In 1958 France was in the midst of yet another constitutional crisis. The government could not form coherent policy due to a lack of confidence in its ministers. This at the very time that it was bogged down in a losing war in Algeria—and only a few years after France’s humiliating defeat in its war in Indochina. French military leaders would not accept another blow to their nation’s honor and status in the world. In these circumstances the generals in Algeria staged a local coup and made plans for military action against the government in Paris unless World War II hero Charles de Gaulle was returned to power. For his part, de Gaulle announced that he would serve his nation, denying only that he would act as a dictator.
A formal coup was avoided by naming de Gaulle leader of the French government, with emergency powers and oversight in the drafting of a new constitution. That new constitution focused on increasing the power of the president, who now would serve seven-year terms and enjoy vast powers to oversee administration and control much of the nation’s business through decrees loosely translated as “regulations.” The goal was restoration of French honor and stability within a broadly democratic regime; that goal and the means chosen were approved overwhelmingly in a national plebiscite.
De Gaulle would rule France for over a decade. He would make changes in the constitution he saw drafted, including by clearly unconstitutional means. He remained popular throughout most of his reign, which was devoted to restoring French national pride. He took his relatively small armed forces out of the NATO alliance, pursued an independent nuclear program, and encouraged various policies aimed at protecting the vaunted French culture. He finally resigned in 1969 after his latest proposals for increased presidential powers were rejected by the populace.
Many have seen de Gaulle’s presidency as a crucial success story, in essence saving France from chaos. The cost for this success might be considered rather high in the United States. Power was concentrated in the hands of one man and the rule of law was compromised. Then again, the price of stability was exacted within a political community more radically different from our own than is usually recognized. Even before de Gaulle’s rise, the rights of persons and communities in France were much more subject to being curbed or even suspended in the name of national security and the popular will. Right now, for example, France is being governed under a “state of emergency” in which the (much looser and less powerful) rights of those under government suspicion for various crimes are significantly lessened. It is not irrational to see such emergency measures as necessary given the recent outbreak of radical Islamic terrorism and mass murder. But even in quiet times France is no civil libertarian paradise, Christian symbols are as liable to being banned as Muslim, as they have been in numerous contexts and circumstances. Businesses have been forcibly nationalized and may be again. As to community rights, one need only mention that all schools in France teach the same subjects, from the same texts, at the same time of day. Uniformity, secularism, and state power are at the center of French democratic rule.
Those seeing in this rehearsal of recent French history a warning concerning the candidacy of Donald Trump are not wrong. It should be noted, however, that it is not my purpose to label Mr. Trump some kind of fascist or would-be dictator as has been the case with many on the left. Indeed, my point would be that the rise of Mr. Trump has been presaged and made all but inevitable (his rise, not necessarily his election) by several decades of increasingly imperial presidential rule in the United States, capped by the massive and systematic overreaching of Barack Obama and his administrators.
France remains a member in good standing of the category “free nation” on most scales. I would not wish to live there, but many in America (one thinks of our current president) might. My point is the narrow one that our nation has been moving for some time toward a model of governance, like that of France, which is authoritarian by our previous standards without being clearly and overtly illegal or dictatorial. This new model of government is, however, quite apart from that spelled out in our own Constitution and, until rather recently, ingrained in the character of our people.
What has changed fundamentally in America is our unwritten constitution. An unwritten constitution is a combination of traditions, laws, and character traits that determines how and whether any formal constitution will be applied in practice. At its center lies the people’s expectations regarding what the government can and should, or cannot and should not, do. Decades of dependence on “entitlement” programs from Social Security to student loans have taught Americans not to love the state but to expect it to take care of their business for them, or at least pay for their business, then let them pay it back over time. The expectation that the federal government will ensure prosperity and above all “fairness” has undermined people’s ability to recognize either the overreaching of the state or the dependency that has overtaken our communities and our selves. Add to this the cultural consequences of dependence—the breakdown of the family, the loss of work ethic, and the replacement of God by social justice as the source of good in the minds of millions of Americans, and you have a recipe for anything but responsible self-rule.
It is worth noting that Mr. Trump’s key constituency is made up of what used to be called “Reagan Democrats.” These working-class voters were brought into the Republican Party by Reagan because he was able to appeal to their higher aspirations—a stronger America in the face of Soviet expansionism, an economy again producing goods and good jobs, and a return to traditional values—without promising that these good things would be given to them by the government. Reagan Democrats were accustomed to working in factories for decent wages but in very precarious economic circumstances, living in blue-collar, often ethnic neighborhoods, usually in the upper Midwest. They wanted good jobs at good wages and a nation of which they could be proud—and were willing to work for these good things. An earlier Republican Party, still committed to individual initiative and community standards, was capable of presenting a serious program of setting loose the powers and energies of small businesses, families, communities, and dedicated workers to bring back “morning in America.”
Some today look back on the Reagan years as part of the slide into overweening presidentialism. Certainly Reagan’s rhetoric of American exceptionalism and revolution was problematic for traditional ties and values. But what has come since has been far worse. Statist “compassion” and social justice wars have made today’s “Reagan Democrat” into something very different from the Reagan Democrat of old. Americans may be tired of the crybullies now running education and government establishments, but divorce, illegitimacy, long-term unemployment, drug abuse, and a long slide into secularism all have weakened the moral fiber of a vast swath of working people. Indeed, as Charles Murray has pointed out, millions of working-class Americans live out the self-destructive values their elites preach but do not, in fact, practice. The result is a population mired in confused class consciousness and cultural contradictions. Most Americans have not “moved left” in any definitive, ideological sense. But they have become accustomed to being led rather than leading, to looking to government to “do its job” of taking care of them rather than taking care of themselves, to life as wards of a vast social democratic state, if one still not quite completed. They want America back, but no longer know quite what that nation was or can be and are no longer willing to give up their full “entitlement” to get it back.
It is in this context that Mr. Trump’s popularity may be judged as potentially lasting and transformative. Willing to discuss the one issue (immigration) even those few genuine conservatives in the race have shied from, he has grabbed for himself the mantle of defender of America. Our feckless president squanders his last months in office, making empty gestures in the Middle East, launching programs of manshaming in our schools, importing potential terrorists (but very few Arab Christian refugees) in the name of “compassion,” and burning millions of gallons of jet fuel to attend conferences on the dangers of global warming. In response, people are looking for strong leadership that affirms the basic goodness of their nation. As Congress is split between self-serving poseurs who claim to value our traditions but continue to support Mr. Obama and those who openly urge the current president to even more radical action, people are looking for someone who will do their will. As the Constitution has been ignored at best in pursuit of political advantage, the people have forgotten that for which it stands—limited government and local self-rule—and now demand only law and order. Under such circumstances it should not surprise us that a new de Gaulle appears attractive to vast numbers of Americans, or that he may even come to rule our transformed and corrupted polity unless the people find within themselves a determination to demand a return to their constitutional tradition.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.