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Feeding Leviathan, or Running the Insane Asylum
Trump and Trumpism are not an aberration in America's recent history. but a reflection of where we have come as a nation in the last hundred years. We are Donald Trump. Trumpism is our creed.
Welcome to this week’s (slightly after) mid-week issue of Self-Evident. This week, I lay out why I view our current presidential election as simply squabbling over who gets to run the insane asylum as well as discussing and laying out the progress of Leviathan (centralized authority). I’ll conclude by asserting my belief that offering a strong and principled dissent to the directions of both political parties is far more valuable than anything that can be presently gained at the ballot box.
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Feeding Leviathan, or Running the Insane Asylum
For the last four years, much has been made of the direction of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. I have often joined my voice in protest to the way that Trump and Trumpism have distorted both the political movement and sensibility that I most naturally belong to.
Particularly, I have been troubled by the migration towards big government thinking on the Right. As a strong proponent for limited government, my natural home was in the conservative movement and as a member of the Republican Party. But, either congruently with or in response to the rise of Donald Trump, there has entered into the Right a belief that the “liberal order” (limited government, individual freedom, division of powers, established rights, etc.) has created an uneven playing field in America’s culture war.
Precisely at the moment when the Republican Party had achieved a significant mandate from the people by accumulating control of governorships, legislatures, the Presidency, and both houses of Congress, the sensibility of both the voters and their representatives turned away from slaying or subduing Leviathan. Instead, they became interested in wielding the beast of central power towards their own desired ends.
“If we play fair, then we lose,” was the cry from the red-hat wearing masses as they crowned a leader whose only philosophical qualification for conservative leadership was that “he fights.” And, for four years, we have watched President Trump wield the imperial presidency in a way his followers would have decried as approaching the behavior of a tyrant under any other politician.
Ideally, the response of all Americans who reject this oafish specter of King John would be to vote him out of office and re-establish proper constitutional order. In a functioning free society, the opposing faction would provide a palatable choice to as many citizens as possible to dethrone the demagogue and force the wayward Republican Party to moderate itself or fade into irrelevance.
But we are not a functioning free society. Instead, we are drowning in a sea of dysfunction. Our political parties, like so many of our institutions, have devolved into little more than tools of the mob, channels through which to voice anger and discontent.
The rise of Donald Trump presents our nation with nothing more than a continued assault on federalism, on limited government, on the division of power, on fiscal responsibility, and on the principles of tolerance and pluralism. The only thing new is the political quarter from which this assault originates.
For how much the Left decries Donald Trump as a new and pernicious threat to the constitutional order, he is little more than a crass and unrefined perpetuation of a trend begun by Theodore Roosevelt, codified by Woodrow Wilson, built extensively upon by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and expanded by Lyndon B. Johnson. That trend is the accumulation and centralization of power in the federal government, specifically in the presidency, as well as the expanded role of the federal government in individual lives.
If, over the last hundred years, the powers of state and local governments had not been slowly ceded to the federal government and the powers of Congress had not been so extensively granted to the Executive, none of the acts President Trump has engaged in that so startles and frightens his opponents would even be possible.
The great truth that so many have refused to come to grips with is that Trump and Trumpism are not an aberration in America’s recent history, but a reflection of where we have come as a nation in the last hundred years. Donald Trump, if he has done anything, has forced us to look ourselves in the mirror and see the ugly truth of what we have wrought. We are Donald Trump. Trumpism is our creed.
Anything short of a Revival of the Founding Vision that deals with the realities that allowed someone like Donald Trump to rise to power and wield the office of the president in the way he has would amount to nothing more than an argument over who gets to run the insane asylum.
I am fully aware that the nation is currently engaged in another presidential election, one that is yet again, “The most consequential in our lifetime.” Most Americans have staked out their sides and are now engaged in the political warfare that constitutes a modern presidential election (whose only abiding motto is “You’re either with us, or you’re against us”).
But I have taken a step back from these contests of passion and hatred. My opponent is not one party or the other, but the Leviathan of central authority each of them feeds in turn. What does it avail us if we replace a demagogue without addressing the passions of the people who put the demagogue in power? What does it avail us if we remove a threat at the top of government without addressing the processes of government that allow him to be a threat?
