Last Thursday, Charles Cooke, online editor of the National Review and author of The Conservatarian Manifesto, spoke at an event co-hosted by the Georgetown University College Democrats, Georgetown University College Republicans, and the Lecture Fund entitled “Charles Cooke: New Conservatism in the Age of Trump.”
During his address, Cooke discussed Trump’s tenure in the White House thus far, which he does not believe has affected the country as seriously the left has feared or the right has hoped. Additionally, Cooke argued that Trump will benefit traditional Republicans, perhaps unintentionally, by bolstering American federalism.
A “Return” to What Already Exists
A proponent of “traditional” Republican values such as classical liberalism and political federalism, Cooke contended that the Trump administration will finally convince the left of the merits of federalism. “A return to federalism,” Cooke argued, would provide relief from the Trump administration policies with which progressive states have vehemently disagreed. Frequently using California as an example, Cooke described events such as California Governor Jerry Brown’s commitment to uphold the Paris Climate Accord after Trump pulled the US out of the agreement, as well as “attempts” made by a handful of Californians urging the state to secede following Trump’s election. “California doesn’t need to secede,” Cooke argued. “It needs federalism.”
Cooke’s argument that “a return to federalism” would serve as a panacea for all real or imagined threats perpetrated by the Trump administration may have been emotionally compelling, particularly for those of us who have spent the exhausting past year protesting in the streets, calling and writing legislators, and engaging in grassroots activism as we attempt to beat back a seemingly endless legion of unjust legislation and executive actions. However, the argument neglects an important fact: federalism already exists. Cherry picking examples such as California’s secession efforts, which were largely sarcastic or exaggerated and have been refuted by political leaders like California’s attorney general, enabled Cooke to create a strawman argument for devolution and eschew the truth of the matter: that a “return to federalism” is an inaccurate framing of the political moment because federalism as it exists today already operates effectively. If this were not the case, unconstitutional actions like the Trump administration’s travel bans would still be in place, because they would not have been successfully halted by state judges.
Cooke is correct in arguing that the roles of state, local, and federal government as defined by the constitution are all essential. He is incorrect in assuming that they need to be altered. Just because, as Cooke argued, “the hipster in Brooklyn and the Baptist in Mississippi have very little in common,” does not mean they do not deserve the same opportunity to live out their lives unthreatened by discrimination, climate change, or any other danger that government with all its levels can guard against. And this is what Cooke fails to understand.
Is Trump Really “Not Affecting Lives”?
While Charles Cooke personally believes that Trump “is unfit for office” and “is not going to get a pass from me or National Review when he is wildly inappropriate,” the editor emphasized on multiple occasions that the new administration has not impacted the country to the extent that the media would have Americans believe, saying that the president “is not affecting lives, day in and day out.” This may be easily said when one is the beneficiary of a vast amount of socioeconomic privilege, but for the many Americans who are less fortunate, Trump has indeed affected countless lives.
If you are a DACAmented person, Trump has affected your life. Trump’s decision to end DACA has left nearly 800,000 DACAmented Americans vulnerable to deportations unless Congress acts to protect them (which, as of this writing, they have not done).
If you are a transgender student, Trump has affected your life. In February, the Trump administration rescinded guidelines previously put in place by the Obama administration, leaving transgender students without federal protections and without permission to use the facilities that fit their gender identity.
If you are an incarcerated person, Trump has affected your life. In less than a year, the Trump administration has already overseen a revival in the private prison industry, a disturbing fact given that private prisons are more violent, less humane, and less likely to provide prisoners with the education and rehabilitation that is needed to help reduce recidivism rates.
If you have health insurance, Trump has affected your life. Trump’s recent executive order is likely to make healthcare for small business employees less generous and less well-regulated, not to mention that insurance premiums in general are expected to rise as a result of the order.
If you are someone who wants to be able to have sex without having to worry about pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections, Trump has affected your life. In early October, Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services made it possible for any employer to use a religious exemption to deny contraception to their employees.
If you live in Puerto Rico, Trump has affected your life. The Trump administration’s delayed and underwhelming response to the utter devastation caused by Hurricane Maria has done little to help the island’s residents, 23% of whom are still without running water, 34% of whom are still without communications services, and 72% of whom are still without power.
Trump has also affected lives because his own hatred has facilitated hatred across America. Trump’s intolerant rhetoric during his political campaign contributed to the 65% spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015, and almost 900 hate crimes occurred in the first ten days alone after Trump won the 2016 presidential election. This is not to say that Trump is legally culpable for every act of hatred he has inspired, but his negligence to use even an ounce of the privilege and power he holds as president to meaningfully and unequivocally condemn those who commit hateful acts in his name does make him morally culpable.
Clearly, Trump has affected lives. For Cooke to say that Trump “is not affecting lives, day in and day out” shows either a willful ignorance of or a lack of empathy towards the Americans whose lives have been drastically altered for the worse by the administration’s actions. In fact, Cooke undermined this very statement in his own speech. The two main threads of his argument, though individually well-articulated and well-argued, were utterly contradictory and incompatible. Cooke simultaneously sought to convince his audience that Trump was not affecting Americans’ lives and that his impact was so great that only a return to federalism would protect Americans from the damage his administration was doing. So which one is it? Has the Trump administration had no impact on America, or has it had so much of an impact that “more” federalism is needed?
Clearly, Charles Cooke seeks to advance his own agenda while eschewing inconvenient facts. Federalism already exists and so cannot be “returned to.” The Trump administration is changing the lives of many, many Americans. To believe otherwise is, on the one hand, to ignore the governmental mechanisms articulated in the Constitution that have provided relief from the Trump administration’s unconstitutional actions; on the other hand, it is to willfully ignore the real and measurable injustices perpetrated by the administration that must still be remedied.