For many decades, libertarians — in common with traditional conservatives and many antiwar liberals — have identified the Great Satan as the imperial presidency. This now appears to have been an overly optimistic view.
It’s not that the presidency isn’t dangerous. It’s that the leading opponents of the presidency are equally so. They are almost as potent, and they are even more tenacious about holding onto power.
I refer to the professional bureaucrats, the secret police, and the ministry of propaganda. By “professional bureaucrats” I mean all those people who set policy for and pretend to manage the nation’s vast pyramids of power — power over social welfare, public education, war, the economy, nature itself. By “ministry of propaganda” I mean the obvious: the news media, some of it (the on-air networks) the creation of government, most of it the chronic crony of government — although, like all such creatures and cronies, without compunction about ousting particular governments if possible. By “secret police” I also mean the obvious, and in this case the literal: the FBI and other national gendarmeries, leading members of which plotted to manage and then to invalidate the latest presidential election.
Revolutions don’t happen because oppressed people rise up against the state; they happen because there is a split in the ruling class.
The presidency retains its absurd powers, and continues absurdly to exercise them. Yet a year and a half into his tenure, the president and his henchmen have been unable to fire even such mid-level enemies as Peter Strzok, to prod the FBI into providing documentation that it is legally obligated to provide, or to halt a mob of government-funded lawyers, egged on by a partisan press, from entrapping the president’s associates and hauling them before kangaroo courts. That’s how far the president’s writ runs, and it isn’t very far.
When I was in college, I learned, to my dismay, that revolutions don’t happen because oppressed people rise up against the state; they happen because there is a “split in the ruling class.” I was dismayed because I wanted to picture revolution as an ideologically romantic thing, and even more dismayed because I had to read books, not about heroic moral leaders, but about such dull things as Baron Stein’s reforms of Prussia, the conflict between the noblesse de robe and the noblesse d’épée, and the hatred between Iberians and creoles in Spanish America. Dull as it is, however, the general idea was right: revolutions aren’t born among powerless people, trying to end the tyranny of the powerful; they’re born among powerful people who hate the other powerful people.
The two factions of the ruling class despise each other. They can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. It’s a fight to the death.
When you read the report of Inspector General Horowitz, this is what you see: the secret police, the propagandists, and the bureaucratic insiders waging trench warfare against the loathéd populists of the presidential clique. The two factions of the ruling class despise each other. They can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. It’s a fight to the death. But they’re not fighting, either of them, to reduce the power of government. Oh no.
The good news, and the bad news, is that such struggles are hard to confine. Conflicts within the state have often led to conflicts about the state. Power passed out of the hands of the original contestants and into the hands of people who actually remolded the state and its politics. The resulting regime was usually worse than the one it replaced. The imperial Trump and his preppy antagonists could conceivably be replaced by the mob of radicals now fighting their own civil war against the Clintonians for control of the Democratic Party.
But I don’t think America is ready to be ruled by latter-day Jacobins. I think it more likely that Americans will see, and are now seeing, that when the government has unlimited power it attracts people who want unlimited power, and that these people will become increasingly ungoverned in pursuit of it. The solution is not to replace one gang with another but to limit the power of all. I think it’s a good time for libertarians to mention this increasingly obvious fact, and never to stop mentioning it.