What Is Trump To Us?

Donald Trump became the political vehicle for the American people’s resentment of an overweening, corrupt ruling class. Trump’s invaluable contribution to the Republic was to lead Americans publicly to disrespect that class. 

Americans elected Trump to preserve freedoms and prosperity against the encroachments of that class. But instead, he became the catalyst by which that class cohered to transform the American Republic into an oligarchy. 

During Trump’s presidency, more wealth passed from ordinary Americans to oligarchs, and more freedoms were lost than anyone imagined possible. As we consider how to remedy these losses, Trump’s fateful combination of things said and unsaid, of things done and not done, must be part of our search for the persons and policies most likely to lead republican Americans out of our quandary.

Persona Politica

In 2015 and 2016, candidate Trump’s disrespectful, disdainful attitude toward the ruling class put him at the head of presidential preference polls ab initio, and kept him there. Throughout the campaign, he said little of substance—just enough to give the impression that he was on the side of conservatives on just about everything. His leitmotif was “I despise those whom you despise because they despise you. I’m on your side, America’s side.” 

Trump promised to “make America great again,” but did not explain what had made it great in the first place nor how to restore it. Never a religious person, and one who had once expressed support for abortion, Trump delivered more stirring thoughts on religious freedom and the right to life than any candidate ever, including Ronald Reagan.

Trump believed in the unity between himself and his followers, and that they would stay with him, even if he were to shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue. Millions of them reciprocated. The political, and even the moral content of that unity mattered less. He did not try to support his many accusations with facts. Millions who disagreed with him or who disliked him personally voted to make Trump president, and even more voted to reelect him. 

But whatever Trump might have thought, his voters knew that hatred for the ruling class—not Trump himself—was why they supported him. It was about themselves, not Trump. The ruling class knew it, too. That is why, for most of the past six years, it brayed so much disdain from every available venue on him personally, trying to convince at least some of his followers that he is unworthy of decent people’s allegiance. 

We need not rehearse the size, provenance, ubiquity, and vehemence of the ruling class’ attacks on Trump. It is near impossible to recall any official, semi-official, corporate, educational, media, or professional association that did not take part in them, often repeating the very same words ad nauseam. Trump’s peculiarities made it possible for the oligarchy to give the impression that its campaign was about his person, his public flouting of conventional norms, rather than about the preservation of their own power and wealth. The principal consequence of the ruling class’ opposition to candidate Trump was to convince itself, and then its followers, that defeating him was so important that it legitimized, indeed dictated, setting aside all laws, and truth itself. 

This half-decade barrage—with no small help from Trump himself, as we’ll see—surely chipped away at Trump’s personal standing. But by all that unanimity, all that effort and vehemence, the ruling class showed that its real target could not have been one pudgy, orange-haired septuagenarian. No. Its target, its enemy, that they denigrated and wished to constrain if not destroy, was nothing less than the traditional America that they did not entirely control. 

Hence, by its efforts, the ruling class was making the case for Trump’s political persona more definitively than Trump himself could ever do. 

Catalyst Trump

Mobilization against candidate Trump energized the ruling class and drew it together. Yet, on the morning after the 2016 election, talk of “resistance” to the unexpected outcome notwithstanding, no one imagined that it could morph into the oligarchy that has destroyed the American republic. On November 4, 2016, the presidency’s awesome powers to hurt enemies rested in the hands of someone whose enmity the ruling class had turbocharged. So much depended on how he would use them. 

But it did so morph, and fast, because President Trump catalyzed the morphing. He did so by displaying what Theodore Roosevelt had called the most self-destructive of habits: combining “the unbridled tongue with the unready hand.” 

Trump denounced his and his supporters’ enemies, though seldom giving specific reasons for the criticism, while suffering rather than hurting them, motivating them to do their worst, and letting them do so with impunity. He effectively accredited the very people who were discrediting him. Suffice it to say, within a month of President Trump’s inauguration, few if any in Washington were afraid of him. At the same time, those who had voted for Trump were having their lives increasingly restricted. 

