During the campaign, Trump’s most obvious differentiation—first from the rest of the field in the Republican primary, and then in the general election against Hillary Clinton—was less about policy than about feeling. His smorgasbord of policy positions—immigration restriction, a retreat from treaty obligations, trade protectionism, the repeal of Obamacare, disdain for Black Lives Matters, and other forms of political radicalism—got him branded a “populist” among the chattering classes, but that missed the point of his campaign. What united Trump fans was not so much a policy wish list that had been neglected by mainstream politicians across the political spectrum, but a heartfelt need to say “No!” to a political class that had long ago stopped listening.
Understood in this way, Trump’s gleeful and truculent displays of contempt for longstanding norms regarding acceptable political behavior become much less difficult to comprehend. And yet no one really got it during the campaign. The list of things Trump did while running for office was typically framed as a bill of indictment: the trafficking in conspiracy theories of the most blatant sort, the attacks on a “gold star” family and former prisoners of war, mocking disabled people, the hurling of thinly veiled racist invective at everyone from federal judges to star athletes, the reference to a reporter’s menstrual cycle, boasts about grabbing women’s genitals, the public profanity, the refusal to immediately condemn murderous white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and so on. Almost everyone decreed that such behavior made him unelectable. Almost everyone was wrong.
The stunning thing is that the conventional wisdom among elites still has not caught up to the paradigm shift that President Trump’s election has introduced into American politics. Most continue to believe that, yes, Trump won the election, but he did so despite his vulgarian schtick. Various explanations have been trotted out: Hillary Clinton’s supposed charisma deficit, the peculiarities of the electoral college, the surrender of the Democratic party to identity politics, the challenges any party faces in winning a “third” presidential term, James Comey’s involvement, or (in my view most implausibly) Russian meddling in our electoral processes. What each of these explanations shares, however, is the assumption that Trump won despite, not because of, his counter-conventional behavior.
Concerns about Trump’s campaign persona have carried over into handwringing about his performance as President. From Right and Left have come the cries about how unsuited his character is to the management of the office. Not only do majorities of poll-answerers consider him “unfit” for the Presidency, bringing shame upon the office and the nation alike, but his lack of personal or political discipline, his unwillingness to do the hard work of shepherding through legislation, and his short attention span and inattention to detail appear to fundamentally hamper his ability to execute his policy agenda.
And this in turn has led Republicans in particular to wonder whether a kind of “competent Trumpism”, or even a “kinder, gentler Trumpism” is possible. Political operatives are approaching this in the spirit of optimism: Trump has clearly shown that a kind of populist energy can be successfully tapped in today’s America. Could a more “conventional” politician maintain or perhaps even improve on Trump’s coalition, while at the same time more effectively realizing his policy agenda?
Of course, only time will tell. But surveying the scene, the answer appears to be “no.” Trump’s appeal is less rooted in any kind of mix of policy prescriptions but rather is directly related to his organizational incompetence and personal resentments. Indeed, both his policy agenda and his political charm, such as they are, begin and end with the florid expression of those resentments. To perform competently or to stop making odious statements would betray the essence of his appeal.
Let us begin with the matter of competence. The conventional view is that to be serious about policy in a democracy requires not only legislative goals, but also a sense for how legislation will in turn be adopted by agencies and bureaucracies. Not every President has come to the office with this skill set, but every President has sought to quickly figure out the mechanics of government in order to push through a legislative agenda. This in turn has required that the Commander-in-Chief learn how government actually operates. In short, the job has required gaining expertise in the management of a bureaucracy.
Almost nine months in, President Trump still appears to be utterly uninterested in any of that boring running-the-government stuff, a fact symbolized by his failure to nominate candidates for hundreds of positions within the federal bureaucracy. From the point of view of those who think the government has a positive and necessary role to play, this would seem to be the very definition of incompetence: a failure to perform the basic functions of the job as they understand it.
But imagine for a moment that you don’t subscribe to the view that the purpose of democratic politics is to serve as a legitimate mechanism for selecting policies that aim to improve the commonweal. Imagine that you view government as basically a bunch of corrupt rent-seekers who also subscribe to a set of alien “liberal” cultural values, and who are seeking to impose those values on the whole of America. From that perspective, the terms “bureaucratic competence” or “policy seriousness” reveal themselves as elitist ruses. Trump’s very lack of attention to bureaucratic detail, by contrast, proves he’s not one of those swamp creatures that his candidacy was all about mocking and attacking.
When Trump calls for draining the swamp, what his fans hear, not incorrectly, is a rejection of politics-as-a-means-to-pursue-policy as such. “The swamp” that Trump purports to want to drain is all those people who treat policy as a serious business, and who believe that the policy practitioners should be respected (and financially rewarded) by the people who don’t take policy seriously. This insight also helps explain why Trump’s failure to get anything done has not cost him anything with his fans: As long as Trump keeps telling the fancy-pants boys where they can stick it, he’s accomplishing his primary purpose as far as they’re concerned. The real essence of Trump’s campaign, and now his presidency, is not about policy; it is about sticking a finger in the eye of policy expertise and conventional opinions about what constitutes political decency. Just having him up at the podium in the White House is literally a standing rebuke to the very idea that the purpose of politics is policy. (This is also, incidentally, a good way to understand the remarkable appeal of insurgent Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore: he boils down Trumpism to its most incendiary rejectionism.)
