Well, they finally got Donald Trump. But he sure scared the bejesus out of them. It took a massive five-year campaign of hysteria, of fear and hate, orchestrated by all wings of the Ruling Elite, from the respectable right to the activist left. The irony, of course, is that the last actions of Trump’s presidency highlighted how little of a threat he, as an individual, truly was to the deep corruption in America’s government. Lil Wayne may be free, but figures like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Ross Ulbricht are not. The Fed’s big fat bubble has only gotten larger as Wall Street has thrived, while American workers continue to be “discriminated against.”
If historians look back at simply the Trump administration’s policy legacy, the controversial nature of his tenure may confuse. A record of tax cuts, deregulation, runaway spending, an Israeli-Saudi-focused Middle East policy, criminal justice reform, and stacking the federal court with conservative judges on paper seems firmly aligned with the Republican Party of the modern era. Compromises on gun issues, the inability to replace Obamacare—or even reject its core tenets. His calls for larger stimulus relief would perhaps lead some to believe that he was relatively moderate in the current environment.
Looking back, Trump’s most radical act of governance may be his simple embrace of federalism in the face of the coronavirus. Whether this stemmed from a genuine belief in the limits of practical federal power or a desire to have the flexibility to blame governors if a state’s response became unpopular, the administration’s willingness to allow states to take the leading role in devising a policy response allowed for one of the greatest illustrations of the importance of political centralization in recent American history. Trump allowed Florida to be Florida and New York to be New York. The ability to compare state performance has been essential at a time when “medical experts” were being weaponized in support of covid tyranny.
All of this, however, would miss the true significance of the last four years. Trump’s legacy will be that of a political leader who, at a time when American politics was still adjusting to social media and user-created content, leaned into the polarization of American politics rather than pay lip service to “national unity.” A critic would claim this comes from Trump’s unquenchable need to have his ego stoked. A supporter would see a man who understood the need to realign American politics—but the underlying motivations are irrelevant.
Trump’s impact on American politics may result in an even greater impact on the US government than his collaboration with Mitch McConnell on the judiciary.
A variety of polling indicates that as Donald Trump boarded Marine One to retreat to Mar-a-Lago, he does so with most of his voters believing he is the rightful president of the United States. One poll showed almost 80 percent of Republicans “do not trust the results of the 2020 presidential election.” If we estimate that 75 percent of all of Trump’s 2020 voters hold this view, that leaves us with over 50 million Americans who believe they now live under an illegitimate federal government.
This reality terrifies Washington’s political class more than anything Donald Trump could have done while occupying the White House.
As Murray Rothbard illustrated in Anatomy of the State, “What the State fears above all, of course, is any fundamental threat to its own power and its own existence.” A vital part of the state’s existence is its ability to justify its action with a mantle of “legitimacy”—which in an age of democracy comes from the notion of the “consent of the governed.”
The result of 50+ million Americans viewing the next president as a fraud imposed on the people is an inauguration taking place in a Washington, DC, that resembles a warzone, surrounded by soldiers whom the regime does not trust with their own ammo.
The downside of America’s regime acting from a place of fear is that it is likely to ruthlessly lash out like most violent predators tend to do. Since the actions at the Capitol on January 6, the corporate press has elevated a collection of “terrorism experts” who have explicitly called for the tools formed in the war on terror to be turned inward to deal with the growing Trump “insurrectionist threat.”
As Glenn Greenwald notes, “No speculation is needed. Those who wield power are demanding it.”
The upside is that the tremendous growth of federal powers has always been dependent upon the public’s understanding that such power was being wielded in their own defense. Therefore, democracy has, rather than being a public check against tyranny, more often been a way of peacefully empowering officials to get away with abuses that autocrats could only manage with explicit violence.
To quote Rothbard:
As Bertrand de Jouvenel has sagely pointed out, through the centuries men have formed concepts designed to check and limit the exercise of State rule; and, one after another, the State, using its intellectual allies, has been able to transform these concepts into intellectual rubber stamps of legitimacy and virtue to attach to its decrees and actions. Originally, in Western Europe, the concept of divine sovereignty held that the kings may rule only according to divine law; the kings turned the concept into a rubber stamp of divine approval for any of the kings’ actions. The concept of parliamentary democracy began as a popular check upon absolute monarchical rule; it ended with parliament being the essential part of the State and its every act totally sovereign.
As such, even if aggressive actions by the Biden administration to address the specter of a Trump-inspired insurrection have the explicit support of nominally Republican leaders such as Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy, how would such action be seen by MAGA America? If forced to choose, would someone like Governor Ron DeSantis align himself with a “bipartisan” effort from Washington elites or choose to be a leader of Biden-era resistance? Even if the resistance to a Biden administration is not ideologically libertarian or fundamentally “antistate,” an explicit rejection of federal domination would be a vital first step toward the sort of political decentralization and self-governance that any peaceful political order ultimately requires.
Of course, all of this assumes that Trump’s base remains loyal—or at least remains hostile to the new regime. If Biden governs the same way he campaigned, by largely staying out of sight and avoiding making any bold statements and commitments one way or another, perhaps the public can be once again pacified and partisan divisions reduced to largely superficial differences, as has been the case for much of the current era.
If, however, the Biden administration governs more like the corporate press and blue Twitter wants him to—waging war on gender roles, prioritizing transgender issues, pushing for job-killing economic policy during a pandemic, acting unilaterally on immigration, penalizing gun owners, “reeducating” Trump supporters, treating MAGA like Al Qaeda, etc.—then the divides between Trump’s America and Biden’s America could become only further entrenched. And that is not even factoring in what happens if America experiences the hardship of an economic crisis.
Trump’s legacy will not be shaped by his actions—or even by how his enemies portray him. Ultimately, it comes down to his base and the movement he inspired. As Lew Rockwell noted in a recent interview with Buck Johnson, “The Jeffersonians were much better than Jefferson. The Taftians were much better than Robert Taft. The Trumpians tend to be much better than Trump.”
Should skepticism of the 2020 election, fueled by a new administration’s actions, finally convince 50+ million Trump supporters that the barbarians in the Beltway do not represent them and to react accordingly, then Trump’s presidency will be—despite his own actions—the disruption that America’s elites truly feared.