The reasons why Trump acted as he did are irrelevant to the fact that he acted as he did, and to those actions’ consequences. No doubt, Trump did not intend them, just as hydrogen peroxide does not intend to break down water into oxygen. Blaming Trump for the ruling class’ oligarchic seizure of power makes no sense. But that seizure became possible only because Trump was who he was and acted as he did.

Thanks to National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers informing him of the fact right after the election, Trump knew that FBI Director James Comey, his chief subordinates, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had broken the law by surveilling his campaign. Nevertheless, he praised them and their agencies, kept them in office, did not refer them for prosecution, and kept secret the documents associated with their illegalities. 

Trump let himself be stampeded into firing General Michael Flynn on wholly specious grounds—the only high profile national security official who had supported him and who stood in the way of the intelligence agencies’ plans against him—and stood by as the ruling class ruined Flynn’s life. 

Days after the inauguration, he suffered the CIA’s removal of clearances from one of his appointees because he was a critic of the agency. Any president worthy of his office would have fired the entire chain of officials who had made that decision. Instead, he appointed to these agencies people loyal to those officials and hostile to himself, notably CIA’s Gina Haspel, who likely committed a crime spying on his candidacy. 

This is an especially crucial point about the intelligence agencies, the enmity of which there was never any doubt: He criticized officials over whom he had absolute power, but left them in office. Even without considering that the majority of Trump appointees were hostile to him and his constituents, the fact that he filled scarcely more than a quarter of executive positions certifies that there hardly ever was a Trump Administration.

Speculating about why or on the basis of what networks Trump made his executive appointments is less useful than realizing how thoroughly he gave them power over the substance of policy—regardless of his own previous commitments—and that he fired people less for substantive than for personal reasons. He let himself be persuaded by his first secretaries of state and defense, and his second national security advisor, to give a nationally televised speech in July 2017 effectively thanking them for showing him that he—and his voters—had been wrong in opposing the ongoing war in the Middle East. Later, he fired them because they were mocking him publicly.

Again and again, Trump signed mammoth spending bills that contained the Democratic Party’s wish lists, having promised not to, vowing never to do it again, and then doing it again. 

By creating trillions of dollars in debt, which the Federal Reserve monetizes and channels through financial institutions, Trump was the sine qua non of the financialization that has transferred wealth from Main Street—which voted for Trump—to Wall Street, which is part and parcel of the ruling class. Trump also left untouched the tax code’s “carried interest” provision that is the source of much of the financial sector’s unearned wealth. 

As Google, Facebook, and Twitter increasingly squeezed conservative content to the cyberworld’s sidelines, Trump railed against Section 230 of the Communications Act that lets them do it with impunity, but did nothing that would stop them, or subject them to lawsuits. 

Trump’s election only accelerated the imposition of the secular creed of government agencies, corporate America, the educational establishment, and the media onto the rest of Americans. Belief, or pretend-belief, that America was conceived in the sin of slavery, that this marks white people indelibly, that Americans are racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise bad, and that we must learn to speak a new language that reflects our national repentance, became a condition of advancement, and even of continued employment. 

Trump shared his voters’ resentment of, for example, being ordered to attend workplace sessions about their “racism.” But not until his last months in office did he ban the practice within the federal government. Never did he ban contracts with companies that require such sessions. Never did he try to insert a ban on such practices into spending bills. Hence, even the U.S. armed forces became his voters’ enemies.

The COVID Coup de Grâce

And then came COVID-19. Only President Trump’s complaisance made possible the American people’s submission to scientifically nonsensical regulations that ended up solidifying the oligarchy and transferring more wealth and power from one class to another, possibly, than ever before in mankind’s history. 

There never was reason to believe that infection by the COVID-19 virus was any more deadly than other bad flu-like illnesses. On the contrary, most persons infected showed no symptoms. Only the elderly and infirm were at risk—no more than from other bad flu epidemics. President Trump’s reaction to COVID was wholly reasonable in the beginning: Suspend travel from infected areas, safeguard the vulnerable, develop a vaccine. But, for whatever reason, the ruling class had another agenda, best expressed by the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan: “‘Don’t Panic’ Is Rotten Advice.” The ruling class did everything it could to foster panic. The point was to cause Americans to agree to shut down such parts of society as the ruling class said, supposedly to “stop the spread.”

