January 20, 2018


The President and "the People" (Matthew Sitman, February 7, 2017, Commonweal)

Trump's "oath of allegiance to all Americans" underscores a worrisome feature of how authoritarian populism works, and is a troubling expression of its inner logic. Note that Trump did not say he had taken an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States; his allegiance, instead, is to the American people. (In fact, he didn't utter the word "Constitution" in his speech.) That strikes me as revealing.

The point isn't that Trump was sending an esoteric message about his intentions to violate or ignore the constitutional limits on his power. (Of course, he very well might violate and ignore the Constitution.) Instead, by affirming this allegiance and invoking "the people" again and again, Trump was rationalizing an imperious, authoritarian style of governance. This was a transfer of power with "a very special meaning," he told us, a corrective to our system that goes deeper than the usual administrative and political turnover. Trump will be a strongman of and for "the people," supposedly exerting his power on their behalf, the man at the top claiming a blank check from the masses below.

It is a commonplace for our politicians to invoke "the people" or "ordinary Americans" or "the will of the people." But Trump's appeal to "the people," his allegiance to them, set over and against a parasitic establishment, goes well beyond that. It certainly was the most distinctive aspect of his inaugural address, hammered at again and again. The people would be put first instead of being ignored. "The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer," Trump said. "Everyone is listening to you now." Though he did not recycle the "I alone" language of his speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump clearly presented himself as the people's tribune. [...]

"The people" functions here as a restrictive term, a way of distinguishing insider from outsider, the Real America from decadent coastal enclaves, "us" from the Other. Trump's use of "the people" conjures a kind of "imagined community," to use Benedict Anderson's famous term, the mythological America that used to be great. It was whiter, it was more overtly Christian, and everyone--especially women and racial minorities--knew their place. Given Trump's consistent record of racism and bigotry, we don't really need to speculate about what he means by "the people." This type of appeal to "the people" is fundamentally anti-pluralist; it is the rhetoric of reaction in the face of change. (Jan-Werner Muller's recent polemic, What is Populism?, is excellent on the dangers of "the people" being deployed in this fashion, and it has informed my understanding Trump, even if Muller mostly focused on Europe.) The term reduces the capacious diversity of the United States to a specific understanding of what it means to really be American. Trump spoke of unity, yes; but he spoke more emphatically of loyalty: "At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other."

What finally matters, Trump asserted, is whether or not "our government is controlled by the people." And what else could "controlled by the people" mean but commanded by Trump? He, after all, is their voice and champion. It is Trump and the people against both political parties, the wasteful bureaucracies, even the other branches of government. He is effectively claiming--or at least intimating--an extra-constitutional mandate to act in the name of "the people."

Posted by at January 20, 2018 10:02 AM