The writer is a contributing editor at the Claremont Review of Books and author of ‘The Age of Entitlement’
Americans are patient with their political parties. When they vote out a president after one term, it is usually at the tail-end of a long tenure in the White House for his party. Donald Trump’s defeat marks only the second time since the 19th century that Americans have voted to send a political party packing after a single four-year term. (The other was Jimmy Carter’s Democrats in the late 1970s.) Among the reasons: Mr Trump’s unprecedented failures as a manager.
Populist movements face a Catch-22. They take power arguing that a governing class or even a “deep state”, insulated from the democratic will of the people, has grown snobby, opaque and self-serving. Populists are sometimes right about the corruption of technocracies. Political theorists since Max Weber have understood that. But even an anti-technocratic movement, once in power, needs enough technocratic knowhow to run the government and locate the abuses it has been complaining about.
Staffing a democratic government is hard for someone who comes from outside the usual systems of elite-formation, but not impossible. American general Dwight Eisenhower, Italian mogul Silvio Berlusconi and Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan all managed the transition to head of government better than Mr Trump.
Although his reality-TV show The Apprentice centred on Mr Trump as a picker of staff, hiring and firing was never his strength. One struggles to name a single executive of distinction who emerged from any of the businesses he has run over the past half-century: hotels, casinos, an airline, an American football team. That pattern continued in the White House.
A president controls 4,000 “political appointments”, who should form a qualified, effective and, above all, loyal core. For instance, president-elect Joe Biden recently named his White House chief of staff: Ron Klain, who served as his vice-presidential chief of staff. Previously chief of staff to Al Gore, Mr Klain fought in the trenches in the highly partisan battle over the 2000 election results. Mr Biden has promised to reach out to his political adversaries, but that work will probably be done by someone other than Mr Klain.
Mr Trump made one bad decision after another. He chose as his first chief of staff an ally of the party leaders he overthrew. Reince Priebus had written a policy manifesto calling for Republicans to follow Democrats’ lead: more gay rights, more immigrant outreach.
The president also appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a “senior adviser”; an ill-defined post that allowed the life-long Democrat to overrule much of the cabinet. Mr Trump named an attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, whom he faulted for failing to protect him from politically motivated probes. Oil executive Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s first secretary of state, had dreams of reorganising the state department as he had Exxon. That made it harder to staff the foreign service: who wants a position that might not exist in a few months?
Delay was a big part of the Trump administration’s problem. Of those 4,000 political appointees, 2,800 do not require Senate approval, and can be filled immediately. But this too proved hard. There was a shortage of qualified specialists loyal to Mr Trump. As is normal, many of Barack Obama’s political appointees had become unfireable career employees. And, having insulted both the competence and the integrity of US civil servants during the 2016 campaign, Mr Trump seemed to expect them to be both professional and neutral when he came for their authority. He expected the swamp to collaborate in its own draining.
It did not. Mr Trump was impeached last December, though not convicted. The Democratic-led probe built on a series of investigations that smothered his presidency. It is wrong to use the term “deep state” to describe those in the intelligence agencies who joined in this rearguard action. They wore their resistance on their sleeves.
Seen in this light, the suspicion that Mr Trump was a budding autocrat was always off-base. An autocrat is not just a solipsistic ruler. An autocrat makes the government’s instruments of force — police, soldiers, spies — resonate to his will. Mr Trump never even figured what his agents did or which ones he could trust. There were many reasons to worry about Mr Trump. Autocracy was not one of them.
The difference between Mr Trump’s failure and UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s success (at least on pushing Brexit forward) is that Mr Johnson found adequate senior staff and Mr Trump did not. Dominic Cummings designed the successful Brexit campaign of 2016, and joined Mr Johnson in 10 Downing Street in 2019 to help rescue Brexit from a legalistic and procedural thicket. The departure of Mr Cummings is less likely to make Mr Johnson’s government more “moderate” than to make it more Trumpian, and not in the best sense.
For a populist, it’s hard to find good help these days. But it remains vital. The problem is not just institutional, it is temperamental. An effective populist adviser turns out to be a rare personality type: someone who loves bureaucracy enough to master its details, but hates it enough to join in pulling it apart.