Trump: A Retrospective

November 10, 2016

Donald Trump and the Rejection of Progressivism

Americans voted against the Left’s contempt for the Constitution.

One message to take away from Donald Trump’s presidential victory: Americans don’t want to be ruled. They prefer self-government. The election was not about liberals versus conservatives. Rather it was a contest between Progressivism and the anti-Progressivism of which Trump is the democratic—even the crudely demotic—embodiment.

After Barack Obama took Progressivism’s belief in government by hyper-educated experts purportedly guided only by the public interest to its ugly extreme with his supercilious, know-it-all demeanor, as if the views of those who saw the world differently were beneath contempt, the electorate grew fed up with the politics first molded by Woodrow Wilson and perfected in the New Deal. They didn’t want to be bossed around by the Environmental Protection Agency about what they could do on their own private property, as if filling in a hole on land 50 miles from the nearest navigable waterway fell under the EPA’s purview. They lost faith in both the expertise and the disinterestedness of such administrative-state agencies when the EPA set out to shut down America’s coal industry and put miners out of work based on a climate hypothesis that Trump voters did not believe was “settled science,” despite Obama’s haughty claim that their denial could only spring from the knuckle-dragging ignorance of people who, frightened by a changing world they couldn’t understand, clung to their religion and their guns, among other atavisms.

Trump voters didn’t like regulatory agencies that can make rules like legislators, can demand documents without a judge’s subpoena, can enter and search a business’s premises without a warrant to look for infractions of its rules, can charge an individual or company of wrongdoing without a grand jury indictment and adjudicate the guilt and exact the punishment without a jury of one’s peers or the supervision of a real judge but only an “administrative judge,” answerable to the agency whose case he is hearing— hardly impartially. Citizens vaguely sensed that such legislation without legislators and judging without judges rode roughshod over due process, the separation of powers, and indeed the Constitution and Bill of Rights that provides those precious barriers against tyranny. They saw the proliferation of such unaccountable agencies under the satirically named Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Law, and they not only didn’t like them but also didn’t like the costly increase in government employees to boss them around at such high salaries that the bedroom communities surrounding Washington became the nation’s richest neighborhoods, while the average citizen’s wages stagnated. It was hard not to think of Thomas Jefferson’s complaint in the Declaration of Independence that George III had “erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance”—so that the nation’s 22 million government employees now outnumber Americans who work in manufacturing.

Citizens grew apprehensive when elected officials around the country proposed outlawing climate denial, as if the First Amendment were not absolute and foundational to American liberty. They found the idea of “hate crimes” troubling, as if the specific belief in a malefactor’s mind, rather than the mere malice of his intent, made a difference in the degree of his culpability. And with colleges outlawing “hate speech,” and the increasing willingness of elite culture to silence politically incorrect utterance, they saw an ever-growing threat to the First Amendment’s freedom of belief and speech.

When the Internal Revenue Service undertook to exercise a pocket veto on the free speech of conservative nonprofits, citizens understood that the administrative agencies’ pretense of disinterested nonpartisanship was a lie, a mere mask for the exercise of tyrannical power in the one government function that James Madison wrote in The Federalist especially required the utmost impartiality. When Congress passed Obamacare without even reading it, when the Supreme Court blessed it by saying that the law said what it explicitly did not say, Americans saw that they had gone far into the realm of lawless power. And when President Obama used his pen and his phone to govern as arbitrarily as the Stuart kings, flooding the country with illegal aliens and bogus asylum-seekers whose schooling, health care, and housing were to be paid for by citizens who no longer had a say in what they were willing to support with their tax dollars, the sense of being subjects rather than self-governing citizens became hard to deny. But of course Obama, who had famously said that if you had a business, “you didn’t build that”—it was the creation of society under government’s direction—believed to his very marrow the Progressive-era idea that government had to be vastly more powerful than any mere individual citizen, who without its protection and direction had no defense against the vast might of the corporations that created American wealth.

