The President and "the People"

I wrote the following analysis of Trump's inaugural address the weekend he gave it, not publishing it at the time for a number of reasons: the brief thought I might be overreacting (especially at the end), the glut of insta-commentary that made pushing "publish" feel pointless, and my usual ambivalence about my own writing. The first few weeks of the Trump administration have made me think that I should have posted it—not because it was particularly prescient, but because it does get at the logic of Trump-Bannon populism in ways that might be worth considering. I've made a few small fixes—changing "this weekend" to "last month" and the like—but have otherwise left it alone. 

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In his inaugural address last month, Trump claimed that “we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” He took aim at “the establishment,” “politicians,” and a “small group” of D.C. insiders who have enriched themselves while the rest of the country suffered. The day he was sworn in as president would be remembered as the day “the people became the rulers of this nation again,” Trump promised. He described contemporary America in grim terms, with talk of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” and inner city hellscapes rife with gangs and drugs. And then came a curious line indeed: “The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.”

Trump’s “oath of allegiance to all Americans” underscores a worrisome feature of how authoritarian populism works, and is a troubling expression of its inner logic. Note that Trump did not say he had taken an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States; his allegiance, instead, is to the American people. (In fact, he didn’t utter the word “Constitution” in his speech.) That strikes me as revealing.

The point isn’t that Trump was sending an esoteric message about his intentions to violate or ignore the constitutional limits on his power. (Of course, he very well might violate and ignore the Constitution.) Instead, by affirming this allegiance and invoking “the people” again and again, Trump was rationalizing an imperious, authoritarian style of governance. This was a transfer of power with “a very special meaning,” he told us, a corrective to our system that goes deeper than the usual administrative and political turnover. Trump will be a strongman of and for “the people,” supposedly exerting his power on their behalf, the man at the top claiming a blank check from the masses below.

It is a commonplace for our politicians to invoke “the people” or “ordinary Americans” or “the will of the people.” But Trump’s appeal to “the people,” his allegiance to them, set over and against a parasitic establishment, goes well beyond that. It certainly was the most distinctive aspect of his inaugural address, hammered at again and again. The people would be put first instead of being ignored. “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” Trump said. “Everyone is listening to you now.” Though he did not recycle the “I alone” language of his speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump clearly presented himself as the people’s tribune. He framed his authority and power as coming directly from “the people”; he, the outsider, had been sent to Washington to express their long-frustrated will. No more would the people be betrayed, or sold out by self-dealing elites. As Trump put it: “That all changes starting right here and right now.”

Trump’s speech was combative, closer in many ways to a campaign speech than a typically "inspiring," platitudinous inaugural address. Like a campaign speech, it was meant to stoke his core supporters. Which is instructive, because it’s clear “the people” means something specific to Trump; it does not literally refer to each and every American. For example, it’s striking how he elides “the people” with those who supported him this fall. After Trump told the forgotten men and women of America that they were being listened to, he said this: “You came by the tens of millions to become part of an historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.” The people and the Trump movement now seem nearly indistinguishable. Or rather, the success of the Trump movement becomes the people’s triumph. “We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”

“The people” functions here as a restrictive term, a way of distinguishing insider from outsider, the Real America from decadent coastal enclaves, “us” from the Other. Trump’s use of “the people” conjures a kind of “imagined community,” to use Benedict Anderson’s famous term, the mythological America that used to be great. It was whiter, it was more overtly Christian, and everyone—especially women and racial minorities—knew their place. Given Trump’s consistent record of racism and bigotry, we don’t really need to speculate about what he means by “the people.” This type of appeal to “the people” is fundamentally anti-pluralist; it is the rhetoric of reaction in the face of change. (Jan-Werner Muller’s recent polemic, What is Populism?, is excellent on the dangers of “the people” being deployed in this fashion, and it has informed my understanding Trump, even if Muller mostly focused on Europe.) The term reduces the capacious diversity of the United States to a specific understanding of what it means to really be American. Trump spoke of unity, yes; but he spoke more emphatically of loyalty: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”

What finally matters, Trump asserted, is whether or not “our government is controlled by the people.” And what else could “controlled by the people” mean but commanded by Trump? He, after all, is their voice and champion. It is Trump and the people against both political parties, the wasteful bureaucracies, even the other branches of government. He is effectively claiming—or at least intimating—an extra-constitutional mandate to act in the name of “the people.” The Constitution could only get in the way, prove an unnecessary obstacle to Trump’s agenda. If what matters is doing the will of “the people,” and if Trump himself is that will’s embodiment, what need is their for debate and deliberation, checks-and-balances, or constitutional limits on what the president can can demand or decree? “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action,” Trump warned.

Instead of understanding the presidency as one part of a broader constitutional system, Trump seems to conceive of the office as the spear-tip of an insurgency, the supposedly historic “movement” he leads. He is describing his legitimacy and power as existing, in a sense, above and beyond the Constitution. The new standard for decisions and policies is not whether they are constitutional or not, or whether they even are minimally plausible or not, but whether or not they are for “the people.”

The will of the people transcends the mere tabulation of numbers, whether opinion polls or the crowds at Trump’s inauguration, and the people’s will is never wrong—here the mythology of a “righteous people and a righteous public,” in Trump’s words, becomes essential. It is the congress, the experts, the pollsters who are fallible. “The people” never are, which is why Trump has and will continue to invoke them as cover.

It matters whether or not a president feels constrained at all, has any sense of his own limits. We need to brace for the possibility that Trump’s inaugural address will prove deeply revealing about how he understands himself: as exempt from the usual give and take of politics and as operating uninhibited by the Constitution or legal restraints. It has become all too common on both the socialist left and anti-liberal right to dismiss concerns about “norms” and the rule of law as a pathetically narrow-minded liberal proceduralism. In these critics’ accounts, a concern for means as well as ends slips into an attachment to “bourgeois” rights and privileges—the elevation of form over substance, missing the forest for the trees. That is a critique that deserves to be taken seriously, and I do—especially at a time when Trump clearly has no intention of playing by the rules. But I hope it is clear that my concerns here are different. I am not making some appeal to etiquette and decorum.

It is no good to shrug and say that all modern presidents have transgressed the Constitution. That can be conceded all while realizing Trump poses an uncommonly dangerous and destabilizing threat. Even more: that he essentially gave himself permission to rule as an authoritarian, in the name of “the people,” in front of all of us. Past presidents might have been hypocrites, but hypocrisy, let us not forget, is vice nodding to virtue. Trump’s rule promises to be “beyond” both.

All this provides the proper framework for understanding Trump’s speech. He was rallying “the people,” not reaching across the aisle. He was appealing to those in his “movement” and giving his base exactly what they wanted. Trump did not just outline, however vaguely, programs and priorities; he was offering a justification for what will be a massively transgressive, cruel, and authoritarian presidency. His chief task was not to win bipartisan accolades and generate goodwill, but motivate his core supporters to stay on his side. He doesn’t need to win over the New York Times editorial board; he needs to strike fear in Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

It was an inaugural address like no other because he will govern like no other. That is the meaning of Trump’s speech. It will all be worse than we think. And it all could happen faster than we realize.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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