Quarantining infected persons has ever been a powerful tool of public health. But the notion of quarantining noninfected people is inherently indefensible nonsense. Imposition of that nonsense is what made possible American society’s disarticulation, the disempowerment and impoverishment of ordinary Americans, and the oligarchy’s further enrichment. Within nine months, COVID policy had produced 28 new billionaires. President Trump stood in the way of that imposition. Until he didn’t. 

Turning the scientific logic of quarantines on its head, Trump on March 15, 2020, agreed to counsel people to suspend normal life for two weeks to “slow the spread.” Two weeks later, the New York Times crowed that Trump, having been “told, hundreds of thousands of Americans could face death if the country reopened too soon,” had been stampeded into “abandoning his goal of reopening the country by Easter.” Like every other literate person, Trump knew that once an infectious disease enters a population, nothing can prevent it from infecting all of it, until a majority has developed antibodies from contracting it—so-called herd immunity—or been vaccinated. But he agreed to support the “experts’” lie to the contrary. 

And if he did not know in March that the “experts” were peddling pseudo-sophisticated lies, he did by May. The U.S. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which modeled the authoritative predictions on which the U.S. lockdowns were based, published its prediction that, as of May 14, 2020, Sweden, which did not participate in lockdowns, would suffer up to 2,800 daily deaths. The actual number turned out to be 38. If you see something, say something. But Trump did not. 

By thus supporting the “experts,” Trump made it impossible for conservative leaders to oppose them credibly. All Democrats had to say was, “Even Trump recognizes the experts.” 

Far from rallying Americans to support reality over quackery, Trump showcased the previously unknown bureaucrat Dr. Anthony Fauci as America’s guru on all things COVID, even as Fauci was giving multiple signs of deception as well as of incompetence while none too subtly mocking the president. 

What if Trump had simply pointed out the obvious about experts, lockdowns, masks, and consequences? What if he had told Americans the truth that going to church or patronizing local businesses was no more dangerous than going to Walmart or Costco and that banishing ordinary social and economic life was a totalitarian power grab? What if he had led Americans in affirming the truth that COVID is no plague, and that a host of people were gaining massive amounts of power and money by pretending that it is and inciting fear? 

Trump last month excoriated former Attorney General William Barr personally for having failed to investigate election fraud. But, regardless of the charges’ merit, from February 2019 to December 2020 Barr served at Trump’s pleasure. This was the time when the ruling class’ bureaucratic and judicial edicts were overriding state election laws. It was no secret that they were turning power over the outcome of the 2020 election from the voters to those who count the votes—in other words, their friends. 

Trump had the right and duty to direct his attorney general to investigate and act against these illegalities in a timely manner, and to replace Barr, and however many officials it might take to make this happen. What might have happened if, instead of waiting to level an impotent personal attack, Trump had used his powers in a timely way to make this happen, and his pulpit to explain to the country why doing so is essential to the rule of law and to democracy? But he did not do this. Asking why he did not is irrelevant.

In sum, Donald Trump is not responsible for the oligarchy’s power. But he was indispensable to it. By the time he left office, Washington was laughing at him—and was hurting his voters.

Trump Now

Whoever would lead republican America going forward must reinvigorate Donald Trump’s priceless legacy: rhetorical disrespect of the ruling class. But Trump’s rhetorical leadership was not sufficient. For republican Americans to shield ourselves and restore our liberties, we must specify and explain that disrespect with regard to every part of the oligarchy. Unlike Trump, we must assert and explain the falsehood of claims to superior knowledge and morality, and build on these explanations by organizing and supporting popular acts of collective disobedience. 

The next generation of leaders must act on the warning that President Dwight Eisenhower, our collective republican grandfather, gave us about the impending dictatorship of self-interested pseudo-experts: “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity . . . ,” “domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is . . . gravely to be regarded,” and, “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

As it turns out, these government elites and government-certified experts have been disastrously wrong and corrupt. But even if their expertise in everything from education to the military had turned out to be genuine, it would not negate the inalienable interest that the rest of us have in living our lives as we see fit—in our own freedom, in pursuing our own interests according to our own lights. That is why the next generation of leaders must transcend Trump by debunking, defunding, and disempowering the establishment in education, medicine and public health, law enforcement, national security, on down the line.

