Revitalizing the Hamiltonian Spirit in the Age of Trump Populism

July 25, 2023

This article appears in Vol III Issue II: Populism

The swift death of the presidency of “sober expectations,” as put forward by Alexander Hamilton has long since been lamented by conservatives. Hamilton, perhaps more so than any of the founders, understood the virtues of prudence and moderation. His blueprint outlining an energetic executive in the Federalist Papers—that is, an executive not bound by the fickle passions of public opinion—greatly informed the federal government’s first eight years of operation under the steady leadership of George Washington. 

Hamilton presented a vision of republican government that would most certainly offend the sensibilities of modern Americans, the vast majority of which are opposed to any political philosophy in which the president is not the chief representative of the public’s desires. Hamilton believed in representative government, yes, but strongly insisted that the proper role of the elected class—and of a statesman more generally—was to carefully mitigate and refine the boisterous passions of the people. 

Conservative reverence for the founders, particularly those of Hamilton’s skepticism toward the whims of the majority, has not faded. The same lament for the progressive erosion of the American constitutional order is just as strong, if not even stronger now than it was before the rise of Donald Trump. But Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency catapulted a wave of conservative populism to the forefront of the Republican Party never before seen in contemporary American politics. When running for president in 2016, he proclaimed himself the voice of the people, the man who would blow up the Washington establishment and right the many wrongs endured by a disenfranchised working class whose jobs had been lost to shuttered steel mills and automobile plants, the many casualties of globalization. 

The question of populism currently confronting the conservative movement is a consequential one because it begs an even larger question about how conservatives ought to approach statecraft more generally. Trump, like many presidents, but more specifically as a populist, attempts to derive his legitimacy from the majority. But one has to wonder how well a conservative zeal to put Trump back in the White House sits with pre-existing lamentations about raw majoritarian passions ruling the day, and whether such passions—Republican or Democrat—are conducive to running a republic where the law rules over every man.

Stephen F. Knott, in his book The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline Into Demagoguery and the Prospects of Renewal, traces the American presidency’s gradual fall from grace to its initial deviation from its Hamiltonian origins. Knott designates the rule of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as the two presidencies that were pivotal in putting the executive branch on a collision course with the majority. 

What was originally intended to be an office solely charged with executing the laws and Constitution, as well as unifying the nation quickly became a “tribune of the people.” Jefferson’s presidency bore a stark contrast to Washington and John Adams. Proclaiming the “Revolution of 1800,” he disdained the Constitution for the many mechanisms put into place to prevent majority rule. When Andrew Jackson came to power a few decades later, he largely continued the earlier work of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, declaring in his first address to Congress that “the majority is to govern.” 

Knott also identifies Woodrow Wilson and the corrosive strain of progressivism he brought to the White House as yet another nail in the coffin of the constitutional presidency. At best, Wilson considered the Constitution, specifically its intricate system of checks and balances designed to sustain the separation of powers, to be severely antiquated. He thought that the president ought to be “as big a man as he can,” and that the president “has the nation behind him, and the Congress has not.”

When it comes to the modern conservative movement and the great populist question now facing it, the argument laid out in Knott’s book is of utmost importance. I had cited Knott earlier in American Pigeon’s last magazine issue focusing on the nature of republics, and in that piece I made note of the popular presidency’s strict adherence to the whims of the majority, most notably its enlistment of countless unelected policy experts and administrators. The modern executive branch comprises over one million federal employees spanning 15 executive departments. The problem with a presidency that has been made into a tribune of the people is that ultimately, the president has had to enlist a massive bureaucracy in order to meet the demands of the people.

Curiously, as it would turn out, massive bureaucracies do not simply change when a new man moves into the Oval Office every four to eight years. The vast majority of the bureaucracy stays in place, regardless of which party controls the office. The result has been, especially in recent years, an administrative state—or a “Deep State,” as Trump likes to call it—that can undermine the president’s agenda should it not approve. What we now have is a sort of paradox: a president empowered by the majority’s good graces can be as big a man as he wants to be, but in order to remain in control of his own branch he must make peace with the unelected “expert class” that decides and carries out the countless intricacies of modern policy, both foreign and domestic.

Trump, even though he was propelled to the White House by a strong populist wave, didn’t do this. He instead rightfully condemned this unelected class of civil servants and attempted to reassert his control of the executive branch. But unsurprisingly, when Trump attempted to single handedly reign in the Deep State, it fought back. And in the end, the Deep State won. 

There are two main problems that have contributed to the creation and sustaining of this paradigm. One is a strictly mechanical problem that, should Congress ever grow a pair, can be corrected. The other is a deeper, cultural problem that has to do with the way many, both inside and outside Washington, conceptualize American statecraft to begin with. 

The first problem lies in Congress’ reluctance to reassert its legislative power as enumerated in the Constitution. The modern lawmaking process in the United States is a far cry from how your fifth grade teacher described it. We would all like to believe that the legislative branch makes the laws and that the executive branch executes said laws. But in reality, Congress will often pass legislative “packages” that can easily be hundreds, if not thousands of pages long. Rarely, if ever, do lawmakers read these bills in their entirety before they are passed. While Congress of course still knows what the bills will generally do, the vast majority of the specifics are often left unaddressed, and are instead left to the policy makers in the executive agencies to decide.

The result, as has been previously stated, is an administrative state empowered with pseudo-legislative authority by a Congress too busy fundraising and campaigning to legislate intentionally. 

Such a problem also deals a sobering blow to Trump’s populist messaging. The former president has made combatting the administrative state an even larger focal point of his 2024 election campaign than he did four years ago, and has doubled down on the notion that he, and he alone, is the one capable of defeating it once and for all. But, as has just been said, executive orders alone will not fix the problem at hand, not as long as another president can come in and simply reverse it all with yet another stroke of a pen.

The solution will have to come from all of us. A conservative populism can only work if it is channeled correctly. Such a movement must dedicate itself to electing leaders who are willing to embrace a bit of noblesse oblige, if you will. This French idiom refers to a nobility that revels not only in its own privilege, but also a moral obligation to lead the polity by good example. That is to mean, it must prioritize electing a Congress cognizant of the true task at hand: reasserting its legislative power and taking the consequentiality away from the unelected agencies.

With this, we are confronted with the second problem that speaks more broadly to our civic culture. The administrative state is, in part, culturally reinforced by a sort of political careerism in which to work for the federal government, particularly in the executive branch, is to suddenly be a duty-oriented civil servant. While we of course ought not to slight the importance of necessary government personnel, it is precisely this mindset that also leads to overzealous bureaucrats who believe that disobeying the president and taking the law into their own hands is somehow virtuous, or even more worryingly, akin to “saving the republic.”

It may very well not be possible to make a complete return to the executive branch put forward by Hamilton and executed by Washington. What we are capable of doing, however, is to apply the philosophical frame of reference that guided their approach to statecraft to our own era. It is true that Hamilton was no populist. He disdained in any context the popularization of the presidency. However, it may be possible to give this Trump-era populism a bit of a Hamiltonian kick. Conservatives have a unique opportunity to channel and refocus the current wave of populism to motivate the masses to be something more than just the masses. That is to mean, right-wing populism can either descend into yet another tired game of mob rule and further feed into the progressive transformation of the presidency, or it can advocate for a restored civic culture and citizenry capable of understanding that the “little arts of popularity” get a republic nowhere.


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