Politics & Policy

The Real Hero of the Trump Resistance? James Madison.

Detail of James Madison portrait by John Vanderlyn, 1816 (via Wikimedia)
Progressives, long enamored of centralized government, have a newfound appreciation for constitutional check and balances.

‘Progressives” who claim that “corporate America” is the real seat of American power, to be duly resisted by the people through an ever enlarging and aggressive federal government, have some explaining to do.

During Donald Trump’s many decades as a famous American tycoon, even his most disgraceful antics never provoked a nationwide “resistance” movement. Most people — progressives included — shrugged, went about their lives, and let the Donald be the Donald. Only when he obtained the power of the presidency did progressives put Princess Leia stickers on their Priuses and rise up to “resist.”

This behavior is inconsistent with progressive doctrine, which holds that a powerful and assertive national government — with most power concentrated in the hands of an energetic president — is far from a threat to individual liberty. On the contrary, progressivism hails government as liberty’s greatest protector and big business as liberty’s greatest threat.

“I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man’s hands, provided the holder does not keep it for more than a certain, definite time, and then returns to the people from whom he sprang,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive who transformed the office of the presidency into a blunt tool with which to bludgeon political opponents.

“I believe in a strong executive; I believe in power,” he added.

Woodrow Wilson, who developed progressive views into a more coherent theory with which to dismantle James Madison’s system for dividing power, believed that Madison had unwisely prevented the state from acting as one great, unified institution to reshape the country.

“The government was to exist and move by virtue of the efficacy of ‘checks and balances,’ Wilson concluded in The New Freedom (1913). “The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life.”

“No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live,” he wrote. “On the contrary, its life is dependent upon their quick co-operation, their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose.”

Today’s progressives echo the rallying cry of the early 20th century. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders go red in the face shouting about the threats to personal liberty they imagine big business to pose. Their typical solution is to remove impediments to government consolidation of power. (Although Warren has advocated simplifying federal regulations.)

Progressive premises about power, however, are undermined by their own reactions to Trump’s election. Were billionaire businessmen more of a threat to liberty than an all-powerful state, they should have risen up to resist Trump the billionaire businessman and then shrugged off Trump the president.

The Left’s ‘resistance’ to Trump is a tacit acknowledgement that conservatives have been correct all along: The great threat to individual liberty is government.

The Left’s “resistance” to Trump is a tacit acknowledgement that conservatives have been correct all along: The great threat to individual liberty is government. They would argue that it is not government per se, but “business interests” obtaining control of government. But were government powers successfully checked through Madisonian divisions and subdivisions, and thereby widely dispersed among a diverse and independent people, there would be little to fear from a tycoon in the Oval Office. Only the consolidation of power in Washington and its concentration in the office of the presidency — as advocated by progressives for more than a century — would allow business interests to implement their agenda rapidly and largely intact.

If your goal is to resist Trump’s agenda, you should swap your Princess Leia “Rebel, Rebel” T-shirt for one that sports the likeness of James Madison. You could even give him a mullet and color lightning bolts on his cheeks.

The “father of the Constitution,” Madison did more than any other person living or dead to restrain — or “resist,” if you prefer — President Trump. Madison’s constitutional framework has proven a much more effective check on Trump’s kinetic will than protesters sporting stylized genitalia on their heads.

As Madison explained his system in 1792:

The power delegated by the people is first divided between the general government and the state governments; each of which is then subdivided into legislative, executive, and judiciary departments. And as in a single government these departments are to be kept separate and safe, by a defensive armour for each; so, it is to be hoped, do the two governments possess each the means of preventing or correcting unconstitutional encroachments of each other.

This separation of powers “may prove the best legacy ever left by lawgivers to their country,” he believed.

Progressives have spent more than a century trashing and undermining that legacy. Had they succeeded in turning the federal government into a unified organism under the unrestrained command of the president, as they strove to do, then that all-powerful leviathan would now be under Trump’s control.

Obviously, presidents of both parties have sought to expand their power. But progressivism has taken a systematic approach to undermining Madisonian federalism. The progressive agenda goes well beyond removing checks and balances. Weakening all institutions that compete with Washington for power — states, local governments, the church, the family, communities — has been a progressive goal for more than a century. Freeing judges and Supreme Court justices to interpret the Constitution and the law as they like rather than apply it as written remains an ongoing progressive cause.

In their zeal to strip “corporations” of influence, progressives have even tried to rewrite the First Amendment to give Washington the power to regulate political speech. What fun Trump might have with that power.

All of these progressive efforts result in Washington’s growing fatter and more powerful, and individuals’ growing weaker and less able to “resist” the expanding state.

The grand progressive project to unravel federalism and replace it with a unified national government capable of transforming society by enacting the will of a supreme executive has made some progress since the 1880s. But Madison’s system has proven surprisingly resilient — thanks largely to conservative efforts to defend and protect it.

For that, the Trump “resistance” should give thanks. If not for the protections built into the very system they have worked so hard to destroy, all the terrible power they tried to give themselves would be in Trump’s hands.


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