This photo made available by the U.S. National Archives shows a portion of the United States Constitution with Articles V-VII. For the past two centuries, constitutional amendments have originated in Congress, where they need the support of two-thirds of both houses, and then the approval of at least three-quarters of the states. But under a never-used second prong of Article V, amendments can originate in the states. (National Archives via AP)
It’s tempting to gaze upon the theatrics unfolding on the national stage and conclude that freedom is dying, that tyranny is descending upon us.
Such a judgement is understandable but backward–it mistakes a sunset for a sunrise. While the symptoms are more pronounced today, the United States has suffered the disease of tyranny for a century at least, and that tyranny is in decline … which is why things are so crazy.
The ailing tyrant is not a man but a gigantic and impersonal machine, America’s unelected professional bureaucracy. Since the early 1900s, this bureaucracy has molded every aspect of our day-to-day lives–all with the blessing of Congress, a series of presidents, and the federal judiciary.
The increasingly noticeable symptoms of tyranny unfolding today–
- Thought policing and censorship
- Mainstream political embrace of quasi-Leninist socialism
- State-approved mob intimidation and riots
- Government and corporate witch hunts
- Lockdowns, small-business suppression, and mask Gestapos
- Educational establishment rewrites of history
- Judges straying into politics and prosecution (e.g. the Michael Flynn case)
- Attempts to force bakers to make cakes and nuns to provide birth control
- Coups and bogus investigations against the president and persecution of his allies
–these are the flailings of a weak and expiring regime, the heavy-handed tactics of terrified bureaucrats rushing to bolster crumbling walls.
THE 1918 PROJECT
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It was supposed to be grand. A quick skip down memory lane:
Around the time of President Woodrow Wilson, progressives decided that America needed a new and better system of government to address chronic social issues. They snipped out one phrase from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution—
THE CONGRESS SHALL HAVE POWER TO lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises to pay the Debts and PROVIDE FOR THE common Defence and GENERAL WELFARE OF THE UNITED STATES … [emphasis added]
–and transformed American government. In this new regime, anything that related even peripherally to the “general welfare of the United States” fell under federal control. Poverty, crime, disease, partisan bickering, the meanderings of democracy, lack of education, and (later) racial segregation and conflict–all these problems would be centrally managed and engineered out of existence by experts.
A gigantic professional technocracy designed to correct social problems and institute state efficiency sprang up and metastasized. Progressives named their new Frankenstein’s monster “The Welfare State.”
The welfare (or administrative) state set aside constitutionalist principles in favor of social science and fashionable progressive theories. Power concentrated in Washington and decisions were made (so the story went) not by selfish elected politicians but by impartial and enlightened career bureaucrats selected from America’s emerging class of university-educated experts. (For more on this, see John Marini’s Unmasking the Administrative State.)
As early progressive political thinker Charles Edward Merriam put it, “Politics as the art of the traditional advances to politics as the science of intelligent social control.”
Over time, Congress delegated more and more lawmaking power to Executive Branch agencies. Congress ceased to function as a deliberative lawmaking body and took on the role of benign overseer, passing fill-in-the-blanks laws which the technocrats needed, so that they could engineer a more progressive union.
The Judiciary for their part gradually acquiesced to this transformation and cooperated with Congress and the Executive to legitimize the technocracy and its micromanagement of state and local affairs. A fourth “Bureaucratic Estate” was born, one with no constitutional standing and no built-in checks or balances.
- READ MORE: ‘Trump Tax Cases Highlight the Court as Servant of the Administrative State’ (Ken Masugi, American Greatness)
Lip service to the Constitution continued; but in effect, the government and the American people exited the constitutional era. Today, as author and academic Angelo Codevilla writes, “[t]he U.S. Constitution and the way of life lived under it are historical relics.”
WHAT HAPPENED INSTEAD
As it turned out, the administrative state was neither impartial nor an improvement.
An imperial government emerged, one that America’s founders would have found unrecognizable, unconstitutional, and outrageous. Natural rights and constitutional principles were subordinated to the needs of social managers, while societal problems stayed much the same or even deteriorated.
The administrative state promoted a succession of foreign wars and meddling to spread their progressive-liberal viewpoint worldwide.
The New Deal and War on Poverty never eradicated poverty, but did create generational state dependency and staggering accretion of bureaucracy.
