Of all the arguments made in favor of a vote for Donald Trump to be President of the United States, or at any rate the Republican nominee, probably the most seductive is the argument that Trump will “burn it down”: replace the business-as-usual Washington political establishment with a bull-in-a-china-shop outsider who will do something different. A great many Americans across the political spectrum are deeply frustrated with our system, for many reasons – some of them very good reasons, others understandable ones. Trump speaks to their frustrations, which is a major reason why he has won 37.1% of the popular vote so far in the Republican primaries; so does Bernie Sanders, which is a major reason why Sanders has won 41.1% of the popular vote so far in the Democratic primaries. But even setting aside the many reasons why Trump is highly unlikely to win a general election, anyone who understands the problems with how Washington works also knows that Trump is almost uniquely unsuited to actually change them.
The Sources of Anger
There are a lot of different currents of anger running through our politics right now, some of which are contradictory (people on different sides of an issue want opposite things), and some of which are impractical (people are angry at things government is powerless to change, except for the worse). At the roots of the anger is a stagnant economy, which exacerbates every problem that exists in better times. As Jay Cost noted back in December, economic growth or its absence has historically been linked to public trust or distrust of American government, and we’ve been in a period of very weak growth ever since the end of the tech-and-trade boom of the 1990s:
All told, the average annual growth rate over the last 14 years has been less than half of its previous postwar average – an anemic 1.7%. Even the stagflation of the 1970s wasn’t nearly so bad, and it was bookended by strong growth in the 1960s and 1980s.
This difference between 3.7% and 1.7% may not sound like much, but it implies trillions of dollars in unrealized growth. The middle class has felt its absence keenly. Average real wages and salaries for private-sector workers have barely improved over the last decade. And the Census Bureau recently noted that the median American male worker has seen no real wage growth in 40 years.
The slowdown has hit the working class especially hard. The employment level for those without college degrees has fallen much faster than for those with colleges degrees, and job losses have been particularly acute in manufacturing and construction.
As the Wall Street Journal added in January, 2015 finished as “the tenth straight year that the U.S. economy has grown by less than 3%. Such a long underperformance hasn’t happened since the 1930s.”
That’s the backdrop for the economic snake oil of Trump’s trade-war rhetoric and Sanders’ socialism. But anger at the political system has some common political themes as well. People increasingly feel like the government doesn’t listen and doesn’t change – or that when it does change (the biggest changes of the past decade being same-sex marriage and Obamacare) it either does so without consulting the voters (in the case of SSM) or while completely ignoring their loud protests (in the case of Obamacare). And the system rolls on: everybody who goes to DC gets richer, and few go home when they’re done; nobody gets held accountable for disasters like the 2008 credit crisis; political leaders like Bill and Hillary Clinton walk away from things that would get ordinary citizens fired or jailed; people get elected promising Republican voters that they’ll cut government and stop abortion (or even stop financing it), and promising Democratic voters that they’ll punish the banks and close Gitmo, restrain the surveillance state and stop killing people with drones, and somehow none of it happens, yet well-financed interests and liberal legal activists always get what they want, and the budget never stops growing. The system seems impervious to the voters who elect it. Every decent American must be struck now and then with the urge to grab a torch and a pitchfork, burn the whole edifice to the ground, and start over. Lots of “burn it down” voters have flocked to Trump. But Trump is simply the wrong man for the job.
The “Deep State”
Our Constitutional system of government, as originally designed, wasn’t supposed to be like this. America is a republic, not a pure democracy, so we’re supposed to have checks and balances that operate as sobriety checkpoints that make jarring, far-reaching changes slow at the national level. But this was supposed to be balanced out by keeping most power in the hands of the states and ensuring that the federal government always ultimately answered to “We The People.”
