I have been mulling over writing this post for a while now, but I hadn’t figured out how I wanted to frame it until now.
The title I’ve chosen is “public things.” This is, I hope, a phrase that is of some importance to us. “Public thing” is the literal translation of the word “republic” (the word comes from the Latin, res publica). It was the name that the Romans gave their form of government. Their government was a public thing, as opposed to the private domain of this or that aristocrat or strong man.
This concept is central to Rousseau’s thinking too. Throughout the first few chapters of Book I, he is keen to illustrate that a political community is different from a private relation of domination (for instance, the relation between master and slave, but also between CEO and employee, or between CEO and customer). That’s why Rousseau would have no patience whatever for anyone who argues that our government should be run like a business. Business and political leadership are, as far as he’s concerned, entirely different things. The former is a hierarchical organization (someone must be the owner who decides who to hire, etc.) that is oriented toward the profit of the participants; the latter is geared toward the public and its good.
The drinking fountain is also a public thing, which is partly why our culture currently finds it so offensive that earlier eras had segregated drinking fountains.
This leads me to the reason why I wanted to write this post. A few weeks ago, Bonnie Honig (we’ll be reading one of her books at the end of the semester), wrote an interesting critique of President Trump’s decision not to have his family live at the White House. As we noted earlier this semester, this decision has important consequences for the the public (or, as we call them in the present, the “taxpayers.” Pay attention to the rhetorical difference between the two terms!). Since the President’s wife and child remain in New York, and since he will also be spending a lot of time there, the U.S. government must pay for a lot of extra security to protect them. They must, for instance, rent out space in Trump Tower (where Melania Trump and her son will live), which means that public money is being paid directly to Trump’s business.
The President’s house, provided for his use by the public.
Honig’s point about this is simple: this situation amounts to the abandonment of public things. The public has already established a public residence for the President and his family, the White House. The President’s decision not to use it means that he is “opting out” of a publicly provided service, and then making the public pay for his decision. This situation, Honig argues, is indefensible:
The public thing, the White House, enables certain efficiencies in the provision of security and administrative support but these are lost when the private option is preferred. It seems obvious that, if those efficiencies are foregone, the resulting costs should be borne by the one who opts out and not by the very public whose public thing has been spurned. That is, Trump’s family members are free to not use the residence provided by the public, but they are personally responsible for assuming the costs of that choice. They should not be passing them on to us.
This gets to something rather important about our current political moment. We are seeing a wholesale abandonment of the very notion of our government as a public thing. Journalist Josh Marshall’s recent critique of Trump’s so-called “conflicts of interest” gets at this quite well. It actually makes no sense, Marshall argues, to argue that Trump has conflicts of interest. That notion requires there to multiple interests that are in conflict (e.g., his private interest in making money and his public duty as President). The issue, however, is that the President does not seem to acknowledge that there is a clash of interests here at all.
Consider the President’s recent response to the retail chain Nordstrom’s decision to pull Ivanka Trump’s (the President’s daughter) clothing line from their stores. The President’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, stated that this decision was a political attack on the President, and so the President was well within his rights to attack Nordstrom in response. It is right, Spicer argued, for the President to use the power of the Presidency to defend his and his family’s economic interests. Marshall spells out the consequences of this thinking quite well. President Trump does not acknowledge any conflict of interests, he “sees the United States and his family businesses as a fully integrated entity.” That is, he quite literally rejects the very notion that the Presidency is a public thing; it is rather a form of private property that he should be able to profit from.*
The most important part of Honig’s argument, in my view, is not that this position costs the taxpayers money. It’s that it also produces “symbolic costs.” This would be Rousseau’s concern too. What happens is that the public (the folks we keep calling “the taxpayers,” as if we are not a public but a group of customers paying for services) loses the taste and habit for paying for public things. Democracy, Honig tells us, is not just a practice of paying for stuff together, but of living together–“of living cheek by jowl with others, sharing classrooms, roads, and buses, paying for them together, complaining about them together, and sometimes even praising and enjoying them together, as picnickers will do on a sunny afternoon in Central Park.”
President Trump (and many others) have decided that they want to opt out of this. They no longer want to share classrooms, roads, buses, and parks with others (with “those people”), we stop being willing to provide services for those most vulnerable; we give everyone the “choice” to attend whichever school they’d like. But the choice has a cost; it’s linked to the refusal to provide the resources to ensure that everyone–the poor, the disabled, the recent immigrant–can get access to a good education. And that refusal, in turn, is linked to the degradation of the fragile bonds of solidarity on which democratic governance is based. We lose sight of the fact that we are a “public,” that we are a group that shares a common world that we must care for together. We lose sight, in short, of the very notion that public things exist. Instead of having a public thing (a republic, in the literal sense of the term), we have a collection of private dominions and dominations.
*Melania Trump in fact made this argument explicitly in a recent lawsuit against an news article that had libeled her. The article falsely claimed that she had worked in an escort service, and so she sued them for libel. Libel lawsuits require not just that one prove that the published report is a lie, but also that the lie caused some identifiable harm. The harm Ms. Trump identified, however, is that the article undermined her ability to take financial advantage of her status as First Lady. Thus, it seems clear that she does not view the role of the First Lady as a public office, but as a form of private property.