Every administration has, from time to time, sought to mislead the public about something or other. But Donald Trump’s administration already stands out for the frequency of misleading statements, their baldfacedness, and the at times absurd content. Anyone might try to exaggerate the degree to which the president deserves credit for good economic news while averting blame for bad news. But to send out a White House press secretary with bad Metro ridership numbers and spin that directly contradicts clear photographic evidence about crowd size is insane.
One popular interpretation is that this is happening because Trump has, in fact, lost his marbles and simply can’t stand the blow to his ego implied by mocking media coverage. But George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen has another theory that casts Trump’s behavior as more strategic.
He may be wrong, but it’s worth considering — especially if you’re someone who doesn’t like Trump and thus may be instinctively prone to underestimating him.
In Cowen’s view, the key issues are trust and loyalty. By having subordinates tell lies on his behalf, Trump accomplishes two things:
- One is that it’s a test — “if you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid.”
- The other is that it’s a rite of passage — “by requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration.”
Both of these things allow Trump to do a better job of operating in a low-trust environment. Any Republican who is willing to publicly echo Trump’s lies does two things. One is that he proves he is willing to incur costs to his personal reputation in order to defend Trump. The other is that having in fact borne costs to his personal reputation, he objectively ties up his success with Trump’s.
Donald Trump has a trust problem
All presidents face a mild form of a principle-agent problem in which their subordinates’ interests are only imperfectly aligned with their own. In the past, presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy tended to solve this by selecting White House staffs full of longtime personal loyalists.
In more recent years, ideological polarization of the parties has produced what Richard Skinner calls the “partisan presidency” — White House teams are made up primarily of generic party operatives who have deep party ties that transcend their personal connection with the president. This works for a president like George W. Bush or Barack Obama because the president himself is also a long-term party loyalist who does not perceive there to be a huge divergence between the party’s priorities and his own.
Trump is clearly not a longtime Republican Party loyalist, so he can’t rely on this solution. In part, he is reaching for a personal presidency — installing, for example, his son-in-law to a senior advisory position. But an old-school personal presidency wouldn’t work for Trump. For one thing, he needs the support of congressional Republicans, which means he needs people they trust on his team. But beyond that, unlike Ike or JFK, Trump has no experience in politics or government, so a team of pure personal loyalists would have no idea what they’re doing.
He needs to operate in the context of a mostly partisan presidency, even though he knows most of the members of his party would probably prefer to see Mike Pence sitting in his chair.
Key Republicans are empowering Trump while signaling disloyalty
There are a number of ways one can play this game.
Press secretary Sean Spicer is choosing to play it by, essentially, passing the test. Spicer is very much a party guy rather than a Trump guy, but he has now made himself a Trump guy. But you don’t need to work directly for Trump in order to pass the test. House science committee Chair Lamar Smith, for example, took to the House floor to echo Trump’s complaints about the media, specifically praise Trump for involving his children in his decision-making, and advise the American people that it’s “better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
This is a ridiculous thing to say, and it earned Smith a lot of well-deserved mockery — a key signal to Trump that Smith is a real team player.
But most Republicans have taken a different tack. Tom Price was asked at his confirmation hearings about Donald Trump saying that the two men were working together on an Affordable Care Act replacement, and replied, “It’s true that he said that, yes.” Everyone in the room laughed, with Price bolstering his reputation for honesty and a solid sense of humor at the expense of Trump’s honesty.
Paul Ryan was asked about Trump’s claim that illegal voters are what cost him the popular vote and retorted: “I’ve seen no evidence to that effect.”
What’s fascinating is that Republicans opting for these dignity-preserving strategies are not offering any substantive opposition to Trump whatsoever. It would be trivial for Ryan to, for example, work with Democrats to force Trump to disclose real information about his personal finances or engage in real divestment from his businesses. But Ryan doesn’t want to fight with Trump because he believes Trump will sign his policy agenda into law. Objectively empowering Trump while signaling a lack of loyalty to him is a dangerous game.
Trump continues to staff his White House with hardcore Ryan critics. When his own position is more secure, he could easily move to depose Ryan at some future time. On the other hand, the example of Chris Christie — or of Trump University students and Trump Casino Hotels and Resorts shareholders — shows that even true loyalty to Trump won’t necessarily be rewarded.