Trump, the Founders, and Independence Day
Independence Day is, or should be, a time to reflect on the great gifts bequeathed to us by the American founders, and to judge ourselves by their standards. How well are we maintaining the country they built for us, and the principles which helped to make it great?
The answer is at once not so well—we have drifted far from the founders’ vision, mostly to our detriment—but also better than we have done in many years. That’s because Donald Trump’s political philosophy is closer to the founders’ than was that of any president since at least Reagan.
This assertion will no doubt occasion some sniggering. But Trump’s approach to politics addresses many of the American founders’ central concerns, in ways they would likely recognize and approve.
For the founders, government has one fundamental purpose: to protect person and property from conquest, violence, theft and other dangers foreign and domestic. The secure enjoyment of life, liberty and property enables the “pursuit of happiness.” Government cannot make us happy, but it can give us the safety we need as the condition for happiness. It does so by securing our rights, which nature grants but leaves to us to enforce, through the establishment of just government, limited in its powers and focused on its core responsibility.
Trump’s Inaugural address reasserted the fundamental duty of government to protect every citizen—and enforce the laws—equally. The speech was naturally not well-received by a political class that has manifestly failed to protect their constituents from dangers ranging from terrorism to crime to drugs, all the while looking the other way at malfeasance in high places. But the founders would have understood it.
Trump’s core governing agenda is also consistent with the founders’ vision. On immigration, he intuits that the social compact is meaningless if it applies indiscriminately to all. Illegal immigration is a logical impossibility, since no one can join a social compact without the consent of the existing members. “If we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country,” the President likes to say. To the founders, this is so obvious they would be shocked that it needs to be said at all or that anyone could doubt it.
President Trump insists that only the consent of the whole people can legitimize not just immigration, but also laws and regulations. Hence his aggressive rollback of red tape that neither the American people nor their elected representatives ever asked for or voted on.
For the founders, the right to acquire and enjoy property is fundamental to national health and individual wellbeing. The first major law passed under the new Constitution—the Tariff Act of 1789—beings “Whereas it is necessary for that support of government, for the discharge of the debts of the United States, and the encouragement and protection of manufactures, that duties be laid on goods, wares and merchandise” (emphasis added). President Trump agrees. And he understands that, in a globalized economy, the property rights of Americans cannot easily withstand predatory trade practices from abroad. So he is acting to protect our manufactures and intellectual property.
Perhaps in no sphere have we drifted further from the founders’ vision than in foreign policy. Some of that is owing to events that the founders could not possibly have foreseen. But much of it is also the result of hubris and overreach that tempts all great powers, which the founders absolutely foresaw—and warned about. President Trump intuits that the “separate and equal station” nature demands for all nations requires a fundamental recalibration of America’s expansive and ambitious foreign policy.
To these one may add the President’s equally emphatic insistence on law enforcement—at the border, in trade relations, and in local communities—to protect the people’s safety and happiness.
More than this, unlike our elites, Trump knows in his bones that the survival of any community—and especially a political community—depends on the willingness of its leaders to stand up for its members. This, again, is not a sentiment the founders thought required any philosophic explanation—though they had one at the ready. They would be surprised to find it controversial but relieved that the nation they founded found a leader immune to pseudo-sophisticated denials of this simple truth.
Donald Trump did not run, and has not governed, as an explicit avenger of the founders’ vision. Then again, unlike all of his recent predecessors, neither does he misuse the founders’ language to justify policies inconsistent with, and even diametrically opposed to, their vision. To the contrary. His agenda is not merely consistent with but indispensable to an older, better, truer understanding of how government ought to work. The way forward is in some respects the way back. Our founders show the way. Donald Trump, however intuitively or unconsciously, is following them. We should, too.