Donald Trump’s Empty Governance
Donald Trump’s greatest political achievement is little remarked upon these days: He got elected. Because getting elected gave him immense power in our presidential system, the nation’s attention turned to his presidential actions, triumphs, tribulations, and approval ratings. But now it’s possible to assess his achievements. So far, getting elected is the greatest of them.
But the nature and significance of that achievement is widely misunderstood. Trump got elected by exposing the single most significant fact of political life in America in our time: that large numbers of Americans have lost faith in the judgment and leadership of the nation’s elites. This is a seminal development. Americans usually have trusted their elites to set the country’s direction and frame its definition. Trump brushed them aside with the back of his hand and galvanized the support of millions in the process.
To appreciate the magnitude of this, think back to the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, when America’s pols and pundits looked ahead to a campaign driven by issues and pronouncements crafted by elite thinking. When Trump crashed the reception and started throwing the stemware against the wall, he was immediately dismissed as too crude and uncouth to become president.
But the New York billionaire possessed three distinctive attributes that propelled him to victory. First, he seemed to comprehend America’s status quo crisis—the disintegration of the old order that had defined the country since World War II. (See my article entitled “The Meaning of Trump,” in TAC’s March/April 2017 issue.) Large numbers of voters understood immediately what he was saying, particularly since the crisis was largely ignored by the other candidates.
Second, he demonstrated that he was not stuck in the partisan ossification exacerbating the status quo crisis and generating governmental deadlock. As the old order began to dissolve, the two parties instinctively clung ever more tenaciously to time-tested positions, defaulting to an increasingly rigid groupthink and shunning compromise. The government seized up; dysfunction set in.
Trump sidestepped this rigid political thinking of both parties and crafted a new mix of issues cutting across partisan lines. He embraced traditional GOP positions such as reduced taxes, school choice, increased defense spending, and rejection of the idea of human-induced climate change. But he also took positions contrary to Republican orthodoxy—entitlement protection, attacks on free trade, rejection of austerity economics. And he manifested contempt for elitist nostrums embraced or accepted by both parties, including a hospitable view of mass immigration, America’s foreign policy adventurism since 9/11, and political correctness. This unorthodox mix suggested prospects for a new coalition capable of breaking the deadlock crisis and moving the country forward.
Third, Trump’s crudity and disdain for political niceties suggested that he meant it when he declared political war on the country’s elites—think tanks, the national media, the managerial class of government and business, intellectuals, Hollywood, and financial titans. He wouldn’t buckle when they fought back to protect their cherished policies and privileged standing.
What emerged from the campaign was a growing recognition (though many still resisted it) that the country stands at a fundamental crossroads—whether to follow the elite vision of globalism and antinationalism, with money, people, ideas, and cultures moving freely across increasingly indistinct borders; or to remain steadfast in its traditional nationalism and fealty to its Western heritage. Nothing less than the definition of America is at stake.
Thus did Trump drive a wedge through the body politic, generating a great American split best understood through the most potent issues he forced into the American consciousness. They are: restraint vs. adventurism in foreign policy; immigration; trade; the plight of the working class; and political correctness. Trump meshed these issues into a successful electoral coalition in last year’s campaign; the question now is whether he can mesh them into an effective governing coalition.
Foreign Policy: Nothing accentuated Trump’s anti-establishment persona more distinctly than his assault on America’s promiscuous engagement in foreign conflicts. He railed against George W. Bush’s Iraq war and his nation-building ambitions. With typical brutality he even alleged that Bush and his top officials lied to the American people. He called America’s Afghan involvement “a complete waste” that should be ended. He excoriated President Obama for assisting in the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and pursuing the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He called NATO “obsolete” and vowed to reduce America’s commitment to it. He decried the ongoing U.S. bellicosity toward Russia.
Trump didn’t foreswear all foreign entanglements. He expressed concerns about a rising China, particularly on the economic front, and he assaulted Obama’s contribution to the Iranian nuclear deal. He also called for the complete defeat of the Islamic State. But generally, he rejected the establishment view of America as an indispensable nation with a remit to spread democracy in far-flung regions and upend unpalatable dictators. He called for a strong America focused on the country’s vital national interests. Thus he placed himself in the tradition of what Walter Russell Mead calls the “Jacksonian tradition” in American foreign policy thinking (and political thinking generally). As Mead wrote in January 2017, “Many Jacksonians came to believe that the American establishment was no longer reliably patriotic, with ‘patriotism’ defined as an instinctive loyalty to the well-being and values of Jacksonian America. And they were not wholly wrong, by their lights.”
