In something resembling a quaaludian interlude, a near-normal President Trump spoke to Congress yesterday about policy proposals largely consistent with Republican doctrine. Of course, that’s subject to change. Among the very few constants of Trumpine government are the fluctuating nature of their policy proposals.
Policy fluctuations are now the norm, but there are general themes of action. Trumpine philosophy, if it can be called that, consists less of ideas than opposition to ideas – “anti-ideas,” if you like. The theme of Trumpine action is plain: disruption, denigration, and destruction are increasingly favored for their own sake and effect. Amongst the many self-aggrandizing statements from Trump and his lieutenants is the notion that the current administration is enabling a revolution in US government and society. The “administrative state” is to be unwound.
Revolution is a word often used carelessly, but if we do see a revolution of government, it would arguably be the third American Revolution. We all agree that the United States originated with a revolution from England, and historian James McPherson argues that the Civil War period was a Second American Revolution. If the first American Revolution established the governmental toehold for government by the people, the second American Revolution established a framework allowing that government to be perpetuated.
The Civil War period resulted in the primacy of Union. As Lincoln realized, a US Union was an irrevocable prerequisite to successful democracy. Allowing state secession as a remedy for disputes would have established the primacy of disagreement over governance, thereby obliterating agreed-upon and democratic government. With the primary of Union came the unifying power to state a commitment that was only embryonic in the first Revolution: that all people everywhere are equal, with rights in determining their society’s evolution. Is there a tension between individual rights and democratic government? Of course. Are we done with the work of equality? We are not. Were these Revolutions messy and unpleasant affairs? They were. Has justice ever been better served than by the outcome of these American revolutions? I cannot see how.
Will we experience a third American Revolution? Whether the current administration can invoke a revolution, their intent seems serious. Unlike the first two American Revolutions, this one would be motivated not by positive ideals, but by the implicit conviction that the first two American Revolutions were a mistake, and that their logical outcomes must be reversed.
For Trump administration statements and actions reverse many long-standing principles won in the first two revolutions: that all people are free to openly annunciate their concerns; that all people have equal rights of government participation; that people of all creeds and backgrounds are legally equal; that unity is more expedient than division; that national and individual greatness has its roots in community investment; and that these goals have been promoted successfully by a strong central government. Even the most specific accomplishments of US citizens – from Nobel prizes to successful corporations – have roots in a national commitment to human and physical infrastructure.
A third American Revolution, if it really becomes that, seeks to unwind much of what the first two Revolutions were fought for. To the extent there would be a revolution, it will be an “anti-revolution,” just as Trumpine actions are driven by anti-ideas.
The first two American Revolutions were not a mistake. They were historical turning points that enabled the lives now enjoyed by US citizens, even those less well-served by an sometimes distant government. An appropriate remedy is to identify the issues and continue fixing the problems, as we’ve tried to do since the Civil War ended in 1865. Administration actions and words are far too reminiscent of mores in pre-1865 America. It will be no Third Revolution, if as a result we have to re-fight the Second Revolution.