Visiting the United States in 1831, when Andrew Jackson was president, Alexis de Tocqueville was appalled by the “vulgarity and mediocrity” of American politics. After meeting Jackson, Tocqueville concluded that the low tone of American society started at the top. In Tocqueville’s estimation, Jackson was “a man of violent character and middling capacity.” Worse, he seemed to have no talent for politics: he rode “roughshod over his personal enemies” in a way no president had done and treated members of Congress with disdain. “Nothing in all the course of his career had ever proved that he had the requisite qualities to govern a free people,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “so the majority of the enlightened classes of the Union had always been opposed to him.”
Considering his view of Jackson, imagine what Tocqueville’s first impressions of President Trump might be. Real-estate mogul, host of The Apprentice, owner of beauty pageants, and backer of WrestleMania, among other louche enterprises, Trump would seem to confirm Tocqueville’s worst fears about debased standards of American public life and leadership. And yet, Trump campaigned on issues that have a Tocquevillean resonance. Put another way, Tocqueville highlighted certain dangers to democratic liberty and greatness that Trump—who, it is safe to assume, has not read Democracy in America—instinctively seized on to win the presidency.
Start with the most obvious—and contentious—issue: Trump’s campaign pledge to build a wall to stop the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico into the United States. Though Trump’s rhetoric on the subject was often crude, the idea was eminently sensible. Trump spoke to the long-term interest of American citizens in remaining a unified and self-contained people—what Tocqueville called their “self-interest, well understood.” Today, the American project of assimilation has come under sustained attack. Multiculturalists and globalists in government reject the idea that immigrants should adopt American culture and argue that foreigners should have the right to live in America in disregard of its immigration laws. Trump seized on this shift to call for secure borders and a renewal of America’s national identity. At the same time, he remained open, in principle, to immigrants from all nations.
Tocqueville had been struck by Americans’ love of country; he would not be surprised by the appeal of Trump’s full-throated patriotism, especially when set against his critics’ championing of multiculturalism and globalization. For Tocqueville, national identity was bound up with religion, which, in the United States and in Europe, meant Christianity. Long before the 2016 presidential election, though, Democrats had clearly come to regard Christianity as an obstacle to their goals. At the Democratic National Convention, party leaders removed all mention of God from the party platform, and boos erupted on the convention floor over a voice vote about whether to restore the reference to the deity. Democrats have subordinated the religious beliefs of the Little Sisters of the Poor to feminist concerns about the availability of contraceptives in government-run health-insurance plans; they have compelled conservative Christian businesses to provide services for gay weddings. Ironically, it was Trump—the twice-divorced, lapsed Presbyterian—who took up the cause of beleaguered Christians, reaching out to evangelical and Catholic leaders alike, promising to stand up for them in their battle to preserve religious liberty. Tocqueville would have approved.
Democracy in America draws a distinction between “great parties” and “small parties.” Tocqueville describes great parties as “more attached to principles than to their consequences; to generalities, and not to particular cases; to ideas, not to men.” Though selfish considerations are never completely absent in great parties, they generally hide themselves “under the veil of the public interest.” By contrast, small parties are more coarse in their aims, debasing society in their pursuit of “material interests.” Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp”—by which he meant scaling back the administrative state that had risen up alongside America’s three constitutional branches of government—can be understood as an application of great-party principles. It represented an attempt to limit the power of government’s unaccountable, irremovable, and self-interested bureaucrats.
President Trump has begun to deliver on his commitments to roll back intrusive regulations through executive order. He has taken on the education bureaucracy and called for expanding parents’ choices of schools, especially in America’s inner cities. His secretary of education has recently announced the repeal of Obama-era expansion of Title IX regulations affecting educational institutions receiving federal funds. He has reined in the Environmental Protection Agency’s ever-growing regulatory powers, and, in the international arena, he has promised to take a hard look at the Paris Climate Accords, which Obama signed without Senate consultation. He has trimmed financial regulations that impeded recovery from the Great Recession. And finally, his appointment of the judicial originalist Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, along with his impressive lower-court nominations, signifies his intention to make sure that the federal judiciary fulfills its role of limiting executive power.
In short, Trump has reignited a great-party debate over the proper role of the administrative state in the American constitutional order. At stake is something more fundamental than material interest: it is the capacity of Americans to govern ourselves, both directly and through our elected representatives.
The red Make America Great Again cap Trump sported throughout his campaign touches on the final Tocquevillean theme, which takes the form of a question: Can democracies achieve greatness, or must they be content with a comfortable mediocrity that improves the day-to-day lives of their people, but aims at nothing higher? Tocqueville worried about whether democracies were capable of pursuing great foreign policy goals, warning that democratic citizens lacked the patience and determination to pursue long-range policies. Wars would have to be short, policy objectives clear, victory decisive. Ignoring Tocqueville’s doubts, Trump promised to restore America’s standing in the world. He vowed not to commit American blood and treasure to ill-defined objectives or to fritter away hard-won gains. His charge that Americans don’t win wars anymore struck a raw nerve. He pledged to rebuild the military. But he also vowed to make our allies take more responsibility for their defense. The author of The Art of the Deal promised to make new deals, or renegotiate old ones, that put “America First.”
Whether President Trump can deliver on these Tocquevillean themes remains to be seen. It will take patience and skill in the art of leading a free people—an art that Tocqueville believed Andrew Jackson did not possess. The French aristocrat would likely have taken a similarly dim view of Trump—but he might also recognize, in the president’s pledges and commitments, echoes of some of his own deeply held principles.
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