What Donald Trump does America needs, but it does not exhaust the nation’s needs at this hour. When we speak of “draining the swamp” we intend significantly more than merely replacing recalcitrant public officials who fail to vindicate the claims of self-government. We mean also removing the policies and practices that maintain a boa-like constriction on the arteries of self-government.
When Washington, D. C., was to be built in the 1790s, the first thing that had to be accomplished was the draining of the swamp land (particularly in the neighborhood of Georgetown). What had to follow, however, was a filling of the swamp to establish a stable foundation for a major city.
Similarly, politically speaking, “draining the swamp” is only a prelude for the work of engineering and construction that will erect a healthy, self-governing polity in the United States. What President Trump is doing is preparing the way for that work of engineering and construction. Accordingly, while we should praise Trump for what he is doing, we should not lose sight of what still needs to be done.
In order to understand what needs to be done, however, we must first grant fulsome praise to Trump’s deeds, which in so many ways are laying the groundwork for rebuilding. We should not be influenced by those who refuse to praise Trump even for his good deeds. For those begrudging in praise are also those who are disqualified for encouraging fruitful labors. NeverTrumpers are the people who have decided to say, “Good-bye America.”
But consider the good that Trump is doing and discover the possibilities that he has opened for us. His removal of regulatory constraints opens pathways for affirming regulations that rely upon the good sense of the people to chart a course toward a healthy public and economic life. He seems almost by instinct to understand that necessity (falsely called populism).
Moreover, his overall economic and financial approach suggests that he is not a prisoner to the Smoot-reflex that has led several generations to discard the only tool—tariffs—that enables the United States to maintain its leverage in a global economy in which nearly every other state pursues industrial policy. Trump sees that to assimilate the United States to those practices only furthers the heretofore prevailing tendency of other states to milk us dry.
In addition, domestically he has understood that it is more important to encourage production than consumption—an incredibly important departure from the foundation of fiscal policy since the era of Franklin Roosevelt. Experts have too glibly assumed that Smoot-Hawley tariffs “caused” the Great Depression, paying no heed to the discouragement of productivity-enhancing savings occasioned by the recently introduced income tax.
That they have persisted in this explanation—and given rise to the Smoot-reflex—is all the more astonishing since the episodic experiments in reducing the income tax subsequent to this time have repeatedly reinforced the evidence that there is a direct connection between income taxation and economic performance. By adding a tariff regime to the episodic dynamic, Trump restores the opportunity to revisit our economic assumptions. In particular, he enables us to revisit the original “supply side” argument—from Alexander Hamilton—that moderate tariffs are effective simultaneously in producing revenue and fostering domestic manufactures. A new platform is implicit here, and it may include discarding completely the income tax.
In the arena of national security Trump has acted to reinforce the reality that only the United States is in a position to impose the discipline of self-government on the world. Jettisoning the vague and unrealistic aspirations to a global utopia spawned by Roosevelt, he acts on the principle of a United States engaged in the world from the perspective of protecting its interests while fostering mutual respect among states rather than noblesse oblige deference.
The importance of this resides in the fact that the preservation of self-government domestically is predicated upon the preservation of strength to ensure the nation’s capacity to bid defiance to the world when needed. At the same time he manifests the justice and peace loving restraint that gives encouragement to the world and confidence to the people of the United States that none need fear American power.
Moreover, in the all important sphere of civic unity, he casts aside the divisive practices of pandering to identity politics, while nevertheless serving in such a way as to enable him to boast that all benefit from the policies that he embraces. Whether the economic advances of heretofore trailing demographics in this economy or the criminal justice reforms that restore the promise of opportunity to what had seemed lost generations, or similar measures of civic rebuilding, he has been making decisions that lay down markers for future performance, including the defense of the right to life and the defense of freedom of expression.
Finally, the president reaffirms the sine qua non that a nation that cannot defend its borders is no nation at all. What matters here is less the importance of restricting the numbers of immigrants flowing into the United States (important though that may be) than reinforcing the nation’s right and power to decide for itself who will immigrate and how they will do so.
In all these ways President Trump is doing what is needful and he deserves to be praised for it. Because he is doing these things, even the most desperate among us have new reasons to hope for a regeneration of that healthy national spirit that makes pride in American liberty not a boast but a cause for celebration.
But, here, too, is the rub.
For while President Trump is doing what is right, and creating space for a healthy public discourse to form, it is no doubt also true that he is not the person who can articulate what he is accomplishing in such a way as to fire the public’s imagination with a renewed dedication to the fundamental principles of self-government.
While the swamp of “despond” is being drained, the rule of moral light has not yet emerged to fill it in. It was Abraham Lincoln who responded to a politics that was “blowing out the moral lights among us.” Lincoln responded with a re-illumination. The United States now critically stands in need of such a re-illumination.
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