Donald Trump: the method behind the madness. How the unorthodox US president may be one step ahead of his critics
Less than a month into the Trump administration Washington is aswirl. Journalists and old political operators alike are astonished at what they’ve seen. The president is still on Twitter, critiquing television programmes and blasting department stores that once sold his daughter’s clothing line.
The first major policy to come from Trump’s desk, a ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US, was hastily implemented, leaving travellers stranded in transit, and is now under review by the federal courts. Trump has been casual, even brusque, with foreign leaders. Leaks abound, and there are rumors that the president’s advisers are losing faith in him.
Everything suggests chaos. But suggestions and appearances are not always reliable where Donald Trump is concerned. Last year, the same pundits who now are sure the White House is in crisis were equally certain that Donald Trump could never, ever win the election.
Trump’s first moves as president have been more systematic than they might appear
Two years ago, few believed he would even become the Republican Party’s candidate. All the while, from candidate to president, Trump has behaved in an outrageously unorthodox fashion. But there was method in what seemed like madness on the campaign trail, and now President Trump may once again be miles ahead of the media’s seers. The possibility is at least worth examining.
To begin with, Trump has picked as his closest White House aides two individuals with very clear ideas of what the administration should be doing and how it can be done. Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, was formerly chairman of the Republican National Committee.
He is a seasoned political insider who knows his party’s traditional policies better than anyone. He represents conservative orthodoxy within the administration, with an emphasis on low taxes and slashing the federal bureaucracy.
Steve Bannon, on the other hand, the president’s chief strategist, represents the right-wing populism that lifted Trump to victory.
If Priebus, a lawyer, has a background typical for a political operator, Bannon has unusual origins that demonstrate entrepreneurial vision – as an investment banker, documentarian, and the executive chairman of Breitbart News, a media company he turned into a powerhouse.
Trump’s first moves as president have been more systematic than they might appear: he has faithfully implemented policies, or at least set down markers, that advance both the orthodox conservative Republican programme and the agenda of the new nationalist spirit on the right.
The latter has attracted much more attention – indeed, so much so that Trump’s achievements in terms of free markets and deregulation have been widely overlooked by friend and foe alike.
The misreported “Muslim ban” practically monopolised the US media’s attention for a week. In fact, the 90-day moratorium on most visitors applies only to six countries with active Islamist insurgencies – Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen – and one country, Iran, with a revolutionary Islamist government.
While the ban has been met with protests in the street, polls indicate that Trump’s own voters very much support what he’s done
The policy is understood to be Bannon’s, and it has a clear logic: to pause immigration from those few countries while the vetting procedures put in place by earlier presidents are carefully re-examined. To say that the procedures already in place must be sound because Presidents Obama and George W. Bush before him knew what they were doing is to assume the very thing that Trump and Bannon, not to mention Trump’s voters, reject.
They believe, with reason, that neither the Bush approach to Islamic radicalism nor Obama’s has worked, and so every facet of relevant policy, from foreign relations to immigration, must be looked at anew.
That reasoning might be right or wrong, but it is far from irrational. It is also far from impolitic: while the ban has been met with protests in the street, polls indicate that Trump’s own voters very much support what he’s done. As objectionable as the press might see his policies, they are exactly the one that voters put Trump into office to carry out.
That is doubly true where traditional conservative policies are concerned. For many Republican voters, the single most important question of last year’s campaign was who would appoint the next Supreme Court justice.
Trump has selected an appointee, Neil Gorsuch, who appears to be everything conservatives could have hoped for: a judge who will apply a strict reading to the Constitution and prevent judicial or regulatory overreach. Trump has taken direct steps of his own to curb excessive regulation as well, for example with an executive order to require that at least two existing bureaucratic rules be repealed for every new rule imposed.
Is the order more symbolic than substantial? It is taken seriously enough by environmentalists and other opponents that they have sued to stop its implementation. Whatever the outcome of that fight, the signal that Trump is sending is clear – the regulatory state is in his crosshairs. Other Trump executive orders have begun the process of dismantling Obamacare and have put oil pipelines derailed by Obama back on track.
Republican orthodoxy may also be well-served by Trump’s proposed fiscal policy – depending on what one means by Republican orthodoxy. The party likes to present itself as favoring both lower taxes and less government spending. In practice, Republicans like George W. Bush have only increased spending.
Trade is one area where Trump’s populism and conservatism come together in surprising ways
Trump has been quite frank about his intentions: he favors deep tax cuts as well as higher spending for infrastructure and defense. This poses the risk of exacerbating budget deficits, unless the growth fostered by tax cuts and regulatory reform outstrips the cost of more spending with less revenue. This gamble, however, is not of character for Republican presidents. Even Ronald Reagan prioritised economic growth over balanced budgets.
Trade is one area where Trump’s populism and conservatism come together in surprising ways. While the president has scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with most of Asia (minus China), and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal with Europe looks similarly doomed, new bilateral trade agreements may be in the offing, not least with the UK.
It must be borne in mind that multilateral “free trade” agreements in recent years have really been as much about environmental, labor, and other regulations as about trade. Free-market conservatism, no less than economic nationalism, provides good reason to look askance at many of these agreements.
It’s in the broader realm of international relations, however, that Trump’s method, if he has one, appears most unfathomable. Even before he was sworn in as president, Trump shocked diplomats by taking a call with the president of Taiwan.
He suggested to Prime Minister May that she should appoint Nigel Farage as ambassador to the US – a job that is not vacant and is not filled by a foreign leader’s choice in any event. As president, Trump is said to have hung up on the prime minister of Australia mid-call – at least if leaks are to be believed – and may have mused or joked to the president of Mexico about sending US troops into his country.
Asked in a television interview how he could respect the Russian president when “Putin’s a killer,” Trump replied, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think – our country’s so innocent?”
Surely none of this could be deliberate, could it? The president must be talking off the top of his head. Yet here too, there is a certain consistency between how Trump has conducted himself and how he has said a president should conduct foreign affairs.
During the campaign he made a point of saying that a president should be unpredictable, and his negotiating strategy throughout his career in real estate seems to fit the pattern. That is not to say that every informal remark of Trump’s is part of a deliberate strategy, but he does seem to believe that his way of doing business will work on the international stage as well.
Setting aside the way he speaks to, and about, other leaders, Trump’s foreign policy appears coherent enough, if not without its risks. He and his advisors envision a world of more assertive nation-states, one in which America’s allies in Europe and Asia invest more in their own defense and rely less on the United States.
He finds Russia less threatening than Islamist radicalism, both to the US and to the larger Western world. After two decades of idealism in US foreign policy, of attempts to spread liberalism and democracy by force or by sermons, Trump represents a return to power politics. He is the first president to come after the End of History.
So far Trump has been more shocking in word than in deed. Most of his executive orders promote goals that American conservatives have pursued for decades. But the urgency he places on the nation-state is new, and that novelty makes his immigration and foreign policies seem more abrupt and spontaneous than they may in fact be.
To reorient the way the most powerful of nations thinks of itself is a task that could hardly be undertaken without provoking amazement and horror. Yet restoring the principle of the nation-state is less a revolution than the undoing of one: a return to the frank realities of history after decades spent dreaming of universal democracy.
Then again, taking the right measure of Trump has never been easy. His political success has been so uncanny it may well encourage flights of fancy about just how brilliantly he can pull off his new task. Yet the pundits, to a one, underestimated him last year. He did what they said was impossible. That fact alone is reason enough to consider that he might be doing it again.
Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative.