It is difficult to know when an era has ended.

The events dominating the news today—presidential impeachment, deep state subversion of secret surveillance courts, confused and prolonged wars, out-of-control debt and government spending, and a radicalized educational and media culture—suggest something quite profound is threatening American governance. But it is not so clear precisely what.

Donald Trump so dominates the news, he seems to be the cause of it all, with his impeachment by the House pushing that theory dramatically forward. Democratic progressives now believe they can replace him given his low popular approval ratings and are even rushing further left toward socialism and woke-identity politics. Yet, President Trump will surely be acquitted by the Senate and is still driving policy, less so in Congress but still generally rightwards in a modestly conservative direction.

But policy has very little to do with the present predicament and almost nothing to do with conservatism. Everything today and for the immediate future is actually about the other guys: it is about progressivism’s collapse. Neither side can fully comprehend this intellectually—indeed progressives are still convinced they are the future and conservatives worry they may be right. But emotionally progressives sense great danger, and they do not like it one bit, expressed by their extreme passion for impeachment, from the very day Mr. Trump was sworn in as president.[1]

At the Constitutional Convention James Madison specifically excluded “maladministration” (407) as a proper cause for impeachment since the use of “so vague a term” would make the President not head of a co-equal branch but have him merely serving at “the pleasure of the Senate.”[2] Now, with the Democratic House’s impeachment of President Trump on those grounds, they have perversely decapitated the principal instrument of their own progressive ideology—the expert-based Chief Executive driving national policy from the center to build a Great Society.

Only a decade ago, CNNs Jim Acosta in particular—but representative of the whole progressive establishment—viewed the inauguration of Barack Obama as the culmination of the whole New Deal, Great Society agenda for the nation, comparing him to having Abraham Lincoln’s “big shoes to fill,” and calling his opening speech to the nation an agenda “for the ages.”[3] Then all of a sudden here was this “hateful brat” Donald Trump.

This reaction by Washington Post veteran progressive columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many.[4]

Donald Trump has taught me to fear my fellow Americans. I don’t mean the occasional yahoo who turns a Trump rally into a hate fest. I mean the ones who do nothing. Who are silent. Who look the other way. If you had told me a year ago that a hateful brat would be the presidential nominee of a major political party, I would have scoffed. Someone who denigrated women? Not possible. Someone who insulted Mexicans? No way. Someone who mocked the physically disabled? Not in America. Not in my America.

That is, after decades of educating the silent yahoos to understand what constituted my America, the whole progressive enterprise of the 20th century now seemed at risk to Mr. Cohen and many others—and this was even before Donald Trump assumed the presidency.

What had happened? The progressive my-American political narrative began by taming the 1930s Great Depression and creating the welfare state, then a glorious nineteen-sixties civil rights revolution, then an extended Age of Aquarius counterculture with a Woodstock free lovefest for New Age leaders throwing off the last vestiges of old traditional America. Andy Warhol expanded the 70s radicalization from Hollywood, to Archie Bunker and the TV sitcom, and finally to Cornell University and the radicalism of higher education, bringing this New Age vision to all, capped by one of its professors becoming the nation’s 44th U.S. president.[5]

Now, some yokel using a social media invented by these shining revolutionaries can often Twitter larger news audiences than mainstream TV.

By defeating its 18 conventional Republican candidates, the nomination of Donald Trump preaching America First was no less a rude shock to conservatives. But as early as Ronald Reagan’s immediate successor the old guard had nominated a president claiming to be “kinder and gentler” than the conservative icon, and then another one for two terms promising to be even more compassionate. And this ended with Barack Obama, Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and a Supreme Court sustaining every progressive counterculture value imaginable.

There were pleasant surprises for conservatives from President Trump once in office for cutting market and social regulations, the appointment of conservative judges, and tax cuts, although with mixed signals on trade and industrial policy. On the other hand, with increased spending and a commitment not to touch entitlements and even adding more government employees, there seemed no commitment to the central conservative ideal of limited government.

No, none of the new reality was really about old Reagan conservatism. It was all about the end of progressivism and the panic by its leaders that they were losing control of the communication media and political machinery they had mostly held for more than a century. One of the earliest to see the fundamental change was the very sensible progressive Wall Street Journal columnist William Galston,[6] who could write what he and his fellow progressives had felt deep down about the arrival of Donald Trump:

We had assumed that some beliefs had moved so far beyond the pale that those who continued to hold them would not dare to say so publicly. Mr. Trump has proved us wrong. His critique of political correctness has destroyed many taboos and has given his followers license to say what they really think. Beliefs we mocked now command a majority in one of the world’s oldest political parties, and sometimes in the electorate as a whole. Nowhere is that truer than in gender relations.

