The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The marketplace of ideas is killing the Trump administration

The Trump team has not exploited the Ideas Industry, and it's killing them.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) listens to witnesses during a subcommittee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 election in May. (Getty Images)
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The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has spent this week suggesting that Donald Trump lacks the ability to exercise power and the gift of strategy to accomplish what he wants as president. But this raises a rather awkward question: What does Donald Trump want to do as president?

The answer is far from obvious. Sure, he wants to make America great again, but that is a pretty nebulous endgame. What policies does Trump think will make America great again? A few months ago you could squint and guess that a Bannonite combination of domestic deregulation and tax cuts combined with greater protectionism toward the rest of the world was his recipe.

Six months in, however, and there’s not a lot to show for the #MAGA crowd. Despite a lot of loose talk, so far this administration can’t organize a steel tariff, much less something grander than that:

Last month Politico’s Eliana Johnson and Josh Dawsey noted that even die-hard Trumpkins are beginning to feel frustrated:

Even Trump supporters are beginning to express frustration with the constant chaos in the West Wing. “There are a lot of missed opportunities,” said Julius Krein, who founded the pro-Trump journal American Affairs in February in an effort to give the Trump movement some intellectual heft. “It has all degenerated into D.C. tempests and teapots,” Krein said, characterizing policies championed by the administration in the first six months as “mediocre conventional Republicanism with a lot more noise.”

The president certainly does not seem to have any bright ideas. Or any coherent ideas, for that matter. In the full transcript of his interview with the Wall Street Journal (which Politico published), what stands out is Trump’s complete inability to grasp any policy idea. Consider this verbatim response to a question about what he thinks the ideal corporate income tax rate should be:

Well, you know, we’re going for 15 [percent]. We’re going to see, and we’ll see. But, you know, I don’t want to say anything about negotiation. I mean, we are asking for 15 percent, and we think we’re going to grow tremendously.
So I deal with foreign countries, and despite what you may read, I have unbelievable relationships with all of the foreign leaders. They like me. I like them. You know, it’s amazing. So I’ll call, like, major — major countries, and I’ll be dealing with the prime minister or the president. And I’ll say, how are you doing? Oh, don’t know, don’t know, not well, Mr. President, not well. I said, well, what’s the problem? Oh, GDP 9 percent, not well. And I’m saying to myself, here we are at like 1 percent, dying, and they’re at 9 percent and they’re unhappy. So, you know, and these are like countries, you know, fairly large, like 300 million people. You know, a lot of people say — they say, well, but the United States is large. And then you call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it’s pretty amazing how many people they have. So China’s going to be at 7 [percent] or 8 percent, and they have a billion-five, right? So we should do really well.
But in order to do that — you know, it’s tax reform, but it’s a big tax cut. But it’s simplification, it’s reform, and it’s a big tax cut, 15–

… oh, I’m sorry, I passed out from the extreme bloviating. That middle paragraph is … it’s just dumb, is all. It is a remarkably incoherent word salad about economic development.

Since becoming president, Trump has taken credit for stock market gains he once dismissed. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This problem extends to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, tasked by his father-in-law to broker peace in the Middle East. He said the following to congressional interns last week:

You know everyone finds an issue, that “You have to understand what they did then” and “You have to understand that they did this.” But how does that help us get peace? Let’s not focus on that. We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on, How do you come up with a conclusion to the situation.

I’m just spitballing here, but Kushner’s dismissal of history and, you know, book-learning might explain why his initiative has bogged down.

This problem is getting worse, not better. The Trump administration needs to release a new National Security Strategy. The woman in charge of drafting it, Nadia Schadlow, is widely respected within the national security community. Sebastian Gorka is… not as widely respected. He apparently has no actual policy responsibilities, however, so he had the time to tell Breitbart’s Edwin Mora why Trump’s grand strategy will be super-awesome:

“We have had enough with old ways of thinking,” declared Dr. Sebastian Gorka during an exclusive interview at the White House last week. “The last 30 years of thinking have just been unimaginative. It doesn’t serve the U.S. purpose. We’ve seen about 7,000 people killed in uniform. We have to be smarter about it.”
He noted that the Trump administration will apply “all the instruments of power in the right mixture” to its NSS.
The pillars the strategy is being built upon include rejecting political correctness along with the previous Republican and Democratic approaches to national security, assisting allies while refusing to fight their conflicts, and ensuring that American leadership is back. …
“It’s not diplomacy or war, intervention or isolationism. It is the full spectrum of options of statecraft with American leadership back,” he told Breitbart News, adding, “We jettisoned political correctness. We jettisoned cliché bipolar ways of thinking.”

The most clichéd move in foreign policy is to say that you are going to reject “old ways of thinking.” And if Gorka thinks that political correctness was somehow shackling American power, it suggests a breathtaking ignorance about the wellsprings of American power and purpose.

Let’s face it, the Trump administration is intellectually bankrupt. Its policies to date amount to little more than warmed-over GOP ideology. Its strategists can do little beyond finding ways to make the phrase “Make America Great Again” appear in strategy documents. If this administration ever gets its act together, it will need better idea entrepreneurs than the likes of Kushner or Gorka.

This is where the situation gets even worse for Trump, however. One could argue that Trump’s team has faced a severe ideational constraints. His administration lacked the intellectual apparatus that a more mainstream Democrat or Republican could have found upon taking office. When Trump was inaugurated, there was only one Trump-friendly journal, the newly created American Affairs, and one semi-sympathetic think tank in the Heritage Foundation.

Six months later, American Affairs has produced an interesting article or two, but little in the way of an concrete policy ideas. And Heritage is now trying to distance itself from Trump. After Jim DeMint’s ouster, it would appear that the board is looking for a replacement that is not very Trump-friendly. According to Politico’s Eliana Johnson, Heritage wants to hire Nebraska senator and explicit never-Trumper Ben Sasse:

The entreaties are one sign that Heritage may be looking to change course after the May ouster of its former president, Jim DeMint. In the Senate, DeMint was a leading antagonist of establishment Republicans, and at Heritage he suffered from the perception that the organization was becoming too political — and too reflexively pro-Trump — as its focus on scholarship fell by the wayside….
The organization’s interest in Sasse — sources say board members have been persistent to the point of irritating the senator — indicates that it is looking for a reset. Other conservative think tanks have been less explicitly pro-Trump than Heritage was under DeMint. While American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, for example, has sought to explain the source of Trump’s support, he has stopped short of expressing support for him.

If Trump wants to be known for anything other than “mediocre conventional Republicanism,” then he is going to need to commune with The Ideas Industry. His administration has been so intellectually toxic, however, that he has relied on D-listers. There isn’t a first-rate policy intellectual anywhere to be found in Trump’s White House, and it shows. The GOP tendency to alienate experts has not helped Trump either. The one think tank that was friendly to the executive branch wants to be more independent.

The debate of the week is whether new Chief of Staff John Kelly can bring order to the chaos at the White House. That is a tall order, but even if he could, he has a problem. Without a vibrant wellspring of ideas, the Trump White House wouldn’t know what to do with its more organized structure. And until the White House invests in the intellectual brainpower it desperately needs, the result will be further policy drift.

Even in its current desiccated form, the Trump administration will pursue some policies that play to the base. Make no mistake, however, this is a White House bereft of strategy, of power, and apparently, of ideas.

Otherwise, everything is going great.