Saturday, January 21, 2017

Trump's inaugural address -- brilliant, on target... and not populist

"Populism" is an empty term.

Trump's victory is widely declared to be a victory for "populism."  So is Brexit.  Trump's speech has been called "populist."  I reject this, and I think the analysis is based on deep conceptual confusion.  There was a Populist party and movement in the 1800's in America, with William Jennings Bryan as its head (or figurehead, perhaps).  Today's political phenomena are different.

Western countries tend to have a distinct political class that runs their respective countries and international organizations, largely for their own benefit.  Donald Trump's inaugural speech began by acknowledging this, and then continued to say his election was bringing it to an end, and that government would become a servant of the people.  This isn't populism.  Enlightenment political thought, e.g. John Locke's Two Treatises on Government, overturned the traditional relation between ruler and ruled -- that is, that the citizen is a subject, a servant of the ruler -- and replaced it with the radical idea that government exists only to benefit the people.  Or as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence, 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Compare with this excerpt from Donald Trump's inauguration speech,

For too long, a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished -- but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered -- but the jobs left, and the factories closed.
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
That all changes -- starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.
It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.
What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. 

Calling this "populism" is terrifically confused.  It simply is not "populism."  Today's federal government is run by the political class, for the benefit of the political class.    Government, as it's done today, is firstly a means of accumulating power and siphoning wealth from those who create it.  It certainly does not act as a servant to the typical citizen.

Here's a good example.  America's economic recovery, trumpeted by Obama as one of his achievements, is concentrated in a minority of American counties -- maybe ten percent, while the rest of the country has not recovered.  Of the six American counties with the highest average income, five are in the DC beltway.  Hence Trump's observation, "...a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished -- but the people did not share in its wealth."

The political class has thrived while much of the country has not.  Another indicator of this is the dreadful performance of America's government schools.  Despite having expenditures per pupil which are among the highest in the world, American students tend to be quite poorly educated by developed world standards.  Teacher's unions prosper, administrative positions multiply, political indoctrination on behalf of all this grows.  Hence "for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists... an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge..." 

There are other examples, but I've made my point.  There's nothing populist about this.  A largely parasitical political class has gamed the system for its own benefit.  The entire purpose of the system is to serve citizens' needs.  That's not populism.  It's a rejection of the divine right of kings, or other elites, to rule.  

Another charge directed at the speech is that it is "nativist."  This is even more ridiculous.  The President of the United States is empowered only to faithfully execute federal laws, command the military, negotiate treaties, and a few other things, all on behalf of the United States.  He's not empowered to represent Mexican immigrants, "Syrian" refugees, or anything else that isn't American.  When Trump said "The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans" he showed an entirely correct understanding of what he is undertaking.  He was similarly correct in saying "From this moment on, it's going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength."  

The only thing I contest is his economic analysis.  American does not lose from free trade; no country does.  OTOH, it is certainly true that Chinese industrial espionage and violation of intellectual property has harmed American firms, workers, and even consumers.  (I will provide details iff anyone asks; I am not a big fan of patent and copyright.  I am certainly an advocate of trademark.  And the Chinese, led by the national government, regularly violate all three.)  But the president's job is to be concerned with the well-being of America, not the rest of the world.  Trump's emphasis is correct, even if his economics is flawed.

Given the cabinet he is appointing, there's good reason to be hopeful about all this.  I am sure "we" at Unforeseen Contingencies will suffer disappointments during the Trump years, but things could be much, much worse, and things are surprisingly good.  I expect Trump to fight the political class (Go Trump!) and in the space created we defenders of liberty have the chance to take the offensive.

I wish I could be this optimistic, Dr. Steele. I didn't think much of the term 'populism' until I heard this speech. What struck me was Trump's claims to return power directly from DC to the people. While I applaud this, American government has several mediating forces to prevent power from going straight from the people to the federal executive: namely, the states.

Now, while Trump's speech doesn't conflict with federalism, it is clear he does not have a constitutionalist vision for his administration. It is all about him governing directly at the people. How ironic, then, that he should have lost the popular vote but won the electoral college (a superior system that is another "circuit breaker" to prevent runaway populism).
I don't see any indication Trump will attempt to govern in a direct or otherwise top-down fashion. It certainly doesn't align with the personalities and politics of those he's chosen for his cabinet.

What I do think he'll do is bypass the media and address the people directly and encourage them to pressure their Congressmen to follow Trump's policy. It's similar to what Reagan did, but now Trump has a platform like Twitter.

Overall, I think it's easy to interpret Trump asa bombastic administrator, but a closer examination reveals him to me far more consistent with Federalism.
Greg, Dr Steele -- if you have a few minutes check out Mark Levin's take on the speech. Very close to where I stand.
Interesting comments. First, exactly what Trump will do is still unknown. We'll see. However...

George, I disagree that he's talking about direct governance by the people; I think this is about having the federal govt work for the people instead of itself. I think his cabinet appointees suggest he's serious about taking on the federal bureaucracies and reducing their power to effectively legislate. This will be a terrifically difficult job. Hence I tend to agree with Greg.

I am also starting to think Trump is much shrewder that I credited him. I'm starting to suspect he has thought very carefully about what he's doing. He often talks like he's off the rails, but this may be misleading...possibly by intent.

Thanks to both of you for your comments.
Yes, Greg, I also heard Levin making this point. I think Trump's speech was neither conservative nor populist. It was about whether government is run for the political class or the citizens.

It's quite interesting to me that you, George Mount, and Chris Pandolfo (the writer of the CR piece you link to) are all former Hillsdale HET students of mine. This must be what I meant hen I said we will take over the world!
I certainly hope you are right, Dr Steele! There is a bigger issue for me than just whether the federal government works for the people versus for itself. That is: should the federal government be doing X at all? Lots of talk about how the DC counties kept getting richer while middle America suffered and how rotten that is. Precisely so! But is that really going to change unless we return powers to the states? I do not see Trump backing off of his agenda because X or Y project is best left to the states. Government that is accountable to the people can still be big government.

Anyway, like I said, I hope you are right.
I tend to agree. Still, I think that curbing the federal administrative state is de facto removing the feds from many X's. It is certainly a necessary condition for it, at least. Trump seems to have this high on his agenda.

I don't think Trump shares my views on the proper roles of government; but he does seem to agree it is wildly out of control and needs to be curbed. Certainly no Democrat agrees, nor do the Bushes, Kasichs, Lindsay Grahams, and John McCains of the world. He also is unlikely to try to block citizen efforts such as the Article V movement, Tea Party organizations, etc. The Democrats have been badly damaged at the state level, and state resistance to abuses of the federal govt have a better chance of succeeding with Trump. The ultimate responsibility for keeping powers in the hands of the states, or the people, doesn't lie in DC, but in the states and the people.
In another sense, I see it as far easier to remove overbearing Federal influence rather than try to forcefully legislate more power back to the states. That's a far more palatable endeavor to push through Congress. A lot more people can agree that, "the Federal gov't shouldn't be involved in X", rather than "the states should be deciding whether or not to do X and to what degree". Hopefully the states do end up with more power in the end, but trying to directly push for that would likely fall on deaf ears outside of Tea Party groups, etc.
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