Herewith, an under-asked question for our friends on the progressive left: “Has Donald Trump’s remarkable rise done anything to change your mind as to the ideal strength of the State?”
I make this inquiry because, for a long while now, I have been of the view that the only thing that is likely to join conservatives and progressives in condemnation of government excess is the prospect that that excess will benefit the Right. Along with their peculiar belief that History takes “sides” and that improvement is inexorable and foreordained, most progressives hold as an article of faith that, because it is now a “consolidated democracy,” the United States is immune from the sort of tyranny of which conservatives like to warn. As such, progressives tend not to buy the argument that a government that can give you everything you want is also a government that can take it all away. For the past four or five years, conservatives have offered precisely this argument, our central contention being that it is a bad idea to invest too much power in one place because one never knows who might enjoy that power next. And, for the past four or five years, these warnings have fallen on deaf, derisive, overconfident ears.
The case that the Right’s cynics have made is a broad one: Inter alia, we have argued that Congress ought to reclaim much of the legal authority that it has willingly ceded to the executive, lest that executive become unresponsive or worse; that, once abandoned, constitutional limits are difficult to resuscitate; that federalism leads not just to better government but to a diminished likelihood that bad actors will be able to inflict widespread damage; and, perhaps most important of all, that far from being a vestige of times past, the Second Amendment remains a vital protection upon which free men may fall should their government turn to iron. In most cases, the reactions to these submissions have been identical: That we are skeptical of power only because we dislike Barack Obama, and that this skepticism will vanish upon the instant when he is replaced by a leader that we prefer.
This response, I’m afraid to say, is entirely miscast. In fact, we have taken these positions because, like all cautious people, we worry what might happen in the days that we cannot yet see. As Edmund Burke memorably put it, a sensible citizen does not wait for an “actual grievance” to intrude upon his liberty, but prefers to “augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” Barack Obama’s extra-constitutional transgressions have been many and they have been alarming, and I do not regret my opposition to them. But their result, thus far at least, has been the marginal undermining of democracy and not the plain indulgence of evil. Will our executives’ excesses always take that form? Is it wise to appraise our current situation and to conclude that it will obtain for the rest of time?
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Hence my initial question: Have they? And, if they have, what knock-on effects has that worrying had? Having watched the rise of Trumpism — and, now, having seen the beginning of violence in its name — who out there is having second thoughts as to the wisdom of imbuing our central state with massive power?
Have progressives joined conservatives in worrying aloud about the wholesale abuse of power?
That’s a serious, not a rhetorical, question. I would genuinely love to know how many “liberals” have begun to suspect that there are some pretty meaningful downsides to the consolidation of state authority. I’d like to know how many of my ideological opponents saying with a smirk that “it couldn’t happen here” have begun to wonder if it could. I’d like to know how many fervent critics of the Second Amendment have caught themselves wondering whether the right to keep and bear arms isn’t a welcome safety valve after all. Furthermore, I’d like to know if the everything-is-better-in-Europe brigade is still yearning for a parliamentary system that would allow the elected leader to push through his agenda pretty much unchecked; if “gridlock” is still seen as a devastating flaw in the system; if the Senate is still such an irritant; and if the considerable power that the states retain is still resented as before. Certainly, there are many on the left who are mistrustful of government and many on the right who are happy to indulge its metastasis. But as a rule, progressives favor harsher intrusion into our civil society than do their political opposites. Are they still as sure that this is shrewd?When Peter Beinart warns that Donald Trump is a threat to “American liberal democracy” — specifically to “the idea that there are certain rights so fundamental that even democratic majorities cannot undo them” — he is channeling the conservative case for the Founders’ settlement, and taking square aim at the Jacobin mentality that would, if permitted, remove the remaining shackles that surround and enclose the state. Does he know this? And if he does, is he still as keen as ever to have the federal government spread its powerful wings and cast long shadows across the nation? Does an expansive role for Washington hold the same allure now that there is a possibility that a Trump-like figure could commandeer it? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” I have a modest second inquiry to go along with the first: “What is everybody smoking?”
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.