Finally, a president upholds his oath and defends the Constitution against its enemies, domestic as well as foreign.
Donald Trump’s inaugural address horrified his typical critics—the media, various conservative and liberal pundits, and sundry identity groups. All this signifies how far these insipid intellectuals and political hacks are from understanding the fundamentals of constitutional government.
In truth, no inaugural address has defended the Constitution so vigorously since Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural, because none so directly confronted the foundational threat to the Constitution in Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural. Our constitutional order has acquiesced in his command that all government bow to executive will. Roosevelt insisted that
we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.
Since 1933, all presidents, Republican as well as Democrat, have accepted this willfulness, which destroys the rule of law and even the pretense of constitutional government. Only Ronald Reagan forthrightly resisted this temptation:
From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?
Thus, Reagan argued that ordinary Americans are heroes, who can live quite well without a bureaucracy over them. But President Reagan had insufficient powers, forcing him to compromise with a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats.
Yet President Trump never even mentioned the Constitution, his critics whine, so why accept a campaign rally speech on this solemn occasion as a defense of the Constitution?
The short answer is that since Reagan, 16 years of Democratic presidents plus 12 years of Bush Republican presidents have solidified the hold of the administrative state over America. This coup against republican government is the subject of Trump’s ire and the popular anger that propelled his unlikely election.
Often misleadingly described as the “fourth, unelected branch” of government or the bureaucracy, the administrative state is instead a regime change that grips all three branches, especially the elected ones, and the people as well. It reduces the Congress to its financier and makes the executive branch its protector and enforcer. The judiciary is as often its collaborator as its corrector.
Moreover, the administrative state’s reach goes beyond the government. It embraces and enhances the media, political consultants, the professions (especially the legal establishment), academia, and identity groups. These all legitimate each other while strengthening the administrative state.
The administrative state thereby forms a majority faction—to use James Madison’s term for a majority opposed to the common good—that has ruled America since the Reagan years. Whatever the disagreements within it, this majority faction has sanctioned reckless wars abroad, open borders at home, and a globalist economy that has favored some parts of the country over others.
Against this injustice Trump declared that “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.”
Thus, Trump recovers the principle of the Declaration of Independence, that just government is based on the consent of the governed. His demand is more than bipartisan; it is fundamental: “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people…. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Trump will advocate a government for the governed, not just for itself and its administrative state clients. Trump’s election— like Brexit last summer—was a victory not of “nationalism” but about an assertion of human dignity against bureaucracy.
The Democratic Party had betrayed Franklin Roosevelt’s appropriation of the “forgotten man” and so had the Republicans neglected the original meaning of the term, William Graham Sumner’s hard-working, anonymous person whose economic enterprise made the economy run. Bipartisan injustice had buried the forgotten man.
At home, with its blinkered view of reality, the administrative state glosses over a forgotten faltering economy, inept education systems, crime, and drugs. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump said. This colorblind ”carnage” is not simply the actual slaughter of human beings via crime and drugs but as much the killing off of the heights of achievement by poor schools and a weak economy.
Abroad, the administrative state defends the feckless and constitutionally dubious use of military force abroad. Thus, Trump said, “We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own…. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” This is not an isolationist America, but rather, following John Quincy Adams, presenting ourselves as an exemplary nation.
This is not an America of narrow self-interest and selfishness. Only by respecting oneself and loving others for being fellow citizens can America be at its best for all its citizens:
When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.
The Bible tells us, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity” [the speech’s only quotation, from Psalm 133].
A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.
It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.
And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.
Trump didn’t need to quote Lincoln, even though his sentiments here embody those of the Gettysburg Address. The previous evening had offered Lincolnian poetry with Trump simply standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This context the next day was clear. While Lincoln spoke at a cemetery during the Civil War, Trump spoke at the battleground of the administrative state that is blind to its faults or indifferent to its victims. Either way, it opposes the common good. He offers instead a new birth of freedom for Americans, a celebration of patriotism and self-knowledge.
“In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving,” he said. Of course it may not be possible for Americans today to live outside the security of the administrative state. We may identify it with the Declaration of Independence’s natural rights and pursuit of happiness, as President Obama tried to have us do. Too many Americans may no longer want to strive. Trump said: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” Can we live up to that aspiration?
After all, that’s the aim of not only Lincoln in his greatest speeches but also Aristotle in the Ethics and Politics, when they speak of the political friendship of fellow citizens united in mind and deed. They would form a “totally unstoppable” America.
This noble achievement would seem to be what Trump meant earlier by the “just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.” Such demands are in accord with justice and reason as well as the public faith or civic religion. Throughout the speech, when God is invoked, the religious appeal is soon supported by science or argumentation; the claims of revelation and reason belong together.
At his inauguration, Trump combined the sublime themes of Lincoln and the realism of Madison to produce a succinct defense of constitutional duty for officeholders and citizens alike. It was a tough-love of country speech. Most would rather claim rights or assert privileges rather than commit to duty. The only mention of race or ethnicity was to subordinate them to citizenship and patriotism. There was no mention of sexual orientation or sex. Without being doctrinaire, without calling on our “better angels,” Trump asked what you could do for your country.
An instructive contrast to Trump’s approach was U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer’s supposed “introduction” of Justice Clarence Thomas, who swore in Vice President Mike Pence. In his peroration, following his reading of the Civil War era letter from Sullivan Ballou to his soon-to-be widow, the senior senator from New York begins a Monty Pythonesque litany, “Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live with disabilities or do not, in wealth or in poverty, we are all exceptional….”
By emphasizing such deep distinctions, the unintentionally comic Schumer makes unity impossible except through force and compulsion—which the administrative state thrives on. He mocks the sacrifice Sullivan Ballou so movingly affirmed. Trump’s unity transcends these divisions without reliance on compulsion. In November, Americans had seen the difference between these two approaches and, sick of political correctness, adopted Trump’s.
The contemporary embrace of identity politics and one’s passionate devotion to one’s various subgroups may well undermine patriotism as traditionally understood. Evidently some slaves were terrified of living in freedom, when the 13th Amendment was adopted. Trump’s challenge is to liberate us from the comforts of the administrative state and the dark caves of our subrational identities and to ask us instead to embrace the freedom and duties of patriotic American citizens. Are we up to being the sovereign people our republican Constitution assumes us to be?