Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
They Said It:
One of the best-known experts in the psychology of motivation, [Carol] Dweck has spent her career studying failure, and how people react to it. As you might expect, failure isn’t all that popular an activity. And yet, as she discovered through her research, not everyone reacts to it by breaking out in hives. While many of the people she studied hated tasks that they didn’t do well, some people thrived under the challenge. They positively relished things they weren’t very good at—for precisely the reason that they should have: when they were failing, they were learning.
Dweck puzzled over what it was that made these people so different from their peers. It hit her one day as she was sitting in her office (then at Columbia), chewing over the results of the latest experiment with one of her graduate students: the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it’s something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at.
Megan McArdle, “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators,” The Atlantic, February 12, 2014.
THE END OF DONALD TRUMP?
We spent most of the weekend thinking that last week’s health care debacle was a disaster not just for Donald Trump personally, but for the very notion that one man could drain the proverbial swamp. We didn’t exactly like the health care bill the Republicans produced, but we figured it was better than nothing. More to the point, we saw it as a test of President Trump’s ability to keep his promises in the wake of Washington intransigence. And in that sense, he appeared to fail miserably.
Not that we were the only ones to notice. Naturally, the markets, the mainstream press, and the editorialists from both the Right and Left did as well. In an essay published over the weekend, Roger Kimball, the editor and publisher of Encounter books and the editor of The New Criterion, noted that the headlines on RealClearPolitics Sunday morning told the media tale:
-Ryan Emerges Badly Damaged
-Dismantling Obamacare Little More Than Campaign Rhetoric From GOP
-DC’s Blame Game, Finger-Pointing
-Long Knives Out for Reince
-Trump and Ryan Lose Big
-Party Unready to Govern
-How Trump Botched Health Reform
And possibly my favorite:
-GOP Cave on Repeal, The Biggest Broken Promise in History
Perhaps the most devastating and most acclaimed summary of Trump’s failure was written by, of all people, Maureen Down, the New York Times’ longtime political columnist. She framed her takedown as a letter to the president about the inherent unfeasibility of his efforts to take on the business-as-usual crowd in Washington, about the unsuitability of a non-politician to do the hard work of political recalibration. She wrote:
We’ve known each other a long time, so I think I can be blunt.
You know how you said at campaign rallies that you did not like being identified as a politician?
Don’t worry. No one will ever mistake you for a politician.
After this past week, they won’t even mistake you for a top-notch negotiator.
I was born here. The first image in my memory bank is the Capitol, all lit up at night. And my primary observation about Washington is this: Unless you’re careful, you end up turning into what you started out scorning.
And you, Donald, are getting a reputation as a sucker. And worse, a sucker who is a tool of the D.C. establishment. . . .
Your whole campaign was mocking your rivals and the D.C. elite, jawing about how Americans had turned into losers, with our bad deals and open borders and the Obamacare “disaster.”
And you were going to fly in on your gilded plane and fix all that in a snap.
You mused that a good role model would be Ronald Reagan. As you saw it, Reagan was a big, good-looking guy with a famous pompadour; he had also been a Democrat and an entertainer. But Reagan had one key quality that you don’t have: He knew what he didn’t know.
You both resembled Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons, floating above the nitty-gritty and focusing on a few big thoughts. But President Reagan was confident enough to accept that he needed experts below, deftly maneuvering the strings . . . .
As The Times’s chief Washington correspondent Carl Hulse put it, the G.O.P. falls into clover with a lock on the White House and both houses of Congress, and what’s the first thing it does? Slip on a banana peel. Incompetence Inc. . . .
You were humiliated right out of the chute by the establishment guys who hooked you into their agenda — a massive transfer of wealth to rich people — and drew you away from your own.
You sold yourself as the businessman who could shake things up and make Washington work again. Instead, you got worked over by the Republican leadership and the business community, who set you up to do their bidding. . . .
You got played.
Now, as we said, this is a devastating evisceration of Trump and of his apparently ill-considered plan to rely on the existing Republican establishment to provide him with the policy specifics that he himself didn’t have and couldn’t be bothered to produce. Trump looks like a fool – and worse, like a fool of the much-hated establishment. Or so says the most-establishment-oriented columnist at the establishment’s favorite newspaper.