Somewhere along the way, step by step, we’ve been losing that – losing the sense that either our state and local governments or our elected representatives in Washington are actually in charge, let alone have the incentive to change things. The courts have erected ever-growing edifices of constitutional law, taking more and more decisions out of the hands of elected officials even on issues never mentioned when the people were asked to add things to the Constitution, leaving massive, unreviewable power in the hands of 5 unelected judges. The power of the purse used to be a great source of influence for the House, which could simply decline to fund things the voters who elected it didn’t like; now, massive amounts of the federal budget – around three-quarters of federal spending, by some estimates – are already committed to entitlements and debt service before Congress even appropriates a penny, and the budget process is rigged so that the only options presented are shutting down the entire government or funding every last horrible thing that the President or a majority of the House or 40 Senators wants. The federal government draws the states into an ever-growing web of funded and unfunded mandates and joint partnerships, which again roll along unless both parties unite to stop them, and for which nobody can be held solely accountable to the voters. Vast economic powers are delegated to the Federal Reserve, which is unelected and only vaguely guided by written rules, and huge powers are devolved on the bureaucracy, including permanent civil servants and a menagerie of agencies not directly accountable to the President – or to anyone else.
Writers on the Left and the paleocon and libertarianish Right often refer to this complex – sometimes including the big donors, federal contractors and military brass – as the “Deep State,” a permanent political establishment that reacts slowly, if at all, to the elected branches and is expert at capturing them.
If we are going to re-impose any sort of popular control over our government and not simply work within the system as it exists today, the most important element of all is a willingness and ability to tame the “Deep State” by attacking its powers at the roots.
Running The Traps
This is one area in which a President Donald Trump would be such a conspicuous failure. Yes, sure, Trump is a guy who dislikes letting the Beltway Establishment set rules for him. He’d say whatever he wants, and at least try to do whatever he wants. I have no doubt that Trump, in office, would produce a whirlwind of executive orders and other unilateral acts. I have no doubt as well that he would attempt to negotiate deals he likes with Congress and foreign governments. I’m not so sure we would see his famous “you’re fired” as much as we might like – Trump’s campaign has been awfully hesitant to fire people that Trump hired, unlike the contestants on his TV shows, as that would reflect an admission of error by Trump. But it’s one thing to try to do your own thing without paying attention to the rest of the system; it’s quite another to go after the system’s ability to keep doing its own thing, ignoring you and undermining you at every turn.
What in Trump’s background suggests he has either the knowledge of the Deep State system or the personality needed to challenge or dismantle parts of it? The essential characteristic of the whole apparatus is precisely that it doesn’t ask the President’s permission to keep going. You can ignore Supreme Court decisions, but they will keep issuing them, and when you’re gone, they’ll still be on the books and obeyed by lower courts. You can yell at the bureaucracy, but you can’t fire it. This is not a new problem – it’s precisely why ‘outsider’ governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura have gotten steamrolled in office. One is reminded of Harry Truman’s observation about handing over power to Dwight Eisenhower, our last President who had never been an elected official: “Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this, do that,’ and nothing will happen.” Eisenhower, as befit his vast military and diplomatic experience, proved a highly skilled and savvy Commander-in-Chief and a determined, hands-on enforcer of the laws, but he never even attempted to reverse the trends of how DC had swollen under the New Deal. And his Supreme Court appointments would go on to massively expand the power of the judiciary. Ike ran the government very, very well – but he never even tried to tame it.
Trump has no intention – he has made this clear – of altering entitlements, so right off the bat, most of the budget is off the table, and his obvious ignorance of the budget process means he would never be able to get far enough into the weeds to actually reform how the system works. He has proposed no reforms that would actually change anything about the bureaucracy or the judiciary or even the Pentagon, nor given any indication of having studied the question. As I noted back in November, in arguing for Bobby Jindal:
[T]he procedural, budgetary and behind-the-scenes shenanigans on the Hill are really only the tip of the iceberg of the many ways that institutional Washington – the CBO, the Pentagon, the IRS, the DOJ Civil Rights Division, the Education Department, the courts, etc. – conspire to make any sort of real reductions in the size and scope of the federal government, and in the federal government’s financing and protection of liberal-progressive causes, prohibitively difficult.
In other words, a conservative president needs to be prepared from Day One to know where the sources of resistance are, to spot the traps, to understand the system well enough to control it and bend it to his will.
Would Trump burn down the system? I’m not even sure he’d know where to set the matches.
