I’m not going to sugarcoat this: For policy experts, the next four years of the Trump administration will be a waking nightmare. This is for two reasons. The first is that Trump’s team has few if any policy wonks. The second is that this puts the average policy wonk in a no-win situation.
Let’s start with the lack of policy wonks. I would guess that the Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti and the New York Times’ Neil Irwin disagree on many issues of substance. One of the things that the appear to agree on, however, is that the incoming Trump Cabinet does not contain much in the way of relevant policy or management expertise. Here’s Continetti:
Only one of the men and women nominated by Trump has experience managing the gigantic and recalcitrant organizations that comprise the administrative state: Elaine Chao, who served as George W. Bush’s secretary of labor and is now slated to head the department of transportation under Trump. White House counsel Don McGahn knows Washington as an attorney and former chair of the FEC. And, as I write, there are two members of the administration who have experience as elected executives: Mike Pence and Nikki Haley.
But Haley has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs, and she’s going to be ambassador to the United Nations. Senator Jeff Sessions is liked by his peers and has been a U.S. attorney and state attorney general, but he never has had as much authority as he will have next year. Neither Reince Priebus nor Stephen K. Bannon has served in government, much less the White House. General Flynn made his reputation as a hard-charging “disrupter,” K.T. McFarland’s last government job was in the Reagan administration, Betsy DeVos is a philanthropist and activist who will be new to government, Gen. Mattis is an American hero beloved by Marines but also a stranger to domestic politics, Mike Pompeo was elected to Congress six years ago, and Ben Carson is, well, Ben Carson.
As Irwin notes, this pattern is not only evident at the Cabinet level, but the subcabinet level as well:
Usually you expect an appointee in that outsider mold to then appoint a deputy who “knows the building,” or has a clear understanding of how to exercise the levers of power in the aforementioned sclerotic bureaucracy. Which paper do you need to push in which direction to get your policy enacted? What are the likely downsides of those policies, and how can they be minimized? …
The swamp that is being drained is the one inhabited by wonkish technocrats who have devoted their careers to the details of policymaking. If nothing else, the years ahead will be a fascinating experiment in how much policy expertise actually matters to effective governing.
The question going forward is what this means for, you know, how well the federal government does its job. It is possible that disrupters are exactly what the government needs, though I have serious doubts. On foreign policy, there are already signs that Trump’s actions, without any competent staff support at all, are rippling through the national security bureaucracy and the world’s capitals in ways that harm the national interest.
For technocrats, this is the darkest timeline. They are meritocrats to the core, and the emergent Trump administration is a meritocratic apocalypse. They have been trained to believe that things like expertise and experience matter in conducting the nation’s affairs. Trump hasn’t hired talentless hacks, but his hires possess little direct relevant experience or training to run the departments they’ve been hired to run. The conclusion to draw from this is that the country will be very badly run for the next four years.
This leads to an existential problem for experts. Wonks love their country and they love policy minutiae. They believe that experience and expertise are pretty important when it comes to governing. They are now trying to process an incoming administration that believes there are no such things as objective facts or words that matter.
This puts the technocrat in a very awkward situation. If their premise is that being wonkish is necessary for government to function, then they will predict awful governance for the next four years. That’s bad for intrinsic reasons.
But what if their premise is wrong? What if the Trump administration turns out to be pretty good at governing? Well, that’s worse.
All three loyal readers of Spoiler Alerts will scoff at the possibility of a competent Trump administration, but it’s worth mulling over. Trump has spent the past year and a half defying most political experts and winning the greatest natural experiment in American political history. What if he and his team prove to be better at governing than wonks expect him to be? What if it turns out that the country is already trending in a very positive direction and even the federal government can’t screw that up? Or what if disruption by inexperienced policy principals is just what the bureaucracy needs?
It would mean an Orwellian nightmare for wonks. Education is ignorance. Reading is harmful. Experience is fatally flawed. Debate is debilitating. “Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice” is a classic.
For the next four years, wonks will have to fear for their country or fear that their entire set of career choices was mistaken. That’s the Sophie’s Choice that most policy mandarins face.