Like nabbing Al Capone for tax evasion

I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Capone was a murder and thief, an amoral gangster — and the law was unable to bring him down for the truly evil things he did, but could jail him for the lesser crime of tax evasion. It was a useful tactic for ending a criminal regime, but two things are bothersome: that we were inadequate to the task of stopping a murderer, and isn’t it revealing that the more easily prosecutable crime in a capitalist was society was a crime against property?

It just seems like we’re constantly pussy-footing around the gross corruption of the Trump regime, and have dispatched people like Mueller to investigate and find some little hook, a violation of campaign finance law, perhaps, or lesser offense that, because of the ways our laws work, are easier to nail him on. That seems like a bad precedent to me. The man is openly incompetent and dangerous, and we pin our hopes for getting him out of office on a badly filed form, or a personal peccadillo, and we can’t remove him for being terrible at his job? Something is wrong here.

Case in point: Scott Pruitt.

It is ironic and pathetic and dangerous how the media, the Democratic party leadership and too many liberals are now focusing everyone’s attention on Scott Pruitt’s expenses and petty scandals to discredit him. When we look at who Scott Pruitt really is, and what he’s really done, we can see that going after him this way is like catching a naked mass murderer right in the act and then charging him with indecent exposure. It is hugely dangerous because it mis-directs people away from the immense real danger represented by Pruitt.

It’s the same thing! The man is ragingly bad at what ought to be his job.

Pruitt is a Hard Core Christian Fascist Playing a Key Role at the Core of the Trump/Pence regime.

For years Pruitt has been one of the most prominent right-wing attack dogs against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when (during previous administrations before Trump/Pence) it was still in the main carrying out its stated mission of protecting the environment using science and scientific principles to monitor and assess the health of the environment.

He has been an open unapologetic lobbyist for energy firms for many years.

But more than this, Pruitt is a Christian fascist. He sits on the board of directors of the Southern Seminary, one of the largest seminaries in the world and the largest of the denomination’s (Southern Baptists) six seminaries. He is one of the main sponsors of the weekly cabinet-level biblical study group along with: Vice President Mike Pence, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, CIA Director (and now Secretary of State designate) Mike Pompeo and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

This study group is run by Ralph Drollinger an infamous far-right extremist pastor who was disavowed by his own church for his bigoted ideology. His group also has similar study groups in the U.S. House and Senate and in 43 State assemblies. In a September 2015 interview, Drollinger described his mission as creating a “factory” to mass-produce politicians like Michele Bachmann, who is on the Capitol Ministries board. “She thinks Biblically,” Drollinger said. “She doesn’t need a whole lot of time to figure out how to vote because she sees the world through a scriptural lens. We need more men and women like her in office.” Drollinger has praised the new (Trump/Pence) administration for its power to “change the course of America in ways that are biblical.”

Yet none of that is indictable. We can have a radical religious bigot placed outside of his qualifications in a high position with the specific purpose of destroying the office under his charge, and nothing can be done. But hey, maybe he filed an inappropriate expense report! Maybe he spent too much on office furniture!

It’s too much to hope that failing to meet the obligations and trust expected of a political servant might be grounds for dismissal. That’s all I ask — not that they go to jail (although they should) or be hung from a lamppost or be water-boarded at Gitmo by our pro-torture government, but that they be dismissed from the jobs they cannot do. And that maybe our vetting process for high office involve less about ideology and more about basic competence.


  1. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Thing is, none of this is a surprise. He was nominated with the express purpose of dismantling the work of the EPA, and all but one gop Senator (Collins), along with two Democrats (Manchin and Heitkamp), voted to confirm him, knowing exactly what he would do.

    And even if he’s driven out of office because of the cone of silence or whatever, as long as the gop is in control they’ll find someone just as bad.

  2. Doubting Thomas says

    Yes, everyone with an ounce of intelligence sees what’s happening and no one knows what to do about it. The only advice is “vote them out”. By the time that happens, they’ve done their damage and escaped with their golden parachutes. The major flaw in our system of representative democracy.

  3. Chris J says

    You say “bad at his job,” a republican says “great at his job.” At least with legal violations there is some shared understanding across the aisle that the law is nonpartisan.

