How Donald Trump inspired a new reactionary ideology
You remember the original piece: a 4,300-word defense of voting for Donald Trump in the name of conservatism that built its case on an analogy between this election and famed Flight 93. The American people need to rise up and wrest control of the nation back from its death-worshipping hijackers before it's too late, just like Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers did on September 11, 2001.
Rush Limbaugh loved it so much he read nearly the entire essay live on the air, offering extended commentary and repeated endorsement of its arguments along the way. But that positive response was an outlier. Most of those who responded to the piece, whether in opinion columns or on social media, were highly critical, accusing pseudonymous author Publius Decius Mus of expressing authoritarian sentiments, engaging in politically irresponsible extremism, and substituting a purified, highly intellectualized version of Trump for the real thing.
In my own response to the essay, I took a different approach. Drawing on the line of argument developed in Mark Lilla's important new book, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, I claimed that Decius was writing less as a conservative than as a reactionary. Unlike liberals who use the term as an epithet to denigrate anyone situated to their right on the ideological spectrum, I defined a reactionary as someone who identifies a past golden age, posits a moment of historical rupture that led to steep decline, and looks for some agent to serve as a redemptive force to enact a new rupture that will restore history to its rightful course.
Anyone who doubts the accuracy of this interpretation of Decius' thinking should take a look at his rejoinder to his critics, published at American Greatness, the website that serves as the online home base for intellectual Trumpism. There we can see even more clearly than in the original essay the lineaments of a genuinely reactionary ideology in the process of being born. I suspect it will be vying for power and influence in American politics over the coming months and years, regardless of whether or not Trump prevails in November.
That's a deeply troubling prospect for those of us, whether liberal or conservative, who consider the American political system (for all its faults, deficiencies, and need for reform) to be generally sound. That has typically included just about everyone in the establishments of both major political parties.
Underlying the rancorous partisan combat between Republicans and Democrats has been an extraordinary degree of consensus: Markets do a good job of generating prosperity over time; the federal government has a role to play in regulating those markets; this regulation should take several forms, including restraints to prevent or mitigate the effects of market failures, rules to protect individuals and groups from harm by market actors, and the use of wealth redistribution and social welfare programs to alleviate poverty and prevent the formation of entrenched oligarchies.
Democrats tend to favor more regulations, while Republicans prefer fewer. But hardly anyone within the mainstream of either party wants to eliminate the modern administrative and regulatory state entirely or wants to abolish the market economy altogether. And yes, that includes Bernie Sanders on the left and even, on the right, the most extreme members of the House's Freedom Caucus. The latter may give fiery speeches that make it sound as if they'd like to overturn the Supreme Court decisions that ratified the New Deal 80 years ago, but they're well aware that their supporters back home rely on Social Security and Medicare, and expect the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, and numerous other government agencies to keep them safe.
But Decius has other ideas.
As far as he's concerned, the United States once enjoyed genuine republican self-government in which "We the People" consented to rule by elected representatives under a Constitution intended to permanently restrain them. Then, a hundred years ago, The Catastrophe happened: Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives began the process of overthrowing the original Constitution and replacing it with a new form of government that added a fourth branch, "hidden in plain sight within the executive, namely the bureaucracy or administrative state," led by a "transnational managerial class," which both "usurps legislative power and uses executive power in an unaccountable way."
Political golden age? Check.
Precipitous fall into a state of perdition? Check.
But what about redemption? That's where Trump comes in.
Trump is the first candidate since Reagan to threaten this arrangement…. [T]he question here is: Who rules? The many or the few? The people or the oligarchs? Our Constitution says: The people are sovereign, and their rule is mediated through representative institutions, limited by written Constitutional norms. The administrative state says: Experts must rule because various advances (the march of history) have made governing too complicated for public deliberation, and besides, the unwise people often lack knowledge of their own best interests even on rudimentary matters. When the people want something that they shouldn't want or mustn't have, the administrative state prevents it, no matter what the people vote for. When the people don't want something that the administrative state sees as salutary or necessary, it is simply imposed by fiat.
Don't want more immigration? Too bad, we know what's best. Think bathrooms should be reserved for the two biological sexes? Too bad, we rule. And so on and on….
Trump is mounting the first serious national-political defense of the Constitution in a generation. He may not see himself in those terms. I believe he sees himself as a straightforward patriot who just wants to do what is best for his country and its people. Whatever the case, he is asserting the right of the sovereign people to make their government do what they want it to do, and not do things they don't want it to do, in the teeth of determined opposition from a managerial class and administrative state that want not merely different policies but above all to perpetuate their own rule. [American Greatness]
And there you have it. Trump will work to overthrow the rule of the administrative state and the unaccountable managerial class that runs it in the name of "the sovereign people" and thereby move America back to something resembling the republican self-government that it began to lose a century ago, when Progressivism started its insidious takeover of the state.
It's hard to know precisely what to make of these hopes. Decius mentions immigration and the Obama administration's transgender bathroom rules. In the original essay, he also emphasized (with Trump) overturning free-trade agreements that give American workers a raw deal and the injection of prudence into the nation's foreign policy. What those issues have to do with the administrative state, I can't really say. I would have thought someone opposed to the legacy of Progressivism would favor the elimination of, say, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as the long list of agencies, departments, and commissions that make up a good part of the federal bureaucracy.
But Decius doesn't mention any of that, no doubt because his tribune has said nothing to indicate that he intends to do any of those things.
What Trump will do, Decius insists, is champion the wishes of "the sovereign people." But who are these people whose wishes are being trammeled by the transnational managerial class? Surely it isn't the majority of Americans who voted to make Barack Obama president. Twice. Or who currently give him an approval rating of well over 50 percent. No doubt such considerations lead Decius to deny that he's advocating "crude majoritarianism."
But that merely sidesteps the problem of determining just who is included in the sovereign people. If it's not the sum total of citizens who are eligible to vote, whose preferences are measured by counting ballots and pronouncing the candidate who receives the greatest number of votes the winner, then what procedure should we use instead?
One gets the feeling that, as far as Decius is concerned, the sovereign people is the sum total of those Americans who are prepared to vote for Donald Trump on November 8. But this presumes, of course, that this plurality of Americans is actually voting for Trump for the same reasons Decius will vote for him: in order to break the back of the administrative state. It's far from clear whether, on Decius' own terms, Trump voters who cast their ballots for other, less lofty reasons should be included among the sovereign people.
We seem to be left with the following: Those who agree with Decius about the need to smash the administrative state are the sovereign people. And everyone else? They may be a people. But they obviously don't deserve to be considered sovereign.
That's certainly one way to conceive of politics.
An illiberal way. A populist way. A reactionary way.