Self-proclaimed moral superiority is no qualification for public office.
What Trump and COVID Revealed
An analysis of the current American political crisis.
An earlier version of this essay by John Marini appeared in The American Mind on October 23, 2018, as After Trump: The Political and Moral Legitimacy of American Government.
Modern science was supposed to increase our understanding of the world. Instead, we seem to know less. Science has always introduced doubt regarding long-held verities. But now the authority of science, rather than the scientific method, is used to create confusion about things that had once been considered obvious and indisputable.
There have always, for instance, been rare individuals who did not precisely fit into the categories of either man or woman, but never before in human history did these exceptions lead to biological males competing in, and dominating, female athletic tournaments. There is more than compassion or tolerance at work here. America’s political and intellectual elites claim not to know what distinguishes male from female. Just a few weeks ago, the newest justice to the United States Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson, stated flatly that she could not define what a woman is. This newly discovered ignorance is, supposedly, derived from superior scientific insight. Our technology advances, but our wisdom diminishes.
The American Constitution was written to secure the rights of human beings, not chickens or cows. What if scientists were to declare next that there is no objective basis for the idea of “human beings”? This would be no great leap from the inability to distinguish male from female. Should the American people accept that the distinction between humans and chickens (or robots) is dependent on the proclamations of biology or modern science, and that the special status of human beings should be abandoned if science says so?
More than 2,000 years ago Aristotle wrote perceptively about what defines human beings as a species, on the basis of ordinary observations. America’s founding fathers appealed to the same common sense when they cited mankind’s natural rights and the sovereignty of the American people as the authority for the “just powers” of government. Without any knowledge of DNA or the human genome, they had no difficulty recognizing that only humans, and not cows or chickens, possess such equal rights and such sovereignty. This recognition of human nature extended even to slaves, who are referred to throughout the Constitution as “persons.” The founders, like Aristotle, appealed to the ordinary understanding of moral and political reality that all rational adults possess to inform their deliberations.
COVID and the Tyranny of Faucian Science
Today, not only judges but members of Congress, government bureaucrats, and our entire ruling class defer to science as the only legitimate ground of knowledge or political authority. This is a grave problem, as was revealed in the government’s botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When our political leadership deferred to Anthony Fauci and his team of medical experts to lock down American society—closing schools, cancelling public events, curtailing civil liberties, and crippling the American economy—they did so on the basis of what Dr. Fauci was pleased to call “science.”
It is worth noting that epidemiology is not the only medical science that has things to say about viral disease. We are only now beginning to understand the massive costs the lockdowns inflicted on Americans’ mental health. Increased psychological stress caused by the excessive COVID response has led to more depression and suicide, spikes in drug and alcohol addiction, and greater domestic abuse, among other effects. We may never know how many additional deaths resulted from people being too afraid (or too intimidated) to leave their homes to seek necessary non-COVID medical care, such as cancer screenings, during the height of the lockdowns.
Those are serious matters. Yet beyond that, we must remember that health, even broadly defined, is not the only human good. A properly functioning society has to balance many priorities besides minimizing disease—especially when the targeted virus has a low mortality rate and overwhelmingly affects elderly people and people with co-morbidity factors. Children, who were robbed of more than a year of proper education and social life, were never at serious risk from COVID-19. Yet the damage inflicted on America’s sons and daughters to protect them from this vastly inflated threat may stay with them for the rest of their lives.
In addition to the profound interest that every society has in the proper education and social development of its children, Americans may rightly ask what happened to the public debate about other human goods which should have been considered before such drastic and far-reaching actions were imposed. This includes concerns about national security, increased poverty and economic instability, the loss of personal freedom, as well as intangible harms to intra-community trust and civic friendship caused by panic, suspicion, alienation, and isolation. In the name of “slowing the spread” of a single virus, the oppressive requirements of social distancing, mask mandates, and mandatory vaccinations fundamentally changed how we live.
Surely Anthony Fauci does not claim be an expert in all these areas of social, economic, mental, political, intellectual, and emotional well-being. And when did the American people agree that concerns about the COVID virus should sweep away every other consideration about what makes life worth living?
