Trump Declares, “Soy libertad!” (And Trumpservatives Eat It Up)

When Trump lovers compare him to Andrew Jackson (as Bannon does) and Teddy Roosevelt (as Pence does), the accuracy of their comparisons lies not in the fame and glory accorded Trump’s historic predecessors, but in the defining trait that Trump shares with Jackson and Roosevelt: an unblinking faith, not in liberty, but in the expanded authority of a paternalistic presidency to manage society for its own good.

Restrained by few notions of constitutional boundaries on federal power, nor any philosophical or moral reservations about treating individual human beings as means to utilitarian abstractions that conflate populism with freedom — but freedom without deference to the self-determination of concrete individual Americans — such men, nascent or full-blown progressives of “the right” (Jackson and Roosevelt, respectively), are unwaveringly certain that happiness and liberty for the masses can and should be manufactured through the instrumentalities of government, rather than being a natural human condition to which the legitimate functions and range of government must be tethered.

To be more specific, such men, who, judging from their outsized actions and words, see themselves unqualifiedly as rulers, rather than elected representatives — and not as heads of a coequal branch of government, but as the unparalleled top of the hierarchy — believe that the wellbeing of the American people depends, not on the preservation of the rule of law and protection from the overextended reach of the federal government, but on aggressive presidential action rooted in no permanent principle of government, but rather only in the charismatic personality and personal strategies of the great leader himself. (This does not mean everything such men intend will be evil, of course — that depends entirely on the personal preferences of the given populist; Jackson’s desire to destroy the growing influence of banks, for instance, was, in my view, essentially laudable as a sentiment, apart from the specific means he wished to employ to achieve it.)

Thus, for example, Trump starts a trade war with all of America’s major trading partners, including her closest allies, by imposing high tariffs on important goods that Americans need. Naturally, this hurts American citizens, both immediately through the restriction on imports, and long term through the retaliatory tariffs imposed by other nations. Neither Trump nor his sheep lose any sleep over this harm, however, as long as they believe it serves Trump’s goal of creating “better deals” with those nations later; in other words, neither he nor they have a moment’s doubt that the president of America’s constitutional republic ought to treat private citizens and their lives as interchangeable and dispensable pieces in his personal board game. (Ninety-three-dimensional chess, of course.) 

Thus, when the damage his game has caused to real American lives begins to look like it might bring some trouble in an upcoming midterm election, neither Trump nor his sheep have any qualms about his summarily demanding billions of tax dollars in bailout money for the squeakiest wheels, in this case “farmers,” i.e., abandoning free market principles to save the free market, as Trump’s equally progressive Republican predecessor famously put it. Those bailout dollars, of course, come from the confiscatory taxation levelled against middle class Americans — in other words, those dollars represent the restrictions on personal liberty imposed regularly on so-called “ordinary Americans,” i.e., Americans who do not have the privilege of using other people’s stolen wealth to pay off the victims of their paternalistic policies. No problem, say the populists, as long as it helps Republicans in the midterms.

Thus, when there may be some indication of one of America’s rivals in the trade war agreeing to try to reduce some of the tariffs, as is supposedly the case with the EU today, Trump and his sheep say, “Wow, if this works, Trump’s a genius!” In other words, the EU has agreed to buy more U.S. soybeans, and to enter new negotiations aimed at reducing tariffs, and so all is forgiven, even among those skeptics who questioned Trump’s trade war agenda. This shows that even the skeptics’ criticisms were based on no underlying principle of political philosophy, but merely on the only consideration that seems to have any currency in contemporary America, namely “what works,” meaning what seems to further certain utilitarian aims of the moment. 

This means there is nothing substantial separating the Trump Republicans from the Obama Democrats — Obama also declared his adherence to “what works” — other than differing opinions about “what works.” In other words, the American republic, which was for generations the only nation on Earth explicitly built on a foundation of serious political philosophy, is now universally devoted to the one fully American philosophical movement, pragmatism.

But pragmatism is an anti-philosophy, in that it is, and was originally intended in part as, a warrant for any kind of authoritarian abuse and overreach, if that abuse and overreach can somehow be rationalized as pragmatically efficacious. In this sense, political pragmatism, in the form most profoundly represented by John Dewey, is the feel-good, Americanized companion of European-style utilitarian progressivism, in which nebulous, ill-defined, ever-shifting notions of “the good” are used as justification for undertaking all sorts of grand social engineering projects, based on the premise that the true, the good, and the beautiful are not essential, natural realities, but merely “what works,” given today’s needs, today’s priorities, today’s social currents. (Beware anyone who defends his favorite leader’s controversial policies against arguments from historical precedent by saying, “This isn’t the 1980s.” That’s the voice of pragmatism.)

And so America has a president (again) who has no interest whatsoever in the U.S. Constitution, or his defined role according to that document, but rather believes that the presidency gives him license to do whatever he thinks might lead to certain results he favors this week. And if he can persuade enough voters that the results he favors are agreeable, and that his actions might bring about these results, then everyone can do a circle dance together and shout, “Hooray, it worked!”

In other words, demagoguery, populism, liberty redefined as the majority’s satisfaction with the illiberal, untethered actions of this or that particular charismatic leader of the moment.

Europe is going to buy more soybeans. Trump did that! Who cares if the principle established here is that presidential power includes the authority to micromanage the economy for his preferred outcomes, short term damage to private individuals be damned, as though freedom were his personal gift to the little people, to be meted out in exactly the manner, and to the extent, he sees fit? After all, it worked didn’t it? So be quiet and enjoy the beneficence of the great leader. And sell those soybeans.

What’s all this constitutionalist blather about individual liberty anyway? Liberty is not individual or natural; it is a collective condition artificially defined and determined by historic leaders. Like Andrew Jackson (partly) and Teddy Roosevelt (largely), Donald Trump believes (entirely) — and daily declares — “Soy libertad!”

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