And maybe I really should get out of my bubble here and start looking at them from other viewpoints. Is Attorney General Jeff Sessions a racist who sought to block black voting, or an unfairly maligned civil rights activist? Is National Security Adviser Michael Flynn a brilliant general who recognized the continued threat of militant Islam when Obama thought it was defeated, or flat-out paranoid? Even Steve Bannon has his defenders, who say he raises legitimate concerns about globalization and that his shocking comments are mere trolling -- although he may be "naive" about the racists he is admittedly cozy with. Are Donald Trump's choices as bad as people on my side think, or am I seeing him through the eyes of bias and unfairly judging a fine team?
However, there are a few things that it seems reasonable to assume about Team Trump. One is that, given that Trump doesn't know or care much about policy outside a few narrow areas, he will not be well qualified to decide who is well qualified. His main options will be (1) choosing his team based on personal loyalty, (2) choosing his team based on his gut-level intuition, which will probably mean choosing people who tell him what he wants to hear, (3) choosing his team based on what insiders and loyalists recommends, and (4) choosing his team based on what the Republican establishment recommends. Pick your poison.
But even assuming the people in my bubble are right and Trump's choices really are that bad, is even that as bad as we think? After all, other Presidents have made bad initial picks, but they have usually washed out and been replaced by more competent professionals. Or as this Republican adviser says:
In a normal transition to a normal administration, there’s always disorder. There are the presidential friends and second cousins, the flacks and the hangers-on who flame out in the first year or two. There are the bad choices — the abusive bosses, the angry ideologues and the sheer dullards. You accept the good with the bad and know that there will be stupid stuff going on, particularly at the beginning. Things shake out. . . . This time may be different. . . . . The administration may shake itself out in a year or two and reach out to others who have been worried about Trump. Or maybe not.So, let us be optimistic and assume either that Trump's picks are much better than people in my bubble think, or at least that the worst ones shake out. There will still be another serious problem. A leader who neither knows nor care about policy is not going to offer much guidance from the top. And when there is poor guidance from the top, various different departments act without a common direction, often at cross-purposes with each other. I resort, again, to a quote:
What will Trump's chairman-of-the-board lack of interest in details — and susceptibility to hucksters and extremists — look like when and if he becomes leader of the free world? We have somewhat of a precedent for this, in the presidency of one George W. Bush.
Bush was legendarily incurious about the nuts and bolts of how his administration ran. He did not have a strong grasp on the levers of power or the details of policy.
As a result, he was shaped by the people around him — Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the old-school, industry-friendly, warmongering GOP establishment. Energy policy guidance, for instance, was in many cases literally written by fossil fuel lobbyists. Whether Bush was a full-on "puppet," as the left is prone to thinking, or merely malleable, the result was that in areas outside his personal interest (which was most areas), he followed his advisers.
Trump is even less curious, even more uninterested in the details, than Bush. In areas outside of immigration and trade — as with energy — he too would turn policy over to advisers.
Those advisers would either look like the dysfunctional circus he's assembled around him so far or (as Republicans hope) like the GOP establishment. The result would either be lunacy or (best-case scenario!) merely the corruption and extremism of the Bush years.The difference (assuming the best) is that Bush was notoriously unwilling to shout, "You're fired!" even to people who really did deserve it. Bush favored loyalty over competence, but at least when given loyalty, he returned it. Trump shows no real loyalty to anyone beyond a very narrow circle of family members and close friends. Or, to quote once more:
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.Well, then, won't that mean the Trump, unlike Bush, holds his subordinates accountable, punishes the ones who mess up, and will thereby ensure competent management? Well, the trouble is that it is a lot easier to yell, "You're fired!" than to actually fix the mess that caused the underlying problem. And if the consequences of making a mistake become too severe, people will go to extreme lengths to conceal their mistakes.
In short, Trump differs from a generic Republican to some extent in having policy differences, but even more in simply not caring about policy at all. This will mean much weaker supervision over his advisers and a much reduced prospect of choosing advisers well. Or, as a number of people have said, at the very best, his administration will be more corrupt and incompetent that a generic Republican administration.
And then there is the matter of temperament, which I will address in my next post.