    Well, if you ignore the modern Republican habit of calling any investigation into their side a witch hunt, and any investigation into a Democrat unfinished until the person they dislike is arrested…

    Anyway, point is that any standard you try to out in place to measure how good someone is at there job is likely to be or be seen as a partisan ploy. Its why some folks insist that the only remedy is to vote.

  4. Michael says

    I’m reminded of Gulliver’s observations in Brobdingnag, where politicians get appointed on their ability to do silly tricks which have nothing to do with the jobs they are appointed to.

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Seems we get bit by our ideals. Like “allowing 10 guilty to go before convicting a single
    Innocent person”, the slogan accompanying the need for “without a shadow of a doubt” to convict someone. Seems all the objections to Pruitt, et al, are collections of impressions with no solid provable infractions of the major issues, leading to falling back on minor issues they may have overlooked covering over,

  6. willj says

    It’s a never ending war. A democracy can vote itself out of existence. Look at Hungary. As Sinclair Lewis said in the 1930’s: “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

    Democrats were complacent in the last election. Now Trump/FoxNews has undone almost everything Obama did, and we’ve got crooks everywhere. Better not happen again.

  7. Rich Woods says

    “change the course of America in ways that are biblical.”

    Doesn’t the common usage of the adjective here imply an impending catastrophe? That’s probably not what he meant to suggest.

  8. brutus says

    Firing someone for being bad at his or her job is simple with most jobs but notoriously difficult with the U.S. presidency. Numerous reasons for this, not least of which is the extraordinary effort and expense that goes into campaigning and elections. The inability to remove someone undesirable from office, as opposed to the litany of extrajudicial remedies you mention (but disclaim), might be better interpreted as a success for the rule of law, lest we succumb to becoming the monsters we wish to defeat.

  9. cartomancer says

    The Athenians in the Fifth Century BC were much better on this issue. Their eisangelia (impeachment) law was very wide-ranging indeed. Any citizen could bring a case against any magistrate at any time, before the citizen assembly or the council that managed it, and serious ones were passed on to the citizen court of the heliaia for judgement. There was no limitation on when the prosecution could be brought – you didn’t have to wait until the magistrate’s annual term was up, and could bring it years later if the full impact didn’t come to light.

    But an eisangelia trial was only one of the means by which Athenians could remove their magistrates from office. Ten times during the political year, at the primary meeting of the citizen assembly (ekklesia kyria) for that division (prytany), the citizen body voted on whether an apocheirotonia was to be held – a vote of no confidence in the entire government. If they decided the vote should take place then each official was presented before the assembly in turn, and anyone whom the majority of the citizens decided wasn’t doing a good job would be ejected from office and a new citizen would be allotted to fill his place. Furthermore, upon leaving office a magistrate had to submit himself to the euthynai procedure, whereby he presented his accounts for audit and the courts invited anyone with non-financial grievances to present them as formal charges. If none of these things worked then the citizen body had final recourse to Ostracism, whereby a quorate vote of the people could exile any citizen from the territory of Attica for a decade on pain of death.

  10. jrkrideau says

    It occurs to me that if Josef Mengele were alive, Trump would be submitting his name for US Surgeon General.

  11. chrislawson says

    slithey tove@5–

    I think you’ll find the objections to Pruitt are well documented behaviours rather than vague impressions. PZ’s point is that there is no punishment for those “solid provable infractions of the major issues”, so the only way to remove a Presidential favourite from office, even a blatantly corrupt and incompetent one, is to find a relatively minor infraction that is punishable.

  12. chrislawson says


    I’m not sure the Athenian system would work in the current US climate. I’m not even sure it worked all that well in ancient Athens.

  13. colinday says

    Would you have been OK with the German tax authorities nailing Hitler for tax evasion? They did investigate him.

  14. willj says

    eamick @16 My bad. The quote is attributed to him almost everywhere, including the profile on the right with a google search.

  15. canadiansteve says

    The real issue here is that neither being terrible at your job nor being a terrible person are illegal. Trump was voted in legally, and he gets to pick his minions (with the consent of the other elected representatives, who have supported him all the way). Democracy got us into this situation and the limitations of democracy will ensure the eventual collapse of the system. Not meaning to sound pessimistic, but yeah, I’m very pessimistic.

