The Pretense of Jeffersonian Politics

Trump’s ties to Russia and his attacks on the press and democracy have riveted us, as well they should. But drawn, as we are, into quagmire writ-large, watching vacuous rhetoric daily, ad-nauseam, it’s worth noting that the principles Trump defiles are not just the ones he openly undermines. There are those he and his party embrace, too.

Resurgent, with Steve Bannon’s help certainly, is the idea that normal people, plain folk, bring the most wisdom to politics. Down with the elites, in other words, and down with the experts, those who condescend from pedestals, to explain and guide how the rest of us ought to live.

Bannon has spoken about immigrants as being on the other side of this spectrum. In other words, according to his bizarre brand of “conservatism,” the intellectual left is where minorities and immigrants always reside and always will — they are all Democrats in the making, one way or the other. It is as if once nonwhite peoples descend on hallowed American ground (to seize its treasures and violate its hapless lily-white citizens), they become zombies, entranced, hypnotized, to migrate swiftly toward the nearest Starbucks.

As if this wasn’t moronic enough, this happens in Bannon’s view because apparently Western ideas, civilization and history are foreign and alien to everyone outside the United States — as if Marxism, fascism, capitalism and democracy have not permeated much, if not all, of the postcolonial modern world. And because folks like Bannon alienate us (I am an immigrant too), we are unlikely to join any party but the one on the left because it is the only one that welcomes us in return. As an example, here is what Bannon stated about Muslims last year, some of whom entered Europe to flee a raging, devastating humanitarian conflict in Syria that has claimed an estimated 400,000 lives.

“These are not Jeffersonian democrats…These are not people with thousands of years of democracy in their DNA coming up here.”

Thomas Jefferson, whose ideas Steve Bannon has interpreted for his own ends, was certainly one of America’s most influential founders. He drafted the Declaration of Independence because he had witnessed the corrosive impact of kings, of elites and aristocrats first-hand, as a powerless colonial subject living under a soulless British monarchy. Jefferson’s experience, in this regard, was not unlike that of many new immigrants who pour into the United States each year. Many come from troubled countries that have seen the damage large, centralized structures can do; many are victims of powerful dictatorships that routinely terrorize local populations. If anything, immigrants and refugees are by far some of the most likely to naturally tend toward “Jeffersonian democracy” because they have learned to be skeptical of government.

Furthermore, as nationalist movements globally now reflect, immigrants and refugees are also on the receiving end of ethnic hatred in home countries, of sectarian violence, of weak and corrupt political structures, and a host of other ills. All these experiences drive them toward safety in America and Europe and shape unique world-views.

I am certainly a product of the new South Asian capitalist class Bannon despises. And in my work as a reporter, I encounter people of all faiths and colors pursuing personal journeys of their own, blending Enlightenment and Anti-Enlightenment thinking, faith with freedom, in many shades, at many levels. I could try to be less general but I would have to get utterly specific to describe it!

But that is the age we are living in. And although Bannon’s statements are personal for me, I see he is part of movements worldwide desperately trying to tear us away from neoliberal economics and secular politics. And so, Steve Bannon truthfully has little claim over Jefferson these days. The founder’s philosophy lives and breathes, in myriad shapes and forms, in citizen movements across villages, townships, cities and university campuses all over the world. The early founder disliked bombastic individuals too (which is why he and Alexander Hamilton did not gel), and for this reason he would likely have hated Steve Bannon, incidentally.

From my vantage point, among many other things, Bannon and the Trumpistas, also need an American history lesson. Thomas Jefferson has been bastardized for the Republican Party for political ends, and gets the short shrift by both parties as a result. Alexander Hamilton’s life has become an epic statement on democracy, embodied by a baroque musical on Broadway. But Jefferson’s perspective, which valued unity, harmony and principle, and locally driven government, has felt quaint or unworthy to most in the mainstream here at home.

And the disinterest is unfortunate. Collective rage against the right has blinded us to the virtue of Jefferson’s ideas. His particular role as a slaveowner, too, is not something to which we aspire.

But as it turns out, neglecting the strength and power of Jefferson’s beliefs costs us at every level. Nationally, among many other things, the ceaseless quest to protect security means we eviscerate private rights and liberties a little more each and every day. Trump’s attacks on the press alone would have offended every cell of Jefferson’s being. Then there is the second major phase of President Trump’s agenda — after his deplorable Muslim ban — to empower border officials to monitor everyone’s social media activity and phone networks — both of citizens and noncitizens alike when they enter and exit the country. (What again is the justification for this?)

These developments would have neither surprised nor shocked Jefferson though, who in his efforts to create checks to limit federal power, argued fervently for free speech protections and individual rights (influencing the US Bill of Rights and The Constitution but writing under a pseudonym in The Anti Federalist Papers). Though Jefferson was a slaveholder from the southern state of Virginia, no doubt with a vested interest in his way of life — he also worried about the human tendency toward ambition and greed.

Regardless of ideology, in Jefferson’s mind politicians were fallible and would, if granted the chance, seek progressively greater authority for themselves. Unlike Hamilton, who has acquired cult-like status, and felt federal government could do little wrong, Jefferson instinctively regarded central power as a threat to republican government. Jefferson also most feared aristocrats, elites and the concentrated wealth such groups held, because they, in his mind, had the capacity to overrule the needs and desires of regular folk. (He would certainly not have endorsed the US Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United.)

Furthermore, Jefferson believed in the need for civility in politics. Take that as you will. His reputation as a slave-owning hypocrite has overshadowed his ideas, though, and allowed racists and white supremacists to appropriate him for themselves. And although that declining passion is justifiable, Jefferson’s instincts about human nature remain terribly accurate and spot-on. He believed in some small doses of elitism to counter ignorance, and also larger doses of rebellion to resist that elitism. He was a man defined, in other words, by deep, deliberative self-doubt. This may have been because he recognized he was a flawed man and could see foibles in others that matched his own.

But we will never know.

On education, something Jefferson believed ought to be locally managed and free for everyone, we have seen little progress made, over the past several decades, under both political parties. Legal or not, we still have de-facto segregation in our public schools. One neighborhood public school in my own district in Brooklyn, where I live part of the year, has pitted wealthy white liberals against long-time middle and lower-income black residents. The issue hardly captures enough exuberance to be entertaining. And nobody knows whose side one ought to be on. The answers are complicated; everyone is entrenched to some extent, implicated in some way or another and at least partly or indirectly responsible. The solutions are not easy, hardly straightforward; for many, the truths are not especially pleasant either. So, the topic receives scant public discussion. But talk about Trump is everywhere, all the time.

Globally, too, gargantuan movements swallow up local conflicts. For situations like these (and I apologize now for those I will offend), Alexander Hamilton’s endless faith in central government and unwavering confidence in the executive offer few, true answers. We live in a radically different universe, with little in common, structurally, to the one Hamilton occupied. So much so, in fact, that instead of direction, Hamilton’s words and principles leave us with fewer solutions, more moral quandaries, and a morass of ethical questions (such as, how much power should one imbecile have?). Jefferson’s recognition of the complexity of public life, however, remains timeless, and has become especially relevant. It also offers the chance to imbue in each of us a more particular, local and organic political approach to an issue. We don’t have to change parties, but we can embrace that.

This piece was also published to The Aerogram.