Donald Trump became the political vehicle for the American people’s resentment of an overweening, corrupt ruling class. Trump’s invaluable contribution to the Republic was to lead Americans publicly to disrespect that class.
Americans elected Trump to preserve freedoms and prosperity against the encroachments of that class. But instead, he became the catalyst by which that class cohered to transform the American Republic into an oligarchy.
During Trump’s presidency, more wealth passed from ordinary Americans to oligarchs, and more freedoms were lost than anyone imagined possible. As we consider how to remedy these losses, Trump’s fateful combination of things said and unsaid, of things done and not done, must be part of our search for the persons and policies most likely to lead republican Americans out of our quandary.
In 2015 and 2016, candidate Trump’s disrespectful, disdainful attitude toward the ruling class put him at the head of presidential preference polls ab initio, and kept him there. Throughout the campaign, he said little of substance—just enough to give the impression that he was on the side of conservatives on just about everything. His leitmotif was “I despise those whom you despise because they despise you. I’m on your side, America’s side.”
Trump promised to “make America great again,” but did not explain what had made it great in the first place nor how to restore it. Never a religious person, and one who had once expressed support for abortion, Trump delivered more stirring thoughts on religious freedom and the right to life than any candidate ever, including Ronald Reagan.
Trump believed in the unity between himself and his followers, and that they would stay with him, even if he were to shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue. Millions of them reciprocated. The political, and even the moral content of that unity mattered less. He did not try to support his many accusations with facts. Millions who disagreed with him or who disliked him personally voted to make Trump president, and even more voted to reelect him.
But whatever Trump might have thought, his voters knew that hatred for the ruling class—not Trump himself—was why they supported him. It was about themselves, not Trump. The ruling class knew it, too. That is why, for most of the past six years, it brayed so much disdain from every available venue on him personally, trying to convince at least some of his followers that he is unworthy of decent people’s allegiance.
We need not rehearse the size, provenance, ubiquity, and vehemence of the ruling class’ attacks on Trump. It is near impossible to recall any official, semi-official, corporate, educational, media, or professional association that did not take part in them, often repeating the very same words ad nauseam. Trump’s peculiarities made it possible for the oligarchy to give the impression that its campaign was about his person, his public flouting of conventional norms, rather than about the preservation of their own power and wealth. The principal consequence of the ruling class’ opposition to candidate Trump was to convince itself, and then its followers, that defeating him was so important that it legitimized, indeed dictated, setting aside all laws, and truth itself.
This half-decade barrage—with no small help from Trump himself, as we’ll see—surely chipped away at Trump’s personal standing. But by all that unanimity, all that effort and vehemence, the ruling class showed that its real target could not have been one pudgy, orange-haired septuagenarian. No. Its target, its enemy, that they denigrated and wished to constrain if not destroy, was nothing less than the traditional America that they did not entirely control.
Hence, by its efforts, the ruling class was making the case for Trump’s political persona more definitively than Trump himself could ever do.
Mobilization against candidate Trump energized the ruling class and drew it together. Yet, on the morning after the 2016 election, talk of “resistance” to the unexpected outcome notwithstanding, no one imagined that it could morph into the oligarchy that has destroyed the American republic. On November 4, 2016, the presidency’s awesome powers to hurt enemies rested in the hands of someone whose enmity the ruling class had turbocharged. So much depended on how he would use them.
But it did so morph, and fast, because President Trump catalyzed the morphing. He did so by displaying what Theodore Roosevelt had called the most self-destructive of habits: combining “the unbridled tongue with the unready hand.”
Trump denounced his and his supporters’ enemies, though seldom giving specific reasons for the criticism, while suffering rather than hurting them, motivating them to do their worst, and letting them do so with impunity. He effectively accredited the very people who were discrediting him. Suffice it to say, within a month of President Trump’s inauguration, few if any in Washington were afraid of him. At the same time, those who had voted for Trump were having their lives increasingly restricted.
The reasons why Trump acted as he did are irrelevant to the fact that he acted as he did, and to those actions’ consequences. No doubt, Trump did not intend them, just as hydrogen peroxide does not intend to break down water into oxygen. Blaming Trump for the ruling class’ oligarchic seizure of power makes no sense. But that seizure became possible only because Trump was who he was and acted as he did.
Thanks to National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers informing him of the fact right after the election, Trump knew that FBI Director James Comey, his chief subordinates, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had broken the law by surveilling his campaign. Nevertheless, he praised them and their agencies, kept them in office, did not refer them for prosecution, and kept secret the documents associated with their illegalities.
Trump let himself be stampeded into firing General Michael Flynn on wholly specious grounds—the only high profile national security official who had supported him and who stood in the way of the intelligence agencies’ plans against him—and stood by as the ruling class ruined Flynn’s life.
Days after the inauguration, he suffered the CIA’s removal of clearances from one of his appointees because he was a critic of the agency. Any president worthy of his office would have fired the entire chain of officials who had made that decision. Instead, he appointed to these agencies people loyal to those officials and hostile to himself, notably CIA’s Gina Haspel, who likely committed a crime spying on his candidacy.
This is an especially crucial point about the intelligence agencies, the enmity of which there was never any doubt: He criticized officials over whom he had absolute power, but left them in office. Even without considering that the majority of Trump appointees were hostile to him and his constituents, the fact that he filled scarcely more than a quarter of executive positions certifies that there hardly ever was a Trump Administration.
Speculating about why or on the basis of what networks Trump made his executive appointments is less useful than realizing how thoroughly he gave them power over the substance of policy—regardless of his own previous commitments—and that he fired people less for substantive than for personal reasons. He let himself be persuaded by his first secretaries of state and defense, and his second national security advisor, to give a nationally televised speech in July 2017 effectively thanking them for showing him that he—and his voters—had been wrong in opposing the ongoing war in the Middle East. Later, he fired them because they were mocking him publicly.
Again and again, Trump signed mammoth spending bills that contained the Democratic Party’s wish lists, having promised not to, vowing never to do it again, and then doing it again.
By creating trillions of dollars in debt, which the Federal Reserve monetizes and channels through financial institutions, Trump was the sine qua non of the financialization that has transferred wealth from Main Street—which voted for Trump—to Wall Street, which is part and parcel of the ruling class. Trump also left untouched the tax code’s “carried interest” provision that is the source of much of the financial sector’s unearned wealth.
As Google, Facebook, and Twitter increasingly squeezed conservative content to the cyberworld’s sidelines, Trump railed against Section 230 of the Communications Act that lets them do it with impunity, but did nothing that would stop them, or subject them to lawsuits.
Trump’s election only accelerated the imposition of the secular creed of government agencies, corporate America, the educational establishment, and the media onto the rest of Americans. Belief, or pretend-belief, that America was conceived in the sin of slavery, that this marks white people indelibly, that Americans are racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise bad, and that we must learn to speak a new language that reflects our national repentance, became a condition of advancement, and even of continued employment.
Trump shared his voters’ resentment of, for example, being ordered to attend workplace sessions about their “racism.” But not until his last months in office did he ban the practice within the federal government. Never did he ban contracts with companies that require such sessions. Never did he try to insert a ban on such practices into spending bills. Hence, even the U.S. armed forces became his voters’ enemies.