No one in Washington called Donald J. Trump a “god” (as journalist Evan Thomas in 2009 had suggested of Obama) when he arrived in January 2017. No one felt nerve impulses in his leg when Trump talked, as journalist Chris Matthews once remarked had happened to him after hearing an Obama speech. And no newsman or pundit cared how crisply creased were Trump’s pants, at least in the manner that New York Times columnist David Brooks had once praised Obama’s sartorial preciseness. Instead, Trump was greeted by the Washington media and intellectual establishment as if he were the first beast in the book of Revelation, who arose “out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.”
Besides the Washington press and pundit corps, Donald Trump faced this third and more formidable opponent: the culture of permanent and senior employees of the federal and state governments, and the political appointees in Washington who revolve in and out from business, think tanks, lobbying firms, universities, and the media. Or as the legal scholar of the administrative state Philip Hamburger put it: “Although the United States remains a republic, administrative power creates within it a very different sort of government. The result is a state within the state — an administrative state within the Constitution’s United States.” The power of the deep state was twofold: it had the unlimited resources of government at its call in any fight against individuals. And it knew how government worked and could be manipulated far better than the citizens whom it supposedly for a brief time served.
In theory, the deep state we have described should have been a nonpartisan meritocratic cadre of government officials who were custodians of a civil service that had often served Americans well and transcended changes in presidential administrations. The ranks of top government regulators, justices, executive officers, and bureaucrats would take advice, and often be drawn, from hallowed East Coast, supposedly apolitical institutions — the World Bank, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Federal Reserve, the Ivy League faculties, Wall Street, and the blue-chip Washington and New York law firms.
In fact, the deep state grew increasingly political, progressive, and internationalist. Its members and cultural outlook were shaped by the good life on the two coasts and abroad. And every four or eight years, it usually greeted not so much incoming Republican or Democratic presidents as much as fusion-party representatives with reputable résumés, past memberships in similar organizations, and with outlooks identical to its own.
Then the disrupter Trump crashed in.
Trump was not so much critical as ignorant of the deep state’s rules and its supposed sterling record of stable governance. Trump proved willing to fire lifelong public servants. He ignored sober and judicious advice from Washington “wise men.” He appointed “crazy” outsiders skeptical of establishment institutions. He purged high government of its progressive activists. And he embraced deep-state heresies and blasphemies such as considering tariffs, questioning NATO, doubting the efficacy of NAFTA, whining about federal judges, and jawboning interest rates. And he also left vacant key offices on the theory that one less deep-state voice was one less critic, and one less obstacle to undoing the Obama record.
It was easy to dismiss Trump as unorganized or uninformed for leaving thousands of federal positions of such a state unstaffed, even by the middle of his second year in office. Indeed, almost 250 White House appointments requiring congressional confirmation were still unfilled by summer 2018. Most of the 4,000 political appointed jobs in his administration were also still vacant. Only 26 percent of Trump’s executive-branch appointees had been confirmed after six months.
Given his dearth of experience and the absence of the establishment’s willingness to work for Trump, he often relied on his own daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, as loyalists. Trump cared little or did not know that there was a reason in the past why presidents had not brought into the White House too many presidential family members — whether Donald Nixon, Billy Carter, Roger Clinton, Neil Bush, or Malik Obama.
There were some understandable reasons for so many vacancies, both explicit and implied, as well as for the number of political novices. Trump ran as an outcast. He promised to “drain,” not to perpetuate, the swamp. In other words, by his own definition, there were already too many federal employees, and far too many career bureaucrats of the apparat. Deserving workers in the ranks could easily step up, be internally promoted, and preclude the need for hiring more overtly political appointees.
Trump replied to his critics in October 2017 with the dismissive, “I’m generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be — because you don’t need them. I mean, you look at some of these agencies, how massive they are, and it’s totally unnecessary. They have hundreds of thousands of people.” Yet an exasperated presidential adviser, Stephen Bannon, would later claim that a frustrated and isolated Trump had later reconsidered leaving vacant so many positions and instead concluded: “I’ve got really to staff up something. I need to embrace the establishment.”
Because Trump ran against Democrats, the Republican establishment, and the deep state, in victory he had few Washington insiders left to pick from, other than those at the marquee cabinet secretaryships. Again, there was certainly no Trump-supporting apparatus of conservative pundits and Washington old hands to systematize his agendas, issue position papers — and recommend battle-hardened “Make America Great Again” adherents to serve in the White House. In some cases where Trump found qualified outsiders, deep-state bureaucrats often held up their appointments or sought to classify them as lower-paid employees.
Almost every episode of the newly inaugurated Trump eventually leaked out, whether his private conversations with congressional leaders or conferences with his own staff. Nonstop, Trump was said to have yelled at, threatened, sworn at, and lied to those around him. Rumors from insiders spread that he was unbalanced and mentally impaired. It would be as if every profanity and threat Lyndon Johnson ever had thundered in the White House were broadcast in real time around the world, or salacious accounts of John F. Kennedy’s sexual antics in the White House pool leaked and appeared daily in the news, or a group of LBJ insiders had concluded any president who would conduct business while on the toilet or who would expose himself to staff members was unhinged and should be thwarted by a “resistance” in any manner possible.
The Washington media fixtures sensed that Trump threatened to pollute the entire sea in which they swam. And so they aired so-called “fake news” stories that Trump had removed the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the West Wing, or that his rallies were lightly attended, or that he had buffoonishly overfed fish during a visit to a koi pond with the Japanese prime minister. Sometimes opinion journalists offered apocalyptic scenarios of Trump’s fate. David Brooks reassured his depressed readers that Trump would likely either resign or be removed from office before his first year was over.
When Melania Trump took time off after kidney surgery and was not seen publicly, Never Trumper David Frum wondered whether Trump had struck his wife and sought to cover up the ensuing crime (“Suppose President Trump punched the First Lady in the White House (federal property = federal jurisdiction), then ordered the Secret Service to conceal the assault?”). Frum was on record as seeing Trump as some sort of righteous collective punishment for the moral failings of the American people: “We got Donald Trump in the first place as a punishment for not being good enough citizens.”
In contrast to his unproven allegations, Frum had written that Trump’s opponents such as himself were engaged in a sort of self-righteous moral crusade: “As President Trump is cruel, vengeful, egoistic, ignorant, lazy, avaricious, and treacherous, so we must be kind, forgiving, responsible, informed, hardworking, generous, and patriotic. As Trump’s enablers are careless, cynical, shortsighted, morally obtuse, and rancorous, so Trump’s opponents must be thoughtful, idealistic, wise, morally sensitive, and conciliatory. ‘They go low, we go high,’ a wise woman said.” But was going “high” or being “kind” and “informed” falsely implying that the president of the United States had engaged in spousal battery?
Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from Victor Davis Hanson’s new book, The Case for Trump.