I have the distinction of being the only non-tenured full-time academic in the country to have endorsed publicly then-candidate Donald Trump. A distinction that I am more proud of is, I was the only faculty member at Duke University to have correctly predicted the outcome of the election, which actually irritated my colleagues much more.
I’d like to be able to pat myself on the back as an academic, but what I knew was simply what tens of millions of patriotic Americans already knew in their bones, which was that Donald Trump was going to win.
Nonetheless, it was a great pleasure to experience an overlap between my own personal political convictions and my academic position that the political categories as existed after the Cold War were obsolete, and I interpreted Trump as a necessary and desirable first step toward this political realignment.
Much of the debate on the Right about Trump is between so-called NeverTrump Republicans who claim that Donald Trump is not a “real conservative” and traditional conservatives who insist that he is. And not only that, in their opposition, the NeverTrump contingent reveals just how out of alignment they are with traditional conservatives. This is an interesting debate, but it was never essential to me.
A lot of what attracted me to Donald Trump was precisely those things that distinguished him from traditional conservatism. What ultimately is significant about Trump are the ways in which he can be distinguished from the other Republicans who were in the primary field with him, and not necessarily what distinguished him from Hillary Clinton.
In any case, it raises an interesting question as to what is “conservatism.” Why indeed do we package together a certain position on tax reform, a certain position on foreign policy, a certain position on trade, abortion, and so forth? How are these things packaged together to form a coherent way of thinking about America?
Some would say their connection is essential. Others would say they are cobbled together in an arbitrary way. I would argue their relationship was contingent and related to the circumstances of the Cold War. After the Cold War, this once-useful but now outdated conservative ideology did more to obfuscate than it did to actually clarify our situation.
Example: the free market is great when understood in juxtaposition to a Soviet command economy; however, a free market as a broad term that encapsulates Goldman Sachs, Walmart, and the neighborhood lemonade stand is an overly broad term that does not respect necessary and deeply important distinctions. In other words, the free market of Goldman Sachs is not the free market of the lemonade stand, and a conservative vocabulary that does not appreciate such distinctions is flat-footed and obsolete and deserves to die.
Another thing not factored into the old conservative vocabulary was the uncanny symbiosis that developed between a certain virulent strain of leftist identity politics and post-war capitalist structures. Indeed, the Left doesn’t even want to acknowledge this because the Left is animated by a psychological need to think of itself as providing a critique of powerful structures—not as being instruments of them.
On the other side, the Right would not want to acknowledge this strange symbiosis, because far too many in the professional ranks of the conservative movement are still beholden to donors with corporate interests represented precisely by those capitalist structures.
This has brought us to a situation in which a pure populist election was possible; in which every single powerful institution in the West—the corporate media, the military-industrial complex, the establishments of the Republican and Democratic parties, even the Pope—were aligned against candidate Trump; which candidate Trump nevertheless won, because he had the support of one institution that still matters in the face of such an onslaught—namely, the support of the people.
Tested Again and Again
Beyond the substantive significance and desirability of that victory, it’s actually interesting for another reason; namely, one would consider it a laboratory-made test case, or a stress test for democracy itself.
Put another way, if a candidate with nothing more than the support of the people can win against the coordinated opposition of every single powerful institution in society, that says there remains something healthy about the functioning of our democratic institutions.
That this stress test was passed is precisely the reason that Trump’s enemies have focused specifically and virulently on the democratic legitimacy of his victory. The Mueller report is only one example.
All of these oppositional forces did not go away and die after the election, and, as Steve Bannon said, if you think the administrative state is going down without a fight, you’re kidding yourself. And they’ve been fighting harder than ever, unfortunately. This has led to some disappointing results that we must face.
Progress on the border wall has been underwhelming, and the borders are as porous as ever. This is not only disgraceful, it is ludicrous, in the precise and literal sense that it is laughable and indicates that we are becoming an unserious country. And as much as I am inspired by an event such as this, which shows that the civic heart of American patriotism is still beating, and by private citizens with private money coming together to attempt to build a wall, there are limits to what we can expect to achieve without real changes in the way our government works.
We should not emphasize this tremendous victory of private enterprise and patriotism as an excuse for the failure of our own government institutions. After all, this failure is not necessary—our government at one time helped us dig the Panama Canal, built the Hoover Dam, and as we’ve recently recalled and celebrated, put a man on the moon.
It is inspiring how much money we have raised in this noble effort to fund the wall; but it actually underscores the depressing fact that we already had a different fundraiser for the wall where much more money was raised—it was called Tax Day, April 15. Trillions of dollars of revenue were brought in, and yet somehow, we can’t spare $20 billion, a minuscule fraction of it, to fund the wall.
