“When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
The people say, ‘Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
I’ve been watching the press briefings this first week of the Biden administration, and ten or fifteen minutes into them, a feeling starts to settle in: boredom. Big glorious bureaucratic boredom. Who thought watching a White House press briefing could be as soothing as listening to that British guy in the Headspace app lulling you into samadhi? I usually continue watching, but I don’t have to, because every moment is not packaged to be damn good television.
Perhaps the defining feature of the Trump presidency, in terms of the experience of the average person, was his omnipresence. Like a supermassive black hole warping the galaxy surrounding it and sucking the light and life out of everything that approached it, Trump consumed our attention, relentlessly, from start to finish. Boring the last five years were not.
When the Master does not govern, the people forget they exist. They forget they exist as a people—bound together by a shared history, core values, and a common fate. They lose the willingness to trust each other. They lose their sense of agency. They lose the capacity to govern themselves.
The great irony of the end of the 40-year Reagan era—of which Trump is not the repudiation, but the last dying gasp—is that it has become clear that the real problem is the idea that government is the problem. The attempt to “deconstruct the administrative state” has made us realize how much we love bureaucracy—and the ability to turn off the television and get on with our lives.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”