Dowd makes some other very solid points, particularly with respect to President Trump’s conscious decision to keep counsel only with those whom he considers outside of the political establishment, people like the man whom Dowd calls the “Manichaean anarchist in Steve Bannon.” We’re not sure what a “Manichaean anarchist” is, but it sounds pretty bad. Moreover, we have had our own misgivings about Trump’s insistence on maintaining his “outsider” persona. Obviously, the Republican base wanted someone to come in and smash the political establishment. But Washington has too much entrenched power, too many people around who know how to use and misuse our governmental checks and balances to make smashing the establishment an easy task.
Let’s use this health care debate to examine the dynamics at work here: Trump says that Obamacare is a disaster. He says it needs to be fixed. For the good of the country. He is right. It is a disaster, and it’s only going to get worse as premiums rise and the infamous death-spiral becomes more serious. That suggests that fixing the existing law should not be difficult. Everyone agrees that it needs to be fixed. So everyone will want to fix it. Trump has no specific plan of his own, but like his predecessor, he assumes that Congress can fashion one, especially since the leader of the Republicans fancies himself a policy wonk. So off they go, “for the good of the country.”
What Trump doesn’t understand is that neither the Republicans in Congress nor the Democrats in Congress give a damn about “the country” as an entity. This is not to say that they are all craven crooks. It is just that Washington doesn’t work that way. A King can look after the interests of a country as a whole. So can a dictator. But a democratically-elected Congress consisting of 535 members cannot do this. To them, the country is a mere abstraction, which is precisely the nature of the federal government in the administrative state.
By necessity, the 535 individual agents of the people, each representing different people, establish various committees, each charged with looking after a specific topic, a specific subset of federal responsibility in the massive, post-war government. Like the bureaucrats who administer the government’s policies, the members of the legislature are compelled to become specialists, representing not “the country,” but various swaths of it, the constituencies that are relevant to them specifically, given their various geographic, demographic, and partisan obligations.
Again, in a monarchy or a dictatorship, this wouldn’t be a problem. But with legislative and executive authority reasonably divided, there is no single authority to whom “the country” can appeal directly. And thus the people – like their legislators and administrators – are forced to prioritize and specialize, and groups of individuals with shared interests set up organizations to represent their specialized interests to a government made up of various committees and bureaus. Theoretically then, if each committee, each bureau, and each special interest group does it job well, the interests of “the country” will be met.
But, of course, the committees don’t always do their jobs well. And nor do the bureaus. Because of the simply massive amounts of money being redistributed each year by the government, the system has become deeply corrupt. On the legislative side, electoral politics dominate representatives’ concerns. And on the administrative side, rent seek, rent extraction, and regulatory capture become the modus operandi of the government. And because the “good of the country” is assumed merely assumed by the nature of the system, “the country” is going down the tube. This is so much a part of the Washington scene today that the players – Republicans and Democrats alike – are largely indifferent to its flaws, and they will remain so as long as there is an endless supply of money available to pay for it.
These Washington players, the “establishment” against whom Trump has repeatedly railed, think that he is a fool for not playing the game, for not simply enjoying the ride while it lasts, as either Hillary or most of Trump’s rivals in the Republican race would have done. The good news, from their perspective, is that he is a fool. They think they proved that last week. And it suits them fine, because, you see, they like the system. They have power. They have perks. They get to preen grandly about their dedication to “public service.” And yet they have no substantive obligation to look after the “good of the country.” They comfort themselves with the notion that the country will be fine if they focus on the interests on the folks who look after the interests of various groups of people who collectively make up “the country.”
This, we would note, is precisely the “perversion” of the system identified by, among others the great American political scientist Theodore Lowi, who literally wrote the book on The End of Liberalism. Because of the vastness of the state; because of the inconceivable amounts of money being taken in, distributed, and redistributed, and because of the excessive power of the bureaus and the abdication of responsibility by legislators, the expectations of the people and the needs of “the country” are at odds with reality. The people think that the system works for them. But it doesn’t. It works for the legislators and the administrators and those lucky, wealthy, or powerful enough to influence them. Nobody, save the people, is worried about this abstraction called “the country.” And this is Paul Ryan’s world. This has always been his world. He knows no other.
