Politics & Policy

The Politics of Manifest Destiny

President Trump stands at the podium as Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan look on during the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, January 30, 2018. (Win McNamee/Pool/Reuters)
Maybe history is not on your side, and maybe you should not aim to crush the opposing tribe.

As he stands to address the nation tonight, President Donald Trump represents a genuine crisis in the American political order, but it is not the crisis we hear about from rage-addled Democratic hyper-partisans and their media cheerleaders. The fundamental cause of our current convulsion — studiously ignored by almost all concerned — is this: In the United States, the ruling class does not rule. At least, it does not rule right now.

Consider the context.

The ladies and gentlemen of Goldman Sachs liked Mrs. Clinton a great deal in 2016, and their generous donations to her presidential campaign outnumbered their donations to Donald Trump’s campaign by an incredible 70-to-1 margin. Mrs. Clinton was in fact the largest single recipient of Goldman Sachs–affiliated donations that year, whereas Trump’s presidential campaign was way down the list behind not only Mrs. Clinton’s campaign but also the legislative campaigns of such Democrat powers as Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and newcomer Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. The results were similar for many other financial firms: 19-to-1 at JPMorgan, 7-to-1 at Wells Fargo, 27-to-1 at Citigroup, 10-to-1 at Bank of New York, etc. Across the commercial banking industry nationwide, Mrs. Clinton out-raised Trump by a nearly 7-to-1 margin. She beat him 17-to-1 among venture capitalists, 8-to-1 among hedge funds, and 7-to-1 among private-equity firms.

Among people associated with Harvard, Mrs. Clinton’s donations outperformed Trump’s by an an even more incredible 200 to 1. In fact, no Republican even cracked the top 15 at Harvard, and Marco Rubio, at No. 17, didn’t even crack the six-digit mark — and the first of his five digits is a 1. At Princeton, it was Clinton 209-to-1. It was 128-to-1 at Yale.

Mrs. Clinton enjoyed a 100-to-1 margin of support among people associated with Facebook; 76-to-1 among Google employees; 135-to-1 at Apple. Mrs. Clinton beat Trump by only a 4-to-1 margin at Exxon Mobil and 3-to-1 at Walmart.

Presumably, the votes of these donors were distributed in roughly the same way, along with their general sympathies and allegiances.

But money is not the only currency in politics.

Mrs. Clinton also enjoyed the endorsements of the former chairman and CEO of General Motors, the executive chairman of Delta, the former president of Boeing, the chairman and CEO of Salesforce, the founder and chairman of Costco, the CEO of Airbnb, the CEO of Netflix, the founder of DISH, the CEO emeritus of Qualcomm, the former CEO of Avon, the CEO of Tumblr, the former chairman and CEO of Time Warner, the chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, and many others. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich had planned to hold a Trump fund-raiser in his home and was bullied by his peers into canceling the event.

Among the nation’s 100 largest newspapers in 2016, only two — the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Florida Times-Union — endorsed Donald Trump. Most endorsed Mrs. Clinton, and those included the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. USA Today, which does not typically endorse candidates, did not endorse Mrs. Clinton but ran a “not-Trump” anti-endorsement, and other newspapers did so, too — more of them, in fact, than endorsed Trump.

Mrs. Clinton won the majority of the vote in almost every state capital — 47 of them. Trump won Carson City, Bismarck, and Pierre, the micro-capitals, respectively, in Nevada, North Dakota, and South Dakota, with fewer residents combined among them than Chattanooga, Tenn. Mrs. Clinton won an average of 76 percent of the vote in the ten largest U.S. cities. Trump won a majority in none of them, nor was he close to a majority in any of them.

All Donald Trump won was a majority of the voters in a substantial majority of the states — 30 states plus the second congressional district in Maine.

To Democrats, this is an obvious injustice and an outrage. Theirs is the politics of manifest destiny, with their endless Hegelian insistence that capital-H History is on their side. And not only History but Harvard and Goldman Sachs and Facebook, too. Their sense of entitlement to political power is just a smidgen short of Divine Right, but not much. The obstacle to fulfilling their entitlement is the structure and the constitutional order of the United States, which is neither a direct democracy such as Switzerland’s nor a unitary state such as China’s but a union of states. Hence the aspects of the American system that most reflect this arrangement — the Electoral College, the Senate, and the Bill of Rights — are regarded by the Left as illegitimate, a way to rig the system against History and The People.

The most dramatic example of this was Harry Reid’s attempt to nullify the First Amendment during his time as Democratic leader in the Senate, an initiative that enjoyed unanimous support among Senate Democrats. Democrats are if anything even more hostile to the Second Amendment than to the First, and they seek to strip the states of their constitutional political power through such means as abolishing the Electoral College, either formally or through such shenanigans as the “national popular vote” project.

Donald Trump’s deficiencies as a man and an administrator are not the fundamental cause of the Cold Civil War. George W. Bush was denounced as illegitimate before him, George H. W. Bush as a callous extremist before him, Ronald Reagan as a dangerous dunce before him — every Republican president of my lifetime has been denounced as the most radical, most dangerous, most extreme, most unqualified in history. It is just barely possible that that is true, though highly unlikely, and the ones who didn’t win — Mitt Romney, John McCain, even Bob Dole — were also denounced in the same terms. That Mitt Romney and Donald Trump are understood to be interchangeable commodities says a great deal more about the Democrats’ politics of Manifest Destiny than it does about Mitt Romney or Donald Trump.