Civil Rights Era laws and high-court decrees failed to produce integration and racial harmony, but did formalize a “some people are created more equal than others” legal ethos–one that has bred a feeling of privilege, grievance, and entitlement in some groups, along with confusion and resentment in others. As Christopher Caldwell writes:
The problem is that when the work of the civil rights legislation was done—when de jure segregation was stopped—these new powers were not suspended or scaled back or reassessed. On the contrary, they intensified. The ability to set racial quotas for public schools was not in the original Civil Rights Act, but offices of civil rights started doing it, and there was no one strong enough to resist. Busing of schoolchildren had not been in the original plan, either, but once schools started to fall short of targets established by the bureaucracy, judges ordered it.
The administrative state exercised prudent restraint and avoided the more egregious behaviors of despots, so the transformation went largely unnoticed by the public. Narrowing of rights, coercion by the state, and concentration of power were instituted gradually within the mechanisms of government and dressed in legal procedure, then stamped “kosher” by the courts.
WHO WORKS FOR WHOM?
Recently, large numbers of Americans have begun to intuit that the checks in the system have evaporated. The government has granted itself virtually unlimited *potential* power; and a great deal of that power in practice rests in the hands of unelected, Bureaucratic-Estate functionaries. The inmates are in control of the asylum.
The United States no longer has an independent judiciary to restrain the other branches.
The United States no longer has a deliberative and accountable Congress to look after regional wellbeing.
The United States no longer has a president who can hire and fire his own Executive Branch–at least not without ferocious wailing, obstruction, and sabotage.
The motto of today’s administrative state might be articulated:
“You Work For Us, But We Encourage You To Pretend Otherwise”
The president made it clear before he assumed office that he rejected the administrative state’s motto. He telegraphed to the federal bureaucracy: “There’s a new sheriff in town, and he expects his deputies to take orders.”
But the deputies are not having it. They are the ones who run the office and make arrests, not him. Upper-level bureaucrats–along with their legislative and judicial partners–are growing more and more forthright and brutal in wielding their might against individuals and institutions who block them.
President Trump seems to have intuited the situation before he ran for office. Rather than knuckling to administrative state or begging for cooperation, he has used the presidency to–in a stroke of fiendish brilliance–bait the administrative state into fighting with *itself*, to participate in hastening its own demise.
Using political judo not seen since the Medicis, the president has sidestepped and redirected blows from one bureaucratic institution onto another. The pattern is difficult to suss with all the dust and chaos; but time has shown the president’s actions to be consistent and deliberate when it comes to encouraging infighting among bureaucratic institutions. If the president succeeds, he will stand among the most accomplished politicians the world has ever know, next to Julius Caesar and Churchill.
Success, however, is by no means guaranteed. The administrative state has deployed all manner of dirty tricks. Fabricating investigations of the president and his allies and pursuing them relentlessly (courtesy of Herr Mueller). Enabling and subsidizing proxy fighters like Antifa, Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, and the legacy media. Leaking like no president has ever endured before. Obstructing every move the president makes with showers of nationwide injunctions from federal judges. Legislating and harassment through the courts.
THE COMING STORM
Frankly, it’s a miracle that President Trump has managed to elude destruction by the administrative state for as long as he has, even taking into account his skill set. Its functionaries are frustrated and furious. They have fallen short of the shining welfare paradise they promised themselves and the American people generations ago. They blame refractory, racist conservative voters and their Orange Gorilla for the shortfall.
For their part, huge swaths of the public have lost faith in the imperial bureaucracy that now seems to meddle in every breath citizens take. Blame is misdirected far and wide, depending on political preconceptions–politicians are to blame, “society,” Trump, the police, “systemic racism,” capitalism. But the truth happens to be more simple and mundane: all the welfare state’s progressive projects are in disarray and flailing. Technocrats demand more money, more time, more obedience–but the public is growing insane with rage. Americans taken as a people are unhealthy, dependent, depressed, anxious, underserved, divided, micromanaged, fed up, dumbed down, scared, and financially unstable.
The president would have no chance against the administrative state, except that it entered a nosedive long before anyone imagined a “President Trump.” He does not need to win, so much as he needs to survive–to not lose–as the bureaucratic jetliner drops altitude and augurs into the side of some mountain.
The technocrats will not go down without a hell of a fight. If matters seem crazy now, rest assured: it’s going to get a lot worse. But in the end, there’s nothing the denizens of the administrative state can do–the wheels are coming off. And as they do, the knock-on effects will disrupt the operation of the country in profound ways–particularly in large, progressive cities, which rely on the welfare model to function.
The captain has turned on the seatbelts sign. Buckle up.