President Trump’s first State of the Union address contained numerous outrageous claims and statements, rendering a full dissection and critique practically impossible. Many have already singled out one line of the speech as worthy of particular condemnation, so I’ll add mine. Early on, Trump made this statement to the rapturous applause of his conservative allies in Congress: “In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of American life.” This claim is not only patently false, but it is dangerous and fundamentally counterproductive.
As a preliminary matter, it rests on Trump’s false “zero-sum game” worldview that Rep. Joe Kennedy rightly criticized in his rebuttal address. Having an active government presence in our lives is not mutually exclusive with maintaining strong bonds to our family and community or with cultivating a strong moral compass, whether informed by faith or other values. To the contrary, it can be a vital means to all these worthy ends.
After all, in a democracy such as ours, we are the government. For decades now, conservatives have sought to poison the public’s perception of public servants by casting them as some “other” to be feared and loathed. It should be no surprise then that Trump, whose entire political career has been built upon creating and encouraging divisive social wedges, has carried on this corrosive tradition with such enthusiasm.
The reality is that every night, public servants come home from work and are ordinary citizens no different from the rest of us. They shop in the same grocery stores, they are among those standing next to us in our places of worship, and, when they get sick, they go to the doctor’s office like us. They share our lived experiences – from the mundane annoyances of rush-hour traffic to the grim fears of facing difficult financial struggles. Importantly, when they arrived back at work this morning, they brought those lived experiences with them. And they use them to inform the work they are carrying out on our behalf.
Dr. Frances Kelsey, the FDA scientist who single-handedly prevented the thalidomide crisis from reaching America, raised two children. She enjoyed gardening and crossword puzzles. She was also an immigrant.
We are also the government in a more abstract sense, too. The laws that are made and carried out to our benefit are a reflection of our collective values. We have laws and rules against predatory lending because we think it is unfair for sophisticated companies to take advantage of their disproportionately greater power to cheat us out of our money. When it comes to air pollution, we make the companies that created it bear the cost of cleaning it up – not the downwind communities that had no say in its creation and that would see no economic benefit from the activities that produced it.
To be sure, in a multicultural and heterogeneous society such as ours, not all of the laws and regulations may fully accord with our individual preferences and opinions. But our governing institutions are designed to reflect the will of the majority while still providing an adequate margin of security for fundamental minority rights. In addition, the process by which these laws and rules are made serves to endow them with legitimacy. Among other things, this process seeks to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to shape the substantive outcome of the laws that we must eventually obey. Admittedly, this process could work better. But that calls for improving the process, rather than throwing it out altogether.
It is, of course, easy to lose sight of how central government and the “bureaucracy” are in our lives, and Trump and other conservatives are only too happy to exploit that fact. The better the government is working, after all, the less it is noticed. When our air and water became cleaner and cars safer starting in the 1960s, we were initially appreciative. Before long, though, we took these advances for granted. The gains we’ve won on public health, safety, environmental protection, and financial security are fragile. It’s only taken one year of the Trump administration to demonstrate that.
While easy to overlook, the benefits the government provides us are essential – central even – to our families and communities. Think of how much harder being a parent would be if we couldn’t take it for granted that the food on store shelves was safe to give to our children. Or think of how having access to drinking water free of contaminants is essential to maintaining the vitality of our communities. (Communities as diverse as Flint, Michigan, Charleston, West Virginia, or Hoosick Falls, New York, offer ample evidence of the enormous costs that come when access to clean, safe drinking water is no longer available.)
In this way, government and regulations are freedom enhancing to the extent that they are essential to strong families and communities, contrary to the “freedom vs. regulations” myth propagated by conservatives.
Trump, as we all know, is a bully. An essential trait of bullies is to attack those who are unable to defend themselves. And so it is with his attacks on public servants.
Trump now holds the highest public servant position in America and, unlike all his predecessors, he came to this position having never held a position of public service. Perhaps it is no surprise then that he not recognize the valuable role that public servants play in our country – a role that is central to our families, communities, and the future success our democratic experiment as a country. All of the conservative members of Congress who applauded this distasteful line from the State of the Union address, though, ought to know better.