How quickly the tide turns! Trump was the candidate who defied every dismissal, confounded every expert, stunned every prognosticator. He moved from strength to strength, rising in every poll from July 2015 to January 2016. His crazy insults, his wacky statements, his egregious manners, his outrageous smears, his made-up scenarios of national suicide — none of it seemed to harm him. He believed in himself and his followers believed in him.
There was always an element of a Ponzi scheme about the whole campaign: lifted higher and higher through confidence alone. He didn’t have a serious organization, no get-out-the-vote plans, no pollsters, and spent next-to-nothing on advertising. He didn’t even bother to show up to the final debate before the vote.
He would live on love alone! His popularity defied political gravity!
Until suddenly it didn’t. Here’s a guy who claims epic managerial acumen who couldn’t even run a competent nomination campaign in Iowa. That alone tends to eat into his credibility.
Going into Iowa, his odds on betting markets were briefly above 50%. After the votes started coming in, the odds dropped like a stone.
Now, the campaign’s bubble seems to have popped. The New York Times nailed it: the “aura of invincibility” seems to be gone. It was all he had, like a great fiction. It depended on the suspension of disbelief. Reality is reasserting itself. For a campaign driven by media frenzy alone, this is deadly.
Having warned since last summer that Trump was — wittingly or unwittingly — appealing to America’s nascent and largely invisible (except on Twitter) neo-fascist voter bloc, it would appear that this country will be spared an experiment in crude, ruthless authoritarianism. That’s undoubtedly a good thing.
Except that it also means that we revert to politics, as usual, which is just a bit boring. What if we must choose between Hillary and Rubio in the next election? I’m not sure the results matter that much. In the end, these are temporary managers. The real problem of domestic despotism is much deeper.
The real ruling elite are unelected. They constitute the deep state — the permanent bureaucracy, the ever-growing codes and laws still on the books that date back to the 19th century, and the interest groups that keep the system working for them and not us.
So I must admit a bit of disappointment here. Let’s say that Trump is sincere that he really intended to exercise total rule, not just over the government but over the entire country. Let’s say he really intended to become the CEO of America, Inc. The bureaucracy is normally impervious to such bravado. After all, every president arrives with the intention to make a huge difference, to get the system under his personal control. It never happens, at least not in the last 150 years.
After all, we are talking about directly changing the behavior of the 2.7 million people who work for the federal government to affect outcomes among 318 million people. That’s beyond human capacity. But, wait, Trump says that he’ll appoint all the right people. The president is given the opportunity to appoint 3,000 people to various posts, such as the head of the Department of Labor and his or her staff, the head of Housing and Urban Development and his or her staff, and so on.
The trouble is that these political appointees are only there for a few years, whereas the bureaucracy is forever. The lifetimers know this. Nor do the appointees have power to change the law or regulations without Congress. So what are they there to do? They are temporary administrators, not so much of the agency but of their own staff. This is the circulating part of the state but its main job is internal management of itself plus public relations on behalf of the president.
Under such conditions, it’s hard to imagine how a president can really make a difference. The president is not a dictator. In fact, not even a dictator is a dictator. It is just not humanly possible to cause an entrenched apparatus of a governing elite to shift priorities or bend a two-million-person bureaucracy to become something it is not. It might be possible to cause several thousand people in a private company to reorder themselves but the problem becomes immeasurably worse in a government bureaucracy that lives off the taxpayer and takes its orders from the written rule book.
Why are people in the U.S. so unaware of this? One reason: there’s never been an honest memoir written by a president. Instead of admitting that they mostly played the role of a booster of their own political popularity, they pretend as if they had some kind of all-controlling role in shepherding the country in a new direction. They play the game because the legitimacy of the illusion of control is necessary to establish their greatness.
I have this fantasy — preposterous of course — that Trump would show up in power and attempt to manage the government the way he manages his company. After a few months, he holds a press conference and says:
“Do you people have any clue what’s going on around here? This thing we call government spends $10 billion per day, a sum that is inconceivable, and almost half that is borrowed. Meanwhile, I’m surrounded by insanely overbuilt bureaucracies that just get in the way. I’m completely ignored. So are you. Judging by normal business standards, this whole place should be completely levelled. It’s a hoax and a fraud of monumental proportions. You have no idea. We can’t be great like this.”
Of course that won’t happen. He would fail like the rest of them, and try to cover it all up by putting the best possible spin on the outcome. That’s how we do things in the U.S.. But perhaps that would send a signal. Perhaps then people would finally realize: the problem isn’t as Trump says, that our leaders are dumb or bad deal makers, but rather that the U.S. government has attempted the impossible. It’s the institutions that are wrong, not the minds that are running them.
Sadly, with Trump’s bubble now popped, we’ll never have the chance to see. A Trump presidency might have been fun — dangerous but still somewhat amusing, for those who survived it. With the crop that remains, it’s politics as usual. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, while the foundations underneath the surface continue to crack.