This was not a debate that the political establishment would have entertained had not Trump forced it into the campaign. As Mead wrote, “Not since Franklin Roosevelt’s administration has U.S. foreign policy witnessed debates this fundamental.”
Immigration: Nothing crystallizes the nationalism vs. globalism struggle as sharply as this definitional issue. The political establishment wanted to finesse it through the campaign to tamp down civic angers about border dissolution and the 11 million or so illegal immigrants in the country (an ugly blot on the nation’s governing classes). The aim was to calm the waters until after the election, when the high-voltage amnesty issue could be dealt with in a more controllable legislative setting. Exhibits A and B in this farce were Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio, who evinced appreciation for popular sentiment on the issue in running for office but promptly returned to the amnesty project when the electoral challenge was over.
But millions of Americans were tired of this finesse, and Trump’s willingness to seize the immigration issue in his bold, even nasty way resonated with white working-class voters in states previously considered Democratic strongholds—particularly Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. This was pure populism at work—taking an issue dominated and closely managed by elites and casting it to the electorate for ballot box adjudication. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment suggests the extent to which establishment liberals didn’t know what hit them.
The establishment had considered the issue closed—a fait accompli, with demographic trends produced by their own immigration policies locking in their cherished new “multicultural” America through the Democrats’ ability to woo the new arrivals. They didn’t calculate the absorption factor—the nation’s increasing difficulty in assimilating the growing immigrant numbers. By 2015, the proportion of foreign-born Americans reached nearly 14 percent, which history tells us is a kind of breaking point. The last time the country experienced such a percentage—between 1890 and 1910—it reduced both the numbers of immigrants and the numbers of non-Western arrivals. This was an inevitable result then, just as today’s pushback is inevitable now.
But the liberal elites don’t want a debate, as evidenced by their insistence on equating immigration concerns with racism. To them it’s perfectly normal to transform the nation’s cultural identity through an influx of people who don’t share its heritage—and acceptable to stamp those who object with a kind of civic opprobrium. No wonder Trump’s crude pronouncements on the issue resonated with millions of Americans.
Trade: In the 1990s, free trade became an elite mantra embraced by both major parties, influential think tanks, key journalists, and the federal government’s managerial barony. As America pursued multilateral open-trade agreements, however, the nation’s industrial base deteriorated, devastating America’s working classes. It became increasingly clear that other nations, particularly China, weren’t playing by the rules of the World Trade Organization and other multinational entities.
As Adams Nager of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has argued, China has deployed “the world’s largest export subsidies, even on a per capita basis, which distorts international trade in many industries, including steel, wind, turbines, solar cells, glass, paper, and auto parts.” Economic consultant and author David M. Smick, in his book The Great Equalizer, adds, “China’s major manipulation of WTO rules has damaged the global trading system.”
But the elites, with their globalist outlook, ignored this menacing phenomenon. An example was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who celebrated globalization in the late 1990s as involving “the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before.” To Friedman it was about “the basic human desire for a better life—a life with more choices as to what to eat, what to wear, where to live, where to travel, how to work, what to read, what to write and what to learn.” Friedman’s giddy encomium to this brave new world of petty materialism showed little concern for cultural sensibilities that could get crushed or for Americans whose livelihoods were threatened.
That was Trump’s opening. He slammed this elite consensus, portrayed himself as protector of beleaguered working Americans, and attacked many of the country’s major trading partners for not playing fair. It worked.
Plight of the Working Class: In addition to addressing this issue through trade rhetoric, Trump also sought to expose another significant development threatening middle class workers. This was the phenomenon known as “financialization,” defined by Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda as an “increase in the influence of financial markets, institutions and elites over both the economy and the other institutions of society, including the government.” The financial sector now dominates much of the U.S. economy—and uses its clout to influence Washington policymaking to its benefit.
Today’s Wall Street titans make money by moving money and taking a cut in millions of financial transactions. Unlike the industrial titans of the 19th and 20th centuries, including the much-maligned Gilded Age “robber barons,” these elites don’t build factories or products and don’t create many jobs. In fact, Mukunda and others argue that they retard economic vibrancy by forcing corporations through their purse-strings dominance into short-term strategies to the detriment of long-term financial health. Innovation suffers. The financial elites live off burgeoning cross-border capital flows that generate huge U.S. trade imbalances and gnawing economic troubles for ordinary Americans. Writes Smick, “This flood distorted the U.S. economy in favor of Wall Street and to the detriment of Main Street and set the conditions that led to the 2008 financial crisis. Most Americans knew exactly what was happening. Working-class incomes were flatlining. The American Dream was slipping away. Yet Washington policymakers hadn’t a clue.”