Into this world of fundamental government perversion and unmet expectations strides Donald Trump. He fancies himself a genuine and unsullied representative of “the people.” “The people” who are sick and tired of paying the bills. “The people” who aren’t going to take it anymore. They love Trump. He is their champion. He is their general. They are his army. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that “the people” as a collective have no real power in the administrative state. Power, rather, is wielded by pressure groups, by narrowly focused groups who understand the system and know how to manipulate its levers. Lest you doubt that this is the mechanism of the administrative state, consider the winners in the legislative and regulatory processes over the last half-century. A veritable menagerie of pressure groups – most of which represent the fringe Left – have thrived, while the will of “the people” and the “good of the country” have been thwarted at every turn.
George Wallace tried to use “the people” as a base. Ross Perot did the same. Obviously, they both failed miserably. Reagan made it work for a while, but even he couldn’t tame the administrative state and its demons. The Tax Reform Act of 1986, ostensibly one of Reagan’s “greatest” achievements, is a case study in the primacy of pressure groups over “the people.” And then, when the Gipper left town, the people went to the back of the proverbial bus for the duration. The Tea Party was on the right track, which is why the establishment – both Republicans and Democrats – vilified it. Trump rode the wave created by the Tea Party and won the White House, and now he too faces the Leviathan.
Trump wants to cut billions of dollars of spending out of the health care budget and, in the process to subdue the Medicaid entitlement. All of this, he says, will help the country, and the “little guy.” This is real money, by the way. Someone who was destined to get that money won’t get it if Trump has his way. Unfortunately, this someone has the ear of Ryan, and Pelosi, and McConnell, and especially Schumer. Because this someone is willing to pay a big chunk of that money back to those who make it possible for them to keep it. And they don’t give a rat’s fat backside whether it hurts or helps “the country.” The good of the country will be determined by who wins, not the other way around.
Now, as Maureen Dowd said, Trump doesn’t understand this. We would synopsize his situation this way: If you are sitting in a poker game and don’t know which player is the sucker at the table, then you’re the sucker. Trump can, of course, try to change the rules of the game by making “the good of the country” a paramount consideration. But in this he would surely fail – over and over again, just as he did last week. The game isn’t played that way. And if he really wants to win, he has to get better at the game as exists and he has to do so now.
There is a catch, of course. In order to win the game, he has to learn the rules from those who know them. But, in so doing, he can’t allow himself to become a part of the game, a part of the system that works to benefit only the connected at the expense of the greater good.
Consider, if you will, the results produced by Trump’s last foray into the world of the system’s experts. This excursion occurred not last week, during the health care debacle, but last Spring, long before Trump was nominated, much less elected. As you may recall, during the primary season, the Republican Party was a mess. The party establishment didn’t want Trump to be the nominee, and it tried desperately to devise ways to deny him the party’s backing in November. It looked, for some time, as if Trump would win the most primary contests and a plurality of delegates, but might not go to the convention with an absolute majority of delegates pledged to his nomination. Thus, Trump faced the very real possibility of a contested or brokered convention, which tickled the Republican Party establishment to no end.
In order to prepare for such an eventuality, Trump hired the guy whom everyone told him was the best of the best with respect to whipping and securing delegate votes, Paul Manafort, who became the unpaid chairman of the Trump campaign for five months last year. Manafort started in presidential politics in 1976, as an aide to James Baker, who was in charge of the delegate operation for President Gerald Ford. Manafort went on to work for the Reagan campaign and then as the Associate Director of the personnel office for the Reagan transition team – which is to say that many of those Reagan-administration “experts below, deftly maneuvering the strings” cited so lovingly by Maureen Down were hired by Paul Manafort, the very same man Trump hired to run his campaign last March. After working for Reagan, Manafort went on to be a key adviser to the George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole campaigns. All of which is to say that he was, is, and ever shall be a product – and a dedicated fan – of the system that is now engaged in attempting to destroy Trump.
