How to Preserve the True Nature of American Greatness

What is it that makes America great? What, really, resonated so much with his supporters when Donald Trump promised to make America great again? What was it that we had lost? Why did so many people perceive the eight years of the last administration as a period of decline? It helps, I think, to take a broad perspective here, and to recognize that the genius of America, as those in the 19th century used to call it, is actually fairly complex.  

There is no single factor that accounts for America’s exceptionalism, but, rather, there is a combination of traditional American values which does effectively differentiate us from other countries, and accounts for the fact that, historically, ours became the richest and most powerful nation in the world.

There are at least four basic principles which have animated our development since the break with Great Britain in the late 18th century. These are 1) an abhorrence of arbitrary power, and a commitment to the rule of law, 2) the belief that sovereignty properly belongs only in the American people themselves, and not in a King or a hereditary aristocracy, 3) a commitment to economic progress and social mobility, and 4) the understanding that there must be limits to the power of our government, and that some space must be permitted for the development of private property, individual freedom and conscience (including morality and religion).  

These four principles lead to particular corollaries. For example, there ought to be a separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers, to prevent excessive oppression and arbitrary action. There ought to be checks and balances through such mechanisms as dual state and federal governments. No private property should be confiscated without compensation.

Generally speaking, our country has flourished when the four principles are simultaneously operative, and we have encountered difficulty when one or more of the four are forgotten at the expense of others. This is made more complicated by the obvious fact that the four principles are in conflict. Too much emphasis on popular sovereignty (democracy) can lead to arbitrary power, and the suppression of individual rights; too much emphasis on economic progress can lead to dangerous levels of inequality which threaten popular sovereignty, and corruption which threatens the rule of law itself.

That we have generally managed to implement all of these contradictory principles might well be thought to be miraculous, and this accounts for Americans’ longstanding faith that there is a higher power which actually guarantees the success of the American experiment. In God we Trust is not only a national motto but an inescapable reality.

God, it is also said, helps those who help themselves, and whatever role Divine Providence has played in American history, there has been a constant need for Americans to exercise popular sovereignty with vigilance to ensure that arbitrary power has not triumphed and that our government remained limited. Sadly, during the Obama Administration, this vigilance failed, and Trump’s election and the continuing battle between the administration and the media and our two political parties is the result.   

In particular, during the Obama years, the notion prevailed at the highest levels of the federal government that it was the responsibility, particularly of the executive branch, to monitor and to supervise (in Obama advisor Cass Sunstein’s phrase, “to nudge”) all American life, from preschool to grave; thus the takeover at the national level of one-sixth of the economy itself through Obamacare. The conviction that the federal government and the executive knew best was so strong in Barack Obama’s mind, apparently, that he assured us that through the use of his phone and his pen, and through the issuance of executive orders and administrative guidance he could act if Congress failed to do so, and he and his administrative agencies did. President Obama, really, became the exponent of the very kind of arbitrary power our framers feared.

Because the policies he chose to implement—redistribution of wealth, legitimation of undocumented immigrants (particularly children), and a reduction in American military might, among them—were popular with the national media, and because the media was deeply unaware of the complexity and multiplicity of American values, many Americans in and out of the government became convinced that what was being done was proper, even though the means used clearly betrayed our traditions. To this day Obama’s party seems committed to what he did,  and it should be no surprise that we are now beginning to discover that so great was their belief that what they were doing was the only right and proper approach, that so many Obama-era federal officials in the highest reaches of the government, may have believed that President Trump must be stopped at any cost.

This battle continues, with the media carrying on the work of the now disgraced Obama officials, and using any means at its disposal, including slander, innuendo, and salaciousness to seek to turn Americans against the current administration. The latest manifestation, for example, is to use the purported marital abuse of an aide to President Trump’s chief of staff General Kelly as a way to embarrass and remove Kelly, in order ultimately to strike at Trump.  Marital misconduct, is, of course, to be condemned, but we have other institutions, in particular the domestic courts and the criminal process to deal with such matters, and it is irresponsible, to say the least, to seek to undermine an administration through such means.

To struggle against the still dominant politically correct ideology is not easy, since most operating the great media organs, and many still left in the federal government adhere to the pernicious philosophy which dominated during the Obama years, and still dominates in the academy, in much of the legal profession, and in many of our courts. If the progress begun under Trump in restoring limits to the power of the federal leviathan, in restoring the engines of economic growth, in restraining the arbitrary power of federal agencies, and in restoring the implementation of the sovereignty of the people itself is to continue, it is the responsibility of those who wish to preserve true American Greatness to remember what created it and to seek, perhaps with divine guidance, to continue to correct the errors of the prior administration and its accomplices.

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About Stephen B. Presser

Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, and the author of “Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law” (West Academic Publishers, 2017). In the academic year 2018-2019, Professor Presser is a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.