"If Alabamians Can Put Man on the Moon, We Can Build New Prisons."

Gov. Bentley's "State of the State Address" is a telling mashup of Idiocracy, Cool Hand Luke, and All the King's Men.


Alabama's Republican Gov. Robert Bentley just delivered his "State of the State Address" and here's one of the highlights:

To the extent it very clearly lays out the thoughts and commitments of an unabashedly pro-Donald Trump supporter who leads an entire state, Gov. Bentley's full text is essential reading if you want to understand what's at work in today's politics.

There are cringe-inducing moments of absolute insanity in the speech (as captured above), but there is something far more complicated and powerful at work than what partisan Democrats and many anti-Trump conservatives and libertarians will dismiss as yokelism at its most extreme. Bentley's broad agenda, like Trump's, is not fundamentally about limited government and shrinking the size, scope, and spending of the state. It is more a plan for something approaching a populist total state that blends Trumpism with Huey Long. Why not be all things to all people, especially in an America that has, however imperfectly, moved past the worse elements of institutionalized racism and sexism?

Sutherland Boswell, CC, Wikimedia

Six years ago I personally made a commitment to the people of this State, to submit myself a humble servant to the men, women and children who proudly call Alabama home, to help create well-paying jobs so they can support their families, to make sure every child has the opportunity to receive the best education, to support our most vulnerable—the disabled, the elderly, the forgotten and the unborn.

I committed myself to the careful consideration that all men, all Alabamians, are created equal regardless of race, political party, gender or economic status. I vowed never to accept a salary until every Alabamian who wants a job can get a job.

These are not the sentiments of a man or a school of thought that is simply looking out for his wealthy friends and benefactors or using dog whistles to appeal to silent majorities of political reactionaries (Bently even praises Martin Luther King, Jr. in unqualified terms). One of the reasons that Trump was actually able to win the presidency, however barely, was because he directly addressed the so-called forgotten men and women of America; he even had the temerity to talk to minorities and tell them that the Democrats had failed them and taken them for granted. Some of Trump's—and Bentley's—sentiments and policies fall completely in line with the fever dreams of progressives (universal preschool! economic nationalism!) and libertarains (deregulation! school choice!).

Wiseacres of all ideologies who glibly dismiss Trump's populism as phony or unconvincing will never be able to understand and thus combat his appeal. He and politicians like him are not weak echoes of George W. Bush (whom he has criticized harshly) or Newt Gingrich-style Republicanism (which he regularly contravenes). If you act as if they are, you're fighting the last war. That rarely works out well. In Trump and others like him, what we are seeing is a weird and new blend of right- and left-wing populisms presented by a strong, autocratic authority who both threatens and comforts his children. Big Daddy can give you everything you want and need, but the one commandment that cannot be challenged is that it's Big Daddy's house and Big Daddy's rules. Those rules may change frequently and it's too much to expect him to admit to any mistake, no matter how trivial, but there you have it.

Bentley is nothing like Trump in terms of bearing of course, but his policy goals resonate with Trump and he plainly has a man-crush on the billionaire:

The dawn of the new Presidential Administration has ushered in a truly remarkable time in our State's history.

State's and their Governors are enthusiastic about the Trump Administration because finally WE are being heard, concerns are being met and action is being taken.

A medical doctor, Bentley celebrates the repeal of Obamacare partly because it will mean local decisions will matter more. With education, he talks about the "Every Student Succeeds Act [ESSA]… as the greatest devolution of federal power in 50 years, and an incredible opportunity to bring together teachers, superintendents, early childhood educators, business and industry." He praises law enforcement as the greatest of all the great Alabamians and brags:

I had the honor of ordering the Alabama National Guard support to protect and defend the U-S Border with Mexico.

As a result soldiers with the Alabama National Guard and Border Patrol recorded more than 28-thousand apprehensions at the US- Mexico Border, countless border turn-backs and seized over 42-thousand pounds of marijuana and narcotics.

Bentley plainly seeks to be all things to all people, except immigrants of course:

President Trump has already taken decisive and necessary action to enforce our nation's immigration laws. And let me repeat, what we made clear last week:

Alabama will not support Sanctuary Cities or institutions that harbor or shelter illegal immigrants, and are in clear violation of the laws of the nation.

We will enforce the law.

After boasting at length of all the jobs he created and how Alabama is "running full sprint toward our goal of Full Employment," he concedes all the failings of The Yellowhammer state:

Problems like the persistent poverty that causes Alabama to be ranked as the sixth poorest state in the country.

Problems that pull us from that "First Place" woven in our great history that we pride ourselves on.

Problems that drive us into dead last place—in educational achievement, and virtually every quality of life category from infant mortality to obesity.

Problems that, over time, have lurked, festered, plagued and overwhelmed our Corrections System….

And here are the limits of Trumpian populism as exercise in political cognitive dissonance: Things have never been so great and yet so awful. Behind us, nothing but success after success that leads us to the current moment which is flawless except for all the existential threats that are everywhere around us. And so, a sort of linguistic insanity ensues:

If Alabamians can put man on the moon. we can build new prisons.

If we can lead the world in medical breakthroughs, we can stop the scourge of opioid addiction.

If we can win football championships, we can make sure there is a Number One ranked PreK classroom for every four year old.

If we can birth a worldwide movement for equality and civil rights, we can make sure every Alabamian who wants a job can get a job.

Read the whole speech here.

All "state of the state" addresses are propagandistic, of course, which is why they contain deep truths and contradictions. Alabama is by very few Americans' expressed preference the place they want to live their lives. Bentley's attempt to praise all he has done for his residents while laying out all that still needs to be done is crystallized in the off-the-charts nutsy-ness of the line, If Alabamians can put man on the moon. we can build new prisons. Something similar is at work with Donald Trump and his world view, where everything is simultaneously always already the greatest, the best, the hugest, bigly…and yet we are just one small stumble away from utter cataclysm. Murder rates are terrible! North Korea! Hillary Clinton! You name it! Trumpism is not a rationally coherent political philosophy, it is a set of deeply held feelings and impulses that order themselves around fixing all the problems while demanding strict obedience and conformity. In Alabama, Bentley will bring jobs and good grades and prisons that are as shiny as space stations (and that even rehabilitate prisoners!), but he will also make sure that all illegal immigrants, drug dealers, and other law-breakers are punished swiftly and severely. In both Trump and Bentley, we see the blending of big-government programs to create better students, better workers, better jobs, better everyting mixing with the necessary muscle to carry it out. This sort of muscular populism isn't new in America—Huey Long and FDR succeeded with it—though Trump and Bentley has dispatched with the class hatred that made more sense in the Great Depression and a country where even hard-working people struggled to feed themselves.

As libertarians, we must push back against all sorts of closed systems, of polities that are based on scapegoating, demonizing, and expelling auslanders. It's not simply that the welfare state (broadly defined to include not just expansive and unsustainable old-age entitlements but also massive amounts of state-supplied health care and education) often provides lower levels of service at much higher levels of cost. It's that the welfare state, including business subsidies, crony capitalism, and constant inspections of our work and residency papers, reduces our ability to engage the world freely and independently and without worrying what arbitrary (and thus power-driven) lines we may be crossing. Open systems have fewer but more basic rules to them, they require less rather than more consensus, and they let us get on with our lives in the places that are beyond politics where we should all be living.