Trump is Actually Full of Policy

Where’s the policy? In my corner of the media world it’s assumed that Donald Trump is running not only a policy-free campaign, but a policy-hostile one. Trump has barely any proposals, while the ones he has are often vague, unclear, and likely to be abandoned or reversed on short notice. By extension, his voters can’t be taking policy seriously either.

I think this is wrong. Issues and policy have been central and voters know it. For most voters, policy is less about solutions and more about framing problems. When it comes to problems, Trump has been remarkably consistent. Even though Trumpism isn’t represented in the formal professional policy sphere, that will change rapidly if he’s elected. This take could be wrong, but hopefully it’s wrong in a productive way, because we need to take his policy seriously in order to stop Trump.

What’s The Problem?

Let’s start with a simple distinction: in politics there are problems and there are solutions.

A bad Keynote graphic to get us started

Policy wonks and journalists tend to think in terms of solutions. Who will do what, how? Lots of dots, peppered with concepts from microeconomic analysis, like: what are the trade-offs at the margin? It’s engineered to appeal to statistical projections: what are the costs over ten years? Trump is terrible at this.

But for most other people, policy is about articulating problems. What has gone wrong and why? What is at the core of the problem, and what is only tangential to it? Can we fix it, ameliorate it, or just live with it?

Trump is fantastic at setting up problems. Trump is very clear on how he sees the problems, be they foreign trade, immigration from Muslim countries and Mexico, law and order, “political correctness,” and so forth. While his solutions, where they exist, are unstable, the way he has set up problems has been remarkably consistent.

As Evan Osnos at The New Yorker noted in an important article, President Trump’s First Term, Trump “doesn’t depart from three core principles: in his view, America is doing too much to try to solve the world’s problems; trade agreements are damaging the country; and immigrants are detrimental to it.” There’s additional elements I’ll add, but these are the core problems as he has defined them in the primary.

Setting up problems is the most important part of policy work. Take criminal justice. For Trump, this is a problem of “law and order,” not of mass incarceration, urban disinvestment, or bad, punitive priorities for policing. It’s a matter of allowing the cops to be “very much tougher than they are right now.”

Trump doesn’t have a criminal justice agenda, but note how easy it would be to fill in a policy agenda once that problem is established. An enterprising young ladder-climber in a Trump administration could easily fill out solutions. Let’s spitball some: kill any attempts at sentencing reform going on in Congress. Extend funding for the creation of new jails and prisons. Disavow the “White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing” and create a new commission staffed only by police-friendly experts. Appoint people to the Department of Justice who will refuse to investigate cities and municipalities for police abuses. Appoint judges who are against the rights of the accused. And so forth. It’s not surprising that the largest police union supports Trump. If you think law and order is the wrong problem, as I do, none of these are convincing solutions no matter how detailed they get.

Simply having a well-crafted policy isn’t a good in and of itself. John Yoo is easily one of the greatest policy wonks of the 21st Century. His 42-page torture memo has the wonk discipline of a ballerina and the wonk improvisation of a tenor saxophonist. Yet it is an evil and shameful thing, because it solves the problem that we had to walk on the “dark side,” that we had to set up a torture regime in the United States. Your opinion of that isn’t ultimately driven by how clever John Yoo’s bulletpoints are.

Or consider the movie In the Loop, still one of the best depictions of DC politics (minor spoilers). Anna Chlumsky’s character is terrified that her “Post-War Planning, Parameters, Implications and Possibilities” (PWPPIP) report for the invasion of Iraq is too good at pointing out how bad an idea war is, because everyone she wants to work with has decided the problem is how to make the case for war. When her policy report is cut in half and sold as secret evidence for the war, she’s relieved and gets a promotion for it. The solutions are malleable to whatever the problem turns out to be.