Trump declared that Wall Street was “getting away with murder” and vowed to break up New York’s big banks. His final campaign ad showed ominous photos of the New York Stock Exchange and the CEO of banking behemoth Goldman Sachs and called for curbing the political and business elites that had “bled our country dry.” He touted elements of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking, preventing securities firms and investment banks from taking deposits and barring commercial banks from engaging in risky securities activities. “I know the guys at Goldman Sachs,” he declared, adding they had “total control over Hillary Clinton.”
Political Correctness: No serious presidential candidate had ever taken on the forces of political correctness with Trump’s brand of pugilism. His rhetorical intemperance was part of it, a defiant poke in the eye to those who would silence conservatives by declaring their views outside the bounds of proper thinking. But he also took on leftists who denigrate elements of the American and Western heritage and who malign patriotism. A study by mathematician Spencer Greenberg, reported in ClearerThinking.org, indicated that anger over political correctness was the second most reliable predictor of Trump support, behind party affiliation and ahead of social conservatism, protectionism, and anti-immigration sentiments.
Once again it was Trump who touched this nerve while most others held back. It turned out that political correctness was roiling major segments of the populace far more than anyone perceived.
Bundling these issues into a powerful political salient, Trump crystallized a debate that for years had been brewing but not seriously joined—in ideological terms, between globalists and nationalists; in socioeconomic terms, between elites and ordinary citizens; in geographic terms, between the coasts and fly-over states; in foreign policy terms, between Wilsonian liberals and neoconservatives, on the one hand, and realists, on the other. He dominated the 2016 presidential debate as few politicians have dominated any recent campaign.
But this campaign achievement won’t amount to much if Trump can’t parlay it into a governing coalition powerful enough to break America’s status quo crisis and move the nation into a new era. And that will require presidential success on a large scale. Thus far, it doesn’t appear that Trump is capable of that kind of success.
Begin with two of Trump’s five major issues—foreign policy and the big banks. As candidate he said he would get America out of Afghanistan; as president he sent in an extra 4,000 troops—and left open the duration of the U.S. military commitment. As candidate he decried NATO’s eastward expansion toward the Russian border; as president he embraced Montenegro’s NATO entry. As candidate he bewailed President Obama’s efforts to dislodge Syria’s Assad; as president he bombed Syrian forces on the basis of a chemical attack whose perpetrator was not proved. As candidate he expressed wariness of supporting Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen’s Houthis; as president he expanded U.S. support. His campaign declaration that NATO was obsolete seems all but forgotten.
Nothing crystallizes this disparity between campaign rhetoric and presidential action more sharply than Trump’s new direction in the Middle East—a tight U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia and Israel. It seems based on the geopolitical goals of those two countries and a new U.S. willingness to direct its power and influence in behalf of those goals. Beyond the recent U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the three countries seem bent on getting a Palestinian settlement that confines Palestinian lands largely to the Gaza Strip, augmented by some Sinai territory from Egypt. The West Bank would be opened to increasing Jewish settlement. Geoffrey Aronson reported on TAC’s web site on December 12 that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently that the Arab Peace Initiative—a Saudi-sponsored proposal for Arab recognition of and peace with Israel in return for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital—was “effectively dead.” That concept had been the basis of U.S. policy for decades.
If America embraces this, it would destroy any lingering pretense of U.S. evenhandedness and the old concept of America as “honest broker.” In that event, the negotiations would unfold based on raw power.
As incendiary as this will be in the region, a far more ominous development is the increasing U.S. bellicosity toward Iran—again, directing American power toward the interests of Israeli and Saudi leaders who view the Islamic Republic as a mortal enemy. Trump’s preliminary actions to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal seem to be the first step in a campaign to isolate and pressure Iran, with regime change on a lot of minds. Certainly, that is the ultimate goal of the Israelis and Saudis, and Iranian leaders harbor no illusions about the end game.
Nothing Trump said during the campaign could have given voters any inkling of such a policy, which almost certainly will pull America into the Middle East morass attacked by Trump in the campaign as the folly of previous presidents. Indeed, his emerging Middle Eastern adventures would seem to negate the Jacksonian identity perceived by Mead. Based on this policy, Trump is no Jacksonian.
