Who’s in Charge Here?

President Donald Trump at a Cabinet meeting at the White House, November 19, 2019. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
Trump has thrown out plenty of rascals — mostly ones he appointed.

One theory of the Donald Trump presidential campaign was: “He’ll break stuff.”

Mission accomplished.

The idea of Trump-as-bulldozer, blunderbuss, and agent of chaos — the burn-it-down ethos that Steve Bannon communicates when he calls himself a “Leninist” — was a powerful stimulant to many resentful rightists (conservative is not really the word) in 2016. They felt humiliated by the lordly affectations of Barack Obama and his clique and frustrated that Republicans were unable to best him. (The remarkable success of congressional Republicans in containing the Obama administration after 2010 is a story that was seldom told and even more seldom appreciated.) They were primed for a tantrum.

But they also had legitimate complaints: In the United States, as in Europe, the unwillingness of the mainstream political parties to seriously address the issue of immigration — especially but not exclusively illegal immigration — created opportunities for the opportunistic “demagogue,” which was William F. Buckley Jr.’s chosen word for Trump in a prescient 2000 essay. Other complaints, particularly about the uninspiring trajectory of middle-class incomes, were misinterpreted, and blame for them was misassigned (inevitably to swarthy foreigners via trade or immigration), but the underlying issues were not entirely imaginary. Many Republicans came to believe that winning with Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would be a lot like losing to Hillary Rodham Clinton in slow motion. (That a belief is preposterous does not render it inconsequential.) And besides, such respectable Republicans as John McCain and Mitt Romney had failed to defeat Obama — why go down that road again?

As political analysis, that was pretty weak. John McCain did not run a great campaign, but no Republican, not Abraham Lincoln himself, was going to win in 2008, and the case for turning Obama out in 2012 was not very persuasive beyond those who already were inclined to detest him. These failures were sometimes blamed on the “gentlemanly” and bipartisan style of John McCain and Mitt Romney. That, too, was erroneous, but it shaped a great deal of the thinking in the 2016 primary. “No more gentleman losers,” they said. “We want a victorious son-of-a-bitch.”

As I and many other Trump critics wrote at the time, the Republican nominee’s lifetime experience of dissipating his father’s fortune and playing a business mogul on television did not leave him very well prepared to do the duties of the presidency. But Trump’s partisans did not understand that as a deficiency. It was, in their view, his greatest virtue: He was not very much inclined to play by the rules to begin with, and he didn’t even know what they were, anyway. His pariah status ensured that he could not go native in Washington even if he wanted to. Of course he was going to be a turd in the capital punchbowl — that was the whole idea.

That’s worked out about as well as you’d expect.

The impeachment pageant being played out in Washington is entirely predictable. But it does raise some important questions beyond the near certainty of how the impeachment itself will proceed, i.e. with an emotionally overcharged vote in the House, an anticlimax in the Senate, a declaration of “moral victory” by the Democrats, and the Republicans’ immediate preparations for impeaching the next Democratic president, whoever that should be.

Trump may be an agent of chaos, but he is not an agent of randomness. As some of the computer scientists among you will know, generating a string of truly random numbers is a real technical challenge. Patterns emerge in spite of the programmers’ best intentions. The same is true of quotidian human affairs. Consider the issue of media bias: It is to be expected that reporters and editors will make a certain number of errors in their coverage of a given issue, but when it comes to the gun-control debate, to take one obvious example, the errors pile up reliably on one side of the ideological divide, inflating the prevalence of certain weapons (e.g. Lydia Polgreen of the Huffington Post and a thousand other like-minded journalists conflating ordinary semiautomatic rifles and machine guns) or exaggerating the laxity of U.S. firearms laws. During his presidency, Donald Trump’s errors and abuses have not been random, either. They have in fact followed a fairly predictable pattern, or a couple of patterns: One of those is the pattern of obvious self-interest, as in his risible attempt to steer a G7 meeting to one of his ailing Florida resort properties; another is his habitual rolling over for the thuggish strongmen he takes as his model for authoritative leadership: deflecting from Vladimir Putin’s misadventures in the 2016 election and his invasion of Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Ukrainian territory, submitting to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and abandoning U.S. allies in Syria, etc.

