I’ll leave substantive analysis of the strategy for Afghanistan that Donald Trump articulated last night to better-qualified analysts than myself. But as someone who is predisposed to believe that the United States spends too much on a military that is too large and used too often, my main question by now is just what is the point of Trump being in the Oval Office?
During the campaign and precampaign he cut a figure that was, if frequently horrifying, also interjecting some notions into the discourse that deserved a seat at the table and perhaps even ultimate victory. His longtime skepticism of the merits of America’s extended military adventure in Afghanistan (and his largely fake skepticism of the invasion of Iraq for that matter) certainly belonged on this list. So did, of course, his skepticism of Washington Consensus trade policies, his sporadically voiced doubts about the merits of big banks and hedge funds as economic actors, and his sporadic heterodoxies on tax policy and the welfare state.
Almost all of this was always half-baked and some of it was directly contradicted by other aspects of his 2016 campaign. But as of Election Day 2016 it was certainly possible to squint at Trump and see the outlines of an ideological shakeup — a figure who would attempt to represent the interests of the Republican Party’s electoral base of older-skewing, less-educated white people rather than hew strictly to the reanimated corpse of Reaganism like the vast majority of the party’s elected officials.
But with Steve Bannon fired and Breitbart.com left to snipe from the sidelines as Trump embraces a South Asia strategy pushed by Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and the uniformed military one must ask: What is the point?
If Trump is going to implement replacement-level conservative public policy, why is the country saddled with a president who is so far below replacement-level when it comes to so many aspects of his job? Pence or Haley or a dozen other Republicans could pursue Pence’s policies without routinely embarrassing the country on Twitter, letting state secrets slip to the Russian foreign minister, taking the side of neo-Nazi marchers, bankrupting the Secret Service with high living, and — most fundamentally of all — leaving the country in a state of agonizing suspense as to what’s going to happen when an unfit president has to wrestle with a crisis that’s not of his own making.
The surprisingly normal Trump administration
There is so much about Trump and his conduct that is “not normal” not normalcy itself has become a kind of rallying cry of resistance to his presidency. And yet on the level of public policy — especially when judged relative to his campaign — Trump’s administration has been almost excruciatingly normal.
When, after all, is the last time you heard Trump denounce a company for outsourcing jobs abroad?
As recently as January, Trump was vowing to develop a health care plan that would cover everyone. The congressional Republican health care bills he ended up endorsing did not, of course, do that. Nor did they fulfill campaign pledges to protect Medicaid, or lower premiums and deductibles. His budget proposal quietly ditched his campaign pledge to avoid cutting Social Security. His Treasury Secretary conceded Monday that his administration won’t really be closing the notorious “carried interest” tax loophole. He keeps saying he’ll raise taxes on the wealthy, but his administration’s actual plans do the reverse.
It’s not that he’s broken every single campaign pledge. The gloves are really coming off from immigration enforcement, conservatives are getting the slate of judges they were promised, the coal and oil industries are being lavished with regulatory favors, the military’s budget is going up, and the federal government is no longer pressuring police departments to reexamine their use of force or racial biases.
But the promises Trump is keeping are essentially the ones that would have fit nicely as Heritage Foundation PDFs or little Twitter cards from Paul Ryan’s “Better Way” push. Trump the political disruptor is gone. Instead we’ve just got Trump, the underqualified doofus.
Trump is still super-abnormal
Yet for all that Trump has normalized his approach to public policy, he remains a profoundly abnormal figure in American politics. The Teleprompter Trump we saw on display Monday night offers a kind of simulacrum of what we’ve come to expect from a president. But even though his command of this kind of delivery is improving it remains subpar — and nobody expects it to last.
It will be another cycle of declarations about his performance + aides hoping for a reprieve as they wait to see what he does in Phoenix— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) August 22, 2017
The real Trump is the one who muses candidly about the “many fine people” at a march chanting “Jews will not replace us,” retweets fake accounts on Twitter, ran a campaign full of murky ties to Russian espionage, and whose personal businesses are raking in party committee fundraising money even while billing the government for tens of thousands of dollars in golf cart rental fees.
Trump could, but has chosen not to, normalize his financial situation by selling his businesses and establishing a real blind trust. He could normalize his public communications. He could follow Jonathan Bernstein’s advice and try to learn to speak to people outside his circle of supporters and perform the role of head of state.
That he would not do these things was a foreseeable — and, indeed, widely predicted — turn of events. But it’s notable that many people who voted for him hoped he would behave more normally in office, and he himself did pledge to behave more presidentially (and stop tweeting) if he became president. He’s done none of that. But instead, after a bruising primary campaign that was, if nothing else, a massive and deserved vote of no confidence in the GOP establishment by its own voters, he’s chosen to replicate the failed policy dynamic of his Republican predecessors without replicating their respect for the norms and traditions of office. And he’s doing so while assisted with what continued to be a rather threadbare and inexperienced team.
Is Trump ready for trouble?
On strictly military matters, such as those Trump addressed in last night’s speech, Trump is at least backed up by a well-qualified team. Between John Kelly, James Mattis, and H.R. McMaster Trump is, at a minimum, equipped to enact tactical military operations that have been fully vetted by experienced professionals.
The diplomatic side of the endeavor, led by a former Exxon executive with no government experience whose primary mission seems to be alienating State Department professionals, looks quite a bit weaker. We have, at the moment, no ambassador to Afghanistan. Nikki Haley was a strangely unqualified choice to serve as UN ambassador, and appears to have gotten the job largely as a favor to South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, a Trump endorser who now has her old job.
And as one strays into other domains, the Trump situation often appears disastrous. Kelly has no background in domestic issues, and neither Trump’s treasury secretary nor his National Economic Council chief have any experience in government. Trump’s daughter and her husband serve in senior West Wing roles where their main mission appears to be strategic leaking to the press. Third-order Trump family retainers — like the woman who planned Eric Trump’s wedding — are running government agencies where they oversee millions of dollars in federal grants. Kooks like Seb Gorka and Michael Anton are still lurking at the National Security Council.
These underexperienced outsiders, like Trump himself, are not infusing the government with new ideas or an exciting businesslike pragmatism that’s breaking logjams in Washington and getting things done. They are instead, overwhelmingly, enacting the exact same policies that a more experienced and more qualified Republican administration would give us — just done with less spit, polish, and overall competence. To the extent that this means nefarious notions aren’t accomplished — like financing an enormous tax cut for the rich with draconian Medicaid cuts and calling it a health care bill — that may be all for the best.
But in a moment of true crisis or national emergence, the country is going to want a president — and a team — who are well-equipped to make sound decisions under pressure. A Trump administration that can’t even supervise a relatively minor white nationalist street protest without embroiling itself in days of chaos and controversy does not inspire confidence on that score. And in exchange for the massive tail risks involved in being governed by a conflict-ridden, impulsive president with little substantive knowledge we now appear to be gaining nothing at all in terms of innovative thinking or ideological heterodoxy.