Donald Trump's speech this week at a petroleum conference in North Dakota showcased the energy policies we can expect from a Trump administration. But more importantly, it revealed a great deal about how Trump will develop and manage policy.
Pretty much everything it revealed was terrifying.
Trump reads his speech and discovers what his policies are
Most of what you need to know about the content of Trump's speech you can find in Brad Plumer's post about it. Suffice to say, it was nonsense, filled with basic errors and promises that cannot conceivably be kept.
What struck me was something else. Before the speech, there was some discussion of whether Trump would use a teleprompter instead of relying on his typical rambling improvisations. He did end up using one — "to keep him on message," says Reuters — but the effect ended up being bizarre.
Two things were evident throughout what was clearly intended by the campaign to be a Major Speech, showing Trump as a Serious Man.
The first is that Trump loves his rambling improvisations, and so does his audience, so he can scarcely be restrained from indulging in them. Time after time he would slip off script, tossing in a line about his border wall, his lead in the polls, Hillary Clinton's intention to "abolish the Second Amendment," or farmers. (He loves farmers.)
The second is that Trump was encountering his own speech, if not for the first time, then something close to it. The difference in tone and affect between the parts he read and the parts he freestyled was almost comical. He would squint at the teleprompter for a moment, read a fully formed English sentence with correct grammar and multisyllabic words ... and then grin, look out at the audience, and fire off a few hortatory exclamations.
What made this effect particularly disconcerting is that many of Trump's spontaneous interjections were reactions to his own speech.
[squint] "American energy dominance will be declared a strategic, economic, and foreign policy goal of the United States." [grin] "About time!"
It happened again and again. He'd read some statistic about the Environmental Protection Agency and then interject, "Wow, can you believe that?"
It was as though he was discovering Donald Trump's energy policies alongside his audience, and he liked what he saw. Oh, look here, Donald Trump is going to cancel the Paris climate accord, that's great!
It was amusingly Trumpian — Donald Trump often expresses admiration for things Donald Trump does or owns — but it was also revealing of some of his less commented-upon but more unsettling qualities.
Trump's speech reveals his scariest qualities
Most attention on Trump has focused on his policy obsessions: immigration, trade, and renegotiating deals of all kinds. But the fact is Trump's obsessions are relatively few. In policy areas outside his fixations, he's been perfectly willing to rely on the counsel of the "best people," for whom he believes he has a unique eye.
In reality, Trump's choice of advisers, both formal and informal, has been a parade of extremists and unsavories. His hyper-regressive tax policy was co-written by Steven Moore and Larry Kudlow, two of the more clownish figures in conservative economics. His foreign policy advisers include Walid Phares, who has accused members of the Obama administration of "partnering with the Muslim Brotherhood," and Joseph Schmitz, who co-authored a 2010 report called "Shariah: The Threat to America."
Trump's eye for people is disastrously bad. Which brings us to the single scariest thing about him, something Vox's own Ezra Klein has stressed: his bottomless gullibility.
This is a guy who believed that a protestor who rushed his stage was a member of ISIS and that Ted Cruz's father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. He prizes his relationship with nutbag conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. He retweeted a Mussolini quote. He hired a doctor who wrote on his physical exam, "If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency."
To complement his terrible eye for people, he has a terrifying lack of skepticism toward what they tell him.
All of that was on display in his energy speech. He picked as an energy adviser Kevin Cramer, a random junior member of the House of Representatives from North Dakota whose views are even more nakedly pro–fossil fuel than the Republican mainstream. By all accounts, with help from a mysterious second adviser "who asked not to be identified" (maybe oil baron Harold Hamm?), Cramer's ideas were mainlined into the speech.
Could Cramer and Adviser No. 2 have composed the entire thing? It wouldn't surprise me. The written version sounds nothing at all like Trump's natural voice, which likely contributed to the split-personality delivery.
To all appearances, Trump was happy that someone else had done his homework. He could barely bring himself to stay on script and read the speech — imagine actually having to, y'know, think of policy and write it down. That's grunt work.
After all, as his top adviser, Paul Manafort, said in an interview with the Huffington Post the other day, "He sees himself more as the chairman of the board, than even the CEO, let alone the COO." He takes more of a ... supervisory role.
So he picked a hyper-conservative Congress member and let that Congress member sweat the details. The result is harsh and uncompromising energy policy, explicitly pro–fossil fuel and anti-wind and solar, appealing only to the right wing of the right wing, weak in terms of both substance and general election politics. But whatever, at least the homework is done.
We have experience with a president who lets underlings run things
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.
I can just see it: Trump in the Oval Office, reading a speech from his teleprompter, reacting to it in real time.
"So we have no choice but to declare martial law ... oh, hey, martial law, about time!"