Did Donald Trump on Inauguration Day intend to remind us of the European despotisms of the last century?
Who could miss signs? They adorned the speech from brim to dottle with its invocations of solidarity, unity of purpose, devotion, patriotism, “loyalty to our country … and to each other,” “total allegiance,” national striving, nationalism, and assurances that the state would protect us from enemies — including even those would bestow low-priced goods on us. Then, to boot, he followed it all up with a decree that the day be known as the “National Day of Patriotic Devotion.”
Where the hell are we? And what year is it? The last year has had the feel of a really bad dream. Now it’s taken a turn for the worse. What next? Armbands?
His — blessedly brief — inaugural address was just what no freedom-loving American individualist wanted to hear. Sure, presidents invoke nationalism in their inaugural addresses, but Trump laid it on thick, with no reference to individual liberty or limitations of government power.
Trump, I should note, did not call for service. He did not echo John F. Kennedy’s horrid “ask what you can do for your country.” Rather, implicitly rejecting the first half of JFK’s inaugural line — “Ask not what your country can do for you.” — Trump said: “At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens.”
But before finding encouragement in this, bear in mind that much evil has been committed in the name of the nation “serving” its citizens. What is the nation? It’s intentionally ambiguous, but in practice, it comes down to the government. And when a government “serves its citizens” it merely extends power over them, forcing them to serve its purposes. (Observe what happens when politicians declare a right to health care.) Government, of course, has no resources of its own, only those it appropriates from some to distribute to others. It is always thus. Trump’s regime will be no exception.
Yet throughout Trump’s speech, he proclaimed that the people will now govern. Observe (all emphasis added):
“Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”
“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.”
“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
In this short speech, Trump found three different ways to declare that from now on the people are in charge and that the elite rules no more. The anti-ruling-class sentiment would be welcome, but don’t be fooled. By definition, demagogic populism targets a ruling elite. But for those who value liberty, that’s not enough. What comes next is crucial. One path is a rollback and elimination of government power, recognizing the right of people individually and through voluntary social cooperation to govern themselves.
But Trump has a different path in mind. When he says the people will rule he means he will rule — he will impose his will — in the name of the people because he knows what’s best for them. Trump’s rule is no substitute for self-rule, for freedom, cooperation, and self-responsibility. His proclaimed intention to look out for our interests — even if he could understand the interests of over 300 million unique individuals — is not the same as our being free to look out for our own interests.
In other words, Trump is a fraud. This is hardly unique for a politician of course, but since his populism was so glaring, his demagogy is especially flagrant. The people did not become rulers on January 20, 2017. We will be ruled just as firmly by an elite as we have been for centuries — likely more so.
You want proof? Trump’s trade plan would deprive us of our freedom to buy whatever we want from whomever we want on any mutually agreeable terms. (And living standards will fall rather than rise.) His immigration plan — in particular, the wall — besides harming people who aspire to better lives, would steal land from Americans.
Name a Trump position and you will find presumption and usurpation, not freedom and social cooperation.
In Trump Nation, Trump “serves” us by deciding what we need and giving it to us good and hard.