Chairman Adam Schiff and Ranking Member Devin Nunes during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, November 13, 2019. (Saul Loeb/Pool via Reuters)The cultural tug-o’-war over the presidency is the great American tribal competition in its most concentrated form.
The contradiction at the center of American politics in Anno Domini 2019 is this: The ruling class does not rule.
The impeachment dog-and-pony show in Washington this week is not about how Donald Trump has comported himself as president (grotesquely) any more than early convulsions were about refreshed Democratic interest in the Emoluments Clause or the Hatch Act. President Trump is a throbbing irritation to the sensitivities prevailing in ZIP code 94957, but even the impeachment fight is only a skirmish in the tribal proxy war that goes back to the founding of our republic.
The ruling class very strongly preferred Hillary Rodham Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. Donations from people associated with Goldman Sachs to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign outnumbered those to Trump’s campaign 70 to 1. (Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona was a larger recipient of Goldman Sachs–affiliated money in 2016 than was Trump.) Among bankers at large, Clinton’s donations led Trump’s 7 to 1. Among people affiliated with Harvard, Mrs. Clinton’s edge was 200 to 1. Facebook money favored Clinton 100 to 1; Apple money favored her 135 to 1; Google favored her 76 to 1; Exxon Mobil favored her 4 to 1; Walmart favored her 3 to 1. Mrs. Clinton led Trump 4 to 1 among securities and investing donors, 20 to 1 among lawyers and law firms, 4 to 1 among those in the film and television business, 3 to 1 among those in health care, and 3 to 2 among real-estate people. Which is to say, Mrs. Clinton was by far the preferred candidate of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the Ivy League, Big Business, medical staff, lawyers, and real-estate developers, to say nothing of government workers and their unions.
And even with all that support, and even as she ran up her totals in a handful of large and lopsidedly Democratic states, Donald Trump won a majority of the voters in a majority of the states.
Consider this from the point of view of New York City or Palo Alto. Mrs. Clinton’s cause was more popular than was Trump’s in 2016, even though the “national popular vote” is meaningless from a constitutional point of view. Mrs. Clinton’s cause was much, much more popular in the economically vibrant metros whose populations are more extensively educated and significantly more economically productive, contributing more to economic growth. A third of Mrs. Clinton’s voters were urban, but only 12 percent of Trump’s were. College-educated Americans, who compose about a third of the electorate, favored Mrs. Clinton by 21 points in 2016, whereas nongraduates favored Trump by 7 points. A Clinton voter of any race in 2016 was about 50 percent more likely to be a college graduate than was a Trump voter; a white Clinton voter in 2016 was about twice as likely to be a college graduate as a white Trump voter.
The Democrats talk a good game about representing the poor and the left-behind, but it is worth keeping in mind which class’s ox actually was gored in 2016: It was Harvey Weinstein’s class and Sergey Brin’s, that of law partners and Harvard Business School graduates, Wall Street operators and hospital administrators — much more management than labor. The real class dynamic at work sometimes shows its face in Democratic complaints about “poorly educated whites” and the implicit (often exaggerated) blue-state subsidy to the red states. Understanding the actual social dynamic at work there makes the political bitterness easier to understand, as is the story, only partly flattering, the metropolitan progressives tell themselves: “We run the businesses that create the jobs and pay the taxes and make the economy grow, we have the money and the education, we are the innovators — why shouldn’t we rule?”
To which rural Americans, conservatives, and Trump voters might answer: “Because those are not the terms of our agreement.”
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From the very beginning, the fault line in American politics has run between the more densely populated, urban, and economically developed communities and the less densely populated, rural, and agricultural ones. This has been complicated by many factors: During the founding era, slavery presented financial and political questions as well as moral ones, with the slave states wanting their captive populations counted for purposes of political representation but not for purposes of taxation. In the modern era, the urban–rural split that once characterized the country at large has been replicated within many of the states, with the farming people of, e.g., the Texas Panhandle seeing their economic, cultural, and political interests as being quite distinct from those of their fellow Texans residing in Austin or Houston. Similarly, the middle of Pennsylvania is not very much like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, and the Central Valley of California may as well be 10,000 miles from Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In the 18th century, these differences were mitigated — though by no means solved — by the Madisonian truce. The federal apparatus relied to a limited extent on mass democracy — but, critically, on local mass democracy, in House districts across the country. The states themselves were given equal representation in the Senate irrespective of population. The Electoral College insulated the presidency from direct exposure to mass national democracy. All of this was aided by a conception of the U.S. government that endowed it with limited powers and duties, reserving other powers to the states. (“States’ rights” is and always has been a nonsensical expression; the states do not have rights, but powers.) Silently superimposed on this geographical and demographic framework is John Adams’s theory of “balanced” government, in which democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical (which is to say, executive or presidential, in the U.S. context) elements work in complementary or rivalrous fashion with one another to produce government that is sufficiently robust and energetic to pursue necessary federal ends but not so unified that it is able to supplant liberty with tyranny.
As the federal government has grown in reach and power, it necessarily has become more central to American life. The federal government is not only the navy and the postal service; most of its spending today is in the area of income support and redistribution (through direct payments and indirectly through medical benefits), which makes it intimately involved with our private lives and with household economy. The presidency has mutated and turned metastatic, with the president becoming a sort of ersatz Roman emperor whose main importance to public life is no longer administrative but ceremonial and sacramental.
And so Trump’s victory in the Electoral College occasioned a moral and spiritual crisis among his rivals, who believe themselves and their class to be entitled to political power.
The cultural tug-o’-war over the presidency is the great American tribal competition in its most concentrated form. The metropolitan elites see the opposite tribe as backward, uneducated, superstitious, addled by religion and race hatred; the rustics and conservatives see the metropolitan elites as meretricious, decadent, and somehow less than authentically American. The question that has occasioned the impeachment of Donald Trump is not whether the president is legitimate but whether his tribe is legitimate. When the rival tribe is understood as being fundamentally illegitimate, then no government arising from that tribe can be understood as legitimate, either, and neither can the political processes that empower that tribe over its rivals.
And legitimacy is really the question that is in front of us. Consider the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, in which a Texas statute was nullified by the Court because the justices concluded that the only possible justification for the law at hand was illegitimate (in this case, bigotry against homosexuals) and hence without “rational basis.” Irrespective of your views about gay rights or the desirability of anti-sodomy statutes, it should be perfectly obvious that such high-handed dismissal of a common (nearly universal until about five minutes ago) view of the world, along with its moral and religious underpinnings, raises the cultural stakes of presidential politics in a way that a disagreement over health-insurance regulation does not. With the current reach and configuration of the federal government, occupying the White House not only gives one tribe or the other an opportunity to pursue ordinary policy interests but also to in effect make compliance with its metaphysical assumptions (religious or otherwise) mandatory, with obedience enforced at the point of federal bayonets. This makes the cultural de-escalation of the presidency impossible and renders inevitable the continuing aggrandizement of the office, its power, and its occupant. That is how the “chief magistracy” occupied by Washington, Adams, and Jefferson evolved into an imperial cult, which is what the American presidency has become.
The truce is broken, our politics has descended into restrained (for now) tribal warfare, and the presidency has been remade into a weapon of mass domination.
If you think this is all about a telephone call to Kyiv, look again.