The president has plunged ahead with his plans to reverse 70 years of U.S. policy, against the advice of his secretaries of defense and state. His top economic adviser, Gary Cohn — who was unfazed by Trump’s equivocation about Nazis but has found his personal red line on trade policy, apparently — also advised against the tariffs and has now walked out in defeat.
None of this really has very much to do with actual policy. By the time Trump announced the details of the steel and aluminum tariffs on Thursday, his facile public statements about how trade wars are easy to win had already made it clear that he has no actual grasp of what a trade war is, or what it could mean for the United States to start one.
But like so many Trump positions (the wall, the Muslim ban, gun control) the actual content of the policy is irrelevant. His presidential campaign, at its core, operated on a simple premise of social revenge, a notion that only Donald Trump could get even with the shadowy experts who run (and ruin) the lives of ordinary Americans. He vowed to push the eggheads out of the way — not because they are wrong, but because they are eggheads, and nobody likes eggheads.
Since taking office, however, intelligent people in the administration have been trying to pad the sharp corners around the West Wing in an attempt to prevent these campaign promises from becoming ill-advised realities that could harm both the country and the administration. So with the chaotic point the White House has now reached, the president’s supporters are finally going to get what they want: Their rallying cry all along has been to let Trump be Trump and to ignore people who actually know what they’re doing.
Trump’s amen corner in the media has been banging this drum for some time. Fox pundit Laura Ingraham, always one of the most reliable Trump apologists, told her audience that “the left’s experts” had been in control for “decades” — which would be a surprise to the late Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes — and that it was time for them to “get out of the way.”
Ingraham also told basketball player LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” so we need not dwell too much on her Trump cheerleading here. But there is one thing to bear in mind about Ingraham and her fellow Trumperati: They themselves are highly educated people. (Ingraham and newly minted populist ignoramus Dinesh D’Souza, for example, met at Dartmouth College and have spent their lives as public intellectuals of a sort.) They are smart enough to know that this campaign against expertise is a sham. They are leading the charge now not only because it is profitable, but also perhaps because they hope that when all this is over, the Jacobins will come for them last.
A corollary here is that these experts have made a hash of the world and that America is now an expert-created hellhole. “What have experts done for us lately?” asked columnist Glenn Reynolds, and by “lately,” he means “the last 50 years,” as though the highest standard of living the world has ever known and a global system of peace, pro-American alliances and trade somehow happened by accident. The fact that the United States is home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population but creates nearly a quarter of its production is, apparently, a fluke.
What the president and his supporters really mean, of course, is that experts have not shown the proper deference to people who do not understand anything about the world around them. The president seems to believe that no one shows him the proper deference. But others have a point, at least about workers who have been hurt by globalization. Experts do lack a certain empathy when it comes to these issues. We tend to be the people who, when asked a question by someone who’s just lost their job, point to low unemployment rates — as though that matters to a recently jobless person. We might be right, but it rankles nonetheless.
This is why the attack on experts appeals both to Trump and his voters: It scratches a deep itch of resentment that has nothing to do with intelligent policy and everything to do with feeling ignored by the people who have to make things work every day. In the same way that the president fulminates at being told that his ideas might be flawed or wrong, a fair number of Americans now bristle when told that they have to do anything they don’t like: vaccinate their children, eat a healthy diet, put down their phones while driving. None of this is really about steel imports or fortified borders or Muslim travelers; it is about regaining a sense of empowerment.
The world is a complex place. It frightens people to think how much of their daily life is in the hands of their fellow citizens. This has been true since the beginning of the 20th century, and life in the 21st century is not going to get any less dizzying or complicated. Trump and the new Know-Nothings who support him are exploiting this for short-term political gain, but in the longer run, these policies will hurt the very people who voted for Trump in the first place.
Gary Cohn could probably explain all this to the president, if he were still around.