Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as America’s 45th president. He will have achieved that office by running as a populist — attuned to millions of citizens who are discontent with the elite politics and bureaucratic rule that is overwhelming American self-government. But an astonishing populist election does not provide a blueprint for populist governing. In his inaugural address, President Trump will have an unmatched opportunity to define his presidency by mapping out the direction of his political insurgency.
There have been successful populist movements in the past, starting with the watershed election of 1800 that put Thomas Jefferson in the White House. Despite several attempts, only two populist elections in the 20th century changed the direction of American politics. The first was that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ran in the name of the “forgotten man” and railed against the politics of normalcy. His populism called for the vast expansion and centralization of American government, taking the form of the New Deal.
The failed experiment of progressive liberalism and its regulatory rule persists today, and has only been exacerbated by the revival of centralized administration during President Obama’s terms in office.
President Trump would do better to follow the other great modern example of successful electoral populism — that of Ronald Reagan, whose first inaugural address is a classic model of a distinctly American populism.
Yes, circumstances are very different today, and “as our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew,” as Lincoln said. Yet much like today, President Reagan took office at a time when both the economy and national security were the foremost concerns of the American public. He outlined an agenda that united his popular mandate: reforming the tax system, reining in public spending, and creating a stronger economy. These issues are just as salient today, and one expects that the new president will echo President Reagan’s pledge that “this administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunity for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination.”
Indeed, the fundamental question raised by Trump in 2016 is the same first posed by Reagan in his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964: “This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
That assessment came from a former New Deal Democrat, who by the time he became president clearly understood that government had no power except that granted it by the people, and that it had become time “to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.” And so he turned away from FDR’s populism of state-centric progressivism and suggested an alternative answer: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Reagan believed that the American people have the inalienable right to govern themselves, and, given their liberty under the rule of law, the ingenuity and persistence to solve their own problems and achieve greatness. He knew that Americans are not a people cut out to be ruled by kings, legislative tyrants, or judicial decree — and certainly not by petty bureaucrats or small-minded policy experts either. They are a people who have built a nation based on an idea that they — and not the government, in any of its forms — are sovereign, and that government is their servant, deriving its sole legitimacy from their consent.
President Reagan began the tradition of holding the inauguration on the west front of the U.S. Capitol. The incoming president now looked down the national mall as he took the oath of office — past the grand monuments to Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson, and culminating in the rows of graves at Arlington Cemetery. This programmatic change mirrored Reagan’s governance: he turned his populism to look beyond the issues of the moment to the fundamental ideas that define American exceptionalism, and that make this nation, by the revolutionary principles and constitutional institutions of its founding, the embodiment of popular government.
It’s yet unknown to what extent Mr. Trump fully understands the profound meaning of the country he has been elected to lead. One year ago he wrote that America is “a land of laws, and Americans value the rule of law above all.” He went on to promise that, when elected president, he “will bring the executive branch back inside the Constitution and will work with Congress to put America first.” The first official venue in which President Trump will have an opportunity to make the connection between his populism and his country will be his inaugural address. He would do well to look to Reagan’s for guidance.
Ten years from now — a little longer than two presidential terms, and a brief interlude in the history of our nation — we will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It would be an ambitious (but worthy) goal to change the course of our country by that time, and reassert self-governance. That would truly make American great again.