A Populist President
Corey Uhden, Politics Contributor
It’s Inauguration Day in Washington D.C. and we have a new President of the United States - the brash billionaire tycoon, Donald J. Trump. We can be forgiven for asking how a real-estate magnate channeled the anger of America’s rural counties and exurban towns into a successful presidential campaign but the question now is how does President Trump channel it into a governing agenda?
Shortly after taking the oath of office, he offered a preview of his governing philosophy in his inaugural address. First, he reiterated the message of his campaign, as he called it, “a movement” that grabbed the attention of the world.
“At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.”
It sounds like the flourishes of a TEA Party rally ca. 2010 and would set the stage for a patriotic, populist address.
“To all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words:
You will never be ignored again.”
Much like his Republican National Convention address - “the forgotten men and women will be forgotten no longer” - Trump promised to fight for them “with every breath in my body” and “never, ever let you down.” It’s hard to overstate how much Trump’s talisman as a fighter helped him reach this moment. Republicans wanted a tough-talking fighter that wouldn’t put up with typical evasion. Trump voters wanted a blunt fighter that wouldn’t let decorum or deference dictate his terms of engagement. In this vein, President Trump promised to be their fighter and whether or not he delivers depends on how effective he is as the fighter in chief.
He assumes control of a federal government under unified Republican control but he starts out from the posture of William Jennings Bryan, not Ronald Reagan. It’s important to keep in mind that our government isn’t built for “winning” much of anything for the American people, forgotten, ignored, or celebrated. Its purpose is to protect everyone’s rights and leave the successes and failures up to us.
The great pursuit of today is equal opportunity. As Trump puts it, “a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” He continues, “their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” If anything, Trump recognizes that government’s role in our destinies has grown too much and a great rebalancing is in order. To Trump, that rebalancing is going to come from better trade deals, new infrastructure, and focusing on “America first.”
For his part, Trump connected his agenda to the pursuit of patriotism, borne out as service to the citizen as an expression of love for country.
Love of country is healthy; love of its principles healthier still. I would love to close on a note of history and reverence for our founding principles, but it seems wrong in this moment. America has never had a populist president. Teddy Roosevelt charted his own course but there is no telling whether Trump’s agenda will be like that of Ronald Reagan, empowering America through unleashing the might of the free market, or that of Franklin Roosevelt, serving America through the might of federal bureaucracy. His sympathies may lie with Reagan but populism can always manifest in big government.
President Trump would be wise to remember that while this is his movement, he stands on the shoulders of the original populists, our nation’s Founders. However, they recognized that vesting power in the people is the best defense of their rights from the whims and proclamations of their leaders. It is because power is vested in the people that the machinations of would-be authoritarians grind to halt and we are free to pursue greatness in our own lives. To heed the will of the people, it is not right to “win” for us but to expect us to win for ourselves and enrich our nation in turn.
Donald Trump believes he is the key to making America great again, but it’s not up to him; it’s up to us. Principled leadership calls forth a president that will fight for us only in the sense that he will entrust us to make America greater than it has ever been. This will take a great rebalancing of priorities in Washington D.C. and we can only hope that will be the ultimate success of this grand new experiment in American governance.
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