Many Americans resisted from the beginning the government’s heavy-handed response to the virus. Now that the extent of the hysteria, and the damage from the overreaction, are becoming clearer, Americans are feeling betrayed, confused, and angry. The COVID response imposed by the “experts” has reinvigorated the radical questioning of our elite’s political authority and legitimacy that animated the election of Donald Trump. That crisis of legitimacy shows no signs of abating as we approach the 2022 midterm elections.
Trump’s explicit criticism of the leadership of both parties—as well as his challenge to the ruling class—helps explain his broad working-class appeal. His criticism resonated with that part of the electorate that thought America faced a crisis of economic, political, and moral decline. On the other hand, those who opposed Trump denied the seriousness of the crisis and saw Donald Trump himself as the greatest danger.
The Collapse of the Establishment’s Legitimacy
For more than a century, America’s intellectual class and political elites have joined forces to defend a specific kind of expertise or technical rationality as the basis of their authority over the direction of society and the lives of American citizens. This expert authority lays claim to specialized scientific knowledge, and confidence in a fixed, irreversible historical progress. Continuous human progress is assumed by these elites to be determined by a rational process, and this process culminates in and authorizes the rule of technical experts. This view is radically different from the American founders’ commonsense understanding of moral and political reality.
Trump opposed the intellectual orthodoxy promoted by the ruling class. He advocated change that is not understood in terms of inevitable progress or technical knowledge. He challenged the presumptions of the experts and their promises not on the basis of a future good, but the good of the past, a specifically American past. He wanted to make America great again.
Trump’s failures as well as successes found their source in his stated attempt to transform the moral and political landscape of the national government. His agenda depended on finding a ground of public authority outside of the Washington establishment. He found it in the people. He believed the electorate to be the only sovereign authority capable of establishing political legitimacy. Trump’s success would have required the formation and perpetuation of a new majority consensus, based not on historical progress or technical expertise, but on the consent of the governed, the source of all the “just powers of government.”
The principle of constitutional democracy or republican government depends on the people being sovereign. This sovereignty exists before and above any policies arising from the claims of science. This does not mean that all public policy is decided by a national referendum, but that any new political agenda must emerge from a constitutional majority established through lawful elections. Trump challenged the ruling class and tried to return sovereign authority to a new constitutional majority. His election in 2016 and run for re-election in 2020 were intended to establish such a political realignment, to create a new political majority with a new agenda. This was a direct challenge to the moral authority and legitimacy of the ruling class.
Donald Trump’s partisan attack on the establishment derived, in part, from his view that the political parties no longer formed a meaningful link between the people and the government. It was a position, and strategy, that alienated him from both established parties and the permanent government bureaucracy. Trump questioned whether either the parties or the permanent bureaucracy represent the American people. He campaigned on the idea that both parties had abandoned the electorate, the interests of the people, and the nation as a whole. He pointed out that wealthy and well-organized interests were often in control of the administrative establishment in Washington. Old-fashioned party patronage, and appeals to nationwide popular sentiments, had been replaced by a peculiar form of anti-democratic bureaucratic patronage. That patronage had become a privilege reserved for private interests. And the public institutions themselves had become the captive of those well-connected interests.
Washington had become filled with a permanent government of professional elites, which claimed to form the vital center between the people and the government on the basis of objective, expert knowledge of the public good. But these claims to know what was good for the people had become detached from the people’s consent. Trump offended and frightened the elites because he refused to acknowledge the authority of this policymaking establishment. In his view, the rule of the intellectual elites had undercut the political authority of the sovereign people. It is not surprising that few public intellectuals supported Trump. He challenged the very idea that these experts were the permanent rulers of the country. Yet despite some notable successes, he failed to alter fundamentally, or even weaken, the elites’ power and legitimacy.
