Everybody knows that Donald Trump isn’t conventionally qualified to be president of the United States. But as a candidate, he appealed to people’s distaste for the conventional political system, and a segment of the public had Apprentice-induced faith in his management skills, figuring he would do what any business genius would do — surround himself with talent.
“I am self funding and will hire the best people,” he wrote in April, “not the biggest donors!”
The fact that his national security adviser couldn’t make it four weeks before being forced to resign tells you something about that “best people” claim. So does the fact that his deputy national security adviser is also expected to leave once she gets a new boss. (Also, no matter how many times he said it, his claims to be self-funding weren’t true.)
The hiring problem is bigger than Flynn. The Trump team reflects a consistent preference for judging people based on personal loyalty rather than suitability for the job at hand, leading naturally to a structure of interlocking fiefdoms rather than a coherent, competent team. There are a handful of solid hires in the mix, like a legitimately well-qualified transportation secretary who happens to be married to the Senate majority leader, but these seem to appear more by coincidence than by design. The overall caliber of the hiring is so low that marginal cases appear well-qualified by contrast.
President of the United States is a big time job. When it’s filled by an obviously inexperienced president, he needs to actually hire the best people. Not hire a mix of disastrous people and sort of okay people. The best people. But Trump doesn’t have them — and this could increasingly be a problem for him with voters.
Trump fans really expect solid management
Detailed polling evidence from Survey Monkey suggests that some of Trump’s support is soft, and his supposed management prowess is a key theme among his backers.
It can be easy for cynical reporters to appreciate this, but many Americans take network television shows very seriously. Reality shows are, fundamentally, fake. But not everybody knows that, and, obviously, the marketing purpose of the “reality” genre is to present them as real. The premise of The Apprentice was, for years, that Trump was more than a rich, charismatic playboy with an inherited fortune and a flair for publicity. Instead he was a business expert, sufficiently knowledgeable about management to not only amass a fortune of his own but to sit in judgment of others’ performance.
The reality show that is the first month of Trump’s presidency suggests otherwise. That Flynn, who everyone said was going to be disastrous, was hired and then proved disastrous ought to be the beginning of a wake-up call about the reality of what’s going on in Trumpdom: People are being hired on the basis of trust and loyalty networks, not real skill.
A weak team of loyalists
Conservative think-tanker Christopher DeMuth has gamely tried to defend the chaotic nature of the Trump administration as reflecting a strong leader’s desire for a “team of rivals.”
There’s no evidence of that. Just look at the still-unfilled job of deputy secretary of state.
Rex Tillerson, though almost certainly not “the best” person to serve as the nation’s chief diplomat, is an experienced manager who understands the value of well-informed subordinates. He wanted to hire someone with experience in the State Department to serve as his deputy, and hit upon Elliott Abrams as his choice. But according to the New York Times, Trump vetoed the selection despite “a productive meeting” with Abrams because “after it took place, Mr. Trump learned of Mr. Abrams’s pointed criticisms of the president when he was running for president.”
This is not a team of rivals. Ability to perform the job well does not appear to factor into Trump’s thinking at all.
More disturbingly, Trump’s top advisers and even his Cabinet secretaries appear to believe that the best way to get things done is to attempt to trick the president by giving him inadequate briefings before meetings. Neither Tillerson nor anyone else thought they should talk through Abrams’s campaign season criticisms before the meeting so that Trump and Abrams could bury the hatchet. Their idea of getting things done is to dupe the boss — an idea that, if it worked, would only sow the seeds for later disasters.
Incidents like this are scattered throughout Trump’s personnel decisions. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointment as UN secretary was largely welcomed on the basis of her banal, conventional foreign policy views. But she lacks any kind of qualification for the job, which appears to have been given to her as a reward to the state’s lieutenant governor, who replaced her when she left. The lieutenant governor was a rare elected official to endorse Trump in the primaries, and by becoming the incumbent now faces a much easier path to reelection than he would have in a competitive primary.
Trump has tapped his own son-in-law for an extremely senior White House post that he has no qualifications for. Even Chief of Staff Reince Priebus lacks any of the experience in government that should be a prerequisite for the job.
Steve Mnuchin — a former Goldman Sachs executive and an executive producer on the new Lego Batman movie — has no experience in government. One of his stated reasons for supporting Trump during the campaign was “Nobody’s going to be like, ‘Well, why did he do this?’ if I end up in the administration.” It worked. Now he’s Treasury secretary, a job he legitimately could not have gotten any other way.
Trump is really good at television
The reality, of course, is that reality television is a subset of television, not of reality. The shows star “real people,” but they are still acting. Their narrative arcs are constructed by producers rather than screenwriters. But it’s still artifice. Hosting a successful reality television show is a legitimately difficult job that not anyone could do. But playing a management savant on The Apprentice didn’t require Trump to be a management savant any more than the cast of The Big Bang Theory can do theoretical physics.
“Did we think this clown, this buffoon with the funny hair, would ever become a world leader?” Bill Pruitt, a veteran reality producer who worked on the first two seasons of The Apprentice, wrote in Vanity Fair. “Not once. Ever. Would he and his bombastic nature dominate in prime-time TV? We hoped so.”
And, of course, the constant swirl of chaos surrounding Trump has been great for ratings. Circulation is up at the New York Times and the Washington Post, Vox’s web traffic is exceeding expectations, and both Spicer’s press briefings and Saturday Night Live’s satire of them are pulling in great numbers.
It just happens to be a lousy way to govern.