Of course, the only reason that anyone has heard of Paul Manafort these days is because he is at the center of the Trump-Russia controversy. Manfort, as you may know, is also a longtime lobbyist who has done work for some of the most ruthless and loathsome strongmen in the world. One of those strongmen just happens to be Victor Yanukovych, the Russian-puppet leader of Ukraine with close ties to Vladimir Putin. According to the Associated Press, another one of Manafort’s clients was Putin himself, who funneled millions of dollars through a Russian billionaire and a bank in Cyprus in order to get Manafort to conduct a global campaign to promote Russian interests and to help restore Putin’s credibility.
Do we know that Manafort did anything illegal? No. Do we know that he did anything that could cause legal problems for President Trump? No. Do we know what he is likely to say in the interview he’s agreed to give before the House Intelligence Committee? No.
So what do we know?
Well, we know that the Russian “scandal” that has enveloped the Trump team since before the election likely had its start with Manafort. We know that he is an “expert” in politics and in working the halls of Congress – which is to say that he is precisely the kind of expert that Trump needs, according to Maureen Dowd. We also know that Manafort was dismissed by Trump in August, on the advice of Kellyanne Conway, who is also an expert in policy and polling and is one of the best connected conservatives in Washington.
What does this all mean? Among other things, it means that Maureen Dowd’s “letter” to the President, while superficially insightful, is not entirely accurate. Trump hasn’t exactly been going this alone, and he hasn’t been operating independently, without the advice of experts. Indeed, many in the mainstream press refer to Kellyanne as the “real First Lady,” since she is both omnipresent in the Trump orbit and one of the President’s closest and most trusted confidants. As far as we’re concerned, that’s a good start. Kellyanne may not know everything, and she certainly has her blind spots, but she knows Republican Washington a helluva lot better than Maureen Dowd does. And more to the point, she’s concerned about the bigger picture that most political experts forsake. She doesn’t exactly share Trump’s values (thankfully), but she does share his desire to end politics-as-usual in Washington.
The type of experts whom Maureen Dowd would have Trump hire – to be more like Reagan, incidentally, whom Dowd hated until five minutes ago – are, in many case, a big part of the problem with Washington and not necessarily the solution. Trump’s challenge is not just finding experts, but experts who share his vision.
In the final analysis, Trump failed last week, not because he doesn’t have enough experts working for him, as Maureen Dowd suggests, but because there aren’t enough experts around Washington who share his vision, who share his belief that the “swamp” must be drained.
That’s a problem, obviously. But here’s the thing: no one ever said this was going to be easy. No one ever said that reversing eight years of aggressive statist consolidation would be a breeze, especially in light of the fact that those eight years were a mere continuation of a pattern that had been ongoing for a full century before. Indeed, as two of our favorite writers (hint: us) put it just five weeks ago, not only is taking on the state is a monumental task that has never been successfully accomplished, but the mechanisms for doing so aren’t terribly well understood either:
Ask yourself this: did the Bush administration make any headway against the administrative state? Obviously, he was less aggressive about using “the government” to affect people’s lives than were his predecessor and his successor. He didn’t tell the Little Sisters of the Poor that they had to buy birth control. He didn’t tell public school administrators in Nebraska that they should let boys pee in the girls’ bathroom. He didn’t try to deprive male college students of their right to due process in sexual assault cases. But did he shrink the size of government? Did he cut regulation? Did he normalize the influence of government’s interference in people’s lives? Or did he just “manage” the bureaucrats effectively? Did he merely slow the speed of the Leviathan’s growth?
Sadly, these are rhetorical questions. You know, we know, and Tevi Troy knows the answers to them. Bush didn’t put a dent in the administrative state. He didn’t even try. He – and Troy and countless others – may have “managed” the bureaucrats, but no one, not even the sainted Ronald Reagan, has “controlled” the bureaucracy. We’ll say it again: the bureaucracy is simply Uncontrollable . . . .