The State of the Union Address, as I argue without much effect year after year, brings together much of what is worst in our politics: the presidency as desultory monarchy, the tribalism and daft Kremlinology of who stands and applauds or sits on his hands looking sullen, the irreconcilable differences and subsequent divorce between political promises and reality, the absurd ghastly grotesque and revolting pageantry of Washington, our own tawdry little Vanity Fair “where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.” The symbolic subordination of the House to the president — an evil that the donkey-souled Nancy Pelosi had an opportunity but not the guts to correct — is perhaps worst of all.

But while all eyes are on Donald J. Trump, think for a minute on what his presence there represents. And perhaps some of my Democratic-leaning friends and neighbors could at this point be men and women and citizens enough to forgo telling themselves a flattering just-so story, that President Trump is President Trump because of white supremacy, malevolent billionaires, and Christian fundamentalists, or — most risible of all — a little platoon of Russian trolls on Facebook. What Trump represents is the fact that while Wall Street and Harvard and Silicon Valley and the New York Times have one view of this country, its values, and its role in the world, a very large number of their fellow citizens — who are not monsters — have another view. And there are enough of them to win a presidential election, too.

There are many possible ways for the ruling class to respond to that political reality. One is to burrow into the cheap moralism characteristic of our times and insist that those who looked at the choices in 2016 and came to a different conclusion than did the executives of JPMorgan and Citigroup must be driven by some occult malevolence; this is Paul Krugman’s argument, that “good people can’t be good Republicans.” That is a sentiment unworthy of even so trifling and vicious a creature of the New York Times editorial page as Professor Krugman, who once was a highly regarded economist. Equally unworthy is the related sentiment: “Our candidate got 2 percent more of the vote than their guy did in 2016, so it’s only technicalities keeping us out of power. Once we have rectified that, we will simply dominate the other side with our superior numbers.” Never mind that those are only slightly superior numbers and that this advantage is not as fixed as the stars but like all things in the affairs of men subject to change. Is the domination of one group of citizens with their own way of life and their own values by another group of citizens with a different way of life and different values the best outcome? Is that what liberty is for?

As the polling consistently demonstrates, this division is not about policy. It is about hatred.

Even on such controversial issues as late-term abortion, there is a wide and deep consensus, and that holds true across many (indeed, most) of the broad policy questions. No, ours is a politics of hinterland Hutus and coastal Tutsis bound in mutual antagonism by status-jockeying, generations of real and imagined slights and offenses, and a sacramental politics centered on the devotion to the holy/unholy person of the president/pretender into which these resentments and insecurities are channeled. Because our politics has been made sacramental and focused on the person of the president, the State of the Union has been made into a liturgy. That is the only reason it commands such rapt attention. And that is the reason that it is a focus of intense hatred: The presidency is just one more bauble to be fought over, one more opportunity to exercise power, an instrument for the domination and humiliation of the other tribe.

As it happens, the tribe that has every other kind of power is for the moment denied the power of the presidency. And that tribe has gone mad. They recognized this madness when it infected the minds of the other tribe during the Barack Obama years, but it is in the nature of madness to fail to comprehend one’s own madness. Never mind that all that shallow, slavering talk about the emoluments clause is an exact functional substitute for all that 2008–2016 nonsense about birth certificates, much of which was amplified and initiated by none other than the current president himself. As Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says, damn the facts and figures — these things are not “factually correct” but “morally correct,” which is what’s really important. Or so they say.

The most radical idea in American politics right now is not taxing this or subsidizing that or any other dusty old relic of Chancellor Bismarck’s ur-welfare state. The most radical idea in American politics is that it is possible to have a politics that is not oriented toward the domination and subordination of competing social groups but that instead seeks to enable Americans to seek fulfillment and human flourishing on their own terms in accordance with their own interests, values, and priorities.

But that will require abandoning the politics of manifest destiny and the idea that the Harvard–Wall Street–New York Times view of the republic and the good life is the only legitimate one or that it even ought to be considered normative, a national default position from which deviation must be formally justified. It requires the supersession of the politics of tribalism by the politics of neighborliness, which proceeds from the axiom that “We are all in this together” is not a synonym for “One size fits all.”

Perhaps that is difficult to see from Cambridge, Brooklyn, or Austin. President Trump is many things, including a middle finger in human form raised to those places by the residents of another America who are trying, desperately, to tell them something, but who have trouble making themselves heard in the New York Times, in Silicon Valley, in the boardrooms, on campus, and even in their own state capitals, where the ruthlessly enforced homogeneity of intellectual and public life leaves our ruling class in a state of almost pristine ignorance of the facts about those whom they would presume to rule.

But rather than make that effort, the party of the Ivy League, Silicon Valley, General Motors, 94301, the Washington Post, Hollywood, Wall Street, etc., will offer — what? Another lecture on “privilege”?

Ever hearing, but never understanding, ever seeing, but never perceiving.


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