Trump’s Brand of Self-Government on Display in Recent Rallies

Donald Trump famously promised to be a “cheerleader” for the country when he launched his 2016 presidential campaign, saying he would “take the brand of the United States and make it great again.” Now, in an ongoing series of rallies, he is doing just that. And, perhaps surprisingly, his idea of America’s brand highlights the idea of self-government.

I suspect that prior to Trump’s incredible rise to political prominence in the 2016 campaign, few would have thought that one who seemed to celebrate excess and to embrace the license to break all convention could or would do this.

But at his recent Florida rally, the president discussed self-government throughout his speech. And it was there again in Nashville, then again in Kentucky. Time and again in these rallies, Trump discusses the spirit of self-government needed in citizens of a republic. He attacks the administrative state that has grown out of a bastardization of our institutions and is contrary to self-government. And he highlights the qualities and duties of self-governing men.

As President Trump said in his inaugural address, “what truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” In Kentucky he claimed that “if we empower the American people, we will accomplish incredible things for our country…all across our government.” Progressives, who claim that experts must now control the operations of our government because of progress, hate these claims. The claims on behalf of self-government rest on an understanding of human nature that says men will always have poor power to control one another and, therefore, self-government is best.

As Jefferson said, some men are not “born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred,ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” Each man has only enough power to control himself—if, indeed, he even has that much. Progressives may wish to suggest that we have moved beyond such limiting notions of human nature, but their own art (to say nothing of the way most successful progressives order their own lives) often betrays them. Note, for example  the character of Aaron Burr in the Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” so beloved by progressives. The Burr of the musical belts out the defiant line “I am the one thing in life I can control!” the actions of the real-life Aaron Burr, notwithstanding.

So how does Trump talk about self-government?

When Trump tells the crowd that they are “all part of this incredible movement… People want to take back control of their countries and they want to take back control of their lives and the lives of their family,” he hits upon both of the common understandings of the term.

In one sense, self-government means we, as a people, govern our country. In another sense, self-government means we, as individuals, are obliged to govern ourselves. Individual self-government, also known as self-restraint or more simply as self-control, is the key element of a free society. As my greatest teacher has taught me, “a free society requires order, and order depends on restraint: yet it seems that the only kind of restraint compatible with genuine freedom is self-restraint.” In a certain sense, it is necessary for us to be worthy of or live up to the promise of our freedom. Unless we can do that, free government is never assured.

Elsewhere, Trump rejects the notion of control of individuals and government by experts in favor of self-government and government controlled by individuals. In Florida, he pledged to downsize “the bloated bureaucracy and make the government lean and accountable.” He made similar points in Tennessee and Kentucky. Trump seems to agree with Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn that the administrative state and its “czarist bureaucracy” are at odds with self-government.

And in Florida, the president said “we are not going to let the fake news tell us what to do, how to live, what to believe. We are free and independent people, and we will make our own choices.” Aside from being a great line, these words point toward an important element of self-government—our reason, or our capacity for “reflection and choice.”

More important, we must also use our reason to understand and evaluate the laws made by our representatives and judge for ourselves whether government remains accountable to us. Otherwise, how can we know if our representatives are representing us properly or if we are choosing them well? Trump likes to read aloud from the laws in his speeches and to remind his audiences that in a nation of laws,  any citizen from “a bad student in high school” to the college educated—should be able to understand the plain meaning of the laws. When we move away from that and toward a regime where understanding the law requires lawyers and experts, the relationship between citizens and law is too distant. We should be able to judge for ourselves whether the courts are following the law. And in Florida, Trump promised tax reform to make the tax code “understandable by everyone.”

Finally, free government requires that we each be governed by our duty to control our own government. Trump affirms that,

the nation state remains the best model for human happiness and the American nation remains the greatest symbol of liberty, of freedom and justice on the face of God’s earth … It’s now that we have our sacred duty and we have no choice and we want this choice to defend our country, to protect its values and to serve its great, great citizens.

Trump seems to understand the words of Declaration that political bodies are necessary to secure men’s rights, but that they must be controlled by citizens according our natural rights and duties.

All of this aligns with Trump’s pledge to unify the country. Quoting from Psalm 133 in his inaugural address, Trump looked to the Biblical lesson of “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” Christian unity in the Church requires that members live by certain virtues, namely that they be “humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” In other words, life in community requires self-control.

As Lincoln put it, “though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Instead, “the mystic chords of memory” must be maintained by the “better angels of our nature.”

In this, Lincoln is echoing the founders in Federalist No 55. “Republican government,” they tell us, “presupposes the existence” of certain qualities in men. For if “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

Trump may be an unlikely messenger for all of this. Nonetheless, as Lincoln did in 1858, the President of the United States appears to be carrying the message that our common “American heritage” stretches “back to the first day of our American independence” and contains the “principle of self-government.”

