My nervousness of Donald Trump and the ultimate reason I didn’t vote for him was that he campaigned as a would-be authoritarian. It wasn’t just my imagination. Many of the voices of liberty I respect agreed with my assessment and, oddly, we found ourselves agreeing with the progressive media and even progressive Democrats who generally love authoritarian regimes and the candidates who espouse them, like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
While I am still not won over to his side, I see some encouraging signs and I want to explore them.
Following the accusations that Trump was an emergent strongman, the campaign began to change.Trump himself fed the impression almost daily throughout the campaign, dropping traditional Republican rhetoric about cutting government and upholding free enterprise, while defending torture, internment, religious tests at the border, boycotts against companies who opposed him, hinting at the need to silence the press with libel law, and announcing that he alone could make the nation secure.
Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but I never heard the words “freedom” and “liberty” crossed his lips.
His authoritarian rhetoric was his biggest vulnerability, and “strongman” became a watchword. President Obama tried to make it a point at the Democratic National Convention, declaring “We are not a fragile or frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order. We don’t look to be ruled.” Everyone knew he was referring to Trump and that bolstered Clinton’s numbers for a good long while.
Like any good businessman, Trump is aware of criticism, so following those attacks, the Trump campaign began to change. The pundits said September was too late to have an effect on the election, but Trump made deregulation a major part of his stump speech. His shift culminated in his October 23, 2016 Gettysburg speech. Although it didn’t sway me, it did get some of his passionate critics among free-market partisans to take a second look.
Trump never gave up his dangerous calls to put limits on outsourcing and for new taxes on imports, among other counterproductive protectionist strategies, but the tone of his campaign took a different direction, away from its dark beginnings to a more concrete idea of getting government off people’s backs. What caused that shift from authoritarian to defender of the deregulated marketplace? Who knows? Maybe his new advisers from the free-market wing of the Republican Party. Maybe someone read the polls and recognized that the American people cared about this issue.
Truthfully, I think Trump began to realize that he could actually win the election with just a few tweaks of his campaign, so he did what any good businessman does … looked for and found experts who backed his centralizing approach, but espoused strong free-market values.
Railing against bureaucracies, especially as Obamacare began to implode publicly, resonated with voters. It became part of Trump’s populist message, and the promise to curb government power led to his election.
During the transition, the theme of regulation has not only ascended in importance, but has become central to his picks for cabinet posts at the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Department of Education, and the Department of Labor. He has selected nominees who have built careers denouncing the effects of bureaucratic management of the economic sectors each of these department controls.
The theme has become so pronounced that some writers have begun to suspect that the government is being taken over by followers of Ayn Rand in some kind of intellectual coup d’etat.
“This has now officially become a trend. Trump is turning not just to billionaires but Randians to fill the cabinet.” James Hohmann, Washington Post, December 13, 2016
“Perhaps he has been a movement conservative this whole time, keeping his devotion to Ayn Rand largely under wraps for the first seventy years of his life, even through a Presidential campaign, only to reveal them now.” John Cassidy, New Yorker, December 9, 2016
More likely Trump is deferring to the single most important intellectual non-leftist force in American life, which is not fascism, but free markets.
Authoritarianism means to intensify government control over the lives and property of the people. Deregulation and privatization mean the exact opposite. Rule by bureaucracy has been the standard practice in the United States for a century, but our national memory harkens back to the time before that when bureaucracy was rare.
Every rule in the books, every regulation and code is ultimately backed by the power of the State to force you against your will. You don’t need a strongman with a populist appeal to realize authoritarianism. It already emanates from a legion of petty bureaucrats who are just following the law and regulations.
To dismantle such a regime means rejecting authority as a means of social control. It means trusting freedom.
Currently, Trump’s legions of left-of-center critics have not yet taken notice of this shift and changed their mode of attack. Instead, they’re looking increasingly bipolar, terrified of Trump as an authoritarian fascist while at the same time decrying his cabinet picks as working to reduce existing government power over the citizens. Clearly that will lead to dogs mating with cats in the near future.
Trump was rightly blasted for campaigning for more government control early on. You’d think those same people would praise him now as he calls for dramatic cuts in government. The entire mainstream media apparatus is pushing straight through, oblivious to the contradiction. The “authoritarian” is calling for a reduction in bureaucracy which will lead to “chaos”.
Consider Trump’s pick for the Department of Labor. Andrew Puzder opposes many workplace regulations. The New York Times decried his views as as irresponsible and downright awful. This is the New York Times, which denounces Trump for racism and misogyny that is now defending a range of regulations that were explicitly racist and sexist in their origin and intent.
[Trump’s EPA pick Scott Pruitt] “epitomizes a more general trend evident in Trump’s picks: the choice to name people who are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run … these kinds of appointments also undermine the legitimacy of government, using their positions as bully pulpits to further attack the credibility of government action … But for now, in the battle to roll back government, Trump is the dismantler-in-chief and these are his generals.” Meg Jacobs, CNN
Wait. How can you at be an authoritarian dictator and still work to “undermine the legitimacy of government?” I suppose you can hatch a theory about how Trump is working to destroy entrenched bureaucracies who enforce laws everyone hates in order to gain more power for himself which he will later deploy with more ferocity than ever when the time comes. I doubt it. Logically, if Trump meant to be a dictator, he would not be appointing people who are severe critics of existing authoritarian approaches to government.
Just hit pause and consider the disingenuity here. The partisans of government have worked decade after decade to build a gigantic State that is nearly total in its power. No aspect of life is untouched. Now they are stunned and alarmed that the power they worked so hard to centralize might be used in a way with which they disagree. They are so wedded to government controls that even when a specter of despotism threatens, they still can’t see a case for limiting government’s power.
This is the core problem in all Progressive politics. They want civil freedom. They believe in free speech, for themselves. They want freedom of press, so long as the press only reports what they agree with. They believe in marriage freedom. They are suspicious of cops and sympathetic to the victims of police abuse. But …
When it comes to anything having to do with economics or commerce, the narrative switches dramatically. Now they want massive controls on all exchanges. They cannot allow laborers and management to work out their own deals. Producers may not just throw products and services on the market and let consumers decide. Advertisers can’t have free speech … it goes on from there.
Only through this distorted lens can Trump be simultaneously criticized for authoritarian leadership and deregulatory intent. What the left has yet to discern is that controlling economic life means controlling people. Conversely, the curbing and elimination of economic freedom is a devastating blow to freedom itself. Freedom is all of a piece. Anything else is authoritarian.