Government as nothing but the exercise of raw, lawless power: that’s what many Trump voters saw as the program of scandal-scarred Hillary Clinton, who they judged had disregarded the laws about protecting government documents with a let-them-eat-cake sense of entitlement; who, as if in fulfillment of Lenin’s prophecy that the capitalists would gladly sell the Communists the rope to hang them with, allowed 20 percent of the world’s uranium reserves to fall into Russian hands (and doubtless some of it then into Iranian centrifuges), seemingly prompted by speaking fees to her husband and contributions to her family’s “charitable” foundation; who seemed to run her foundation as a favor- and access-vending operation, more like a racketeer-influenced corrupt organization than a charity—such a candidate seemed as different from George Washington, John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson as chalk from cheese.

So Trump voters had a pretty good idea of what they didn’t want when they voted for someone promising to make America great again. Let’s hope that he delivers even a part of the self-reliant constitutional liberty they crave.

January 20, 2017

A Plain and Powerful Inaugural Address

Trump’s vision is constitutional, not Wilsonian.

No one watching Friday’s Inauguration ceremony could miss the contrast between the gracious civility with which the incoming and outgoing presidents treated each other and the utter repudiation President Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address made of Barack Obama’s eight-year reign. You could hear it at the start of the 16-minute speech. Trump thanked the Obamas for their “magnificent” aid throughout the transition. He then pivoted, with a loaded “however,” to how momentous this particular change of chief executives really is. It’s not just a change of administrations or parties, Trump averred. “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people . . . . What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people,” he said, echoing James Madison in Federalist 51.

You couldn’t have a starker contrast of visions than this. Goodbye to Obama’s power-swollen embodiment of the administrative state, hatched by Woodrow Wilson and dedicated to the proposition that the governors know better than the governed, whom they shepherd with public-spirited expertise for the people’s own good, whether the people like it or not. The people’s elected representatives, in this vision, matter little. They can serve, like Nancy Pelosi, as a rubber stamp for the ruler’s edicts, carried out by such executive-branch administrative bodies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Or they can get out of the way of the mighty pen and phone of the philosopher-king, whose demeanor constantly shows his exasperation at lesser beings with narrower minds.

No more, promised Trump. No longer will Washington politicians and the Washington establishment prosper, while factories close and ordinary citizens struggle.

Dire indeed was the picture that the new president painted of the country Obama leaves behind, with “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” and “crime and gangs and drugs” creating a kind of national “carnage.” These, Trump implied, are the fruits of the public-spirited expertise about which Obama is so supercilious. If you want an especially stark example of how incompetent government really is to advance the public welfare, just look at the public education system, “flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.”

The Trump administration, the new president implied, will return to the limited functions that the framers of the original Constitution envisioned: to serve “the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public,” which have for too long gone unheeded. These demands are modest: great schools, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, and safety from—a phrase that Obama refused ever to utter but that Trump spoke loud and clear—“radical Islamic terrorism,” which he promised to “eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.” Trump also took a swipe at the larger piety of Obama’s political correctness, which makes certain thoughts unthinkable or at least unsayable. Henceforward, Trump said, “We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity,” in place of the divisiveness that Obama stoked with what seemed like pleasure.

Trump made much of the idea of “America First,” emphasizing how much we’ve enriched foreign industry, subsidized foreign armies, and defended other nations’ borders at the expense of our own. In his administration, he vowed, “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” He promised an infrastructure program that “will get our people off welfare and back to work—rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.” And, again unlike his predecessor, he promised a strong military and strong law enforcement, which he sees as a protection, not a threat, to our citizens and allies.

His ultimate indictment of the Obama-swollen administrative state is that it has “robbed our country of so much unrealized potential”—minds unschooled, ambitions unawakened and unrealized, energy with no outlet. There’s nothing I admired more in this plain and forceful speech than its Hamiltonian spirit: that a free America, where government doesn’t meddle with the liberties of its citizens but encourages a rich multiplicity of occupations and opportunities for invention, allows individuals to achieve their fullest potential. That is the true genius of America, and if Trump can make it glow more brightly, all honor to him.