Resting their authority on claims to “expertise” as they did under Trump, those in charge of our institutions eliminated objective standards about what that is. They perverted “merit” by declaring competitive exams to be racist. But they are not about race any more than about excellence. They are about seizing power. Now, republican America must treat them as the enemies they are. 

Trump did not object to funneling more money into the establishment’s power and prestige. This must change. The schools are teaching less than ever, while the colleges produce mostly worthless degrees while credentialing a generation of oligarchs who pretend to have the moral authority to control our lives. As parents observe the poor quality if not outright dysfunctionality of much that the public K-12 schools teach, they abandon them as fast as they can. The next generation of leaders must put themselves on the parents’ side by funneling public money to parents directly. 

If universities and colleges have been the fountainhead of the oligarchy’s intellectual and moral character, then nothing would reduce that fountain’s pressure on republican America like curtailing that financing. Post-Trump leaders could campaign to make individual institutions liable for unpaid student debts incurred there. 

America’s problem with “merit” and “expertise” starts at the top, with the unwarranted credit given to Ivy League and other “highly selective” schools. But these, preferring compatibility to excellence, admit many students with lower scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. In general, and with the exception of the “hard” sciences, the more highly rated the college, the less work it expects from its students. Hence they confer prestige, pretentiousness, and access to enviable careers to graduates who often know less than the kids out of Podunk State. This results in a progressive, negative selection of elites. Post-Trump leaders can lead Americans to end this by hiring—and urging others to hire—on the basis of exams rather than pedigrees.

America Post-Trump

Donald Trump, along with millions of Americans, became the victim of the ruling class’s mutually supportive use of the COVID-19 pandemic to seize power over the American people, pretending to serve but jointly overriding the health of Americans in multiple ways. Whoever would lead republican Americans post-Trump must be committed to turning the tables—putting this corrupt complex’s leaders in prison. 

The entire COVID affair is a network of transparent lies, held together only by the ruling class’ unanimous vengeance on whoever points out that the COVID-19 virus is nothing like a plague, that quarantining the uninfected rather than the ill and vulnerable defies common sense, that cloth masks raise the wearers’ intake of carbon dioxide many times above dangerous levels, and that COVID vaccines have at least ordinary levels of dangerous side effects. Yes. Though many of the oligarchy’s enforcers of this regime of lies are guilty only of reptilian partisanship, the oligarchs who head America’s public health system, Google and other tech companies, and the pharmaceutical industry may well be liable for criminal conspiracy as well as vulnerable to civil judgments. 

They can start by extracting information by subpoena and compelled testimony, publicizing it, organizing class action lawsuits and demonstrations, and using friendly venues for prosecutions.

No greater irony exists than that during the presidency of Donald Trump, elected in no small part because of his denunciation of political correctness, demands to conform to the norms of left-wing ideologues came to define the oligarchy that was replacing our republic. Discrediting and negating those demands is essential to freeing republican Americans from the oligarchy’s grip. This most important post-Trump task begins with disrespecting the oligarchy’s every part. That means denying their claim to be exercising legitimate republican functions.

Truth is, the FBI, CIA, and Justice Department act as agents of an oligarchic regime at war with our Republic and with republican Americans. To respect them is to disrespect ourselves. Under current leadership, the Pentagon is at war against those Americans who identify with the republic rather than with the oligarchy. Why accredit the enemy for anything other than enmity? Any number of big businesses and institutions demand that republican Americans respect the private rights that republican institutions confer on them. But they follow oligarchic power—not republican rules. To disrespect them all is to respect the truth. 

To be worthy of following, post-Trump leadership must become consistent in deed with the insight that vaulted Donald Trump to public attention. He did what was in him to do. No one would suggest it was enough, or that more of the same would be enough. Picking up where he left off is up to anyone who would succeed him at the head of America’s republicans.

About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

Photo: Stephen Zenner/AFP via Getty Images

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