I was a New Yorker for the first 34 years of my life, and like the rest of my tribe, I believed that politics would be much better if only we could find time in our busy schedules to go to Washington to straighten things out. President Trump is a specimen of the type. Now comes JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon; during an event at the bank’s New York headquarters Wednesday morning, according to CNBC, he claimed that he could beat Trump in an election.
“I’m as tough as he is,” Dimon told his audience, and “I’m smarter than he is.”
On both counts, I’m sure he’s correct. As head of JPMorgan, for example, Dimon managed to weather the magma-grade heat and pressure of the public reaction to the 2008-2009 financial crisis. He did this without, as far as I know, throwing a single tantrum on Twitter. Moreover, Dimon could probably remember a handful of simple policy talking points without garbling them, unlike the president.
Which misses the point. Politics isn’t about smart. It isn’t even about tough. That’s something that many New Yorkers have a hard time grasping.
When I lived in New York, I myself was full of ideas about how politics could easily be improved. I wondered if Washington’s swamp gases weren’t neurotoxic, because the solutions were obvious.
Then in 2007, I relocated.
From the banks of the Potomac, I noticed, New Yorkers’ proposed remedies didn’t look so smart. Or, rather, they looked eminently logical but woefully ill-informed. New Yorkers could do the math all right; they just couldn’t accurately calculate how much procedural red tape stood between policymakers and the answers sitting there in plain sight. Those New Yorkers also didn’t account for how many powerful interest groups would be pulling the red tape taut, preventing well-meaning reformers from hacking through the maze and upsetting special-interest gravy bowls.
But what New Yorkers really didn’t get was that people in Washington understood exactly how inefficient and crazy it all was. And hated the craziness as much as everyone else. They just had local knowledge that everyone else lacked.
Long experience taught them that it wasn’t enough to come up with smart plans. The city is filled with brilliant people who can identify simple, obvious solutions as easily as any Wall Street banker. What’s needed is something non-obvious enough to be slipped past hordes of vigilant special-interest groups, yet still sufficiently uncomplicated to be explained to the voters.
Generally, they don’t find it. So aspiring politicians tend to fall into two camps. They either pretend not to know how complicated it all is, and rail against the system while knowing that they won’t be able to change it much. Or they genuinely don’t understand the difficulties, and promise a bunch of stuff they can’t possibly deliver.
In the latter group, possessing intellectual chops and toughness is a handicap. The studious and well-informed will eventually apprehend reality, which will critically impair the sincerity of their bombast. The tough will bravely tell the truth to some thin-skinned interest group that can un-elect them. Which is why Washingtonians understand that New York moxie didn’t work despite being untethered to policy expertise, but precisely for that reason.
Yet many shameless panderers have tried and failed to gain the Oval Office; Trump’s innovation was to turn his campaign into one giant A/B test. That is, he worked on the same essential principles as marketing firms that devise successful ad campaigns by floating two different messages to a test group, seeing which one works better, and then rolling out the winner to their broader customer base.
Trump was happy to say something in front of an audience, see how they liked it, and walk it back the next night if it flopped. And if a message worked, he would run with it, completely indifferent to its truth, its feasibility or its unsavory implications.
That might not be genius, but it does raise low cunning to a high art. Pulling it off, however, requires a certain sort of personality — among other things, a gargantuan appetite for risk-taking and an indifference to elite opinion — that you don’t really find among many people, not even banking executives. Or in most of the other professions to which legions of I’m-so-smart New Yorkers belong.
Of course, those New Yorkers might retort that cunning or no, this is one lousy way to run a republic. To which Washingtonians might well offer the weary reply: Tell us something we don’t know.