With his latest foray into the cultural politics of race—encouraging a boycott of the NFL unless its owners punish players who kneel during the national anthem—President Trump has once again revealed his penchant for using discord as a governing strategy, not only at the organizational level of the White House but also within the nation as a whole.
In the midst of all the uproar, it’s important for the future of liberalism to bear in mind that the president’s effort to enforce patriotic norms on the football field springs from a deeply-held political philosophy. We shouldn’t let the president’s rhetorical inelegance—his cursing, for instance—or the substantive problems with his move as a matter of public policy—where to begin?—blind us to the philosophical pedigree of his bluster and self-regard.
In the Trumpian view of politics, the federal government—and the president himself—plays a legitimate and indeed important role when it intrudes into the core decision-making of civil society institutions. Pause for a moment to contemplate the Rubicon we have just crossed: the president has used his bully pulpit to threaten a national boycott of an industry unless its corporate owners heed his own personal assessment of their employment decisions. This is “buy Ivanka’s stuff,” or “take out a suite in the Trump Hotel,” in reverse, and on a much grander scale.
We’ve seen this before, and consistently—and not simply in the president’s comments about “the failing New York Times” or the ratings of the Oscars. We have seen it especially in the rule of tin-pot Latin American demagogues and their successors. Under the Peronist legacy in Argentina, for instance, some of the most important government controls on economic life are not formal. Instead, the government has relied on precisely the kind of executive-branch bullying that the President’s latest tweets embody to enforce its debilitating populist agenda.
Many years ago, I held an interview with an Argentinean law professor in which I asked him how the Secretary of Commerce imposes price controls on various sectors of the Argentine economy. The answer (8:20-9:18): the secretary calls industry leaders and “tries to persuade them” not to increase prices. “How does he persuade them?” I asked. “I’m not sure what are the precise words he uses,” replied this former antitrust commissioner, ominously. “But let’s put it this way: he’s been pretty persuasive.”
No law enables the federal government to sanction athletes for expressing their political views, whatever they may be. At the same time, no law prevents the president from “persuading” team owners to enact his will by imposing sanctions for lawful political speech. This flaunting by the president of a lacuna in the structure of liberal constitutionalism runs counter to views long expressed, but apparently not sincerely held, by the Republican Party and its members—and as such it is part of the ongoing erosion of liberal norms.
Tweets like these are part of an insidious process in which the nature of government is being reconceived on what we must recognize are illiberal terms:
Mark S. Weiner is the award-winning author of the Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom and Americans without Law: The Racial Boundaries of Citizenship. He is a Professor of Law on leave from Rutgers University, Newark.