A hectic pace at the White House has brought distinctly mixed results: ‘These guys are finding it’s a lot harder to do it than talk about it,’ says a former official
By David Smith in Washington / The Guardian / Friday 10 March 2017 10.00 EST
Is there method in the madness?
No one doubts that Donald Trump’s first 50 days as US president have busted norms, paradigms and taboos every bit as surely as his insurgent election campaign. On day 44, for example, he used Twitter to accuse his presidential predecessor, Barack Obama, of criminal wiretapping, then in the next moment mocked his reality-TV successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, over poor ratings.
But Trump has also been both praised and criticised for doing more than many politicians to keep his election promises. There have been fleeting moments when a blurry picture of policy sharpens into focus. From the botched travel bans to the wrangling over healthcare reform, there are signs of how difficult it will be to translate policy into coherent action.
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“There is no ideology around the policies we see so far,” said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “There are particular impressions on issues. A lot of it is campaign-related rhetoric.”
To be in Washington these days is to dwell inside a washing machine, a daily churn of intelligence leaks, congressional demands for blood – attorney general Jeff Sessions has survived but the former national security adviser Michael Flynn did not – and pre-dawn presidential tweet storms (President Trump has topped more than 540 tweets at the last count).
Yet the architect of the chaos has also twice attempted to step back and explain his vision for America.
First, on day one, there was his dark inaugural address, with its ringing phrase “American carnage” and unabashed nationalism. Second, on day 40, there was an address to a joint session of Congress which struck a less harsh tone and promised a “new chapter of American greatness”, offering an olive branch for bipartisan cooperation.
But perhaps it was day 35 that offered a peek behind the curtains to the whirring cogs and wheels of White House machinery. It was not so much “Trumpism” as “Bannonism”, articulated by chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has compared himself to Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s court and emerged as the biggest influence on the president’s thinking.
“If you look at the lines of work, I would break it up into three verticals or three buckets,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) near Washington. “The first is kind of national security and sovereignty … The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism … The third, broadly, line of work is deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Work began on these “three verticals” at a hectic pace with distinctly mixed results. On the first, Trump announced that he would seek a $54bn increase in military spending, while cutting back on aid and diplomatic programmes, though he is yet to signal a meaningful shift in the fight against Islamic State.
But the most disruptive act so far was a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, rushed through on a Friday night, replete with glaring flaws. It backfired spectacularly, with mayhem and protests at airports, and was knocked back by the courts – an early kick in the complacency of the administration. A revised ban – slimmed to six countries but with substantially the same policy thrust – is now also facing legal challenges by six different states from Hawaii to New York.
Rich Galen, former press secretary to Dan Quayle, an ex-vice-president, said: “I think they were totally shocked how quickly it got thrown back in their face by the judicial world and the political world. That taught them a lesson that they need people around them who know what they are doing. They thought they could bluster their way through it.”
The learning curve from campaign to governance has proved steep, Galen added. “What these guys are finding out is it’s a lot harder to do it than talk about it. Being president is a lot harder than 140 characters.”
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He predicted: “I think the next 50 days will look very much like the first. Trump is having a lot more trouble adjusting to people not leaping in the air every time he suggests something. As president, you can’t control the press, you can’t control the legislature, you can’t control the judiciary.”
Economic nationalism implies an assertion of domestic control of the economy, protectionist policies such as tariffs and, perhaps most importantly in this context, opposition to trade and immigration. At CPAC, Bannon hailed withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history”, enabling Washington to negotiate bilateral trade deals instead.
Trump – who likes the mantra “Buy American and hire American” – has made questionable claims that jobs are already returning to the country because of him. There are fears he will impose punitive tariffs on Mexican and Chinese imports, triggering a trade war that will stifle economic growth.
John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, said some Republicans in Congress would be unwilling to support “trade sovereignty” and Trump had diminished his chances of enlisting Democrats. “For a person who can become so petty in party politics, to launch an agenda that needs help from the other party shows a president who is under-talented,” he said.
Hudak described Trump as “the anti-Clinton”, contrasting him with President Bill Clinton’s ability to reach across the aisle even in his darkest political moments.
As for immigration, the populist movements in Britain, France and elsewhere have been characterised as dividing the world between “nationalists” and “globalists”. Bannon has made clear his loyalty to the former while declaring war on the “corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda”.
Construction on Trump’s border wall has not yet begun but he has backed his incendiary campaign rhetoric with new guidance that promises a security crackdown on the border and could see millions of undocumented immigrants deported. A series of highly visible raids by the president’s nascent deportation force has left Latino communities across the country on edge.
Then, in the longer term, there is a $1tn infrastructure plan, intended to boost employment. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter last November, Bannon gave a crucial insight. “It’s everything related to jobs,” he said. “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything.”
That infrastructure plan, also cited in Trump’s speech to Congress, will be tough for some Republicans to swallow, while sympathetic Democrats might balk at lending support to this president.
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Third in the set of Bannon principles was “deconstruction of the administrative state”, a phrase reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, according to one commentator. It implies that the left has created a shadowy bureaucracy to push its agenda and that the state itself is inimical to the popular will. “The way the progressive left runs, is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just going to put in some sort of regulation in an agency,” Bannon said.
Trump has signed two executive orders slashing regulations and declared: “We don’t need 75% of the repetitive, horrible regulations that hurt companies, hurt jobs.” Activists are concerned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be a particular target, risking an increase in pollution.
But Hudak warned: “There’s a heck of a lot of regulation in this country that protects industry. You can kill the EPA but if you go too far you’re going to harm big business in this country. The idea that you can take a hatchet to the federal bureaucracy and always please conservatives is a myth.”
It is still uncertain, for example, whether Trump intends to shut down the Export-Import Bank, which has benefited some major corporations. “Closing it would be conservative but not Republican,” Hudak said.
For all the hurly-burly, few believe that a clear blueprint is yet discernible amid Trump’s scattergun approach to the making of both policies and wild, distracting accusations that tend to consume news cycles.
Rich Tyler, a conservative political analyst, observed: “There is no ideology, save for populism. There’s no anchoring governing philosophy to any of this. There may be ‘Trumpism’ but it’s not really conservatism or Republicanism. There may be a realignment but the incompetent and mixed messages coming out of the White House make it very difficult.”
Bannon’s three verticals need to be better defined, Tyler added. “I still don’t know what our position is towards Russia and Putin, I’m still unclear what the plan is to defeat Isis in Syria and Iraq, I don’t know what our agenda is for North Korea and Kim Jong-un. I don’t know what ‘economic nationalism’ means.”
For the next 50 days, he predicted, “It’s going to get harder. We’ve now seen the way the administration reacts. They don’t have a replacement for Obamacare. Foreign powers will continue to test us and we’ve shown we don’t have a response.”
Such is Trump’s temperament and volatility, there were some who doubted he would make it to 50 days. But his speech to Congress reassured doubtful Republicans and left Democrats digging in for a protracted battle against a constantly moving target.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic political consultant, said: “There’s a deal here: the congressional Republican party is putting up with the tweets and other things they don’t like and in return they get to repeal and replace Obamacare and cut taxes for rich people.
“These are conservative dreams. They are putting up with Trump because he’s giving them their conservative dreams. I expect more of the same so long as he’s there.”