by Rob Natelson
To hear the author in an audio version, please click here.
Knowledgeable commentators who have defended former President Donald Trump—Prof. Jonathan Turley, for one—acknowledge that the new federal indictment is a major problem. These and other attacks on Trump have his most fervent supporters saying that American institutions have been weaponized against their man as never before.
In fact, however, Trump is by no means a special case. He is only one of many politicians against whom institutions have been weaponized—a process that has been going on for a very long time.
An Environment Hostile for Freedom
For several decades, America has had a definable ruling class—essentially a large oligarchy. It consists of federal bureaucracies, a few career federal politicians from “safe” districts, the managers of certain large businesses, major universities and foundations, and the dominant media. Its members enjoy privileged access to the levers of federal power. So they campaign unceasingly, and often at taxpayer expense, to increase federal power.
The natural adversaries of the ruling class are those who want to seek to revive the Constitution’s limits on federal authority and re-empower individuals, families, religious congregations, local and state governments, small businesses, and private associations.
Not surprisingly, therefore, those in control sometimes weaponize institutions against people they see as a threat. For example:
- Since at least the 1940s, Presidents favored by the ruling class have deployed the FBI, IRS, and other executive agencies against political opponents. By way of illustration, Lyndon Johnson had the Department of Justice wiretap his 1964 election opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R.-Ariz.).
- Tax-exempt universities and foundations actively campaign for leftist goals. This was already going on fifty years ago: In the early 1970s, major universities used their institutional power to promote labor union organizing, and they awarded students time off the demonstrate against the American cause in Vietnam. Cornell University (to name one) cooperated with the Ford Foundation to grant academic credit for leftist political mobilization and for producing a Trotskyite newspaper. No conservative causes received similar accommodations.
- The institutional media have been tilted to the left for my entire lifetime. I still have notes from my high school years (1962-66) documenting how the New York Times slanted articles against conservative causes and politicians. The same national media that lionized Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy portrayed Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan as lazy ignoramuses. They promoted Lyndon Johnson until the Vietnam War obstructed their plans to expand government further—and then turned on him. They helped destroy Barry Goldwater in the 1960s, Richard Nixon in the 1970s, tried to destroy Reagan in the 1980s, and helped deny George H.W. Bush a second term in the 1990s.
A Personal Experience
I first became politically active during the 1960s. Since that time, I’ve served as a campaign manager, political activist, political adviser, and candidate.
During the 1990s and 2000s, I was prominent in state-level politics, both as a grassroots activist and as a candidate. My campaigns to reverse tax increases and adopt a school choice plan marked me as the elite’s Public Enemy #1. The media smeared me while often denying the chance to respond. My family was threatened repeatedly—sometimes physically. For years I had to fend off on-the-job retaliation. I was subjected to official investigations, lawsuits, and three groundless tax audits and reviews. One state prosecutor even initiated a short-lived criminal investigation against one of our activists.
But I was not a political novice. I had learned many of the defensive techniques that those who serve the ruling class need not employ, but that its opponents must use to survive. As a result, I was able to win all of my ballot issue campaigns, and run credible races for governor that helped change the political composition of the state.
As far as I can tell, Trump has never learned those techniques.
Rules for Conservatives
Here are some of the rules I learned:
#1: If you are pro-freedom and pro-Constitution, the standards you must meet are far higher than those applied to others. Just because Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden can get away with something, doesn’t mean you can. If you cannot accept this, then politics is not for you.
#2: In the typical media environment, media bias is worth about 10 percent of the vote for ruling-class candidates. You must factor this bias into your plans, just as you consider other aspects of the local political climate.
#3: Most people do not understand how the media manipulates their attitudes. People often have vague negative feelings toward certain candidates without really knowing why. You must find ways to communicate directly with voters, and do so in a disarming manner. (Ronald Reagan was a master of this skill.)
#4: A conservative candidate must give people specific reasons to vote for him and not for his opponent. This includes criticizing an opponent, but doing so in a way the media cannot portray as “mean-spirited.”
#5: Never trust a journalist. The political graveyards are littered with the bones of politicians who said inadvisable things to a reporter they thought they could trust. Even if the reporter wishes you well, his editors or other superiors may not.
#6: Don’t talk too much; know when to shut up. Prioritize what you want to say and—no matter what you are asked—focus on only your top two or three points.
#7: When you do speak, tell the truth. It’s not only ethical, it helps you keep your story straight. Privileged candidates often can get away with lies, but pro-freedom candidates usually cannot.
#8: Assume that any email or witnessed conversation may end up on the front page of the newspaper. Nixon taped private conversations, and the tapes were used to destroy him.
#9: Avoid impulsive decisions, and build a defensive foundation supporting each major decision. I was very good at this. The media would take statements by my opponents on faith, but they always wanted proof from me. I always had that proof available. (DeSantis is very good at this, too.)
#10: Enlist the best talent you can. Mediocrities may mean well, but they can sink you by making mistakes at the very worst time.
#11: Review your principles often.
#12: Once you are in office, concentrate on changes that are both (1) effective and (2) not easily reversed. The only permanent way to weaken the forces of centralization is to defund them.
The extent to which Trump actually favors constitutional government and decentralization is a subject of disagreement, but the ruling class clearly perceives him as a threat. It has weaponized institutions against him, just as it has weaponized institutions against others. Trump is constantly in political trouble largely because he has not applied the rules pro-freedom crusaders must use to defend themselves.
For example, he seems to assume (naively) that because privileged politicians get away with certain conduct—such as retaining classified documents—he can, too.
Moreover, even his staunchest allies admit he talks too much—and about too much. He also has been indiscrete in admitting witnesses to conversations. Asking a foreign president for a favor against a political opponent is not a very serious infraction, but because Trump allowed witnesses to overhear him doing this, he was impeached.
Many of his decisions—including good decisions—have been made on impulse and without the foundation needed to defend them. His use of talent has been inconsistent, with some excellent appointments and some very poor ones.
His successes—in foreign policy, executive policy, and deregulation—were mostly of kinds that are easily reversible. So, naturally, his successor promptly reversed them. Trump could have brought about more lasting change by defunding or eliminating wasteful and abusive government programs. But as a candidate in 2016, he explicitly ruled out that option. If his attacks on DeSantis for supporting federal budget cuts is any indication, he still has not learned this lesson.
Finally, Trump often has been fuzzy on basic principles. When the pandemic came, he forgot them entirely. Sen. Marco Rubio correctly said, “The Constitution and common sense dictates [pandemic] decisions be made at the state level.” But Trump claimed “total power”—and then turned that power over to Fauci & Company. This decision effectively ended his presidency.
Trump, like other politicians opposed by the ruling class, has been the victim of viciously unfair treatment. But such treatment is nothing new. Much is made of the fact that a former President has never been indicted before. But this may be true only because Trump is the first former President opposed by the modern ruling class who has ever tried to regain office. Can anyone doubt that, say, Nixon would have been indicted on some pretext if he had tried to regain the presidency?
There’s a lesson here for freedom-oriented voters as well: The presidency is not a place to learn on the job. The fact that a presidential candidate has never held political office is not a recommendation. We should promote candidates who have proved their honesty and devotion to principle while serving successfully in public office.