January 24, 2017

Our Tea Party President

Trump’s revolution has been a long time brewing.

Pundits keep puzzling over what party President Donald Trump belongs to, since he emphatically is not an orthodox Republican, even though he sails under the GOP flag. But the answer is simple. He is the Tea Party president.

Just think back to 2009, when the Tea Party movement began with CNBC financial commentator Rick Santelli’s furious on-air rant against Barack Obama’s stimulus package. “How many of you people want to pay your neighbor’s mortgage, that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Santelli asked the traders behind him on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. When they roared their disapproval, Santelli invoked the Founding Fathers and announced that he was thinking of staging a Tea Party in Chicago, fair warning that citizens were fed up with taxation without representation and a government that, like George III’s, had become swollen with “a multitude of New Offices,” as the Declaration of Independence had put it, and with “swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

Santelli was more prophetic than he knew, for the stimulus saved few Americans from foreclosure on their over-leveraged houses. Instead, it mainly kept state and local government workers employed, while the citizens whose taxes formerly paid their salaries were losing not just their houses but also their jobs. If Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could see what America had become and was becoming, Santelli spluttered, they’d “roll over in their graves.” It was certainly not the republic they created, and that Franklin had warned we’d need steadfast vigilance to keep.

But we failed to keep it; and it turned out that millions of Americans shared Santelli’s sense of that failure and his red-hot anger over it. Millions who signed up for local Tea Party chapters and rode buses to rallies from coast to coast recognized that somehow we had lost the Constitution that the Founders had given us, and that we now lived in a polity those great men wouldn’t recognize—and that was certainly not the one described in our history books, with its strictly limited powers and its exquisitely designed checks and balances. What exactly it was, and how it had slouched into being, the Tea Partiers didn’t really know, but they saw that it was closer to rule by a government without the consent of the people than to the self-government, liberty, and self-reliant and self-realizing pursuit of happiness that the Founders had envisioned.

Commentators are right that a big portion of Trump voters were working-class Americans displaced from their jobs by Obama’s war on fossil fuels, by globalization, automation, and the shifting balance in manufacturing from the importance of the raw materials that go into products to that of the engineering expertise that designs them. These are the people Trump referred to in his Inaugural Address as “the forgotten men and women of our country.”

But that’s only part of the new president’s coalition. As Amity Shlaes shows in her 2008 book The Forgotten Man, that term, which Franklin Roosevelt applied to the man on the breadline in the Great Depression, “the man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” more properly applies to those unhappy-if-silent taxpayers who funded the New Deal’s social-welfare schemes. And these are the forerunners of the Tea Partiers, another key class of Trump voter: the widow on a fixed income whose property-tax payment helps house a public-sector retiree comfortably but whose inexorable rise is making her own paid-off home unaffordable; the retiree whose IRA savings the Great Recession eroded or who can no longer get an adequate income from safe bond investments, thanks to  the Federal Reserve’s policies; the small businessman or farmer ruined by undemocratic government regulation lacking even the pretense of due process; the ex-soldier abandoned by a dysfunctional Veterans Administration; the parent disgusted with public schools that impose ideologies she abhors on her children, while leaving them inadequately educated; and all those sincere believers in God or traditional values whom Obama dismissed as clinging desperately to outmoded pieties, as the arc of history, which the elite professor-president claimed to understand and direct according to his politically correct enlightenment, swirled them down the drain.

The Tea Partiers wanted a second American Revolution that would sweep away the Administrative State that the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the War on Poverty set loose to devour and fatten on the carcass of the Founders’ republic, replacing a government of limited and enumerated powers with an unlimited government that rules by administrative decree and redistributes wealth as if it belonged to the governors and not the governed. No wonder Obama’s Internal Revenue Service worked to squash that movement as tyrannically as George III’s tax collectors. Let’s see if the new revolutionaries picked a leader who knows what they want and how to get it.

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