Stop what you’re doing!
And read these two essays in City Journal and New York Magazine. Myron Magnet, a fantastic editor, writes about how the democratic growth of the administrative leviathan opens up room for a quiet centralization of power in a thoroughly undemocratic way. Andrew Sullivan, gloriously back from the dead, discusses the cultural decay and political decadence that led to the rise of Donald Trump, whose authoritarian style and persona threaten Cromwellian despotism in the unlikely event that he should be elected, and even if he isn’t.
“As happened in France, a gigantic modern state grew up inside the shell of America’s Founding-era institutions, with few Americans even noticing and most unaware of the magnitude of the revolution even today. We created a giant administrative regime, just as Tocqueville feared…
… these agencies don’t bother with the “moonshine” of the separation of powers or due process of law that Tocqueville ranked so high among America’s political virtues and that Woodrow Wilson classed among the “great deal of nonsense” that the Founding Fathers put forth as “the inalienable rights of the individual.” These executive-branch agencies legislate by making binding rules for individuals and corporations, and they then adjudicate and punish infractions of them through juryless administrative courts indistinguishable from those run by the French intendants and the Royal Council, lacking due process and usually with no appeal to the real court system. They provide, to use Tocqueville’s words, “an image of justice rather than justice itself.”… And the Constitution that gave life to the government Tocqueville so cherished is, if not dead, then dying.”
And what’s notable about Trump’s supporters is precisely what one would expect from members of a mass movement: their intense loyalty. Trump is their man, however inarticulate they are when explaining why. He’s tough, he’s real, and they’ve got his back, especially when he is attacked by all the people they have come to despise: liberal Democrats and traditional Republicans. At rallies, whenever a protester is hauled out, you can almost sense the rising rage of the collective identity venting itself against a lone dissenter and finding a catharsis of sorts in the brute force a mob can inflict on an individual. Trump tells the crowd he’d like to punch a protester in the face or have him carried out on a stretcher. No modern politician who has come this close to the presidency has championed violence in this way. It would be disqualifying if our hyperdemocracy hadn’t already abolished disqualifications.
And while a critical element of 20th-century fascism — its organized street violence — is missing, you can begin to see it in embryonic form. The phalanx of bodyguards around Trump grows daily; plainclothes bouncers in the crowds have emerged as pseudo-cops to contain the incipient unrest his candidacy will only continue to provoke; supporters have attacked hecklers with sometimes stunning ferocity. Every time Trump legitimizes potential violence by his supporters by saying it comes from a love of country, he sows the seeds for serious civil unrest….
…The racial aspect of this is also unmissable. When the enemy within is Mexican or Muslim, and your ranks are extremely white, you set up a rubric for a racial conflict. And what’s truly terrifying about Trump is that he does not seem to shrink from such a prospect; he relishes it.
For, like all tyrants, he is utterly lacking in self-control. Sleeping a handful of hours a night, impulsively tweeting in the early hours, improvising madly on subjects he knows nothing about, Trump rants and raves as he surfs an entirely reactive media landscape. Once again, Plato had his temperament down: A tyrant is a man “not having control of himself [who] attempts to rule others”; a man flooded with fear and love and passion, while having little or no ability to restrain or moderate them; a “real slave to the greatest fawning,” a man who “throughout his entire life … is full of fear, overflowing with convulsions and pains.” Sound familiar? Trump is as mercurial and as unpredictable and as emotional as the daily Twitter stream. And we are contemplating giving him access to the nuclear codes….
…The Republican delegates who are trying to protect their party from the whims of an outsider demagogue are, at this moment, doing what they ought to be doing to prevent civil and racial unrest, an international conflict, and a constitutional crisis….”
You got two problems, America- an overextended government capable of tyranny, and a nascent tyrant ready to take the reins.
A close reading of both magnificent works (Sullivan’s is about one order of magnitude better, I think) reveals something interesting: namely, that the two great fears of the Founders- popular demagoguerous revolution, and the centralization of power in one branch and level of government- have very much come true, and are the great test of the Republic in our present era. We can’t blame Donald Trump alone, though- the willful expansion of arbitrary federal power over the last couple decades, combined with the decadence of our non-revolving financialist elite and its ignorance of the common people’s concerns, have set up the infrastructure of tyranny while amassing the kindlings of popular revolution.