  16. cartomancer says

    chrislawson, #14,

    I’d say Athens did rather well for itself by the standards of medium-sized city states in the mid first millennium BC. Of course it had its problems, but an inability to get rid of harmful actors on the political stage was not one of them. If anything Athens was rather too zealous in discarding people and laws it didn’t like, and changing its mind on policy issues rather quickly and mercurially.

    My point, I suppose, is that Athens took democracy seriously. Its commitment to making its magistrates answerable to the people at large went well beyond what most modern states have. Indeed, in the case of the USA one might note that such institutions as the Electoral College were created precisely to reduce the degree to which democratic power could influence the political landscape of the nascent American oligarchy. James Madison himself echoed Aristotle when he noted that economic inequality is antagonistic towards democracy, though Aristotle’s solution was to reduce economic inequality if you wanted a functioning democracy, while Madison was in favour of limiting democracy to protect the wealth of the powerful. Make no mistake, the system did not get this way by accident.

    As for whether an Athenian-style system of direct democracy would work in a modern nation state… well, clearly it would have to be significantly modified to take into account the much increased complexity of the business of government in the modern world, but I certainly think we would benefit from greater democratic power than we currently have. Provided, of course (something the Athenians knew full well), the increased democracy was accompanied by improved education and measures to prevent misinformation and manipulation of the media.

  17. springa73 says

    With Capone, I think the reason they had to use tax evasion is that his more serious crimes didn’t leave a paper trail, and witness testimony wasn’t possible because everyone who knew anything was too afraid of him to testify.

    An Athenian-style system, where it is very easy to remove people from power, would probably create very rapid government changes and not leave anyone in office long enough to even formulate a coherent policy, good or bad. I suppose if you wanted a very unstable government, that would be the way to go.

    One of the downsides of living in an electoral system is that sometimes you just have to put up with people who you hate being elected.

  18. monad says

    I suspect if America had ostracism, it would get rid of pretty much all its politicians and the government would shut down. Athenians had a strong interest in not doing something like that, which would leave them helpless. And it would leave most Americans helpless too – but it’s exactly the agenda people like Pruitt have anyway, in hopes corporations and churches can take over the void.

  19. cartomancer says

    Athens, of course, was much smaller than the modern USA. At its height there were probably no more than about 300,000 people living in Attica, a third of whom were citizens. So its problems were those of a large town in our terms, rather than a large country. Clearly their political system, in all its details, would not work for something much larger. But I do think there are many lessons that can be learned from it about how democracy works, and this issue of accountability and mechanisms for removing harmful political actors is one of them.

    Mind you, it strikes me that the USA is far too large to govern effectively in any case. I think it would be much better off if it was disbanded and each of the fifty states governed itself as an independent sovereign country. Not least because then the vast and wasteful military spending that the national government does could not continue on anything like the scale it has currently reached.

    But if having a system like ostracism meant the people of the USA would vote away all their politicians, this says something about the existence of a professional political class in the USA and the degree to which it has become estranged from the people it is supposed to represent. A problem not unique to the USA, of course. In Athens it could work because most politicians were ordinary citizens chosen by lot (only the board of ten generals and one or two financial officials were elected by vote), so they weren’t seen as a class apart to be suspected and disliked. If you have to have a professional political class, though, then that means they need much more scrutiny than the Athenians gave to randomly allotted citizen magistrates, not less as they currently get.

  20. says

    The obvious counter point is that America, as a country, voted for this. Either that, or voted in ignorance, which is a little patronising and would be hard to demonstrate.

    One of the unfortunate consequences of democracy is that when the majority wants something stupid and self destructive, the government is obliged to carry it out. The current situation here in the UK being a perfect example.

    You can make arguments about the electoral college, and the gerrymandering, and all the other ways the GOP has been cheating US elections for years, but it doesn’t erase the millions of people who genuinely wanted all of this to happen. If the US were a person, it would be suffering emotional distress so severe that self harm is a form of relief.