Two panels consisting of political leaders, journalists and scholars convened at the Paramount Wednesday to discuss political polarization and unity in the context of the American presidency as part of this year’s Tom Tom Founders Festival. The event was hosted with the Miller Center of Public Affairs.
The Tom Tom Founders festival, an annual week-long event, began Monday. The event seeks to empower the next generation of visionaries and transform Charlottesville through a series of events relating to politics, art, business and innovation.
Although the festival focuses heavily on entrepreneurship, this panel — entitled “The Presidency at a Crossroads” — looked at American democracy in the era of President Donald Trump.
This event featured guests from outside the University, including Bill Kristol, conservative political commentator and editor at large at The Weekly Standard, Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and John Negroponte, director of National Intelligence during the George W. Bush administration.
Miller Center Director and CEO William Antholis and Director of Public Programs Douglas Blackmon both served as moderators, and Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor in presidential studies, spoke as a panelist.
The inclusion of Negroponte on the panel served as a point of controversy for some in attendance, who claimed he oversaw human rights abuses during his time as Honduran Ambassador under President Ronald Reagan — a 1995 Baltimore Sun investigation found Negroponte knew and did not act on of military abuses in Honduras while he was ambassador. Negroponte has denied the allegations.
Michael Johnson, a protester who was handing out flyers outside of the event, said Negroponte was complicit in unethical acts by the United States government.
“John Negroponte has been involved in some really heinous war crimes against Iraq, in helping the Bush administration to prosecute an unjust and illegal war and also in running the war in Honduras against the Nicaraguans,” Johnson said.
The first panel was structured so that Negroponte was brought to the stage alone, alongside Antholis who prompted him to discuss his experience in the White House, Trump’s current foreign policy and his opinion on the current status of our country’s national intelligence.
Negroponte said, citing the rapid turnover in White House staff since Trump took office, that he “would not pronounce it as abnormal at this particular point in time … particularly with a president who has not had prior government experience.”
Negroponte does advise, however, that the president’s key advisors be able to work together effectively.
“It’s very important that...three key advisors he has in national security get along with each other,” Negroponte said. “That is, his secretary of state, secretary of defense and the national security advisor … the relationship between those three is absolutely critical to managing a successful national security and diplomatic policy.”
After Negroponte, a separate panel was moderated by Blackmon, featuring Kristol, Tanden and Hemmer. The three political aficionados discussed the White House after 15 months of a Trump presidency.
Blackmon posed questions about how Trump rose to the position of president and how America is responding.
The panelists had various opinions of the genesis of Trump.
Tanden said Trump was a reaction to America’s first African-American president.
“A lot of what’s happened has been a far-right freakout to … an African American president”, Tanden said. “Thus the far right wanted, the polar opposite of Barack Obama… [which] is Donald Trump.”
Kristol had another explanation — he said Trump was given the “perfect storm” of circumstances to run for presidency due to increasing partisan polarization.
The conversation shifted to the status of the Trump presidency.
“If your status is, ‘Oh the earth hasn’t collapsed,’ then I guess it’s going pretty well,” Tanden said. “But I have higher standards for America.”
Kristol argued he’s less worried about the damage Trump has done so far as he is for what Trump will do for the rest of his tenure
“Some of the guardrails have come off, and he is getting more impetuous, as far as we can tell,” Kristol said.
He claimed this rashness can be mitigated by the stability of traditional American political and social structures.
“The institutions are pretty strong,” Kristol said. “We’ve had some good founders to set up the country ... having a demagogue as president doesn't destroy the judiciary, the media, universities, religious sectors [and] so forth.”
In an interview after the event, Hemmer said a significant effect of the Trump presidency would be the codification of democratic and American political norms into law.
“We have been relying — for the past 200-some-odd years — on laws, and in the next five to 10 years, a lot of norms are going to have to be turned into laws,” Hemmer said. “We saw after Watergate that … a lot of new laws were put into place.”
After further discussing the problems in the Trump administration, the speakers concluded with a reflection on the positive aspects of this presidency — specifically, the social forces Trump has unintentionally mobilized.
Not only does Tanden see hope in the role millenials have played in rectifying injustices, she said, but also the role women have played in demanding change.
“The teacher strikes, the health care rallies, the two women’s marches, which were the largest protests in American history … are all a primal scream amongst women that the election of [Trump] … is an assault on our dignity,” Tanden said.