The Progress of Leviathan
This brings me to the Democratic Party. I have often said that Democrats have presented the worst possible opposition to the Trump moment. This is because, given the history of progressivism in the Democratic Party, their argument against Trumpism fails to amount to much more than “You’re doing big government wrong.”
That’s because the Democratic Party is responsible for the lion share of government growth in the past century. Of the four major transformational doctrines that fundamentally changed the relationship between citizens and their government in the 20th century (New Nationalism, War Socialism/The New Freedom, The New Deal, and The Great Society), three of them were championed by Democratic presidents. Even the other, Theodore Roosevelt, was a Republican at a time when progressivism had camps in both parties. If Teddy had lived into the roaring ’20s, it’s unlikely he would have felt at home in Coolidge’s Republican Party.
By the way, when I say these programs were transformational, that’s an apt description.
Theodore Roosevelt essentially single-handily created the modern presidency. Before Teddy, the presidency was seen as a form of stewardship, and, in most cases, Congress was viewed as the preeminent branch of government. But Teddy pioneered the use of the presidency as a mantle of authority that placed him above all other political stations.
TDR used the bully pulpit to wield popular will and assert control over Congress. He expanded the stick of foreign policy and used the presidency towards imperialist endeavors. And, he didn’t hesitate to involve the government in the private affairs of business and individuals alike. Many have termed the age of TDR as the age of New Nationalism, a time of aggressive empire-building, global entanglements, and subversion of private and individual will towards the “national good.”
The creation of the modern presidency, combined with the implications of involvement in the Great War, afforded Woodrow Wilson powers of government coercion unseen in American history. Already perhaps the first president openly hostile to the vision of the American Founders, Wilson envisioned a fully planned economy under the direction of centralized power guided by experts.
Under the guise of a New Freedom, Wilson made modest steps towards these goals, but the outbreak of war allowed him to accelerate his New Founding. Often called War Socialism, the US government during World War I virtually controlled every aspect of American society. Wilson’s “War Cabinet” meticulously managed the economy. At the same time, freedom of speech and expression were extensively curtailed by government acts that forbade any messages that spoke out against the government or the war. (Violations of civil liberties were so rampant under the Wilson administration that in 1917, a private organization was explicitly founded to oppose government abuse: the American Civil Liberties Union).
While the American people responded negatively to the abuses of the Wilson administration and elected three successive Republicans after him (including Coolidge, perhaps the most dedicated limited government president of the 20th Century), the disastrous Great Depression created another opportunity for the march of central power and executive authority.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is exactly what it sounds like, a new deal between the government and its citizens. In the face of the Great Depression, FDR promised an active and zealous government that would get the economy going again and keep it from falling back down. He promised to do this by creating numerous new government entities that would keep their thumbs pressed on the scales as well as other programs and entities that would grant assistance to Americans if they still fell through the cracks.
Progressive historians champion the New Deal as the dynamo that surged America out of the Great Depression and created an era of immense growth and prosperity after World War II. Non-progressive historians counter that the mobilization of the economy to support the war effort is what put Americans back to work, and the economic destruction of all other industrialized nations throughout the war gave untouched America a distinct advantage in the late ’40s and into the ’50s. Either way, many of FDR’s New Deal programs were here to stay, and the relationship between Americans and their government was once more fundamentally changed.
But not everyone experienced the best of times in the ’50s and into the ’60s. While America had experienced a burgeoning in the size of its middle class, there were still many living in squalor and poverty. Lyndon B. Johnson wanted everyone to have a piece of the pie and embarked on an effort to build The Great Society.
This massive program in wealth redistribution and government-directed charity created and solidified the modern welfare state. LBJ described it as a War on Poverty. The size and scope of government expanded exponentially as a massive bureaucratic state sprung up to manage the various programs designed to lift Americans out of poverty.
By the late ’70s, the American government had been transformed into a swelling behemoth with an alphabet soup of agencies whose rules and regulations impacted almost every aspect of American life. Presidential elections began to take on an increased intensity as Americans came to realize just how much executive decisions and directions could disrupt their lives.
