The Boorish Executive
Trump Involves His Voters Via Insults
Recently Donald Trump warned Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price that if he could not help to secure the necessary votes to pass a Senate bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, then “You’re fired.”
His blunt threat, issued in front of a large audience of Boy Scouts in West Virginia and televised live on the cable news networks, should be viewed as as an attempt at humor — a repetition of his television catchphrase — and an effort to supply himself with political cover should the vote fail.
But there is another way to view Donald Trump’s public humiliation of his own cabinet secretary. Donald Trump, both as candidate and now as elected leader, delegates nearly everything (including basic policy knowledge) to subordinates, but retains his power of insult in order convey to his voters that he, alone, is in charge. Insults serve to distance himself, disown a policy or a person, and — crucially — invite his voters to feel empowered over the mechanics of governance. Even as his presidency is written off by pundits and operates under real strain, the president himself is forging a new leadership style and transforming the office.
That may sound like a high-minded way to depict a man of such jarring low quality. But if you regard Donald Trump as a danger to democracy — as I do — then it is important to identify and analyze his innovations and accomplishments, including the sources of his appeal. I’m not using those terms in a normative sense, meaning I applaud these things or happen to agree with him on some specific policy portfolio, like “infrastructure.” This typical way of analyzing politics, symbolized by the CNN Brady Bunch split-screen, refracts already known subjectivities through the prism of what’s happening now. If CNN (or any of its ilk) cared more about genuinely diverse political opinion, this could be an illuminating exercise. No matter how well-executed, however, it is always a myopic lens.
Here I adopt a deeper, more historical perspective — and, despite its limitations as well as my own, I hope it will encourage others to switch, at least occasionally, to high-beam lights. Trump is doing something transformative; for a political culture accustomed to viewing all evolution as a progress, that might sound like praise.
It is not.
Presidential leadership styles usually mimic or combine two ideal-types: the distant executive, assigning most substantive responsibilities to subordinates and the business of legislating to Congress, and the engaged policy proposer, cajoling allies, threatening enemies, and stumping across the country on behalf of plans. Eisenhower or Roosevelt? These poles define a spectrum of possibility, and a number of presidents, like Barack Obama or George W. Bush, adopt the first approach for most things, and the second for goals of utmost importance. Some innovate an already established style, like Ronald Reagan did when he used television and his own personality to give an ideological and personable cast to what was essentially an Eisenhower-style presidency.
Donald Trump should be seen as innovator in precisely this fashion. In fact, he is such a distant “Eisenhower” type of manager that he is both unaware of and uninterested in the basic facts of his own policy agenda. On healthcare, he casually reveals that he has no idea what health insurance is. On the “wall” with Mexico — in many ways his signature policy proposal — he regularly demonstrates that he is unfamiliar with actual conditions on the border.
Donald Trump does not know what he is talking about even when he selects the topics himself.
I would not be surprised to learn that he cannot converse knowledgeably about beauty pageants.
As is well known and much discussed, Trump’s nauseating ignorance induces frequent media convulsions. In many ways, censure from the establishment suits his most ardent supporters well, and so far it has failed to trouble his less committed voters. Although subjected to scrutiny, it has proven challenging to parse the reasons for his supporters’ complacency and evident satisfaction in the face of alarming circumstances — whether it speaks to genuine alienation, for example, or cynical and small motivations (or a combination of both). But, though it is safe to say that neither Trump’s incapacities nor media’s astonishment over them will change, some of his less invested voters might come to feel differently about bestowing the powers of the presidency on a person who could not be trusted with house keys.
Be that as it may, whether some Trump voters grow concerned over his incompetence or they do not, a lot of important topics go unaddressed as these imponderables are discussed at length.
First among these is the way in which Trump’s ignorance serves to keep him focused.
That sounds like a bad joke, and in many ways, his presidency is a constant and unfunny satire. But in this context, I mean it seriously. Donald Trump really only cares about two or three issues; he is not restraining himself, as a president like Obama must do in assuming a discipline over his innate curiosity and policy breadth. No, Donald Trump could care less about most things, most places, and most people.
Just as important, Trump only cares about what he cares about in the most superficial way. He desires a “win” in repealing the Affordable Care Act; for Trump, it is political credibility bill, not a health insurance plan. He is determined to isolate Iran, not for any infractions, but because he is intent on demonizing a Muslim country to a point where it could serve as a distraction from domestic failures, and give shape and definition to his ethno-nationalist coalition. These are not goals but instruments; he is not a president but a perpetual campaigner. Although Trump’s predecessors in office were no strangers to shallowness or self-serving calculations, none depended upon them exclusively as his only tools to build a presidency.
