The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Peter Thiel: Trump has taught us this year’s most important political lesson

(Photo credit: Ben Margot/AP)

The writer is an entrepreneur and investor.

Our government used to get things done. The Manhattan Project coordinated the work of more than 130,000 people in over a dozen states. It was difficult, unprecedented — and successful. Less than four years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the go-ahead, the United States detonated the world's first atomic bomb.

Today our government finds it hard just to make a website. Our newest fighter jet has already been under development for more than 15 years and it costs more than 15 times as much as the Manhattan Project (adjusted for inflation), but last year it lost a dogfight to a plane from the 1970s.

Similar dysfunction is everywhere, at every level. One of the most dramatic examples is in the nation’s capital: Metro was a marvel when it opened in 1976, and today it’s an embarrassing safety hazard. Ticket machines don’t work; escalators are broken; the trains sometimes don’t even stay on the tracks.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel said that he was proud to be gay and a Republican during the fourth day of the Republican National Convention. (Video: The Washington Post)

Hundreds of thousands of commuters experience this failure at first hand, but nobody is accountable. Last year a Metro worker was fired for fabricating maintenance reports on the ventilation fans whose failure resulted in a passenger's death from smoke inhalation. This year he's being reinstated, and union officials are suing Metro because they don't think he's being reinstated fast enough. Our dysfunctional public sector treats the loss of a government job more seriously than the loss of a person's life.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) might have been secretly relieved last month when one of its own became the first U.S. law enforcement officer charged with supporting the Islamic State: At least foreign subversion would supply a satisfying explanation for the system's failures.

Instead, the explanation we hear from WMATA and from every other government program is as unsatisfying as it is simplistic: They need more money. While the presidential race isn’t over yet and won’t decide the future of Metro, it has already taught us this year’s single most important political lesson: The amount of money you spend matters far less than how you spend it.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is our great teacher in this: He and his allies vastly outspent Donald Trump in the Republican primaries, but he won only three delegates to Trump's 1,725. As The Post pointed out, Bush could have used the money he spent to buy each of his delegates 24 apartments in Trump Tower.

Instead of spending a fortune, Trump won the primaries by saying things that made sense to voters. His greatest heresy was to declare that government health care can work: "It's certainly something that in certain countries works. It actually works incredibly well in Scotland. Some people think it really works in Canada. But not here, I don't think it would work as well here." His objection wasn't about American culture or philosophy, but about our rotten institutions: "It could have worked in a different age."

Today we live in a financial age: The right is obsessed with tax cuts, and the left is obsessed with funding increases. Republicans joke about the incompetence of government to please wealthy donors who don’t want to pay for it; Democrats enable incompetence because they are beholden to public-sector unions that expect their members to get paid whether or not they do the job.

Lost between the two extremes is the vast majority of citizens’ common-sense expectation that the country’s transportation, health care and defense systems should actually work. As a result of both parties ignoring competence while they fight over money, today we have the broken D.C. Metro system, the hobbled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and justified public skepticism of government health care.

What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 7: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at SNHU Arena in Manchester, NH on Monday November 07, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The establishment doesn’t want to admit it, but Trump’s heretical denial of Republican dogma about government incapacity is exactly what we need to move the party — and the country — in a new direction. For the Republican Party to be a credible alternative to the Democrats’ enabling, it must stand for effective government, not for giving up on government.

I believe that effective government will require less bureaucracy and less rulemaking; we may need to have fewer public servants, and we might need to pay some of them more. At a minimum, we should recognize that success cannot be reduced to the overall size of the budget: Spending money and solving problems are not the same thing.

When Americans lived in an engineering age rather than a financial one, they mastered far bigger tasks for far less money. We can’t go back in time, but we can recover the common sense that guided our grandparents who accomplished so much. One elementary principle is accountability: We can’t expect the government to get the job done until voters can say both to incompetent transit workers and to the incompetent elites who feel entitled to govern: “You’re fired.”

Read more:

Elliott Abrams: Despite massive bureaucracy, the president still matters — a lot

The Post’s View: When government accidentally spends too much, everyone pays

John J. Dilulio Jr.: Want better, smaller government? Hire another million federal bureaucrats.

Fareed Zakaria: Trump, “hillbillies” and race