To say that Trump’s policy incompetence is essential to his appeal is not to assert that he lacks political skill. Something quite the opposite is true. While Trump appears to prefer approaching issues at a surface level that admits for little subtlety and has shown little respect for expertise on anything other than military affairs, his talent for commanding attention in today’s media environment is unparalleled. Consider the litany of nasty, sticky nicknames he has bequeathed to us: Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, Low Energy Jeb, the Failing New York Times, and most recently, Rocket Man in North Korea. Equally memorable are his trademark slogans: American First, Make America Great Again, Drain the Swamp. Political and intellectual elites may condescendingly associate these skills with carnival barkers, infomercial salesmen, or professional wrestling announcers, but they do so at their peril. (As we all know from reading Bourdieu, this just shows us that the elites are snobs!)
From the point of view of Trump’s fans, it’s not the content of the policy proposals that matter, but the form. The big beautiful wall that the Mexicans are going to pay for is a typical example. On the one hand, experts on border security are confident that building a wall will make virtually no difference in terms of the flow of illegal immigrants or drugs into the country, and will have zero deterrent effect on terrorists, however broadly construed. Nor does Mexico show any sign of bending to Trump’s will and paying for any part of the putative wall. On the other hand, making this claim is undeniably a memorable and dramatic gesture of contempt, not only for Mexicans and immigrants more generally, but also for the U.S. elites who have long embraced ambiguity as an acceptable approach to immigration questions.
So, what does all this mean for the likely direction of policy under the Trump Administration? We already have a pretty good sense.
The U.S. government is an enormous and largely self-operating bureaucracy, and as we have seen over the past eight months, it continues to steam ahead in more or less the same direction that it has for years. Despite all the chaos and performance art emanating from the White House, Mar-a-Lago, and various Trump golf courses, the supertanker of state continues to largely do the same things it has under Obama. We have maintained the same ineffective strategy in Syria and Afghanistan, though accompanied by rhetorical broadsides against human rights as a guiding principle of American foreign policy; the Affordable Health Care Act remains the law of the land, albeit administered a bit less well; trade policy hasn’t changed much yet, despite a fair bit of bluster; and deportations continue at more or less the same rate as they did under Obama (in fact, they are lagging a little behind).
Indeed, the only places where the Trump administration has actually moved the policy needle are exceptions that prove the rule: What changes have been implemented have come from the actions of cabinet-level officers or lower who in fact are experts in the policy implementation process and thus have been able to move the bureaucracy. For example, venerable Washington denizen Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department has implemented some significant changes. And though he resigned last week amid a scandal, Tom Price, another longtime Washington creature, showed his swamp skills by charting a path for sabotaging health care markets over at Health and Human Services. And Scott Pruitt at the EPA, while not technically a Washington insider, has been a staple of Oklahoma politics since the late 1990s, and appears to know what he is doing. By contrast, the true “outsider” appointments in Trump’s cabinet (like Ben Carson or Rex Tillerson) have failed to do much of anything at all.
Contemplating this spectacle, it would be easy for critics of Trump to take the smug view that all of this mainly signifies that the GOP as an institution is a failed state, and that his approach to politics is primarily an intramural problem for the Republicans. Likewise, as Tyler Cowen suggested in these pages six months ago, we might be tempted to see Trump mainly as a kind of political placebo, “giving his supporters a public voice and the illusion of more control without the control itself.” From this perspective, the best thing to do politically and analytically is to ignore Trump, and count on normalcy to be restored whenever Trump eventually leaves.
But this would be a mistake for three reasons. First and most obviously, a policy-oblivious President will do nothing positive about (and indeed may make worse) any acute exogenous crises that may erupt, ranging from nuclear brinksmanship abroad to the aftermath of natural disasters at home. Second, the United States faces many pressing long-term challenges, and having a categorical incompetent at the political helm makes it impossible for the country to deal with them. Most urgently, as I wrote in these pages last fall, the United States desperately needs to have a serious conversation about how to reconfigure our social and political institutions in order to position the country to take advantage of the coming waves of technological innovation. Under a Trump presidency, this will not happen. And finally, however valiantly the media and many members of the public may be fighting to prevent Trump’s destruction of the norms of decency and respect that underpin any effective and legitimate democracy, the longer he stays in office, the harder it will be to return to a politics predicated on the idea that policy outcomes should be the primary way in which we judge our politicians.
Given how U.S. elites have signally failed to create a political economy that provides Trump’s fans with a steadily growing supply of panem, we shouldn’t be surprised that they prefer a President who at least they can rely on to deliver circenses. For when it comes to the performance of political grievances, Trump remains America’s greatest ringmaster.