Donald Trump vs. civil society?

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If you pay attention to the conservative media, you might get the impression that Donald Trump is responsible for all that is wrong in the world.  He is crass, crude, vain, and ill-tempered.  He is destroying the Republican Party and appears intent on destroying the country as well.  He praises Putin, opposes war on ISIS, and roots for the Duke basketball team.  He is a recent convert to the Pro-Life cause.  He brags about having bribed government officials.  He played – GASP! – soccer in high school!  And that hair?  We can only guess that is there not to cover up balding, but to hide his horns.  The man is evil incarnate.

Or so we’re told.

{mosads}Among the subtler arguments forwarded by Trump’s critics on both the Right and the Left is that his contempt is not solely aimed at the Republican Party, its leaders, and the two-party system itself; that he also has unique contempt for and thus poses a unique threat to America’s civil institutions.  As Damon Linker put it, writing about Trump’s rejection of Fox News, “With his prodigious use of Twitter, remarkable capacity to generate publicity for himself in more traditional media outlets, and willingness to make strident demands and stick to them, Donald Trump is testing the power of this institution like no one before him.”

This is an interesting argument about Trump and one that is not without merit.  The Donald is in fact contemptuous of many of the institutions of American politics.  But does that make him unique, or does it, rather, make him simply one in a long line of American politicians irritated by the republican nature of the government fashioned by the Founders?

Where, one might ask, did Trump get the idea that it was OK to dismiss and disdain the most popular news network on television as a mere propaganda machine?  Where did Trump come up with the notion that he could call Fox “biased” and politically motivated?  Where did Trump get the impression that he could badmouth journalists and not only get away with it, but actually increase his popularity?  Heck, where did Trump get the idea to skip a Fox News debate in the first place?

The answer to these questions, of course, is “from Barack Obama.”  Indeed, Obama has shown extraordinary contempt for American political and civil institutions throughout his presidency, repeatedly and consistently maligning the press, various religious groups, charities, and countless others.  Obama’s disdain for and war against Fox News is nearly universally recognized, and his broader war on the media may be even more damaging, long-term.  David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times called the Obama team “the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”

As part of its healthcare reform, the Obama administration fashioned what has come to be called the “contraception mandate,” which compels private employers to provide their employees with health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and chemical abortion procedures.  The mandate is widely considered a direct attack on the independence and religious liberty of those who oppose such measures.  In 2012 the Catholic scholar George Weigel called the administration’s actions “a matter of a grotesque overreach by state power, one that threatens the entire fabric of civil society as well as the first of American liberties, religious freedom.”  And still today, the Obama administration and Colorado’s Little Sisters of the Poor remain locked in battle over the question of nuns having to provide birth control for their employees.

The sad truth of the matter is that all of this – Obama’s attack on the institutions of civil society and Trump’s following suit – is part and parcel of the growth of the modern state, the post-Progressive all-powerful state that seeks to be everything to everyone.  More than six decades ago, the conservative intellectual Russell Kirk asserted that “All history, and modern history especially, in some sense is the account of the decline of community and the ruin consequent upon that loss…. Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its power, the nation-state has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of true community – aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association.  What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the state’s maintenance.”

All of which is to say that Trump and Obama are bit players in this drama.  The state and its leaders have long considered civil society a threat and have thus done everything in their power to subvert and subdue civil society.  Damon Linker may be right about Trump, just as Obama’s conservative critics may be right about him.  But these two are hardly alone.

Soukup is publisher and vice president of The Political Forum.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump

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