Louis XIV almost certainly never said it. The phrase was attributed to him by his enemies precisely because it would have been an outrageous thing even to think. The words are still easily recognized today.
L’Etat, c’est moi
I am the nation
When we hear modern echoes identifying an individual with the state, no matter how faint those echoes, we still take notice.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus did not see much in Donald Trump’s State of the Union to applaud. So they didn’t.
Donald Trump reacted:
…even on positive news, really positive news like that — they were like death. And un-American. Un-American.
Failing to applaud my President is an insult to more than a mere individual. It is an insult to America.
I mean they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.
As it turns out, those African Americans, those Democratic members of Congress, were worse than un-American.
Can we call that treason?
The boisterous presentation, and the crowd reaction, may suggest the President was joking.
Of course. Or half joking. Or some other fraction.
He was not joking a few weeks before when, during a break from a golf outing, he spoke about the ongoing investigation into possible campaign conspiracies with Russia. He seemed explicitly to identify himself as a personification of the country. Any investigation into his own possible wrongdoing hurts, not him, but America itself. Here are his words:
It makes the country look very bad, and it puts the country in a very bad position.
In the same break-from-golf session, he elaborated on his right to end investigations of himself and his family, and to have federal law enforcement take action against any political enemies he chooses to have investigated.
I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.
He says he has shown restraint so far, but only because of the hope he will be treated in a manner he sees as fair.
But for purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.
A grateful nation is indebted to him for his restraint.
It still strikes most folks as exaggerated paranoia to regard this sort of talk as anything more than bombast; reckless, perhaps, but not dangerous. The reason is simple. There would never be, could never be, anywhere near enough popular support to subvert a tradition of freedom.
Political figures will be free to oppose without going to prison. The rest of us may, if we choose, refrain from applauding Donald Trump without our patriotism being questioned.
Our national faith does not hold our basic freedoms to depend on the personal restraint of Donald Trump, or on the whims of any future leader. But the part of that faith that comes from the strength of national institutions has been strained. The right combination of compliant national lawmakers and a chief executive who feels none of the restraint generously expressed by President Trump could shatter any institutional protection.
I’m not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department.
I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI.
Can any of us doubt that, if there was sufficient public support, if the Trump base grew to a large enough minority, that he would feel confident in going much further than his most expansive ambitions would now carry him?
I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing.
What would be the restraint then?
And I’m very frustrated by that.
When President Nixon resigned, his popular support registered at 24%. That is abysmal. Republicans felt comfortable in supporting impeachment. The popular interpretation is simple. The American people were horrified at his subversion of the law, at his obvious guilt, at the obstruction of justice, at the cover-up. And so his support beyond that crazed or blind or uninformed 24% pretty much vanished. And so did his ability to continue in office.
But that drop in public support did not correspond with the serious evidence that slowly emerged. In fact, the drop began soon after Nixon took the oath of office following his landslide reelection. Watergate was still a meaningless abstraction to most Americans.
Something else caused things to sour for the President.
Voters are not always motivated by scandal, or bigotry, or even threats to freedom. A general sense of well being, a feeling that things are okay and will continue to be okay, will often predominate. A long and unsuccessful war can disturb that force. So can an economic dive.
The Vietnam war pulled the Johnson administration to the ground. But Richard Nixon was taking credit for beginning a withdrawal. Inflation was bad, but he was taking credit for aggressive action as he imposed Wage and Price controls. Gross Domestic Product was on the upswing.
But the feeling that things are not quite right is not usually based on some statistical analysis. Gross Domestic Product was at a statistical high, but most folks had a vague feeling of being squeezed. There was a reason.
They were being squeezed.
Just after the beginning of Nixon’s second term, median income began to go off a cliff. Few voters were paying attention to the money supply, but Nixon’s anti-inflation policies were succeeding. Inflation was about to go down. Sometime after, real wages were pounding sand. Most voters didn’t have the statistics handy, but things sure didn’t feel very good.
I was a young adult in those days, just getting used to being not-a-kid. I recall talking with my dad, the fount of wisdom in my young life. As our President left office in disgrace, my dad looked over the economic news. “I hope,” said he, “our country wasn’t just saved by a bad economy.”
President Trump’s wistful desires are openly expressed. He very much wants to purge the FBI, to direct the Department of Justice to end investigations that might touch him, to arrest his political opponents. Nothing secret about it. He tells anyone who will listen.
But his popularity is down. Way down. An atmosphere of hate for immigrants, those with darker skins, those who worship differently, may be thickening. But hatred is still rejected by most Americans.
For the moment.
Presidential popularity can change. The economy has been rocketing, accelerating ever since Obama expansion policies took hold.
The recent Republican tax cut will have an effect. Yes, it explodes the deficit. Yes, the national debt will increase. Yes, most of the cut will go to the extremely wealthy.
Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan provoked some derisive laughter when he boasted about a teacher who was pleased that her pay went up by a dollar and a half a week.
He soon deleted his tweet. Good move.
But the increase in money supply will have some effect, no matter who it goes to. Putting it in the hands of the wealthy will produce less stimulus, but it will have an effect.
What will happen to Trump popularity? To the restraint on his dark, cloudy impulses?
The answer may come from Republican states. Kansas governor Sam Brownback took office in 2011 with a new plan to stimulate the economy. He cut taxes. Mostly to the wealthy. Almost entirely for businesses.
Austerity would combine with the enduring economic theology of contemporary conservatism: that all tax cuts pay for themselves over time. That myth, once outlined by Arthur Laffer on a napkin, had never worked out in practice.
It was the opposite of standard Keynesian economics. Generally, the Keynes model was to push up deficits during hard times, and pay them back during times of prosperity.
Economics is not an intuitive science. Unfortunately, austerity in Europe produced a phenomenal downturn that is still breaking records.
Within a few years Kansas fell behind its neighbors. So did other states who adopted the conservative model. Education suffered from cuts. Roads were deteriorating. Medical care declined, death rates climbed. By any conceivable measure, Kansas was in a downward spiral. Last year and this year, his own Republican legislature rebelled. They began restoring taxes for building roads, improving education, putting government back on the road.
Brownback resigned to take an ambassadorship in the Trump administration. The business-growth-now-tomorrow-forever governor looked back on his record, and boasted about … well … anti-abortion laws.
The national Republican blueprint is almost directly modeled to Kansas.
In the US, states are considered to be laboratories of policy.
We may end up following the experiment of Huey Long of Louisiana in the 1930s, a model of economic recovery combined with authoritarian abuse of law enforcement: a pseudo-legal crackdown on any hint of opposition. We know it can happen because it did in Louisiana.
In a few years, the Trump tax boost may overcome all obstacles. He may end up with more support than we now imagine. The darkest vision may come true: a national police force loyal to one man, lock-er-up, followed by lock-em-up, followed by lock-em-all-up. Failure to applaud a speech may be viewed with glaring suspicion.
For now, we seem to be following the Kansas experiment. We know that can happen, too. Because it has happened in Kansas.
We may one day look back, sadly, and lament the cruelty of a cold and unforgiving trade off. That our freedoms were purchased once more, this time by grinding financial hardship.
Our Republic may yet be saved by the cruel economic policies of Sam Brownback.
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