Was John C. Chalberg’s March 24 commentary, “Donald Trump, James Polk and presidential parallels,” an effort to burnish Trump’s reputation? There are major flaws in his comparison.
Somehow Chalberg suggests that fighting a war to secure territory that included about 80,000 Mexicans is the equivalent of building a wall that keeps immigrants out. He also believes that a “beneficent empire” was at least partly the result of our annexation of half of Mexico, despite denying citizenship and property rights to the Mexicans, suddenly “foreigners” in the United States. He then poses a number of questions suggesting that Trump’s wall could preserve the power of the U.S., presumably by preventing a second civil war (citing hints of secession in California and Texas). Or that secession could result in a loss of American power and its ability to do good.
Under Trump, the U.S. has already sacrificed its ability to do good. While Polk was anti-monarchy as a Jacksonian Democrat, Trump embraces authoritarians and belittles our democratic allies. The international community no longer views us as a beacon of democracy; our influence is waning. Trump’s foreign-policy efforts are erratic at best.
While Polk spent 12 hours a day working, Trump indulges in vacation time spending hours tweeting. He has a notoriously short attention span, reluctant to read lengthy explanations of complex issues. Polk’s political appointees were experienced, while Trump’s have frequently been unqualified and/or ousted. Polk was a state legislator, governor of Tennessee, and a member of the U.S. House for 14 years (speaker for four years); Trump is a self-promoting businessman with little knowledge of the Constitution and U.S. history, and with several bankruptcies to his name. He is also a skilled demagogue, with thousands of documented lies. Trump’s pursuit of self-interest is not integrity.
Chalberg’s notion that Trump might blunder into a border policy that strengthens U.S. power and influence for good seems highly unlikely. He is far more likely to preside over the decline of American democracy.
Diane M. Ring, Minneapolis
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Chalberg states that while the war Polk launched against Mexico in 1846 brought us Texas, an enormous new slave state, and pushed the nation closer to Civil War, Polk himself “was not terribly interested in slavery one way or another.” This statement is profoundly in error.
The plain fact is that Polk was deeply invested in the 25 to 30 enslaved laborers who worked his Mississippi plantation and that his methods of exploiting them bordered on the criminal. His plantations’ annual cash profits averaged almost 8 percent. More than half of the children among Polk’s slaves died before reaching age 15, and the overall death rate on his plantation was higher than elsewhere in the South. The majority of his married slaves experienced a disruption of their unions because of sale or movement of a spouse. While a congressman, he repeatedly expressed his belief that whipping promoted obedience, yet records of Polk’s plantation showed that he would not hesitate to sell slaves who defied him.
These facts are all too familiar to scholars who have consulted William Dusinberre’s book “Slave Master President: The Double Career of James K. Polk.” Mr. Chalberg’s obliviousness to them raises serious doubts about his competence as a historian and undermines his credibility as an apologist for our current president.
James Brewer Stewart, St. Paul
The writer is an emeritus James Wallace Professor of History at Macalester College.
GREEN NEW DEAL
A strong climate response wouldn’t seek to eliminate nuclear energy
Bonnie Blodgett (“Deep breadth,” March 24) believes that climate change demands a strong nationwide response, and I couldn’t agree more. But her endorsement of the Green New Deal fails to mention that it calls for phasing out nuclear energy electrical generation over the next 10 years — on the same timeline as coal and other fossil fuels! Minnesotans receive more than 20 percent of their electricity from nuclear energy, and that is an amount that should increase, not decrease.
Steve McCauley, Minneapolis
TAXES AND SPENDING
A larger lesson about how our state ranks against the others
D.J. Tice (“How we rank on taxes and spending?” March 24) aptly summarizes how Minnesota stands compared with other states on taxes and spending, but he notably leaves out what that has bought us. In addition to more compassionate treatment of those who are in need, we enjoy a reputation as “the state that works,” the “good-government state,” and the “state with a heart.” We have made the Minnesota lifestyle iconic and enviable. All of that costs money, sacrifice, some hard work, and some professional newspapers. (“Minnesota nice” isn’t really relevant here, but we’ll throw it in for provocation.)
I’m comfortable with where we stand, although I hope congressional representatives would work a little harder to garner funds for housing for the homeless all over the country, because we don’t want Minnesota to become a mecca for people who need shelter — one state cannot meet all the needs of the country’s homeless. But aside from such concerns, Democrats could do a better job of combating the canard that they just love to tax and spend; Democrats pay the same taxes as Republicans, and are just as careful with taxpayers’ dollars — they just don’t spend them on the rich, in the form of tax cuts and regressive taxation. And Democrats who have regained the majority have had to work hard to erase deficits left by Republicans, so conservatives should not try to peddle that story when the facts are against them!
Mary McLeod, St. Paul
An admonition from history
“It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” So spoke Frederick Douglass, reminding all of us, including the members of the Minnesota Legislature, that the long-term financial and psychological costs of withholding funds for services that support families and children (such as paid family leave) are huge.
Helen Carlson, Richfield
Call your mom
It’s 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Do you know where your mother is?
Well, if she’s like many of my neighbors, in this assisted-living senior center, she’s sitting with friends, chatting and making excuses for the absence of her children today, many of whom live just a few miles away — some even closer, in our same town.
She’s lonely, your mom. She’s not unhappy, exactly. But she’d feel better if she got a weekly phone call. Lots better if she saw you once or twice a month.
So, where are you? Watching your grandkids? Working on the endlessly growing list of Saturday’s errands that didn’t get done? Enjoying sports on TV, with a beer? Not a single spare hour? All day?
Remember when Mom bundled you and herself up and took you skating? Helped you gather your supplies and drove you to the library? Quizzed you on the elements table for your chemistry test? Sat on the windblown sidelines and watched you kick that soccer ball down the field? Fed you and your hungry friends after the game? Was always there when you needed her?
Now she needs you. So where are you?
Suzanne Varisco, Apple Valley