Worse, the burgeoning size of the federal government failed to curtail the problems it had been created to address. Stock markets still crashed, bubbles still burst, recessions still put people out of work, and poverty has remained a consistent reality (especially for ethnic minorities in the inner city).
On top of the economic power and the impact on individual lives, we can add the expanded emergency powers granted the presidency to counteract the global revolutionary aims of the Soviet Union. We now have what many have come to characterize as the imperial presidency, a supreme executive authority whose only remaining checks were adherence to established norms and some judicial challenges on executive action.
At the same time this new imperial presidency, and the Leviathan held at its beck-and-call, had come into its own, the culture war began in earnest with the Roe v. Wade decision. While Reagan presented a Coolidge-like moment of executive restraint and constitutional renewal, the ’90s saw presidential elections truly turn into little more than battles for control of central authority.
This is why I said earlier that we are Donald Trump and Trumpism is our creed. Donald Trump simply approached the presidential contest in a way that’s fully honest about what it’s become, and he has presided over the federal government in a way that has revealed the unrestrained Leviathan it truly is. His willingness to buck the norms that restrained his predecessors has demonstrated just how much we relied on the good behavior of our leaders, and how little we can rely on checks and balances to curtail a willingness to abuse the office.
The jig is up, the cat is out of the bag, and no one can unsee what we have seen President Trump get away with. Who can be trusted with what the presidency has been revealed to be? The only honest answer can be: no one.
To avoid increased disruption of the domestic tranquility of our nation, we need a renewal of the principles of limited government. The trajectory we are on is unsustainable. It has been precipitated by a century of government expansion. Trading one expansive faction for another without altering our path will not avoid the inevitable calamity for which we are heading.
The Democrats, specifically, have demonstrated no understanding of the situation we’re in. They have no discernment of the role their party has played in creating the circumstances for Trump’s rise or the altered system of government he has availed himself of. Nor have they adequately moderated themselves to account for the right-ward lurch of the Republican Party.
Their agenda constitutes a cornucopia of demands that together would represent a fifth great transformation of government relations with its citizens in the name of additional wealth redistribution, healthcare access, climate activism, and social justice. They have lurched even farther to the Left in mirror-like synchronization to their political opponents.
While each party effectively hides their own excesses by pointing at each new foe as a “unique threat,” the reality is they are merely different vessels offering to take us to the same destination. Sure, the reasons they offer and the justifications they provide may appear dramatically different, but the end result remains a path that feeds the Leviathan.
(This is, perhaps, why so many Trump supporters have proven resistant to arguments against Trump. They probably know, in their heart of hearts, that Trump has led them to abandon the tenets of limited government and the founding vision, but if their only choices are an imperial president who fights for them or an imperial president who would fight against them...)
The Value of Dissent
As you can imagine, my perspective places me in a peculiar and unenviable position. In a presidential election that’s consuming the passions and time of most politically engaged Americans, I have staked out a stance against both political parties. And, I have no viable candidate to throw my weight behind.
But perhaps this is a blessing rather than a curse. This unique circumstance has afforded me the ability to better see the problems before our nation as more than a question to be settled at the polls.
Multiple generations of Americans have now come of age in a republic that has significantly deviated from its founding principles. My acute sense of political homelessness has allowed me to better understand that we are far from righting the ship through a single election. The path towards truly saving our republic is one of political renewal and principled revival.
So, instead of lending my modest influence towards the political contests of this election season, I will do my best to stand athwart the partisan squalor and offer my principled dissent.
I offer this dissent understanding it may be a long time before it is reevaluated and reconsidered. I offer this dissent, knowing that it may never be crafted into a majority opinion or even used to craft aspects of a majority opinion. But I must offer it nevertheless. Every day, I witness the path my country is taking and the calamity this path will lead them to. I would be ashamed if I didn’t speak my mind and offer a warning to a nation and people I love more than life itself.
To those who similarly feel lost and confused in this time of upheaval and uncertainty, I encourage you to look to your own convictions and find purpose in the truths you hold in your heart. You don’t need a party, a movement, or a candidate to have meaning and relevancy. Speak out on the strength of your convictions and offer a powerful dissent, no matter how unpopular, that will stand as a monument to your values and principles, a monument far more powerful than anything won or lost at the ballot box could ever be.
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