Washington, Jan. 20, 2017
I watched Donald J. Trump’s inauguration today with mixed feelings.
I didn’t vote for him, even though the prospect of another four years of Obama’s “progressivism” under Hillary was awful.
Watching his campaign with disbelief, I thought he was a blend of Peter Keating, demanding attention and affirmation with a hair-trigger intolerance for being dissed; and of Gail Wynand, building power by appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Yet I have to admit that, on election eve, my heart lifted when the results cascaded in his favor. It wasn’t just that Hillary lost, and that the commentators and media were so flummoxed. It seemed that something new and promising might actually happen.
Two things have boosted that feeling.
The first is that Trump has nominated strong, independent, successful people to his cabinet. Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon; Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE fast food restaurants; education philanthropist Betsy DeVos—these and his other nominees are not the yes-men sycophants one might have feared, and they are not insiders whose appointment is merely a good bureaucratic career move.
The second is my observation of the opposition. I was working at home today, on 14th St in the heart of DC, and heard helicopters and sirens all day. Finally I went out to observe some of the protests. They were not an edifying sight. “Black Lives Matter” shut down traffic on Massachusetts Ave. two blocks from my place, with protesters lying in the street to block a major commuter route and shouting “All cops are fascists.”
K Street was closed. I couldn’t get close enough to see the march except for one protester in a fur costume with a sign “Wolves are great.” Environmentalism, I guess.
Police were everywhere, lined up—it seemed to me—more to keep the crowds back than to control protesters’ disruptions, which snarled traffic for blocks around. Yet, as I write this evening, more than 200 people have been arrested, with reports of property destruction and police injuries.
In short, Trump has some good people on his team, and he has the right enemies. But what of his agenda?
His inaugural speech was refreshingly short, and he sounded one good theme: He attacked the “progressivist” idea that experts in a government bureaucracy can make better decisions for people than they can themselves. This doctrine has been a premise of government action for a century, and Trump implicitly denounced it:
"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."
Does he mean it? I’m not sure.
For one thing, the most prominent theme in his speech was nationalism, “America first.”
"We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength….
"We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American."
Excuse me, but didn’t Adam Smith refute mercantilist protectionism two-and-a-half centuries ago? I am not an economist, much less a specialist in international trade. Perhaps some deals need to be re-negotiated. But Trump’s theme sounds like a beggar-thy-neighbor policy that has always led to decline. If we trade on open terms, why is trade among nations worse than trade among the several states of our union?
But the worst thing, from my perspective as a philosopher, was the way Trump expressed his opposition to rule by a progressive elite:
"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 American People….
"What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people….
"Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams, will define our American destiny."
Returning power to the people is a galvanizing idea after Obama’s goal to make government “cool” again. But it’s ambiguous, and the ambiguity is dangerous. When politicians refer to “the people,” as candidates do routinely, they usually treat that term as a collective noun. But actual people are not a collective entity. They are individuals. Their voices, hopes, and dreams are not uniform, and cannot be blended into some communitarian consensus, a false hope that Obama and every collectivist leader has invoked. The voices, hopes, and dreams of people are as individual as their individual beings, and just as diverse. They do not amalgamate into a single collective purpose.
Those who think so rightly infer that government is the only way a collective choice can be enacted. Does Mr. Trump agree? If so, his administration will merely replace one favored constituency with another. It would be far better to recognize the basic meaning of “We the people”: The people are not a herd but an association of individuals who seek to live their own lives, by their own lights.
The only power Trump or other leaders can return to “the people” is not the power of collective choice but the power of individual freedom. In the iconic words of
John Galt in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, “Get the hell out of my way!”