In his inaugural address, Donald Trump announced that,
“today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American People. For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country…. That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.”
These were stirring words, but they were the sort of thing presidents have said for ages. Back in his first inaugural address in 1913, Woodrow Wilson decried the fact that “the great Government we loved has too often been made use of for private and selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the people.” In his first inaugural address in 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower asserted that “we, the people, elect leaders not to rule but to serve.” And in his January 1996 state of the union address, Bill Clinton declared: “We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there’s not a program for every problem. We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means. The era of big government is over… Our goal must be to enable all our people to make the most of their own lives — with stronger families, more educational opportunity, economic security, safer streets, a cleaner environment in a safer world.”
However, as Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster explains, Trump’s declaration that he was transferring power back to the people actually heralded a move away from big government, not toward it. Trump’s words didn’t herald a push to expand government power under the guise of working for the people. On the contrary, he was determined to expand the freedom Americans enjoyed and roll back government power. A new era had begun in American politics: for the first time in over a century, the rule of “the people” did not mean the rule of the government.
This equation has been taken for granted since the election of 1896, when a key issue was currency. The Republican platform committed the party to the gold standard, which prevented the production of so much currency as to lead to inflation. A minority of Republicans and a significant majority of Democrats, however, supported the free coinage of silver, which would lead to inflation and thereby make it easier for farmers to pay off their debts. That rapidly rising prices were rendering the life savings of Americans essentially worthless did not trouble the silver advocates, who cloaked their case for what was essentially the government’s assumption of the debts of private citizens in the language of support for the plight of the common man. Forgotten in all the controversy was that when the government does something, it is the taxpayers who pay for it.
President Grover Cleveland supported the gold standard, but toward the end of his second term, he was deeply unpopular, and the silver forces among the Democrats were restive. At the Democratic National Convention, a handsome and vigorous thirty-six-year-old congressman from Nebraska named William Jennings Bryan electrified the delegates with a speech in favor of the free coinage of silver that is one of the most celebrated pieces of oratory in American history. “You come to us,” Bryan declared, “and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
Rating America’s Presidents explains that Bryan sounded notes of class warfare that would become ever more common in American politics: “We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest; we are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!” In conclusion, he thundered: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
In a frenzy of enthusiasm over this populist appeal, the Democrats nominated Bryan for president. This marked a sea change for the Democratic Party, as the party that had always favored a limited central government now began to advocate for a massive increase of federal control over the economy, under the cloak of a concern for the common man.
Bryan lost, and lost two more times, but his ideas took hold. By the time of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, and a significant and growing portion of the American public, took it for granted that taking an industry or sector of the economy out of private hands and placing it under government control was tantamount to giving it to “the people.” It is such a compelling sleight of hand that Communist regimes also used it for decades.
But then came Trump, who actually meant “the people” when he said “the people.” And that’s one principal reason why the statists who hitherto championed themselves as guardians of the interests of “the people” hate him with such incandescent intensity.
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