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The Presidency Is No Place For An Apprentice

My latest column for The Week is up, and it’s a look back and what we’ve learned about Trump since he clinched the nomination.

Trump, in his acceptance speech, touched not at all on the themes that animate social conservatives. There was no mention of the need to defend traditional religious belief, or the traditional family, or the unborn. There was no invocation of the place of the divine in American life at all. The party platform, on the other hand, is a reactionary document that is obsessed with these very issues, and that has lurched further to the right on them even as the country has moved the other way.

Similarly, the nominee has repeatedly hammered on the theme of wage stagnation, and the need to reverse the decline of manufacturing and the rise of finance in the American economy. But the GOP platform has virtually nothing to say about these issues, and on the convention day ostensibly devoted to putting America back to work, the speakers focused instead on the need to put the Democratic nominee in prison.

Or consider this. After picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, Trump remained uncertain enough about his choice that his agonizing leaked to the press, while in person Trump has been unable to muster even the bare minimum of normal respect for the man he wants to put a heartbeat away from the presidency. But before making the offer to Pence, Trump’s own son reportedly advertised the position (to Ohio Gov. John Kasich) as the most powerful in the history of the vice presidency, with control over both domestic and foreign policy. (The Trump campaign now denies ever offering the VP slot to Kasich.)

On the one hand, Trump the nominee has staked out highly idiosyncratic territory for his campaign, leading his party in a new direction that thrillshis supporters and terrifies his detractors, even when they believe he is likely to lose. But on the other hand, Trump seems to be doing nothing to actually move the party, institutionally, in the direction he claims to be leading, or even to have an interest in articulating what that direction might be. And he seems exceptionally eager to hand off the job of figuring out what he would actually do to others — others that include very traditional orthodox Republican figures like his running mate.

This might give comfort to those Republicans who strongly oppose Trump’s deviations from party orthodoxy, but who see him as a vehicle, however imperfect, for getting back into power. But it shouldn’t. A Trump presidency is overwhelmingly likely to disappoint enthusiastic and reluctant supporters alike.

Trump appears to be operating on a model of the presidency that looks something like the role he played on The Apprentice. He will be the king, surrounded by courtiers who make proposals of various kinds, some of which get approved. When they don’t work out, he’ll ostentatiously banish them from court. So long as the courtiers are the ones making the suggestions for what to do, they will constrain the possible courses of action. But serving at the pleasure of the king they will have no ability to direct it. And they will be first in line for blame when and if the proposed policy goes wrong.

Scott McConnell, who’s got a much sunnier view of Trump than I have, might nonetheless agree.

Here’s the thing Trump fans need to reckon with that I don’t dwell on at length in the column. Say you feel – as I do – that some of what Trump is running on is important. For example, I have  come around, increasingly, to the view that we need to reassess our approach to trade. What’s Trump’s effect going to be on those causes?

So far, instead of moving the center in his direction, he’s moving his establishment opponents to stake out more extreme claims on the other side. When Clinton’s opponent was Bernie Sanders, she abandoned her previous support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now that she’s facing Donald Trump, she’s chosen Tim Kaine as her running mate, who once said that opponents of free trade agreements have a “loser’s mentality.” The same dynamic is at work on immigration, Trump’s signature issue.

If he loses, the loss will temporarily discredit Trump’s heterodoxy. The challenge for those who support one or another of his views will be to rescue Trumpism from Trump, and to find a Reagan to Trump’s Goldwater – a task I think will be quite difficult since Trump, unlike Goldwater, is not actually building any kind of institutional edifice that will outlast him.

But if Trump wins, the situation could be even worse for those who believe in him, assuming I’m right about his temperamental unfitness for the job. One way it could be worse is if Trump is neutered in policy terms, and his administration is a relatively orthodox Republican one, just exceptionally incompetent. But it could also be worse if Trump tries to achieve some of his objectives.

Take foreign policy. Let’s say Trump means what he says about NATO. He tells the former Warsaw Pact members that America is no longer worried about the Russian threat, and will not commit to their defense if attacked. He tells Turkey that NATO’s new mission is to fight radical Islamist terrorism. And he tells everybody that if they don’t spend more on defense, we’re taking our marbles and going home. Being Trump, he says all of this in the most obnoxious possible way, on national television.

I think it’s safe to assume that none of this will go over well – but perhaps we don’t want it to go over well. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure we don’t want Russian-backed separatists in eastern Estonia declaring their independence, forcing us to choose between confronting Russia militarily or admitting the hollowness of our security guarantee. I’m pretty sure we don’t want Turkey calling Trump’s bluff and proclaiming that it has no place in an anti-Muslim alliance.

The point is that turning a ship as large as American foreign policy takes a while, and needs to be done carefully. Done poorly, it could lead to a rapid collapse of institutions that even if they have outlived their original purpose and need to be rethought, have nonetheless served that purpose exceptionally well, and are the cornerstone of the entire international order.

And the other point is that Trump’s blustery, impetuous approach to these matters is prompting people like me, who should be arguing against the Washington consensus, instead to argue that it’s too risky to break with that consensus, at least in the Trumpian manner.

I think Clinton’s argument from experience is, ultimately, a losing one. She has a lot of experience making bad decisions, and she doesn’t seem to have learned from them – and she seems never to consider the possibility that the consensus may be wrong, because it is based on false or obsolete premises. But Trump’s challenge only seems to be hardening that position, and if he wins, a disastrous Trump Presidency may bring that consensus back with a vengeance.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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