Further, Trump as president has emerged as a friend of Wall Street and the big banks. After railing against Big Finance and Goldman Sachs, he loaded his own administration with Goldman executives past and present, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; National Economic Council head Gary Cohn; White House counselor Dina Habib Powell; and Securities and Exchange chairman Jay Clayton, a partner at Goldman’s longtime law firm and husband of a Goldman vice president.
Trump also has sought to dismantle many financial sector regulations in the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, enacted after the 2008 financial crisis. He is not wrong in this; Dodd-Frank is problematic in many respects, largely because it squeezes private sector decision-making by burdening financial institutions with meddlesome government regulations enforced by managerial bureaucrats. But, after running against the big banks, Trump now seems to be in their pocket. And financialization, so disruptive to the country’s economy, goes unaddressed.
What would Andrew Jackson do? He would bust up the big banks, just as he killed the powerful Bank of the U.S. in his own day. But he wouldn’t do it by building up an intrusive governmental bureaucracy, impervious to democratic control. He would favor clean and simple action, more like the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which instructed financial institutions on what they could and couldn’t do in a mere 37 pages. That’s the populist approach, going after troublesome bigness in the private sector while also preventing governmental bigness. Dodd-Frank, by contrast, encompasses 848 pages of regulatory intrusiveness. Trump seems to lack the political sophistication to devise an approach that curtails big government and big finance at the same time.
That’s unfortunate because this kind of populism is necessary for Trump to build upon his electoral achievement. And if he can’t do that he can’t win reelection or lead America into a new populist era. He is, after all, a minority president, elected with just 46 percent of the popular vote. That poses a fundamental challenge.
Minority presidents who want to become majority presidents generally choose one of three strategies. Bill Clinton sought to ignore his minority status on the theory that bold leadership would galvanize the nation and boost his political standing. His economic stimulus package, initial stance on gays in the military, early tax initiatives, and sweeping health care plan suggested a resolve to govern as a president with a big mandate. It didn’t work. Clinton’s overreach contributed to his devastating defeat in the 1994 midterm elections, whereupon he pivoted deftly to a more nuanced approach, called triangulation, designed to build up political capital steadily through small victories leading to ever larger victories.
Two presidents in the 1880s and ’90s, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, sought to surmount their minority status by governing from the center, avoiding high-voltage controversy and nudging the country along a path of least resistance. This didn’t work either. Voters don’t like status quo presidents. Both Cleveland and Harrison were tossed out after one term (twice for Cleveland, who served two nonconsecutive terms). This would seem to be a particularly risky strategy for Trump, given the country’s status quo crisis. When the status quo is crumbling, it’s time for something new.
Finally, there is the Richard Nixon strategy, which was also Bill Clinton’s approach after his initial two-year failure. Following his 43 percent victory in 1968 Nixon sought to govern by building new coalitions, scrambling old political battle lines, and generating new forces of politics to propel the nation in new directions. He broke away from many GOP dogmas with his outreach to China and his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, among other unconventional initiatives. He calibrated and assessed the political (and geopolitical) forces of the day so he could harness them to maximum benefit—for the nation and for himself. He wooed the 13.5 percent of the electorate who had voted for George Wallace’s third-party candidacy.
By wisely investing his modest political capital and then scoring ever greater governmental victories, Nixon expanded his store of political wherewithal and moved on to a 61 percent victory in 1972 (before Watergate brought him down).
This kind of sophisticated political calibration seems outside Trump’s capacity. He has scored few small victories that could be parlayed into larger victories. And his failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act resembled Bill Clinton’s disastrous health care effort. Further, he was stymied by the courts for months in his effort to curb inflows of people from predominately Muslim countries deemed to pose security risks. His foreign policy centerpiece—an effort to patch up relations with Russia—was destroyed by the Russia investigation, however justified or questionable its provenance. One could argue that these failures stemmed from the machinations of outside forces, but successful presidents outmaneuver such forces.
Further, Trump seems to lack the strategic acumen and powers of concentration required to craft a coherent political strategy made up of intertwined initiatives and actions. Nixon famously spent hours in his hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building, jotting notes on yellow legal pads as he crafted plans to thwart opponents and woo new adherents. Trump spends hours watching cable news programs. His leadership approach is largely reactive, as described in the remarkable December 10 New York Times profile of his day-to-day activities. The piece, by Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush, and Peter Baker, reports that Trump routinely spends at least four hours a day watching television, sometimes as much as twice that. The reporters add that Trump views “every day [as] an hour-by-hour battle for self-preservation.”
