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.