On the campaign, Donald Trump broke with conservative orthodoxy on a number of issues. That schism has been reflected in his Cabinet, with Trump nominees differing with their boss on issues like the importance of NATO and the need to reform entitlements.
This is also an issue in antitrust policy. Conservatives traditionally believe the government should take a hands-off approach to mergers, but Trump struck a more populist tone in his campaign, denouncing major deals like AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner. So it was an open question what kind of people Trump would tap for key antitrust-related positions.
I had assumed this was a enough of a low-profile issue that Trump would choose conventional conservatives for these posts, setting up another rift between his campaign language and the team he assembled to carry it out. But according to reporting from BuzzFeed News, that’s wrong: Trump is trying to keep his promise and appoint antitrust hawks to his administration.
Trump has tapped Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel to find candidates for the two most important jobs: the chair of the Federal Trade Commission and the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division.
“One challenge for Thiel, according to people familiar with the search, is finding candidates who are Republican and yet willing to diverge from the libertarian position that the government should basically leave companies alone,” BuzzFeed’s William Alden and Hamza Shaban report. “Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggested he would favor candidates who envision an active role for antitrust enforcement, and Thiel’s search has reflected that, the people said.”
Of course, it remains to be seen if Thiel will find officials with this profile, or if Trump will ultimately follow his recommendations. Business interests and their allies in the Trump White House are undoubtedly lobbying for Trump to pick someone who would rubber-stamp mergers — going with their recommendations would be the path of least resistance.
On the other hand, presidents usually try to keep their campaign promises. Trump promised that his administration would fight big mergers, and it looks like he’s trying to staff his administration with people who would follow through on that pledge.
It’s ironic that Trump tapped Thiel for this task. Not only is Thiel a self-described libertarian but he’s also on the record as a fan of monopolies. In his 2014 book Zero to One, he argued that American had come under the sway of what he called the "ideology of competition," which holds that competition is the key to success and prosperity. Thiel argued that it’s much better to run a monopoly than a company in a competitive market.
It was a weird argument: The fact that having a monopoly is better for any particular business doesn’t imply that monopolies are good for the economy as a whole. So it’s hard to be sure if Thiel actually believed it or was just engaging in contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism. After all, this is a guy who says things like, “There’s a point where no corruption can be a bad thing. It can mean that things are too boring.”