Finally, Trump seems to lack the political vocabulary and expanse of vision to communicate meaningfully with the American people, to inject context and perspective into his expressions. Twitter provides a medium for quick-hit, reactive pugilism, but it is a far cry from the radio waves used by Franklin Roosevelt to converse with Americans about his hopes and plans for the nation or the TV medium exploited so successfully by Ronald Reagan. That kind of communication often can provide a rationale for why a president’s thinking and national ambitions deserve attention and maybe even support.
These limitations in Trump’s political persona have held him back as a national leader, as seen in his historically low survey approval ratings. According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website, he has languished between 37 percent and 42 percent. His disapproval rating soared to 57 percent in August, an ominous number for any president. Recent first-year presidents generally have enjoyed approval levels in the 60s and almost never have descended below 50 percent.
This suggests Trump’s electoral base has shriveled since his inauguration. This is not a performance that gets a president reelected. Nate Silver calculates that an approval rating below 49 percent spells almost certain defeat for an incumbent.
Thus do we see that Trump has not overcome the handicap of being a minority president. He still could do so, as Clinton did after his 1994 drubbing. But the question is whether Trump possesses the skills, temperament, and flexibility of mind to do so.
This is not to say Trump’s political situation is hopeless. Thomas Edsall, writing in the New York Times, recently admonished Democrats to “take a look at the vulnerabilities of their own orthodoxies” and recognize that Trump got elected for a reason and could repeat the feat if Democrats are complacent. He cites Trump triumphs that include three GOP House-race victories in 2017; Trump’s 82 percent approval rating among Republicans; his success with the current tax bill; his elimination of major regulatory policies through executive action; the Gorsuch Supreme Court appointment; two quarters of economic growth exceeding 3 percent; a soaring stock market; and unemployment at 4.1 percent.
But presidential success rests upon bigger questions—whether he can generate success and avoid pitfalls in the major areas of governance most important to voters. These include solid, ongoing economic growth, a foreign policy devoid of debilitating, out-of-control wars, avoidance of domestic unrest generating violence in the streets, major accomplishments in both domestic and foreign affairs, and absence of serious scandal. (For purposes of this analysis, I sidestep the Russia scandal investigation, as its outcome and significance remain speculative at this time.)
Thus, if the tax bill and regulatory actions generate the promised economic growth, that would be a major plus for Trump and no doubt would boost his approval ratings and buoy his chances for reelection. If he scores triumphs and avoids pratfalls in the other areas, he could become competitive in 2020. Besides, we shouldn’t underestimate the political impact of a Democratic Party clinging to identity politics, denigrating fellow citizens with differing views, and seeking to manipulate public discourse through political correctness.
As Edsall writes, “Many Democrats continue to have little understanding of their own role—often inadvertent, an unintended consequence of well-meaning behavior—in creating the conditions that make conservatives willing to support Trump and the party he is leading.” Edsall quotes author Karen Stenner as highlighting the actions of blue state elites in agitating red state Americans: “Not only are the values that the left takes for granted heatedly disputed in many sections of the country, the way Democratic partisans assert that their values supplant or transcend traditional beliefs serves to mobilize the right.” Trump no doubt will exploit this political phenomenon when the time comes.
But the auguries aren’t propitious. He’s abandoned much of the populist verve, particularly in foreign policy and financial thinking, that helped propel him into office. He’s flirting with a Middle East disaster with growing prospects of a Persian Gulf war. Seldom does he conduct a meaningful conversation with the people; indeed his rhetoric seems directed mostly at a declining base. His political capital is shrinking, hit particularly by such fiascos as his endorsement in the Alabama Senate race of Roy Moore, accused of sexual abuse against teenage girls. He’s pinned down by an independent counsel investigation that may or may not be based on substantive matters but which was precipitated in part by his own missteps in word and action.
It turns out that getting elected was the easy part. Far more difficult is governing in a time of crisis and crafting a sophisticated brand of politics, with accompanying attributes of command, that can lead the nation out of that crisis. If Trump fails, the political balance of power will tilt back to the party of the elites, and Democrats will get an opportunity to fashion a governing coalition. The big losers, if that happens, will be the Trump voters, who liked his Jacksonian populism and policy prescriptions during the campaign, but couldn’t foresee his governing vacuity.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, was released in September.