer Primo Levi.  “Every age,” he said, “has its own fascism.”  In the 20th century, the struggle against fascism was a struggle against Hitler and Mussolini.  Today,” Secretary Albright writes, “we are in a new era, testing whether the democratic banner can remain aloft amid terrorism, sectarian conflicts, vulnerable borders, rogue social media and the cynical schemes of ambitious men.”  “The answer,” she says, “is not self-evident.”

We are certainly aware of countries such as Russia, Venezuela, Cambodia, Egypt, and others that conduct illegitimate elections in which opposition candidates and parties are banned or jailed or voting results manipulated.  But now in nations as varied as Turkey, Poland and Hungary, anti-democratic leaders are actually winning democratic elections.  They use their victories to then weaken the exact democratic institutions that let them win in the first place.

In some cases, they are offering what they claim is a new kind of democracy – “illiberal democracy” – or what the one political observer calls “democracy without rights.”  There are elections, but there are no protections for minorities, or dissent.  Parties espousing this hollow form of democracy are on the rise in Germany, France, Austria, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Syria, in the world’s largest democracy, India, and elsewhere.

Sadly, with his attacks on civic institutions and civil discourse, Donald Trump has emboldened authoritarian leaders around the world.

Madeleine Albright identifies four conditions that are needed in order for authoritarianism to threaten and even topple democracies.  The first is rapid technological and social change coupled with economic anxiety and gaping economic inequality.  Second:  Authoritarian regimes exploit grievances over perceived lost glory and promise a return to past national greatness.  Something like, “Make Our Country Great Again.”

Third: Authoritarian regimes are nationalistic.  They act in their own narrow self-interest rather than with other nations to advance shared interests. President Trump has revived the old isolationist slogan of “America First.”  Finally, importantly, Fascism always needs an enemy – internal or external.  For authoritarianism to take root, there needs to be a perceived threat to national identity and a security threat from “outsiders” – Jews or Gypsies, migrants or Muslims. 

Today, immigration is the gasoline on the fire of fascism. Political leaders with authoritarian impulses are trying to advance their agendas by casting immigrants as scapegoats and threats, whether it is Syrian war refugees in Germany, African economic migrants in Italy, Mexican and Central American immigrants in America or EU emigres in England.

On January 11 I was in the Oval Office when President Trump asked angrily why America accepts so many immigrants and refugees from Haiti, Africa and other – in his words “s-hole countries.”  I was stunned to hear such language in that room. As the son of a mother who immigrated to America I know that Trump’s hateful rhetoric against immigrants and refugees is becoming a core Republican belief.

Today’s global refugee problem may feel overwhelming, but it is nothing compared to the refugee crises our nations will face in 10 and 20 years if we fail to address the threats that are pushing so many people from their own lands.  Climate change, conflict, corruption, extreme poverty and lethal global pandemics are all problems that can only be solved through sustained, enlightened, cooperative action.

The President’s party holds the majority in both houses of Congress now – the Senate and the House of Representatives.  Regrettably, the majority has so far failed to demand accountability from the President or challenge his incivility or his autocratic impulses.  But thank goodness, other institutions – and the American people – are pushing back.

One recent poll estimated that four in ten Americans participated in a political protest during President Trump’s first year in office. For many, it was their first protest ever.  The brave survivors of the Parkland high school shooting massacre in Florida have rallied millions of Americans to demand stronger gun safety laws.  They give me hope.

In closing, I’ll leave you with one last thought from Franklin Roosevelt.  In his first inaugural address, in the midst of America’s gravest crisis since the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt acknowledged: “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”  But he also reassured us that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Franklin Roosevelt knew that hope is more powerful than fear.  Fear divides; hope unites.  Fear can cause us to see threats that don’t exist and see phantom enemies in our ranks. Fear tells us we can’t win unless we abandon our principles.  Hope says we can’t lose unless we abandon our ideals.  Fear can provoke outbursts of action.  But sustained action -- the kind of action that is needed to meet formidable challenges of today– can only come from hope.

Thank you again, Oxford Union.  Now I’ll do my best to answer your questions.