On the collective level, however, the problem is much larger and much more difficult to handle. Bureaucrats care about their own individual well-being, and the bureaucracy, as a collective, cares about its well-being, about its power, about its prestige, about its ability to withstand the machinations of mere elected interlopers.
We’re not entirely sure that Donald Trump understands this. Of course, we can’t blame him for that. Turns out that Max Weber, the preeminent expert on the subject, didn’t understand it either. The bureaucracy is far more powerful than the bureaucrats who run it. Its collective mechanistic dehumanization is among the most powerful forces man has ever known. It will not surrender its power willingly. In the end, it will not die by fire or water. It will starve us and it. Or it will strangle us both. In either case, the administrative state will not go gentle into that good night. And it will not be “managed” into submission.
Obviously, in this specific case, we were writing about the bureaucracy, not intransigent elected officials whose foremost consideration is protecting their own power, their own affluence and influence, and doing so regardless of the effect on their party, their country, or their constituents. But the basic message remains the same: the power-brokers of the Leviathan will not go gentle into that good night. They will, indeed, rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It is, we’ll concede, easy at this point to dismiss Trump and his “drain the swamp” rhetoric and the whole outsider shtick as a colossal failure. After all, Trump has his problems, and these are reflected in his poll numbers. According Gallup, Trump’s approval rating is at 36%. And as the pollsters note, “Trump’s current 36% is two percentage points below Barack Obama’s low point of 38%, recorded in 2011 and 2014. Trump has also edged below Bill Clinton’s all-time low of 37%, recorded in the summer of 1993, his first year in office, as well as Gerald Ford’s 37% low point in January and March 1975.” That’s pretty crummy. Of course, it’s also a point HIGHER than President Reagan’s lowest approval numbers, which tells us that even the great ones have their problems. It is how he responds now that will define his presidency, define his legacy, and dictate the future of the country class’s efforts to retake control of its government.
We know full well – and stated as much at the top of this piece – that the general consensus in Washington and on Wall Street is that Trump has been beaten down, that the health care failure will lead to a tax cut failure, which will lead to a budgetary failure, and so on. If the guy can’t get the members of the House to do the one thing that they’ve been promising to do for seven years now, then what chance is there that he’ll be able to get them to do anything? Trump is, without a doubt at a crossroads in his presidency.
The good news – for those of us who care about health care reform, tax reform, civil service reform, and harnessing the federal Leviathan – is that President Trump should be able, without a great deal of effort, to find the silver lining in last week’s health care clouds.
For starters, now he knows both what he is up against and whom he cannot trust to work with him in his effort to deliver to the American people the “change” they’ve been demanding for the better part of a decade. This past Saturday evening, Jeanine Pirro, a former Westchester County district attorney and a Fox News contributor, railed against the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, calling him a failure and demanding that he step down as Speaker. While we agree with “Judge Jeanine” that Ryan bears a great deal of the blame for the health care bill’s failure, we think that forcing him out would be a terrible mistake. Ryan is a genuine conservative, even if somewhat unenthusiastic about Trump’s agenda. More to the point, he is ambitious, which means that he too will deal with the health care humiliation by steeling himself to do better next time. Not that he will necessarily be successful, given that he is also a creature of the GOP establishment, but at least Trump knows what he’s dealing with and can be better prepared next time to expect Ryan’s efforts to be cautious at best and perhaps even destabilizing.
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Trump now has no choice but to proceed in achieving his agenda by cultivating otherwise unexpected friendships. If he really wants a health care bill – or a tax bill or an infrastructure bill – he’ll have to bypass the usual suspects (Ryan, et al.) and court other partners. On the one hand, he’ll have to seek input from moderate Democrats, who can help him pass his legislation and provide bipartisan cover. On the other, he’ll have to pursue genuine hardcore conserve-libertarian fundamentalists who share his dislike of Washington business-as-usual. If you look at the people who killed the health care bill, you’ll see a great many Republicans who are as tired of the Ruling-class arrogance as are Trump and his voters. You’ll find people like: Senator Tom Cotton, the young conservative firebrand from Arkansas; Rand Paul, the quasi-libertarian from Kentucky who opposed Trump in the GOP primaries, but shares his desire to shrink government; Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, the two most faithful constitutional conservatives in the Senate; and of course the House Freedom Caucus, led by Mark Meadows and Justin Amash, likely the two most faithful constitutional conservatives in the House.