Because no one dared speak publicly, progressives had assumed their education and mainstream media “mocking” of traditional values had turned America progressive and now Donald Trump had proven they had not. Now with Mr. Trump in office, the last hope to contain the effects could only be by the expert bureaucracy that was the original faith of progressive scientific administration to produce the good welfare state. Rather than the elected president representing the people, salvation must now come from the permanent government. In the wake of the impeachment, there was a Post op-ed headline actually arguing publicly that “Bureaucratic resistance is what the Founders intended.”[7] Another piece by the celebrated intellectual Francis Fukuyama in The Wall Street Journal argued directly that “American liberty depends on the ‘deep state.’”[8]

It took Attorney General William Barr to bring some historical perspective to this development when he was asked about intelligence agencies’ reported involvement in the 2016 election.[9] He replied this should be carefully investigated because if it were true it would be a “serious red line” being crossed into becoming a threat to representative government. He recalled that ancient Rome’s Praetorian Guard began as “a protector of government and ended very arrogant,” identifying “the national interest with their own political preferences,” feeling that “anyone who has a different opinion” is somehow “an enemy of the state,” an arrogance leading ultimately to taking power from the lawful chief executive.

Referencing the FBI abuses revealed by its inspector general’s report, AG Barr believed that “a small group at the top,” the “executives at the senior level,” from “headquarters” deserved the blame, but even there “I’m not suggesting that people did what they did necessarily because of conscious, nefarious motives. Sometimes people can convince themselves that what they’re doing is in the higher interest, the better good. They don’t realize that what they’re doing is really antithetical to the democratic system.” They “start viewing themselves as the guardians of the people,” guardians who are more informed and sensitive than everybody else but who actually “look at evidence and facts through a biased prism that they themselves don’t realize.”

One might add that this possibility would be even more threatening to representative government if there was a single common higher way of thinking about the better good that was uniform throughout the government. Washington’s local The Hill newspaper in fact tabulated the political contributions made by government employees for the presidential election in 2016.[10] It found that more than 90 percent of career experts in every agency but two gave their donations to the Democratic candidate, and those two exceptions of Defense and Veterans were found to have contributed 84 and 88 percent respectively to the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Conservative belief in limited government should have much to say about this progressive reliance upon deep state experts to overrule elected presidents. Instead, many propose additional central bureaucratic control over moral issues. Others support President Trump’s pro-market policies but do not arm him and other leaders with the intellectual ammunition necessary to confront progressivism itself, and the fact that its logic necessarily leads to centralization and Praetorian Guards rather than the federalist pluralism of the Madisonian Constitution.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Matea Gold, “The campaign to impeach President Trump has begun,” The Washington Post, January 20, 2017.

[2] James Madison, “Madison’s Notes: Analytical Index” in The Writings of James Madison, comprising his Public Papers and his Private Correspondence, including his numerous letters and documents now for the first time printed, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900), accessed with Online Library of Liberty.

[3] Matthew Balan, “CNN’s Jim Acosta: Obama Inaugural Speech ‘Could Be One For the Ages’,” News Busters, January 13, 2009.

[4] Richard Cohen, “Trump has taught me to fear my fellow Americans,” The Washington Post, May 30, 2016.

[5] Craig Hubert, “Andy Warhol Made Hundreds of Movies During His Career. Here Are the 9 That Changed Film History,” Artnet News, November 7, 2018.

[6] William A. Galston, “Sex and the Citizens: Trump Edition,” The Wall Street Journal, May 31, 2016.

[7] David Spence, “The Founders might actually liked the ‘deep state’,” The Washington Post, March 15, 2017.

[8] Francis Fukuyama, “American Democracy Depends on the ‘Deep State’,” The Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2019.

[9] Jan Crawford, “Barr explains his differences with Mueller,” May 31, 2019.

[10] Jonathan Swan, “Government workers shun Trump, give big money to Clinton,” The Hill, October 26, 2016.

The featured image is a photograph of the House of Representatives voting to adopt the Articles of Impeachment against Donald Trump, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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