Earlier this month Tom Nichols read something that made him feel equal parts vindicated and furious.
The offending words belonged to Peter Navarro — President Trump’s trade adviser, who told Bloomberg News: “My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm [Trump’s] intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters.”
The statement made Nichols lean back in his office chair and mutter something unprintable.
“This is not the job of an expert,” Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a conservative critic of Trump, said later. “In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of what an expert is supposed to do.”
Nichols is an expert on experts. He’s written a book — “The Death of Expertise”— that argues Americans have become hostile to, and less trusting of, people highly trained to know of what they speak. The book isn’t about Trump per se, but . . . “When you see something like what Navarro said, it makes the point pretty well.”
It’s become one of Trump’s defining characteristics, this disregard for experts. He’s called Labor Department estimates of the unemployment rate “totally fiction,” and pressured the head of the National Park Service to back up his inflated account of his inauguration crowd size. During the campaign he admitted to getting his military advice by “watching the shows.” And now — with various hirings, including the recent addition of cable news personality Larry Kudlow as the director of the National Economic Council and rumors that he’ll make Fox News’s Pete Hegseth the veterans affairs secretary — the talking heads are trading in the green room for the White House.
To make matters worse, of the 647 key positions in the executive branch that require Senate confirmation, only 293 have been confirmed.
The consequences could be dire. Without highly trained people in government, the nation could stumble into a trade war, or perhaps a nuclear one.
Experts are worried. About atomic annihilation, sure. But also about a version of dystopia that is already becoming real to them: a world where no one listens to what they have to say.
“To be an expert today is to be in a defensive crouch,” Nichols said. “We aren’t being used for much, but we’re being blamed for everything.”
As is often the case in Trump's Washington, the past is prologue. The president's war on experts isn't exactly new. It's more like an exaggerated version of an old trope, an echo amplified by a megaphone.
In 1957, for example, it was Dwight Eisenhower who was being accused of spending too much time on a golf course and not enough time surrounded by the scientific community.
“The president has gradually drifted apart from the intellectual opinion of the country [and] filled up his social hours with bantering locker-room cronies,” the journalist James Reston wrote in the New York Times after the Soviets won the first leg of the space race by launching Sputnik into orbit.
Trump isn’t even the first president to rely heavily on television to keep up with world events.
“When the first Gulf War erupted, President Bush got his up-to-date information from watching CNN, not from his CIA briefing,” said C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel for the first Bush and as ambassador to the European Union under the second.
And even President Barack Obama, Mr. Ivy League himself, couldn’t please all the experts all the time. Early in 2009 the president had appointed so few high-ranking political scientists that a poll of 2,700 international relations experts declared: “The walls surrounding the ivory tower have never seemed so high.”
That is one wall, however, that Trump has managed to build even taller.
“It’s never been this extreme before,” said Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and author of the book, “Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again.” It takes more than an electoral mandate to accomplish things, Kamark argues. It takes policy wonks to predict pitfalls, and political gurus to see around negotiating corners.
“It’s no surprise he hasn’t been able to accomplish his biggest priorities,” she said. Take Trump’s first attempt at a travel ban as an example. It was complete “chaos,” in Kamarck’s view, and it didn’t have to be. If Trump had just spent more time with the Department of Homeland Security or talking to folks on the border, Kamarck said, the order might have taken into account what to do with green-card holders for example, or at least been on sturdier legal ground.
“The experts wouldn’t have gotten in the way of what he wanted,” she said. “But they could have kept it all from blowing up in his face.”
Trump’s most ardent supporters, however, see this complaint as just the last gaseous gasp from a dying swamp.
“I think people are just being huffy about this,” said Matt Schlapp, an unofficial adviser to Trump. “There’s always been this certain expectation in Washington that you will court the town, and incorporate them into your administration. Donald Trump skipped that from the very beginning and the usual suspects just don’t like being ignored.”
Schlapp, who served as a political director in the George W. Bush administration, says that when he used to help out with the hiring process for key positions in and out of the White House, it could feel “rote, almost automated.”
“This outside-the-box thinking is great,” he said. Trump became president by saying the old way of doing things had let the country down, Schlapp contends, so why on earth would he rely on the usual suspects once in office? Then again . . .
“The downside,” he admits, “is there will be some people who know very little about government.”
Washington has always been filled with experts: economists who can make the case for catfish subsidies in the farm bill, lobbyists who know about tax breaks for the dehydrated onion and garlic industry, and health-care wonks who can explain why a Band-Aid handed out in an emergency room can cost more than $600.
But traditionally the most powerful people in Washington are the experts on the city itself. They are breathlessly described by insiders as wise men, as people who know the process, control the paper and know how to pull the levers of influence.
They tend to jump from one administration to the next, bringing with them institutional knowledge. No one, it seems, has jumped from a previous administration into this one.
“Who is the wise man or woman coming out of this White House?” asked David Gergen, himself an adviser to four presidents. “I think you would have a hard time naming that person at the moment.”
Gergen makes the case that these self-important people are also just plain important.
“I’ve always thought that a blend of loyalists who know the man but not Washington works well with pragmatists who know Washington and not the man,” he said. Trump, it would seem, relies on the loyalists to the near exclusion of the pragmatists.
Yes, there’s Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who for a time brought a semblance of order to the White House, but now not a week goes by without rumors of his firing. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reportedly a man who could stand up to Trump, but — according to Kelly — he got the ax while on the toilet. And the Washington hand who once “controlled the paper,” Rob Porter, was removed after reports came out about him allegedly beating his ex-wives.
It has long been Trump’s instinct to rely on a group of friends and confidants or his own gut, but those are becoming his only options.
“Hubris can be a very, very dangerous thing in that office,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former political guru. “If the only qualification in the White House and administration is obsequiousness and an ability to do well on television, we are headed for some really difficult times.”
The upside for experts? Difficult times could be exactly what they need to return to prominence. Not that they’re rooting for it . . .
“The apogee of expertise was the 30 years between 1945 and 1975,” Nichols said. “Why is that? Because we were rebuilding a world that was torn to shreds by populism and a World War.”