Can Trump Bell the Progressive Cat?

The battle to shrink the last half-century of hypertrophied statism and leftist tyranny.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

As I listened to Trump’s Inaugural Address, I thought of Aesop’s fable about the mice who were being devastated by a ferocious cat. As they debated what to do, a brash young mouse proposed putting a bell around the cat’s neck. That way the mice would hear its approach and scurry to safety. All applauded until one greybeard mouse posed the question: “Who’s going to put the bell around the cat’s neck?”

Especially in politics, it’s easy to propose simple, if not impossible, solutions to complex problems.

Trump’s speech was a rousing catalogue of promises to “make America great again.” Infrastructure development, rebuilding the inner cities, bringing back jobs to America, securing the borders, returning the power usurped by the feds back to the people, making “America first,” and eradicating Islamic jihad “from the face of the earth” comprise an ambitious agenda, to say the least. Perhaps these are mere negotiating positions to be adjusted later, but politics isn’t business. What a candidate thinks is typical campaign hyperbole, the voting public often considers promises to be taken seriously.

Ask George H.W. Bush, who broke his promise “Read my lips: no new taxes,” and lost his reelection bid. And that was just one costly broken promise. Trump has named a whole pack of cats he has promised to bell.

Just consider Trump’s promise about “transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.” Sounds good, but he said nothing specific about reducing the size of the feds, or restoring citizen self-rule. Yes, on Monday he imposed a hiring freeze on federal workers. So did Ronald Reagan in 1981, but that didn’t slow down much the fed expansion in the long term. And Trump’s claim that he will reduce regulations by 75% is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but highly unlikely without a lot of help from Congress.

Trump needs to be more specific, and realistic, about how he will restore power to the citizenry by undoing the un-Constitutional concentration of powers in the executive and its metastasizing agencies, enabled over the years by compliant Congresses and activist Supreme Courts. The result is our country’s feral cat, the bloated federal government spawned and nourished by progressives for nearly a century, with significant help from Republicans. As the fed has waxed ever fatter, the intrusive reach of its agencies, councils, and bureaus into all aspects of our lives––corporations, small businesses, churches, schools, private organizations, state and local governments––subjects them to the coercive power of federal agencies to regulate, investigate, and punish anything that challenges their technocratic pretensions to greater intelligence and efficiency than the sovereign citizenry possesses.

Along the way, Big Fed imposes billions of dollars in compliance costs––nearly $2 trillion in 2016­­–– and erodes the freedom and autonomy of individuals, municipalities, states, churches, and civil society. In addition, these agencies are staffed by 2.6 million anonymous employees with generous salaries and pensions––in one study, 78% higher than those enjoyed by the private sector–– and union protections from dismissal that rival academic tenure. Fed employees are not accountable to the people or subject to electoral audit, and can survive the changes in political appointees who head the agencies. Worse yet, we may think Congress writes the laws it passes and agencies execute. But in fact agency staffers do the actual law-writing and then execute and monitor the laws they have written, subverting the Constitution’s separation of powers. Congress needs to pass legislation requiring the Constitutional law-making branch to actually write the laws, so they know what’s in them before they pass them.

It’s not going to be easy to rein in the Dem-Fed complex that lies at the root of most problems Trump promises to solve. New heads of agencies appointed by Trump will meet stiff resistance from employees long in the pocket of the Democrat Party. In last year’s presidential race, 95% of federal workers’ contributions went to Hillary Clinton. There already appears to be leaks from the intelligence community attempting to embarrass and delegitimize the new administration. Trump can do only so much with executive orders or directives. To help “drain the swamp,” Congress will have to pass legislation making it easier to discipline and fire federal workers who obstruct or undermine the directives of agency heads.