If Maureen Dowd is right and the existing House leadership both played the President for a chump and intends to continue to do so, then the President has no choice but to bypass that leadership, if he wishes to be successful. He has to change his attack, change his game plan, and change his friends.
Which brings us, at long last, to one final possible silver lining from the health care debacle. Longtime readers know that we have been fascinated by the work that Dilbert creator Scott Adams has done with respect to politics, persuasion, and especially Donald Trump. Sometimes, Adams is out there, waaaaaay out there. But most of the time he simply sees things that mainstream commentators don’t, for a variety of reasons. And he saw the health care failure much differently than did most people. To wit:
Today we are witnessing one of the most important events in political history. But you probably can’t see it because the news is talking about healthcare, and how Ryan and Trump totally failed to get enough votes.
The real story is happening in parallel with the healthcare story, and that’s what renders it invisible. Something enormous is happening that has nothing to do with anything you are seeing in the news. In fact, you’ll probably read it here for the first time.
I’m dragging this out to see if you can guess the big news before I tell you. It is something I predicted would happen. It is something the country needs MORE than healthcare. It was, until yesterday, perceived as the biggest problem in the United States, if not the entire world.
And that problem almost totally went away yesterday. The smell might linger, but the problem has ended. We should be celebrating, but instead we will be yammering about healthcare. . . .
With the failure of the Ryan healthcare bill, the illusion of Trump-is-Hitler has been fully replaced with Trump-is-incompetent meme. Look for the new meme to dominate the news, probably through the summer. By year end, you will see a second turn, from incompetent to “Competent, but we don’t like it.”
I have been predicting this story arc for some time now. So far, we’re ahead of schedule.
We won’t pretend that we agree Adams about everything, especially where Trump is concerned, but we had actually noticed a break in the Trump-as-Hitler meme even before the health care bill mess. After all, what kind of dictator allows his friends, his advisers, and now even his family (son-in-law Jared Kushner) be interrogated by an independent branch of government? What kind of a dictator allows the country’s intelligence agencies to continue to undermine him publicly? And now, what kind of a dictator allows the first major piece of his agenda to collapse spectacularly? Like Adams (and also like Roger Kimball, mentioned above, and the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal), we think that the mainstream and opposition narrative is about to change, with the Great-and-Powerful Trump purportedly “exposed” as a scared little man behind the curtain. And this can and probably will work to Trump’s advantage.
It is important to remember, we think, that the Trump presidency is now a mere 67 days old. It may seem like longer, but it’s been barely two months. And obviously, the guy is still figuring out how things work.
Should he hire more experts and be more like Reagan, as suggested by Maureen Dowd? Maybe. But then, as we noted, the last big shot “expert” he was pressured into hiring turned out to be an ethical nightmare. And if you ask us, the Russian misfeasance issue is a far bigger distraction and threat to the presidency than any silly old health care bill. Maureen Dowd doesn’t remember now, but Reagan struggled in the early going too. His first two years – a full 22 months longer than Trump has so far served – were very tough. As far as Gallup and its approval ratings are concerned, Reagan’s second year in office (January-December 1982) was his worst. Indeed, 1982 was among the worst for any president in contemporary history. All the while, know-it-all commentators like Dowd wrote column after column chuckling about how they told us so. In the end, though, it all worked out, as best we can recall.
Does this necessarily mean that Trump will pull out his mini-nosedive and turn things around? Well . . . no, not necessarily. But he has the opportunity to do so. In the meantime, he and we would all do well to remember that he has set before himself an almost impossible task. Beating back the Leviathan will not be easy. And there will be times when the great monster will rout its assailants. In the end, though, as we said about the bureaucracy, either the monster will be tamed or it will suffocate us all.
Copyright 2017. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE 68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.