Magnet’s administrative leviathan (methinks the editor doth protest too much- the New Deal was nothing like tyranny) was put in place in the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and across the 20th Century, and it continues to grow nowadays with all of the problems and none of the benefits. There were two great consequences of this unchecked power- authority began to centralize in the Executive Branch at the expense of the Legislative’s prerogative and that of the Judicial, while flowing slowly from the states, cities, and counties to the central seat of government in Washington D.C. This federal executive power is necessarily quite arbitrary, as the federal executive has gradually increased in relative power in comparison to the other branches and levels of government. This, in turn, is harmful both to practical policymaking and to the principle of checks and balances.
There have been some attempts to reform governance since the New Deal, most of them failed and often contradictory- for example, Nixon centralized power in the Executive Branch while attempting and failing to decentralize decision-making to the states. Ultimately, we inhabit an America where the machinery of administrative despotism is a historic norm. And as some have noted, the centralization of governance erodes self-governance, saps the civic virtues, and renders society as a whole less connected, more disjointed, and much more susceptible to demagoguery that could well lead to tyranny.
Magnet doesn’t mention Donald Trump at all, but it’s easy to see his Tocquevillian analysis leading directly to Andrew Sullivan’s conclusion, that “Democracies Die When they’re Too Democratic.” Sullivan examines the cultural decay necessarily brought about by the breakdown of all forms of hierarchy, traditionalism, and indeed decency inherent to democratic culture, and observes that when such culture imbues the machinery and mechanisms of government- which it must, for culture and politics are inextricably interlinked- the breakdown of institutions brings about the rise of demagogues.
And what happens if and when a nation that has cultivated for decades or a century a gradually expanding administrative apparatus, elects a bully, a demagogue, a tyrant, to the helm of the said administrative apparatus, amidst a widespread popular revolution barely kept out of the realm of violence?
Why, says Magnet, and in other ways says Sullivan, the French Revolution happens. Popular rule is soon usurped by the ambitions of conniving men, who strive to remake society in their preferred image against all semblances of checks and balances. Strife and genocide rule, dangerous adventures abroad are embarked upon, the institutions that once held society together collapse in entirety. The world is turned upside down and “made anew” in the worst of senses.
Jennifer Rubin wrote in the Washington Post that conservatives have two missions moving forward- to preclude Trump’s presidency, whatever the costs, and to remake conservatism in a new image capable of adapting to the realities of the 21st Century as soon as possible. (She’s no further along than most Reformicons are, but it’s a start.)
I would say the challenge is twofold, and along the same contours, but slightly different than Rubin’s calculation.
Namely: We must quell the fires of popular revolution that give rise to Trumpian demagoguery, through a program of socio-economic reform; and we must rebalance the constitutional constellation of powers through a reorganization of the Executive Branch, an empowering of Congress, and a decentralization of powers to the various states and localities. In short, we’re living through the Founders’ two great fears- over-centralization of power, and popular revolution. They designed the Constitution to preclude this kind of thing.
It’s trite to say it, because a thousand “constitutional” know-nothings have been saying “return to the Constitution!” for decades. But it’s true. A social and economic arrangement that promotes civic virtue and social stability and equity, alongside a constitutional balance of powers geared toward checking the Oval Office’s various bureaucracies, are two critical goals conservatives- and Progressive Republicans- should aim for.
If Trump loses- and he’s likely going to lose- then we have another four years before another worse Trump-Cromwell figure rises up. That’s a period of time we should be re-hashing Republicanism to address the twin goals of socioeconomic reform and constitutional governance to provide as many checks as possible to preclude the rise of Donaldver Trumpwell. We should get to it, and soon.
On the other hand, should Trump win and gain access to the administrative leviathan’s machinery- well, God help the Republic. We’ll recover, but we’ll need to forge our institutions and Constitution all over again. The crisis accompanying a Trump ascendancy should not be underestimated.
Perhaps that’s what we need.