We live in exciting times, as Matthew Continetti wrote recently, and “we are about to find out” who rules in the United States. American Greatness publisher Chris Buskirk points out, “both political parties share an affinity for what is essentially an assault on self-government.” But Trump’s understanding of the American brand, it seems, is one in which we rule ourselves.

About David Danford

David Danford is a Major in the United States Army and a graduate of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He and his wife live in Fort Montgomery, New York, with their four sons. The views expressed in this article are an unofficial expression of opinion; they are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. Government.

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9 responses to “Trump’s Brand of Self-Government on Display in Recent Rallies

  • Methinks Trump and Publius Decius Mus have been doing a lot of talking, and Decius has been doing some speech writing.

    • Well, President Trump did go to a military academy, so he could very well know of Decius’ accomplishments, but I doubt they’ve been channeling each other.

      • I’m curious. Do you think I’m crazy, or do you suspect maybe there’s a reason for my post? Your knowledge, of course, is impressive.

        Different Publius Decius Mus.

        I think you have missed the best, most controversial and most famous writer of this election. My reference is to a conservative intellectual, Michael Anton, who wrote under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus during the campaign, in a blog called the Journal of American Greatness, the predecessor to this one. He was hired by the Admin. and now works in the W.H.

        Anton and a few other conservative intellectuals, all writing under pseudonyms, put together in the predecessor blog an intellectual framework and justification for “Trumpism” and absolutely skewered what one might call “Conservatism. Inc.” (i.e., the conservative establishment) as a hypocritical, ineffectual, rigid, money-grubbing. beholden-to-donors scam. Find on Google Anton’s best known article. “The Flight 93 Election” and read it. I promise it is a joy and eye-opener. It is a tour de force slam of the conservative establishment and a tour de force justification/explanation of the policies which might be called “Trumpism and an assertion this election was the last chance to save America, with the explanation why. Every NeverTrumper responded furiously. Publius Decius Mus (Anton) wrote lots of great essays and I can give you links, but the Flight 93 Election is the one that got both the right and left noticing. The right has furiously rebutted it, and once Anton was hired by the W.H., the left found the essay and decided Anton, along with Bannon, is the brain of Trump and therefore they also ripped into the essay and Anton’s other writing.

        Anton had worked as a speechwriter for Bush, Guiliani and Murdoch (then had a Wall Street career). I think the speech in this article is Anton’s voice (the intellectual underpinning). Really, google “The Flight 93 Election.” It is a must read.

        I’m spending so much time giving Anton a plug because I so greatly respected and enjoyed his writing.

      • Well, what I know for a fact is that you stated:

        “Methinks Trump and Publius Decius Mus have been doing a lot of talking, and Decius has been doing some speech writing.”

        and NOT:

        “Methinks Trump and Michael Anton using the pseudonym “Publius Decius Mus” have been doing a lot of talking, and Decius has been doing some speech writing.”

        And, considering that Michael Anton is a national security advisor for President Trump, he’s likely been in communication with Stephen Miller, who has been Donald Trump’s primary speechwriter for a year or more.

      • I’m sorry, I don’t understand your posts if you knew about Anton. You know, then, what I meant. Humor not your thing? And is your second post saying, no, Trump hasn’t talked to Anton, but Miller has? Ok, maybe. But I stand by my opinion that certain paragraphs in that speech are Anton’s, maybe as told to and transcribed by Miller. I can find paragraphs out of the Decius essays that express exactly those ideas in almost exactly the same language. Or, if you want, Miller has been very influenced by reading the Decius essays.

        I don’t get your point. One way or another I believe some of that speech came directly or indirectly from Anton. It’s not important either way. I simply very much admired the Decius writing and thinking and hope it and Anton are getting their due and Anton will write some speeches. I think Miller is very good, but so is Anton, whose style and approach I believe to be a little different. There is ample room for both of them. What is there to be combative about here?

  • Presupposing “the existence of certain qualities in men” in the US right now, is not a very good bet. A huge swath of society would rather forego certain liberties in exchange for security, regardless of the certainty that such security leads only to tyranny. These are the boiling frogs, they know it, and they don’t mind.

  • “Trump’s Brand of Self-Government on Display in Recent Rallies”

    The only, ONLY, people who want MORE government involvement in their lives are “entitlement monkeys” and others of such low intelligence, and then only to ensure their EBT cards are topped up on time.

  • That they be “humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Unfortunately this quote is used to cow Christians into not defending themselves against attack. When the other person is attacking you, you cannot be humble and gentle with them. It is like an unruly child. The child needs to be corrected, physically if necessary. So too the Left, need to be stood up to and if necessary, a few more fisticuffs dished out by Christians. Even Christ threw the tables in the Temple around to upset the money changers, but that verse and story is seldom quoted, only the ones about being meek and humble.

  • Counting on a voter who clings to his gun and bible as one that can make a rational decision is only courting disaster. Why decry “experts” when, by definition, they have done the work to become experts? Isn’t education and expertise valuable, or should we only trust base animal instincts?

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