After spending $7 trillion on Mideast wars since 2001—that is, for perspective, more than the collective market capitalization of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google combined, plus the entirety of student loan debt, plus private credit card debt—after all of that, we couldn’t spare $20 billion for a wall to protect our country. After $800 billion in military budget funding, not even $20 billion to build our wall. I’m almost thinking it may be a better prospect for us to give Raytheon or Boeing the contract for the wall. Maybe then we’d have a better chance of it getting built.
And so you see my point—it’s not just a lack of substantial progress on the wall or immigration at a time where immigration is registered in polls as a matter of highest importance among the electorate. It is something deeper than that. Because of this stress test of democracy that we passed when Trump won, we have a certain level of justified optimism in the country. But if we don’t implement the agenda that propelled his victory, it will lead to the prospect of a profound and justified cynicism with respect to democracy and our democratic institutions. People will justly ask, “What good are elections if nothing changes?”
Institutions at War with Americans
I want to conclude by talking about other features of this institutional failure that is plaguing our nation.
Another aspect of institutional failure that has not changed and is indeed becoming exacerbated is the lack of accountability for failure and wrongdoing. This is evident in the fact that not a single person has been held accountable for our disastrous wars in the Middle East, and in fact, some people have even been rewarded with positions within the current administration. Not a single person has been held responsible for the financial crisis of 2008. There’s not a single person held to account for the opioid crisis, which continues to ravage our nation. And there is not a single person who has actually been held accountable for this now-revealed Russia hoax, in which the upper-echelons of the Justice Department, FBI, and CIA conspired in what amounted to an attempted coup and an attack the legitimacy of the president and our electoral system.
I’m not holding my breath believing accountability eventually will come. More likely, we’ll see the hearings, it’ll wash away just like everything else, and it’s back to our regularly scheduled programming of socialism versus hamburgers.
Another aspect of democratic accountability has to do with free speech in the public square. Isn’t it interesting that all these people who talk about the need for so-called “free movement of goods” as the definition of free trade, and people who talk about free labor as open borders, are conspicuously silent about the free movement of information on the internet? In fact, they’ve been vigorously opposed to it and suppressing it.
Big Tech organizations such as Google have reacted in literal tears to the victory of Donald Trump and have vowed never to let it happen again. We’ve heard countless stories about immigration patriots who have been silenced and de-platformed—people with millions and millions of followers. Make no mistake: your commissars in Big Tech are doing everything they can to make sure the American people will never meddle in their own elections again.
I could go on, but I conclude this portion simply by stating an obvious and lamentable fact: every single institution in the United States is either actively malicious toward the American people, or a complete scam—and often both. In a healthy system, these institutions would be very important. In a healthy system, there would be a functional deep state, which in important ways would offer continuity and stability to complement the vicissitudes of democratic populism. In fact, democratic populism is not necessarily much of a corrective to this institutional collapse of the deep state.
The Long View
In some ways, extreme populism actually is a symptom of this institutional failure, and this brings me to my last point. Due to our lack of a functioning institutional system, we are no longer able to undertake great, long-term projects, or to address seriously deep structural problems in our system in the long term. We suffer from a kind of “tyranny of myopia.” We are incapable of operating as a country on anything resembling a serious and long-term time horizon.
Kris Kobach has pointed to the fact that the physical structure of the wall will last longer than every single sentient living being reading these words right now. Somehow, this physical wall is therefore a tangible expression of our will to survive as a nation. But it also sets us to think of the connection between sovereignty itself and long-term thinking.
If I’m an individual and I want to plan long-term—say I’m 23 years old, and I want to plan for certain goals for when I’m 40 or 50—it sounds bizarre and commonsensical, but I have to be aware that I am indeed the same person that I will be in an essential sense when I am 40 and 23.
There has to be a structural integrity and coherence to who I am as an individual now, and who I will be as an individual in 20 or 30 years, in order for me to undertake long-term plans and projects as an individual.
This is also true for us as a country: if we don’t have structural integrity, if we don’t have social cohesion, if we are not a unified whole as a country, we will be incapable of executing long-term plans into the future, and this is the most devastating consequence of our widespread institutional collapse.
Now, I might sound a bit pessimistic, but I represent the best kind of pessimism—what a great philosopher once called a “pessimism of strength.” Because, indeed, I am utterly confident that talented, energetic Americans have what it takes to navigate the troubled waters ahead going into the next few decades.
In keeping with my own prescription, I’d like to invoke a heuristic device. Imagine it is the year 2044 and imagine that America in 2044 is still a real country in a meaningful sense, and it is not a dystopian nightmare, then reverse engineer a plausible scenario leading up to that point.
Whatever scenario you can construct for yourself leading up to that point in 2044, it must involve us being willing to acknowledge boldly the deep structural bottlenecks to progress, and the institutional failure I have described.
And it also requires an awareness that winning the argument is always great and winning elections is always great—but we must always be mindful that as great and as necessary as it is to win the argument and to win the election, it is not to be a consolation prize for losing the country.
This essay is adapted from remarks delivered on July 27, at the Symposium at the Wall Conference in New Mexico.