This isn’t just provocation; I think this framework helps explain why many attacks on Trump are falling flat. Immigration for Trump (who does have a clear plan) is not about the problem of a broken citizenship process or whether we should have open borders, but instead a cultural assault, one where other countries are “not sending their best.” I think that’s why it worked for Trump with his base when he equivocated, and even though his draconian policies were not much different than the standard GOP line; he positioned the problem as one of siege from the outside rather than one of unfairness or limited resources.

I think it may even cover some of the way corruption plays out differently for the candidates. Trump owns the fact that he’s corrupt, but claims he’ll be corrupt for the American people. Clinton, though it’s mostly smoke and no fire, has portrayed herself as a model public servant, so even minor appearances of impropriety sting. I’m willing to believe that, for many Americans, a corrupt elite that’s willing to fight for them for a change is a better solution than good-governance liberalism and endless process reforms.

The Missing Infrastructure

It’s funny how much time liberals have spent terrified about the network of conservative think tanks, media, and public intellectuals, given that all of that infrastructure’s efforts couldn’t even make a dent in Donald Trump’s popularity during the primary. It’s difficult to find people employed professionally in the public sphere who endorse Trump. (There are so few of them that supporters end up on TV very quickly, to often humorous coverage.) That infrastructure isn’t in a position to fill out Trump’s set of problems, but it would do so in a heartbeat if he was in power.

For instance, there are simply no institutions in the academy or think tank world that argue for Trump’s version of mercantilism. Free trade is the norm. Note that Trump goes far beyond the left’s focus on “fair trade,” which centers on labor standards, stealth deregulation, and currency manipulation, which has a policy infrastructure. Ironically, those freaked out about a trade war are already making a list of what Trump could do through executive action, giving him the ideas he would need once in office.

Meanwhile, debates about the welfare state tend to split between a market vision, with perhaps some extra carveouts for the poor, versus a universal public vision. But there’s a third approach we can call Welfare Chauvinism, which is comfortable with extensive public welfare but only for certain groups, such as native-born white workers. This approach is vastly underrepresented in the current policy infrastructure, but would be central to a Trump administration. That the Tea Party was comfortable with a large welfare state as long as it only benefited people like themselves was very clear from the research by political scientists Vanessa Williamson and Theda Skocpol, and now the Tea Party has its candidate. I’ve seen people argue against Trump’s childcare plan because it doesn’t target the poor efficiently, or because it’s not universal and public. But the fact that it is targeted at middle-class and upper-middle-class working families reframes the problem to exclude the poor, fitting this chauvinism theme perfectly.

It cuts the opposite way too. The GOP infrastructure and those that report on it are obsessed with taxes. From the tax revolts to supply-side to the pledge, taxes are the GOP’s central problem to solve. Yet it is very clear Trump does not care about taxes or consider them a problem. Trump gave his tax policy to the Wall Street Journal to keep them happy (and they managed to embarrass him nonetheless), but it never comes up in his speeches. It’s clear this part of the agenda would simply be passed off to Paul Ryan, which is probably why Ryan is willing to be humiliated by Trump this year to be ready in 2017.

This isn’t to argue for policy nihilism. Solutions help inform the problem and vice versa. For example, how to end mass incarceration became clearer once wonks ran the numbers and found that prosecutors and long sentencing for violent crimes are important parts of the carceral state. But it does require us to pay closer attention to this interaction. No matter how opposed President Obama was to the individual mandate, once he accepted that getting sick people private insurance was the problem to solve, that mandate became inevitable.

The idea that Trump’s a policy moron won’t get us far in defeating him. The core problems he’s focused on won’t change once in office, and if the current GOP policy infrastructure won’t address them for him, he’ll find himself a new one. Ironically, as The New Yorker pointed out, it’s the “principled” old-guard wonks that will sit out, meaning the new ones that come in will be even more in sync with Trump’s worldview. Presidents do what they say they will, and Trump has told us clearly what that is, even if the white papers aren’t ready yet. The response from liberals needs to be less mockery, and more explaining why our framing of the problems we face is superior.