Is Donald Trump a demagogue or a voice for justice? American political leaders often receive radically opposed assessments of their views. The greatest of them, Abraham Lincoln, was hailed by many as a liberator and derided by others as a tyrant. (And many others dismissed him an inept deal-maker.)
The insightful analyses of Trump as defender of American identity (Charles Murray), opponent of illegal immigration (Victor Davis Hanson), and Jacksonian hero (Walter Russell Mead) against illegitimate elites only partly explain the conflicting views of Trump.
These scholars, who are not Trump supporters, mostly miss the constitutional ground of Trump’s unrelenting assault on the elites who govern America. Trump defends the fundamental principle that legitimate government proceeds only by the consent of the governed. The people remain sovereign. Online sources for understanding Trump in such constitutionalist terms include the Journal of American Greatness.
In fact, American elites have long abandoned the basic principles of constitutional governance. They have made their peace with the Great Society’s creation of an administrative state or centralized bureaucracy. The unelected bureaucracy of the administrative state is the real governor of the economy, education, health care, the environment, workplaces, and much of what we do, whether out in public or in our homes.
“From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” Challenged in word by Ronald Reagan, the Great Society’s bureaucracy has enjoyed bipartisan support in deed ever since—steadfastly against the consent of the governed.
In terms used by the father of the Constitution, James Madison, we have long been governed by what he dreaded most—a majority faction, an illegitimate majority that governs to the detriment of individual rights or the common good. Trump has exposed this coalition on issues such as international trade deals that cause unemployment or underemployment, especially in manufacturing. He has also denounced liberal immigration policies, which diminish job prospects for those who do not have college educations, including black Americans, not to mention those with high-tech skills. And, to bring in a third faction, he assails the foreign policy consensus on supporting the Middle East wars.
While reasonable arguments can be made about these policies, it is telling that the major candidates in both parties have backed away from free trade and the wars. Only the Democratic candidates remain supportive of virtually open borders and, moreover, Middle East refugee admissions that result from our failed foreign policy.
Viewed together, the bipartisan consensus on these policies (among many others) are a kind of majority faction that is a coalition of oligarchies. Each element of the faction, whether on trade, immigration, or war, does not command majority opinion; it is instead oligarchic in the benefits it provides to its advocates (corporate America, ethnic grievance elites, foreign policy ideologues), while detrimental to the interests of the majority.
Why has Madison’s nightmare come to pass?
Look first to yet another element of the majority faction attacked by Trump: political correctness, especially in the media (for whom he reserves his most memorable insults, in order to hurl this power-drunk from its lofty perch into human equality). This self-imposed speech code has directed political conversation away from the concerns of middle and lower-middle class flyover Americans, including those who are “poorly educated,” and away as well from confronting issues involving race, ethnicity, or Islam. Thus both Republicans and Democrats concur in condemning Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration from the Middle East (while often noting that it is underinclusive).
This consensus on trade, immigration, war, and speech prevents the voice of the people from being heard. It thereby suppresses deliberation over controversial issues and concedes and conceals the hidden operations of the bureaucracy, while elected officials bicker over details. In a word, the coalition of oligarchies suppresses the consent of the governed. Trump’s staggering rallies reflect the sovereignty of the people against the platitudes of this elite. Part entertainment, part information (as were the Lincoln-Douglas debates), they form a vital part of constitutional self-government. The anti-Trump rioters in turn reflect an attempt to suppress the ground of the constitutional government, just as the smug Republican officials who on background declare for an anti-Trump “open convention.”
Trump does not typically articulate his constitutionalism in the words of the beginning of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”), but his concerns certainly reinforce them. He calls to mind the Declaration’s grievances against the King, who “has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance” and who “has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Obama has empowered bureaucrats and is not only hapless in fighting ISIS abroad and at home but indulges their violence.
What then is a demagogue? One who inflames passion over reason surely qualifies. But, as we have shown, Trump actually sides with Madison’s “reason of the public” against demagogues. He is the true moderate in a bipartisan constitutional chaos of wars that strain constitutional credibility and domestic policy that sneers at it. Trump is the spokesman for liberty and consent of the governed against rule by the administrative state of the oligarchs. Even his rash mention of impeachment nonetheless acknowledges that executive power can go too far.
The recovery of government by consent is a long work. It is difficult enough to thrust aside elite opinions of what “conservatism” is in order to appreciate the basic constitutional principles of the Declaration of Independence in action. Trump’s greatest assault on political correctness is to open up discussion of these elements of self-government.
Ken Masugi is a Senior Fellow at The Claremont Institute. These views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Claremont Institute.