Trump was frustrated by his inability to respond effectively to the COVID epidemic. He often appeared inconsistent. Yet this can be explained in part by the fact that he was often battling his own executive branch for control of the political agenda. Despite being the president, he frequently seemed to lack the authority to set federal policy. Trump threatened several times to fire Anthony Fauci, yet never did. It is not clear that he could have, given the lack of strong political support from Congress, the courts, and a majority of the American people for such a direct challenge to the bureaucracy. On November 2, 2020, the Washington Post claimed that “technically, the president of the United States cannot directly fire Fauci.” According to the Post, as “a career federal employee and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, Fauci is protected by federal civil service regulations that shield him from being fired or demoted for political reasons.”
There are only a few thousand political appointees in the government, who are replaced with each new administration, out of a total civilian federal workforce of about two million. If we accept the Post’s argument, this means that the president can only hire and fire about one-fifth of one percent of the executive branch. Who, then, does the bureaucracy answer to? In many ways, the permanent government is answerable only to itself. This insularity and lack of accountability helps to explain why the federal government’s COVID policies were so often characterized by misjudgments, contradictions, deception, and overreach.
“Rational” Legitimacy versus Political Legitimacy
The intellectual elite claim to understand the direction of history, as well as the scientific workings of the world, and thus feel authorized to impose their rationality on all aspects of society—including areas that had traditionally been regarded as private. This new scientific morality made it possible to present the bureaucracy’s policy preferences as moral justifications for progressivism and administrative rule. There was no limit to the power that could be used to make sure that everyone gets on “the right side of history,” as then-president Obama used to say. But that new morality and those policies could never be made compatible with limited constitutionalism and the rule of law. That is the root of the political crisis we face today.
It has become almost impossible to reconcile administrative rule with self-government. The morality mandated intellectually by our elites has destabilized traditional social institutions and produced a chaotic civil society, undermining any public deliberation and authentic public opinion capable of reconciling morality with the consent of the governed. The technical rule of experts downplayed the role of popular deliberation and public opinion, and also made it harder for any public debate to occur in an intelligent and effective way. Although self-government depends on public opinion to determine what can be done politically, that opinion cannot legitimately be mandated or controlled from the center. It must arise deliberatively from the people in the country at large, and should originate in civil society.
This may help explain why so many people acquiesced in shutting down schools to protect children from a virus that overwhelming affects the elderly. In deference to the claims of scientific expertise by the federal bureaucracy, many Americans ignored their common sense understanding. But the immense and often unnecessary costs of the COVID mandates and lockdowns are now becoming clearer, and more citizens are coming to question elite claims to superior knowledge.
At every important juncture in the growth of the modern state, there have been those who have questioned the expansion of the powers of the administrative or bureaucratic state.
In recent American politics, the 2008 election established what appeared to be the high point of twenty-first century progressivism. But its very success produced a crisis of liberalism that threatened the progressive legacy established over much of the prior century. Barack Obama won the most consequential and decisive presidential election of any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson. His party gained control of both houses of Congress. His campaign slogan said it all: Hope and Change. Hope is established and animated by an awareness of an abstract and future good; the purpose of government is to bring about social change on behalf of that vision.
In his first term, Obama sought to achieve the dream of every progressive president since Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson: to make it possible and even necessary for government to secure universal economic, social, and personal well-being without any principled limits. In FDR’s memorable phrase, “necessitous men cannot be free”; the purpose of government is to establish universal security against natural necessity, relief from the risks and contingencies of life itself. The elites in government have come to believe that scientific knowledge and technical mastery over nature could guarantee universal security.
Obama staked his reputation on universal health care, an expanded regulatory apparatus, and greater control of the financial markets. His legacy would be seen in the completion of the political conditions to consolidate and perpetuate the administrative state.
The permanent government’s extreme reaction to the COVID pandemic must be seen in part as an attempt to vindicate Obama’s promise: the limitless power of government could “guarantee” public health. It is important to note the strong evidence that Anthony Fauci’s National Institutes of Health probably cooperated with the Chinese authorities to bio-engineer the COVID-19 virus. Science had created the virus, and the scientific mindset was committed to the idea that it could control it. It is for this reason that increasingly strict and overbearing measures were seen as necessary by the expert class. The legitimacy of scientific expertise was in jeopardy. In part because the federal government’s “gain of function” experiments had created the problem in the first place, controlling the spread of the virus at all costs became a test for the fundamental legitimacy of elite governance and technical expertise.