The case now before the impeachment inquisitors offers a little of each, with Trump permitting his personal attorney, New York tough guy Rudy Giuliani, to conduct freelance foreign policy in a way that coincided both with Trump’s personal interests and with the interests of the Putin regime, which is very much interested in alienating the United States and Ukraine to the detriment of American strategic interests and the fortification of Russian ones. The Trump administration’s actions — the “drug deal,” in John Bolton’s memorable phrase — were in direct opposition to the Trump administration’s official policy posture as described in various national-security documents, putting U.S. policy de jure at odds with U.S. policy de facto. While there is a great deal of “deep state” conspiracy-theory nonsense ensorcelling the Right just now, it is true that Trump has run into a great deal of resistance from the people who are known as “the bureaucrats” among their detractors and as “the professionals” among their admirers. And there have been obvious political reasons for that in many cases. But it also is true that Trump has run into trouble with the professionals in his government because his administration’s official policies are at odds with his administration’s actual goals and priorities, as revealed by various “drug deals” and Giuliani-related shenanigans.

Ruthlessness is not sufficient. Ruthlessness needs competence.

A point of comparison: Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency coincided with some very challenging and complex developments, both internationally and domestically. President Eisenhower had a very strong sense of long-term American interests, and though it is not widely appreciated, as a brass-knuckles political operator, Ike was as ruthless a son-of-a-bitch as the free world had to offer. But he was an extraordinarily able administrator and leader, with a clear vision and well-defined priorities, and those endowments allowed him to go about laying the foundations of a post-war world order on his own terms so confidently and successfully that Americans spent most of his presidency believing that not much was happening, and that Ike was busy playing golf for eight years. The Trump administration has provided the opposite: sound and fury signifying squat.

Trump’s partisans will say that the president is supposed to be in charge of foreign relations, that the professionals work for him rather than the other way around, and that they sent him to Washington precisely because they wanted him to ignore and overrule the conventional wisdom and uninspiring consensus of the Georgetown-Harvard policy establishment.

And there is something to that, notionally. But does Donald Trump seem to anybody at this point like a man who is in charge? Of . . . anything?

The Trump administration’s foreign-policy operation is at odds with itself. Key diplomatic positions remain unfilled or poorly filled, and every third day the president complains that he has been betrayed by some senior adviser or cabinet member. Good help is hard to find for Trump: Jim Mattis was “overrated,” Rex Tillerson was pushed out barely a year into the job, a chief of staff was canned after 192 days, a deputy national-security adviser was given the shoe after 300 days and another after 119 days, a national-security adviser served 24 days and resigned to face federal criminal charges, a White House communications director survived less than a week on the job, etc. As commanders in chief go, that performance has not been exactly commanding. His idea of strong leadership is using Twitter to issue ridiculous threats to arrest members of the House, including the speaker, on treason charges. Nancy Pelosi, like so many other political players, has backed Trump down simply by calling him. Nancy Pelosi may have an unfair advantage when it comes to poker faces, but nobody who is good at bluffing loses as much money in casinos as Donald Trump has.

“Trump will shake things up!” they said. And so he has, in the same sense that driving a 1985 Chevy Nova into oncoming traffic until you hit something will shake up your life. (True story.) But if you wish to supplant the reigning consensus in Washington, then you have to have something with which to replace it, and pique is not policy. The Trump administration cannot even get itself aligned with the Trump administration, and the great negotiator cannot even come to an agreement with the people who work for him. And that is on President Trump, not on the “deep state” or Democrats or the “swamp” or anybody else. In that sense, Trump’s fundamental problem is not that he has exerted too much influence over U.S. foreign policy, but too little. Those who angrily insist that it is the president and not those meddlesome bureaucrats who is in charge of foreign policy are begging the question. Who is in charge here? Donald Trump is supposed to be, but it is far from obvious that he is.

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