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President Trump’s State of the Union address resounded with calls to return to first principles. January 31, 2018
Politics and law

What I heard above all in President Trump’s moving, presidential, and authentically American State of the Union speech was a Hamiltonian assurance that, in America, no matter where you come from—like the brilliant illegitimate immigrant from Nevis who became our first Treasury secretary—“If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything.” And that’s because in America our motto is ‘in God we trust’”—the God who guarantees, as the Declaration of Independence assures us, that we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the right to work out our own fate, according to our own lights. That individual right precedes government; government exists to protect it. There was something revolutionary, with a spark of a new birth of freedom, in Trump’s assertion that “In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of the American life.” How anti-Progressive! How anti-New Deal!

Imagine: here we have government by the people, making laws through their own elected representatives, not government by unelected “experts” autocratically making rules that tell us what to do. Implicit in the beginning of the speech was a repudiation of the Administrative State, which Supreme Court rulings from Wickard v. Filburn in 1942 down to the present day have authorized, giving bureaucrats power to overturn the checks and balances of limited government that the Framers built into the Constitution in 1787 and that Woodrow Wilson and FDR methodically and intentionally subverted.

But now, Trump underscored, he is “appointing judges who will interpret the Constitution as written.” And he is sponsoring legislation with the same purpose of reining in lawless or incompetent officials. Take, for instance, last year’s Veterans’ Administration Accountability Act. The “experts” of the VA have notoriously failed to give military veterans the medical care that the country promised them. These bureaucrats, whose job is to serve not just the American people but also the men and women who have protected the people’s liberties by putting their lives on the line, enjoy their fat salaries, health care, and pensions, while veterans die. For a long time, no one has been held accountable. No more, Trump vowed. “My Administration has already removed more than 1,500 VA employees who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve.” And that’s just the start of his determination to hold the Administrative State to account. “I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers,” he said, “and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” Wow! Fire civil servants who not only aren’t the experts they claim to be but who also aren’t even competent or diligent enough to do their jobs! That would be the beginning of the end of the overpaid, Gucci-shod humbugs who say, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Further, Trump properly boasted, he has been chopping away at the not-quite legal foundations of the Administrative State. “In our drive to make Washington accountable, we have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in history.” If bureaucrats can no longer justify their power with rules made by bureaucrats like a legislature, carried out by bureaucrats like an executive, and enforced by bureaucrats like a judiciary, the whole unconstitutional Administrative system, devoid of checks and balances, comes crashing down—with James Madison cheering from his grave. And already, with so many not-really-legal regulations against coal gone—regulations that killed so many Appalachian communities—and with anti-fracking and anti-drilling rules relaxed, “the war on American Energy” is over, crowed Trump justifiably, and “we are now an exporter of energy to the world.” Even the FDA, Trump declared, should relax its regulations to let doctors prescribe experimental drugs to terminally ill patients, who deserve “the right to try” at least as much as the highly touted right to die.

Okay, you can be an immigrant from Nevis and make it to the top of American life. Not one person denies the vivifying force of legal immigration of talented and energetic people to these shores. But we want Alexander Hamiltons, not MS-13 gangbangers who kill with uncivilized ruthlessness, like those who killed Long Island high schoolers with savage butchery, and whose parents Trump commiserated with in his speech. City Journal long ago broke with what was then conservative orthodoxy on this subject, pointing out that today’s unskilled Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, depress the wages of native-born workers, burden local school districts and hospitals to which they didn’t contribute, and raise children and grandchildren who don’t succeed like the immigrants of old because they have a welfare system to fall into and a ghetto culture to assimilate to.

So Trump offers a deal to Democrats. He wants, sensibly, increased border security against illegal entrants; an end to “chain migration” that lets legal immigrants bring in their adult children, aged parents needing welfare, siblings with their children, and so on, in favor of a system that selects for needed skills and work habits; and an end to the lottery that awards visas randomly to people from countries likely to be rife with terrorists or terrorist-sympathizers. But he is willing to give in exchange—and less sensibly—a path to citizenship and voting not only to those 800,000 illegal-alien kids brought here by their parents when they were too young to know what was happening but also to those 1 million people who sneaked in as teenagers, hoping for just such an amnesty, and who include a strong sprinkling of MS-13 style lawbreakers. Such conscious lawbreakers are 1 million too many.

On foreign policy and trade, Trump was iconoclastically level-headed. Enough striped-pants pretense that just talking to the North Koreans or the Iranians or the Palestinians will make irredentist fanatics rational. It won’t happen. You can’t reason with the unreasonable. So let’s be clear that these regimes present a threat and figure out how to deal with it. For starters, we need to rebuild our military, more sadly depleted than Trump let on. And it’s time to make sure that foreign-aid dollars go to America’s friends, not covert enemies, Trump pointed out—such as Pakistan, I presume, or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), or even the UN itself.

Finally, Trump declared that it’s not enough for trade to call itself free trade. It must actually be free trade, and the United States won’t join phony free-trade pacts. So if China, clearly a potential strategic enemy, insists that American firms can’t do business in their country without handing over their proprietary technology—like Lenin’s jest that the capitalists will sell you the rope to hang them with—then it’s no deal. IBM’s managers may see an advantage in taking this bait during their tenure, but China is playing a longer game, in which, as Trump guesses, it will ultimately swallow IBM. So let’s renegotiate our trade agreements so that they are mutually advantageous in the long run. This is not mercantilism, as Adam Smith himself would declare. And the success of Trump’s tax cuts, with business booming, give credibility to his economic acumen.

Anyone who wondered if Trump could sound presidential can set his mind at rest. What should worry Democrats is that at moments he sounded like the Founding Fathers.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

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