the United States?
By Matthew Continetti
February 18, 2017 "Information
Donald Trump was elected president last November
by winning 306 electoral votes. He pledged to
"drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C., to
overturn the system of politics that had left
the nation's capital and major financial and
tech centers flourishing but large swaths of the
country mired in stagnation and decay. "What
truly matters," he said in his Inaugural
Address, "is not which party controls our
government, but whether our government is
controlled by the people."
Is it? By any historical and constitutional
standard, "the people" elected Donald Trump and
endorsed his program of nation-state
populist reform. Yet over the last few weeks
America has been in the throes of an
unprecedented revolt. Not of the people against
the government—that happened last year—but of
the government against the people. What this
says about the state of American democracy, and
what it portends for the future, is incredibly
There is, of course, the case of Michael Flynn.
He made a lot of enemies inside the government
during his career, suffice it to say. And when
he exposed himself as vulnerable those enemies
pounced. But consider the means: anonymous and
possibly illegal leaks of private conversations.
Yes, the conversation in question was with a
foreign national. And no one doubts we spy
on ambassadors. But we aren't supposed to spy on
Americans without probable cause. And we most
certainly are not supposed to disclose the
results of our spying in the pages of the Washington
Post because it suits a partisan or
Here was a case of current and former national
security officials using their position, their
sources, and their methods to crush a political
enemy. And no one but supporters of the
president seems to be disturbed. Why? Because we
are meant to believe that the mysterious,
elusive, nefarious, and to date unproven
connection between Donald Trump and the Kremlin
is more important than the norms of intelligence
and the decisions of the voters.
But why should we believe that? And who elected
these officials to make this judgment for us?
Nor is Flynn the
only example of nameless bureaucrats working to
undermine and ultimately overturn the results of
last year's election. According to
civil servants at the EPA are lobbying Congress
to reject Donald Trump's nominee to run the
agency. Is it because Scott Pruitt lacks
qualifications? No. Is it because he is
ethically compromised? Sorry. The reason for the
opposition is that Pruitt is a critic of the way
the EPA was run during the presidency of Barack
Obama. He has a policy difference with the men
and women who are soon to be his employees. Up
until, oh, this month, the normal course of
action was for civil servants to follow the
direction of the political appointees who serve
as proxies for the elected president.
How quaint. These
days an architect of the overreaching and
Waters of the U.S. regulation
worries that her work will be overturned so she
undertakes extraordinary means to defeat her
potential boss. But a change in policy is a risk
of democratic politics. Nowhere does it say in
the Constitution that the decisions of
government employees are to be unquestioned and
preserved forever. Yet that is precisely the
implication of this unprecedented protest. "I
can't think of any other time when people in the
bureaucracy have done this," a professor of
government tells the paper. That sentence does
not leave me feeling reassured.
Opposition to this president takes many forms.
Senate Democrats have slowed confirmations to
the most sluggish pace since George Washington.
Much of the New York and Beltway media does
really function as a sort of opposition party,
to the degree that reporters celebrated the
sacking of Flynn as a partisan victory for
journalism. Discontent manifests itself in
direct actions such as the Women's March.
But here's the difference. Legislative
roadblocks, adversarial journalists, and public
marches are typical of a constitutional
democracy. They are spelled out in our founding
documents: the Senate and its rules, and the
rights to speech, a free press, and assembly.
Where in those documents is it written that
regulators have the right not to be questioned,
opposed, overturned, or indeed fired, that
intelligence analysts can just call up David
Ignatius and spill the beans whenever they feel
The last few weeks have confirmed that there are
two systems of government in the United States.
The first is the system of government outlined
in the U.S. Constitution—its checks, its
balances, its dispersion of power, its
protection of individual rights. Donald Trump
was elected to serve four years as the chief
executive of this system. Whether you like it or
The second system is comprised of those elements
not expressly addressed by the Founders. This is
the permanent government, the so-called
administrative state of bureaucracies, agencies,
quasi-public organizations, and regulatory
bodies and commissions, of rule-writers and the
byzantine network of administrative law courts.
This is the government of unelected judges with
lifetime appointments who, far from
comprising the "least dangerous branch," now
presume to think they know more about America's
national security interests than the man elected
as commander in chief.
For some time, especially during Democratic
presidencies, the second system of government
was able to live with the first one. But that
time has ended. The two systems are now in
competition. And the contest is all the more
vicious and frightening because more than
offices are at stake. This fight is not about
policy. It is about wealth, status, the
privileges of an exclusive class.
"In our time, as in [Andrew] Jackson's, the
ruling classes claim a monopoly not just on the
economy and society but also on the legitimate
authority to regulate and restrain it, and even
on the language in which such matters are
discussed," writes Christopher Caldwell in a
brilliant essay in the Winter 2016/17 Claremont
Review of Books.
have full-spectrum dominance of a whole
semiotic system. What has just happened in
American politics is outside the system of
meanings elites usually rely upon. Mike
Pence's neighbors on Tennyson street not
only cannot accept their election loss; they
cannot fathom it. They are reaching for
their old prerogatives in much the way that
recent amputees are said to feel an urge to
scratch itches on limbs that are no longer
there. Their instincts tell them to
disbelieve what they rationally know. Their
arguments have focused not on the new
administration's policies or its competence
but on its very legitimacy.
Donald Trump did not cause the
divergence between government of, by, and for
the people and government, of, by, and for the
residents of Cleveland Park and Arlington and
Montgomery and Fairfax counties. But he did
exacerbate it. He forced the winners of the
global economy and the members of the D.C.
establishment to reckon with the fact that they
are resented, envied, opposed, and despised by
about half the country. But this recognition
did not humble the entrenched incumbents of the
administrative state. It radicalized them to the
point where they are readily accepting, even
cheering on, the existence of a "deep state"
beyond the control of the people and elected
Who rules the United States? The simple and
terrible answer is we do not know. But we are
about to find out.