The Donald Trump phenomenon and its corrosive impact on American democracy has its origins in the intersection of two large developments in American society: the advancing information economy and massive educational failure. The main reason a vulgar demagogue is competing with a venal careerist for the presidency in 2016 is because millions of Americans have been deprived of economic opportunity by the failure of the education system to adapt to the infotech revolution. In their consequent fear and anger lies the accelerating decline and potential fall of the American democratic empire.
The past industrial economy made few educational demands on workers. As recently as the 1970s, a high school diploma was sufficient for middle class economic success. No longer. In today’s information economy, Americans without a college degree and the ability to use their intellect on the job are at a severe disadvantage and many are consigned to dead end service industry and blue-collar jobs. Globalization and off-shoring have intensified these economic stresses by sending many blue-collar jobs abroad.
The numbers paint a grim picture. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the manufacturing sector has shed approximately one third of its workers over the last 15 years. Its share of the economy has declined from about 28 percent in the 1950s, to about 12 percent today. Most importantly, its share of total employment has been falling steadily, from a high of about 25 percent in the late 1960s to under 10 percent today.
The decline in the number of traditional blue-collar jobs would not be so serious a problem if there were fewer blue-collar Americans. But their population continues to rise even as their economic prospects continue to fall. According to the Lumina Foundation, only 45.3 percent of Americans have a quality postsecondary education. And the blame for poor vocational education and the consequent poor economic prospects of over half of Americans lies mainly in the continuing poor quality of American high schools.
Blue-collar Democrats have reacted to their poor economic circumstances by doing what they traditionally do: they have pledged their support to an unprincipled, redistributionist demagogue who stirs up class hatreds and promises to give them the property of other people. Those who find Hillary Clinton too shady or believe her to be a corporate sellout have backed Bernie Sanders, who differs from Clinton only in degree, and has forced her even further left. In addition to blue-collar workers, both candidates also have the support of the rest of the Democratic coalition of identity politics activists, radical environmentalists, welfare recipients, public sector employees, and post-national foreign policy critics.
Blue-collar Republicans have reacted to their poor economic circumstances by behaving like Democrats and supporting their own unprincipled, redistributionist demagogue, Donald Trump. One might think that, as Republicans, they would respect the principles of limited government and resist the urge to vote themselves the property of others. But they are ignorant of these principles because, in addition to poor vocational education, they suffer from a massive failure of civic and political education.
Civic education ought to be a central task of America’s public school system. Indeed, American public education, despite its fundamentally statist foundation, is justified by the nation’s vital interest in and need for good citizens. Without a critical mass of good citizens, America cannot flourish as a free society. But American schools have failed miserably at civic education. By and large, their graduates don’t understand America’s founding documents and principles. They don’t know how their government operates. They know little about their nation’s history. Worse still, they don’t know that they have received a poor civic education. They are poorly prepared to defend a liberty they don’t understand. What civic virtue they have is most visible in their national pride, but that pride, however welcome, is a poor substitute for the basic civic knowledge and reasoned reflection that is necessary for the success of self-government.
The poor civic education offered by American public schools could potentially be offset by a good example-setting political education offered by conservative public intellectuals and prominent Republicans. Unfortunately, here too the record is one of spectacular failure. There are many talented conservative intellectuals with a deep understanding of America, but most of them have been unable or unwilling to effectively advocate for the cause, leaving the job to blowhards like Rush Limbaugh or sell-outs like the Bush clan.
Conservatism at its best defends the permanent things. For an American, that implies a defense of natural law and natural rights, as articulated in the nation’s principle founding document, the Declaration of Independence. Yet most Republican leaders have a philosophical outlook uninformed by the Declaration’s moral framework. Were they to understand that the U.S. government should be limited to protecting people’s natural right to life, liberty, and property, they could make principled arguments against redistributionist demagoguery.
American conservatism must also look to the U.S. Constitution and the separation of powers. Yet Republican leaders don’t understand that it is unconstitutional and dangerous to liberty for the administrative state to violate the separation of powers by routinely combining legislative, executive, and judicial powers in one bureaucratic body. Nor do Republican leaders understand that it is unconstitutional and undemocratic for Congress to delegate its authority to enact regulations to unelected bureaucrats.
A proper conservatism would restrict Congress to its constitutionally limited powers as enumerated under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. Instead, Republicans routinely vote for programs that plainly exceed congressional jurisdiction. Social security, Medicare, and Medicaid all fit this category. Phasing them out would go a long way to restoring the Constitution and avoiding the looming financial collapse of the entitlement state. But to propose such measures is to risk being branded an extremist. And so, rather than exercising leadership and patiently making the case for repeal, Republicans promise only to “save” social security and “replace” Obamacare.
By betraying the principles of natural rights and limited government in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Republican leaders have marked themselves as moderate progressives, not true conservatives. And by failing in their vital task of political education, Republican leaders have left their party’s rank and file members – and the American public in general – vulnerable to redistributionist appeals.
Donald Trump has bulldozed his way into the economic turmoil of the information economy and the intellectual and political vacuum on the Right. He has promised to “make America great again” through an effortless restoration of American jobs that have been sent abroad. His supporters are unaware of the costs of trade protectionism. He has promised to secure universal government healthcare. His followers never learned that Congress doesn’t have the constitutional authority to enact such a program. He has promised to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants. His voters don’t understand that only Congress can authorize the construction of such a wall. He has implicitly promised to keep their entitlements in place. His fans don’t know or don’t care that the day of fiscal reckoning is nigh.
The poor civic and political education of blue-collar Republicans leaves them vulnerable to Trump’s flattery. He asks for nothing in return for their votes. At least the Democrats tell blue collar workers that they will have to be retrained to cope in the new economy. Trump cannot manage even that much. “I love the poorly educated”, he declared after winning the Nevada caucuses. It’s not unreasonable to assume he prefers them that way, and that his flattery makes them feel virtuous about their ignorance.
The only sense in which Trump and his supporters are consistent with traditional conservative Republican ideology is in their fervent patriotism and nationalism. Even here, however, they are misguided. American greatness was built on individual virtue and respect for the natural rights of others. Trumpians betray the deepest sources of healthy nationalism and American greatness by yielding to the temptations of victimhood and unlimited government. They have bought into Trump’s notion that government is a rigged game, and it’s time it was rigged in their favour. There is nothing patriotic about serving as accomplices in the further corruption of America’s corrupted political culture.
As bad as things are, they are not irreversible. American conservatism can be rescued from Trumpism and go on to truly “make America great again”. (It is a colossal insult to the legacy of Ronald Reagan that Trump has appropriated his campaign slogan.) Conservatives have substantial intellectual resources available to them with which to launch a political recovery of the Republican Party and a democratic and economic recovery of the United States. They can draw on superb think tanks such as the Claremont Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Liberty Fund, and the Cato Institute. Their media reach is broader than ever, with National Review, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and countless right-leaning internet sites. And despite the fact that universities mostly lean liberal to far-left, conservative scholars of formidable intellectual heft are scattered throughout academia and organized into various overlapping and mutually supportive networks. Even Congress offers some cause for hope in thoughtful senators such as Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, and the daunting Ted Cruz. American conservatism has the resources it needs turn the country around. Its challenge lies in devising a strategy to repair the defects in civic and political education among Republican leaders and ordinary Americans that have so disabled the cause of American liberty.
Luigi Bradizza is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of Richard T. Ely’s Critique of Capitalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). His chapter entitled “Democracy in Canada: What Tocqueville Can Teach Canadians” was published in Liberal Education, Civic Education, and the Canadian Regime, David Livingstone, ed. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). He was raised in Thunder Bay.