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Trumping the Yellow Brick Road

Ross Douthat’s most recent column got me thinking: as long as we’re asking the Wizard for a miracle on Trump’s behalf, is a brain really what the man needs most?

Douthat is perfectly correct that Trump has no idea what his policies should be, neither in the sense of what will be efficacious nor in the sense of what is politically doable nor even in the broadest sense of what his goals should be. His profound ignorance and incuriosity is one reason why nobody will seriously negotiate with him: they don’t think he knows what he wants nor why he could trade for it.

But it’s far from the only reason. Trump also lacks a heart, and by that I don’t just mean that he has no compassion, an accusation often leveled at right-wing politicians, sometimes quite fairly and sometimes very much not so. So far as I can tell, Trump doesn’t care about anybody with the exception of his elder daughter, and so far as I can tell everybody around him knows it. If he cares about nothing and nobody, then what amorphous goals are the brain trust supposed to elaborate into policy?

Trump also lacks courage. He folds quickly in the face of serious opposition, cannot bear criticism, takes no responsibility for anything, and desperately wants the feeling of being loved without daring to take the slightest emotional risk to get it. What kind of brain trust would actually work for a man so lacking in character? If Trump asked Douthat himself to run an in-house think tank, would he take the gig? If he asked a friend of his, would he recommend he take the job?

And Trump does have some clever people working for him. Steve Bannon is certainly not stupid, and neither is Michael Anton or Stephen Miller. The reason they haven’t applied their intelligence to crafting policy isn’t just a lack of experience; it’s that they are fundamentally motivated by what they hate and wish to destroy rather than what they wish to build or preserve. Peter Thiel is anything but an idiot; if Trump wants to put together a techno-libertarian policy shop, he could get it done in a heartbeat — and could probably actually execute a bunch of their ideas without legislation simply by tweaking the staff and policies of key regulatory agencies. In the foreign policy world, Trump has hired some real intellectual stars: James Mattis and H. R. McMaster are not only sharp but have thought deeply about the challenges of America’s troubled interventions. The evidence so far suggests that Trump has little interest in actually listening to them or even letting them staff their own departments. What would it avail him were he to add an advocate of restraint like our own Andrew Bacevich to the mix?

Wouldn’t it save us all a lot of trouble if instead we just asked the Wizard to send him home?

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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