With Trump continuing to be a dominant force in the American political landscape, it’s important to consider what a Trump presidency might look like. I’m not yet convinced that Trump is capable of beating the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, but Trump’s chances of assuming high office are significant enough to make considering his presidency a worthwhile thought experiment. Of course, I’m not the first one to write about this. Moreover, I’m far from certain that anybody really knows what a Trump presidency would look like policy wise. After all, the man seems to change his mind every other second. Therefore, the particularities of a hypothetical Trump administration, to me at least, remain obscured. What is more predictable, however, is how effectively Trump would be able to govern. The answer is not very well.
I’m not even going to touch congressional-executive relations under a Trump administration because I think we all know they would not be good. After all, if Obama could not get along with Congress, Trump has no chance. For the purposes of this post, therefore, we are going to ignore that element of governance and instead focus just within the executive. For, even here, a Trump presidency is doomed to failure.
What’s important to understand about the federal executive is that it is made up of hundreds of agencies and sub-agencies. Each agency has its own director, culture, policy preferences and historical relationship with other agencies. Most governing is not done by the President but by the bureaucracy. It is the agencies that determine how to enforce regulations, which strategies to pursue, and where to focus resources. Even on the big issues, the President only has nominal control. Advisers, staffers, and subordinates are crucial to navigating the complexities of the federal government. The President is really only able to pursue general policy goals, and even this is done primarily through agency oversight. It is here that Trump has a problem.
Trump is an outsider. He is proud of the fact that he is (allegedly) self-funding his campaign, and his supporters often don’t identify with the Republican establishment. While this is an advantage for Trump in that he can distance himself from the less popular components of the Republican Party’s ideology, it is a huge weakness when it comes to actually governing. After all, none of his brilliant friends and business colleagues have ever run a federal agency. They have no idea who the influential bureaucrats are, where the policy cleavages lie, or what the political cultures are in each agency. This is where a strong party structure is immensely helpful. The Republicans and Democrats have an immense, well-established network of professionals, think tanks, and policy wonks to assist them in exerting influence after they assume power. Experienced policymakers and former government officials are able to help the new president learn who has power and where to apply pressure, and thus even relative newcomers like Reagan have been able to govern effectively. Trump, however, lacks these resources. He has alienated the Republican establishment, and the GOP foreign policy elite has publicly denounced him. He simply won’t have the personnel or experience to significantly influence the agencies of the executive.
Now, at this point, I already know what the Trump supporters are thinking. “No! Trump is a tough guy. He’ll demand respect or simply shout ‘YOU’RE FIRED!’” at the incompetent Washington bureaucrats. This is naïve for two reasons. First, it’s unlikely that a President Trump will even be aware of the insubordination and resistance he is facing absent seasoned advisors and aides who have experience in government alerting him to the problem. Second, even if he were made aware of the problems, he couldn’t simply fire non-compliant agency directors because nearly all federal employees have some degree of civil service protection. Trump is in a sort of catch-22: he can either rule like a conventional Republican or not rule at all. By most estimates, Trump would need to find about 3,000-4,000 capable, experienced policy experts to ensure he has any influence over the executive. Without party support, this is an almost impossible task. So, Trump can either blow up the government or cede power to the establishment his supporters loathe so much. In other words, despite the recent success of outsider candidates, it is quite obvious that parties still possess significant power and influence, and Trump will fail unless he is willing to work with the Republican establishment.
I know I have pushed back against Trump a lot on this blog, but I think this is the most effective criticism of the man yet. He simply won’t be able to get anything done. This, by the way, is also true for Sanders, but I doubt Sanders has much chance of receiving the Democratic nomination. To quote Michael Livermore, a professor at UVA, “Perhaps the best that could be hoped for [if Trump becomes president] is that career bureaucrats would operate largely free from effective White House oversight, with the government essentially running on autopilot.” If Trump were to attempt to overpower entrenched bureaucratic interests, it would go about as well as if a bunch of Republican foreign policy wonks tried to run the Trump Organization.