Then there are the agencies that shouldn’t even exist, like the Department of Education, with its imperialist encroachments into the pedagogical business of the states and local school boards. But the worst abuser is the EPA, a gift of Republican Richard Nixon. Its regulatory compliance costs are $386 billion, one fifth of the total annual compliance bill. This job-killing bureaucratic extortion racket and crony-socialist pork dispenser needs to be pared back to its original purpose, ensuring clean air and water. Yes, Trump can issue executive orders and directives, but they will will be as transient as Obama’s. For more substantial change, Congress needs to help by significantly reducing the EPA’s funding and staffing and passing legislation that clarifies its mission, and strips it of its unilateral power to interpret the law according to its ideological whims and biases.

It sounds easy in an inaugural speech, but taking action against any executive agency will be fought every step of the way by powerful entrenched special interests. In the case of the EPA, the environmental and trial-lawyer lobbies will abuse Congressmen up for reelection, pour billions into kicking them out of office, and wage expensive “lawfare” on businesses and Trump’s reforms in order to obstruct them. So too with the teachers’ and federal workers’ unions. Or organizations like AARP, which go scorched-earth on Congressmen suggesting even modest reforms of Social Security or Medicare.  Or the lobbies that defend our tax code, a Kafkaesque labyrinth in which millions find lucre in its myriad loop-holes, deductions, credits, set-asides, and sheer complexity.

Helping the feds will be the mainstream media, sure to remain furious at Trump for the audacity of his victory. They are slavish cheerleaders of technocratic big-government, ever ready to decry callous conservatives just for suggesting common sense reductions in budget increases, which they decry as draconian “cuts.” Or they label Republicans anti-scientific “denialists” for questioning the climate-change cultists who infest the EPA, NSF, NOAA, and NASA. And of course, revanchist Democrats, with help from NeverTrump bitter-enders, will continually demagogue and undermine and obstruct proposals for reform.

Trump may end up like Gulliver, tied down by a thousand lawsuits, public relations campaigns, activist protests, deep-pockets lobbyists, parasitic NGOs, Republican trimmers, Democrat slanderers, and media calumny. No matter how strenuous Trump’s efforts, it will take remarkable fealty to principle and testicular fortitude for Congressmen up for reelection to resist this onslaught and support the president. And Trump needs Congress to pass the laws necessary for achieving his ambitious aims.

But let’s not forget the most important factor––We the People. He who takes the citizen’s vote––especially a populist–– is the citizen’s man and must do his bidding. We would like to think that we vote based on lofty principles and rational evaluations of policy. James Madison knew better. The bulk of the people vote their “passions and interests.” Passions include the ideas and beliefs that confer identity, status, and tribal solidarity. Interests mainly comprise “property,” i.e. income and its distribution. Barack Obama appealed to both: more redistribution of wealth to entitlement transfers satisfied “interests”; yearning for racial reconciliation and war-weariness served “passions.” Eight years of serial failure, from broken promises about ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the sluggish economy and static job growth, finally fed up enough people to come out and vote, or switch their vote to Donald Trump.

But remember, Trump won because of about 100,000 voters in some counties in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, who delivered those states’ 46 electoral votes. He won that thin margin because he pledged significant corrective change, not just of Obama’s failing economic or foreign policies, but of our social-political culture. He promised to reverse decades of elite arrogance that imposed on our national institutions and culture a tyrannical political correctness, a rent-seeking identity politics, a collective reflexive guilt and shame about our history and actions, a subordination of this country’s interests and security to those of a mythic “international community,” a sluggish economy that benefited well-connected bi-coastal elites, and a relentless, sneering assault on the faith, virtues, and principles of millions and millions of ordinary voters.

Given how deeply these progressive ideas have burrowed into popular culture, education, government, and the media, reversing those trends will be akin to turning around an ocean liner with half of the officers and crew mutinous, and half of the passengers concerned more about drinking and dancing than about the looming iceberg.

I hope I’m being unduly pessimistic, and Trump can achieve even half of his goals, which would go a long way toward shrinking the last half-century of hypertrophied statism and progressive tyranny. But if Trump breaks enough promises, if he fails “to get the job done” as he pledged, or if some crisis like an economic recession or a major terrorist attack erupts on his watch, then he’s likely to end up a one-term president––and the progressive cat will run wild again. 

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