It remains to be seen whether the obvious failures of the scientific community and the administrative ruling class will result in an effective political backlash, or if the establishment media will succeed in changing the narrative to preserve the authority and legitimacy of the elites—despite the damage they inflicted. This will depend in large part on whether the elections of 2022 and 2024 can form the new political majority Trump started to build in 2016, but could not carry forward in 2020.
What Trump Revealed
Partly because of Trump, and partly because of the increasing recognition of its missteps in handling the COVID pandemic, the ruling class now feels deeply threatened. All the organized forces within society and government who have a stake in centralized administration are likely to defend the use of administrative power against political opponents who deny its moral authority or legitimacy.
The permanent government is a powerful force. It has established its own legitimacy apart from its political or constitutional authority, within the ranks of both political parties and the courts. Bureaucratic rule is defended as essential to solving, in a non-partisan way, the problems of modern government and society. But the bureaucracy has become a political faction on behalf of its own interests. Moreover, the party that defends progressivism and elite authority is increasingly open about politicizing the last vestiges of non-partisan government, including the Justice Department and federal law enforcement. As their power has grown, these defenders of administrative government are increasingly unable to understand, let alone tolerate, anyone who fails to recognize the legitimacy of the administrative state.
Both Democratic and Republican Party defenders of the administrative state believe that the complexities of a modern economy and diverse society demand expert rule. The pursuit of progress, social justice, and equity becomes for them the moral equivalent of constitutional authority. As a result, the growth and consolidation of the administrative state have made it more difficult to control the apparatus of government by political means alone. It is no longer clear that the bureaucracy understands itself as the willing servant of its political masters, when the “masters” are perceived as a threat to the administrative state.
The Real American Crisis
Is it possible to revive the political conditions necessary to make the separation of powers work on behalf of constitutional government? That depends in part on whether anyone is able and willing to mount a theoretical and practical defense of constitutional government and strategically challenge the authority of the intellectual elites.
Such a defense will not be sufficient to recover self-government without a political majority committed to common-sense morality over scientific authority. Yet what is left of public morality is now understood in terms of “values,” or subjective preferences based only on individual will. Even in the small handful of healthy institutions in civil society, the political and civil rights of the ordinary citizen rest upon a precarious foundation, threatened and undermined by the powerful claims of social progress.
Whether it is possible to restore political rule, or even defend the nation in a world established by such “rational” authority, is a question that can no longer be avoided. Technology has universalized the reach of science and social science in a manner that, for many, makes a global order both possible and desirable. Moreover, since rational and intellectual knowledge is itself universal, it seems almost irrational not to seek global uniformity—the rule of rationality at the highest level. For those who think this way, a universal homogenous state is understood to be historically inevitable.
The crisis in legitimacy exposed by Trump and exacerbated by COVID must be understood as a crisis of the sovereignty of the American nation and its people. It was the authority of the people that justified the political order created by the founders—a constitutional order grounded in non-scientific morality. Is that order still defensible?
The restoration of political rule is an almost impossible task considering the great power of those rationalist structures that now order our world. But many Americans still believe in the freedom of moral choice and deny that history is determined. It is not yet clear what forces—intellectual, economic, social, and political—will shape the world in the remainder of the twenty-first century. But Trump’s political appeal and the failures of our scientific ruling class have revealed a difficulty that is likely to persist: the tension between technical and political rule.
It remains to be seen if the American people understand or will come to understand themselves as political citizens of the nation-state, or as administrative subjects of a scientific global order. Much depends upon whether the American people have become so dependent upon the administrative state that the overthrow of the established order is not merely difficult, but undesirable. In that case, political self-government, and individual freedom, will cease to be important elements of the American regime.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.