Donald Trump needs more team-mates in the White House

US Politics: President should look to find like-minded players to join his team

US national security advisor, John Bolton (background) looks on during a meeting between president Donald Trump and president of Chile, Sebastian Piñera in the Oval Office in September, 2018. Photograph: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post/Getty

US national security advisor, John Bolton (background) looks on during a meeting between president Donald Trump and president of Chile, Sebastian Piñera in the Oval Office in September, 2018. Photograph: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post/Getty

 

In a scene evocative of the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s, a Republican administration has sent US naval forces to the Persian Gulf. As a mark of his influence, it falls to national security adviser John Bolton, a hardline official in each of those decades, to justify the manoeuvre.

War with Iran is not inevitable. It is certainly not imminent. But never has US president Donald Trump’s popular commitment to military reticence abroad seemed quite so fleeting.

At home, meanwhile, a plan for the nation’s fraying infrastructure has itself fallen into disrepair, as Republicans blanch at the cost. As a mark of his influence, it is free-marketeer and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney who talks down the chances of a deal.

Two years into Trump's administration, his principal domestic achievement is a tax cut

One may yet emerge. The Democrats seem keen. But never has Trump’s popular commitment to the public realm (“I know how to build”) seemed quite so fanciful.

Between them, Bolton and Mulvaney stand for the kind of Republicanism that Trump was meant to have slain in 2016. This guns-over-butter right-wingery, which sought to shrink the state except when it came to war-making, was turned on its head by the subversive outsider from reality television.

The government, he said, divining the public mood, should do much less abroad and perhaps a bit more at home. He would even protect social security and other federal entitlements.

Failure

Yet here they still are, the Boltons and the Mulvaneys, not just vestiges of the old order, but ascendant forces in the current one, given their jobs by a president who once defined himself against their creed. They have plentiful company.

Mike Pompeo could be the secretary of state in a Republican government of yesteryear. Secretary of treasury Steven Mnuchin could have served any recent Grand Old Party (GOP) president. It is much harder to name members of this administration who are truly in Trump’s (or at least candidate Trump’s) distinct image.

US secretary of treasury Steven Mnuchin speaks at Appropriations Committee Hearing on the FY2020 Budget for the Treasury Department in Washington DC, on May 15th. Photograph: Tasos Katopodis/EPA
US secretary of treasury Steven Mnuchin speaks at Appropriations Committee Hearing on the FY2020 Budget for the Treasury Department in Washington DC, on May 15th. Photograph: Tasos Katopodis/EPA

This is the central failure of his presidency. Trump can call on tens of millions of voters who believe in the version of Republicanism he espoused in 2016. But he barely has half a dozen cabinet members or senior officials who think the same way.

The threat to Trumpism is not just the Democratic Party. It is the absence of Trumpites. As long as he fails to cultivate them, his imprint on his own times, never mind posterity, will be lighter than it might have been.

However “imperial” it is said to be from time to time, the presidency is never enough to shape the US. The executive bureaucracy – to which the president makes several thousand appointments – is necessary too. Former president Ronald Reagan did not achieve his supply-side programme by drawling instructions into a telephone.

He flooded the system with like-minded cadres, such as his budget director David Stockman. For half a century, organised conservatism has produced and promoted its own. When one falls, another is primed to slide in.

For better or worse

Trumpism is different. It has a mass following. It has a leader. But it does not bother with that tiresome thing in between: an operational class. As such, there is something of the paper tiger about it. Trump, it is said, will change the Republican party for good. With whose army?

Where he has installed authentic Trumpites, there is, for better or worse, immense change. Robert Lighthizer and Peter Navarro are committing sensational heresies against free trade. But they stand out precisely because they are unusual.

For the most part, Republican orthodoxy wins. Having used the party as a vessel for his elevation, the party is now using him – the best vote-winner they have had for a while – to smuggle through a more or less unreconstructed manifesto.

None of which is said with any joy. Trump was right. The GOP needed to change. It took a credulous view of the market as something as natural and sacrosanct as the Galápagos Islands’ ecosystem. It allowed messianic bunk about US exceptionalism to drive the nation into foreign misadventure. He seemed just alien enough to break with these dogmas.

But two years into his administration, his principal domestic achievement is a tax cut. His showdown with Iran gets ever fraughter. Away from the trade wars, this is a familiar Republican government of the past few decades.

Perhaps Trump never really believed in anything else. More likely, he did, but lacked the mental stamina to see it through. To effect change requires some interest in institutions, processes and, above all, personnel. This is so much drudgery to a born performer. The problem with Trumpism, you can imagine him complaining, is that it takes up too many evenings. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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