While Trump’s incompetence and cavalier indifference is a poor match for the demands of his job, it accommodates most media coverage well. At a fundamental level, Trump and the news media are a perfect match: the most profound bias in especially television news is not that exercised in favor of liberal or conservative viewpoints, but superficial ones. Like an unflattering mirror, Trump presents us with the grim results of obsessing over the proverbial “horse race” and a multitude of other sins embedded in a corporate and highly concentrated media landscape. The same frivolity and sense of spectacle governs Trump’s approach to the presidency and television’s approach to politics, and the terms on which Trump understands something like repealing the Affordable Care Act are the same as those that have been presented to Americans via cable news for many years.
By cruel fate, Trump provides what the most influential narrators and appraisers of his job incentivize most: ratings, controversy, and a torrent of gratuitous headlines for the Brady Bunch split screen to dissect. Yet, all the while, he really invests his political resources in a small number of agenda items, and he doesn’t really trouble himself over the essence of those things or the final form of his achievements. He wants only a “win” or to seem “strong,” or the ability to blame others if he does not. Trump is not simply a highly problematic president; he is a protean one, with ample latitude available to him as a result of his own lack of political or ethical principles.
The president’s executive in practice underscores this point. Trump’s White House, characterized by multiple power centers and a chaotic, leaky administration, presents us with nothing altogether new. Franklin Roosevelt had a similar one, and so did Bill Clinton. It is rare but not unheard of to see a Republican depart from a more regimented tradition of management; Warren Harding ran a reckless ship of state, tacking from one corruption scandal to another — and this White House may prove an apt successor, for the very same reasons. But a messy executive also holds a great deal of potential; Trump can pivot to whomever serves his purposes at the moment, and disregard that person when he is done. I don’t favor a scenario of a highly productive executive as likely, but I can’t discount it either. Although he is easy to mock, Donald Trump is nothing to take lightly.
The President’s berating of opponents and allies must be situated within the broader picture of his presidential style: it is a constant in a presidency in flux, a performance of control and management where there is little, and a personal stamp on a presidency without direction.
Remember, the offer of a vice presidential slot to John Kasich included a promise from Donald Trump Jr. that Kasich could, if he wished, essentially run the presidency. That’s unusual, and important. Without the boorishness, how would Trump’s voters identify, let alone identify with, the President? It is his only fixed point.
But I think Trump’s practice of insults and public humiliations also allow his voters to feel empowered. Trump’s supporters can view his crudity as a placeholder, if not for their particular personalities, then at least for the power entailed in exposing Washington insiders to tirades so totally antithetical to their norms. In lashing out in ways unbecoming to presidency, he reaffirms his (always tenuous) status as outsider, and confirms his commitment to transform the Washington political establishment.
Different is not necessarily better, and in this case it is an especially impoverished demonstration of “change” to guide a stilted and performative political culture into an an indecorous, unpredictable and often dangerous one. But there can be little doubt of Trump’s determination in this regard, and his political party also seems aware — in the way the Democrats do not — that the American people feel many of the instruments of political power are unresponsive to them. I don’t make that remark in order to comment on a set of issues, although it could easily be applied in that context, and if it were, I think it would largely favor the Democrats.
I mean instead to direct attention to the fact that in the very organization and practice of power, the American people are not wanted. Few have realistic agents of collective action; the Democratic Party is certainly not one. Remarkably, when Democrats recently launched their “Better Deal” for the American people — intended, at least in part, to correct for past mistakes — there was no mention of reform within the Democratic Party itself. Right now the Democrats are a party that routinely wins the national popular vote but is nonetheless locked out of national government and not in control of most states. By definition, then, it is a failed mechanism, unworthy of its voters. Yet Democrats see no reason to change.
At least the Republicans made a show of soliciting voter input on their party platform prior to the convention on their website. All signs indicate it was precisely that, a mere show; I did not see any path by which feedback provided to the Republican Party was organized and processed into deliberations. Trump’s insults, even his bawdy sexism, serve a similar function— a cheap approximation of the “common man”; a pretend populism that cheats us all. But then, voters willing to endorse a candidate who vowed that he alone can fix America’s problems clearly do not rate participatory democracy as a priority.
Instead they have settled on a divisive and debased version of what it means to be in control of government. Democrats and progressives will never win most of their votes and, frankly, for those so ill-disposed toward their fellow citizens and the basic tenets of democracy, we should never want to try.
But that does not mean we should disregard the sources of Trump’s appeal, or disdain his White House more than we fear it. Indeed it would be impossible for the Democrats in Congress to have released a “Better Deal” statement that was totally silent on the process of politics if they had drawn the lessons they should, with the seriousness they must.