Even working within the system, if you haven’t done the homework to understand how the Deep State puts one over on its transient elected masters, you stand little chance of piercing its smoke screens. I’ve made a similar point before about why Trump would ultimately be a bonanza for the GOP’s consultant class – his nomination would actually encourage more of the kinds of candidates most likely to lavish resources on consultants and depend on them, rather than knowing enough (as Ted Cruz does) to impose some supervision and discipline on them and require them to produce results.
Trump’s whole background in real estate development is that of a guy who plays by the rules and within system (hence, his many donations to liberal politicians), not one who tries to change the game, as this shrewd review of his book “Art of the Deal” explains:
Here is a guy whose job is cutting through bureaucracy, and who is apparently quite good at it. Yet throughout the book – and for that matter, throughout his campaign for the nomination of a party that makes cutting bureaucracy a big part of their platform – he doesn’t devote a lot of energy to expressing discontent with the system. There is no libertarian streak to Trump – in the process of successfully navigating all of these terrible rules, he rarely takes a step back and wonders about a better world where these rules don’t exist. Despite having way more ability to change the system than most people, he seems to regard it as a given, not worth debating….Most star basketball players are too busy shooting hoops to imagine whether the game might be more interesting if a three-pointer was worth five points, or whatever. Trump seems to have the same attitude – the rules are there; his job is to make the best deal he can within those rules.
…I feel like this explains a lot about his presidential campaign. People ask him something like “How would you fix Medicare?”, and he gives some vapid answer like “There are tremendous problems with Medicare, but I’m going to hire the best people. I know all of the best doctors and health care executives, and we’re going to cut some amazing deals and have the best Medicare in the world.”…At some point you’d expect Trump to do his homework and get some kind of Medicare plan or other…Even his much-mocked tendency to talk about all the people he knows comes from this being a big part of his real estate strategy – one of the reasons he can outcompete other tycoons is because he knows people on the planning board, knows people in the banks, knows people in all the companies he works with. It’s a huge advantage for him.
These strategies have always worked for him before…I’ve been designing ideal systems of government for the heck of it ever since I was old enough to realize what a government was. Trump is at serious risk of actually taking over a government, and such design still doesn’t appeal to him. The best he can do is say that other people are bad at governing, but he’s going to be good at governing…
Trump the demagogue is attacked as anti-intellectual…But Trump of the book is more a-intellectual, in the same way some people are amoral or asexual. The world is taken as a given. It contains deals. Some people make the deals well, and they are winners. Other people make the deals poorly, and they are losers. Trump does not need more than this.
Read the whole thing; there’s a lot more where that came from, and a lot to think about even in a review that is broadly sympathetic to Trump’s book.
Think about it: when has Trump shown any interest in changing the rules for anything? When has he shown he even knows or cares what the rules are? As Leon noted yesterday, Trump keeps getting schooled by Ted Cruz just on how to understand and operate within the rules of the Republican delegate system – unsurprisingly, since Cruz is a brilliant Constitutional lawyer whose whole life has been dedicated to rules, but Trump’s failure to plan ahead for how to beat the party establishment at its own game bodes very poorly for his ability to do the same to the Deep State.
And of course, the fact that Trump has no fixed political principles means he is bound to take the paths of least resistance to any end he desires – why dig in for a long, bloody fight to reform how the rules work, when someone with a vested interest in the rules is willing to offer you a short term reward? In 1876, Republicans took a bargain that gave Rutherford B. Hayes a single term in the White House, and gave Democrats the end of Reconstruction and effective control of the South for the next 75 years. That’s the kind of deal the “GOPe” has been making ever since, and yet it’s exactly the kind of deal you and I know Trump would take and declare a “win” because he’s always more interested in being a winner than in the long game.
If we stand any chance of making real change in how the country works over the next four years, we won’t get it from Trump (any more than we would from Hillary Clinton, who is practically the living embodiment of the Beltway Establishment). Fortunately, there happens to be one guy left in this race who actually cares very deeply about the rules of the game and how to change them: Ted Cruz. Maybe Cruz won’t succeed either in burning the whole system down, and maybe he shouldn’t try to bite off such an ambitious goal, but at least he will try and has a track record of being precisely the kind of person who will hold out to get some real results.