The rumor is that Ivanka Trump was the one who, during election night, came in and told her father that he was pulling ahead in the presidential race. His response, “What do you mean I’m ahead?” is something I made up, but it has a strong ring of truth to it. At the outset of the evening the polls and the TV commentators were ready to crown Hillary Clinton, but as the night dragged on something else happened.
It is likely that on announcing his candidacy Donald Trump didn’t actually believe he could win the election. His whole campaign was an improbable ego trip from the start and he probably surprised himself when he got traction with voters. Being the opportunist that he is, once he discovered the magic formula he kept hammering it into the public’s psyche. That formula was: an unscripted billionaire political outsider who stumbled onto populist and nationalist themes that resonated with his supporters. And it resonated with an ego as big as Mt. Rushmore.
It worked and I believe he was just as shocked as everyone else. Otherwise how can the chaos of his scrambling-to-catch-up transition be otherwise explained. Trump’s post-election behavior supports his bewilderment and naiveté. It is as if he still doesn’t realize who he has become: the most powerful man in the world burdened with immense responsibilities.
To this day, the president-elect is unable to give his full attention to the weighty affairs of state and demeans himself with petty concerns such as his Twitter disparagement of Arnold Schwarzenegger as his replacement on Celebrity Apprentice or singer Jackie Evancho’s record sales or hitting back at Meryl Streep. Those who have dealt with him over the years often remark on his inability to focus on anything for long. Gravitas would be reassuring.
I have researched Trump’s personal political ideology based on his past record. I would like to say there is a rich history of consistent political beliefs that constitute an ideology, an outlook on how he believes the world works. However, I can find no trace of any ideology. The man has three books that can be labeled as “political” books and they are consistent with his campaign rhetoric, but straw-manning “problems” and saying he will fix them with simplistic (and harmful) “solutions” is not the same thing as ideology. By the way, Trump does not write his own books. An interesting read is this article about who really wrote Art of the Deal (not Trump).
Trump’s record is one of an opportunist who sought and bought influence from politicians of any stripe as long as it served his interests. Trump’s drive and ego served him well to build his real estate fortune, but his single-mindedness didn’t leave room for ideology. Pragmatism isn’t a philosophy of governance without an understanding of why some things work and some don’t. Trump lacks that understanding.
These observations give rise to the question of who’s driving the policy train at Trump HQ. Other than his selection of some of his billionaire buddies for cabinet and Administration positions, it is clear that Trump is not driving the train. One could look at this process as a refreshing change from the usual political payoffs, but it cannot give us confidence that we have a president who is not seriously engaged in the ideological direction of his Administration.
Who then is?
There are three drivers of the ideological direction of his Administration.
Trump will personally drive the issues that got him to the White House: trade protectionism, infrastructure spending, and immigration. Unfortunately, these are the issues can do the most harm to the economy.
The Republican conservative establishment in Congress and in Trump’s administration will drive core Republican issues: reformation of Obamacare and the health care system, tax reform, and regulatory reform.
Foreign policy, defense policy, and economic policy will be driven by Administration appointees whose policy directions are unknown. Trump insiders say he will rely on his advisers in these areas.
In other words, other than Trump’s main campaign issues, policy will not be directed by President Trump. His lack of ideology was the main reason he was vague about future policy initiatives during his campaign. Consequently, he has deferred policy development to conservatives led by vice president-elect Mike Pence and chief adviser Steve Bannon. There is also influence from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank which has members on the transition team as well as behind the scenes.
There are two sides to this for those with free market leanings hoping for a prosperous future under President Trump. One side is: woe is us. The other is: well, maybe there’s hope.
Hope lies in: tax reduction, deregulation, health care reform, and a more Constitutionally enlightened Supreme Court.
Woe lies in trade wars, Middle East adventurism, wasteful infrastructure spending, and the disruption of America’s (immigrant) labor force.
The prospect of trade wars is the most significant immediate threat. Trade with other nations is deeply embedded in the American economy as well as the world’s. It has been a boon to America’s economy and American consumers. Trade wars would send the economy into a tailspin. And the war is already starting.
Trump is threatening American manufacturers who offshore production, with auto companies as his current target. If, as I believe he will, act immediately to abrogate trade deals and erect tariff walls to foreign goods, then we have much to worry about.
Presidents have arrogated vast powers to themselves over the years, all with the assent of Congress. A president now has almost imperial powers over certain sectors of the government and the economy including foreign trade. Scholar Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, has concluded that Trump could, without Congressional approval, withdraw from or invalidate U.S. trade deals. The economic impact would be immediate.
No amount of tax relief would offset the damage to trade and the economy.
Nor would infrastructure spending reverse the damage. Conservative fans of infrastructure spending forget that the Obama Administration’s $787 billion stimulus bill included almost a half billion dollars in “shovel ready” infrastructure spending. I would challenge anyone to explain how that wasteful Keynesian deficit spending was good for the economy. Yet this Keynesian myth persists among the highest circles of Trump’s advisers. Perhaps they should visit Japan and its failure to stimulate their economy through 20+ years of infrastructure spending.
An ideologically unencumbered President Trump would likely pursue the trade issue with a vengeance. He has surrounded himself with an anti-trade economic adviser (Peter Navarro), a pro-protectionist trade negotiator (Robert Lighthizer), and his Secretary of Commerce, billionaire Wilbur Ross who said about our trade deals, “Somebody wins and somebody loses. And unfortunately, we’ve been losing with these stupid agreements that we’ve made.” Not only are these views detached from economic reality, these people are oblivious to the unintended harmful consequences of their actions.
It is possible that good things could ultimately come out of the comic opera that will be the Trump Administration. But that assumes he doesn’t trash the economy first.