Trump’s personnel choices seem designed to either reward personal loyalty or embody a certain perception of competence — the competence of generals who know how to give orders and of billionaires who know how to make money. Failed politicians, in this view, need to be schooled. Never mind that the habits of command are not immediately transferrable to some of the main tasks in a democracy — persuasion, compromise and public policy innovation.
This is clearly the direction of strong-hand democracy; just give the real leaders free rein and a few years. A little less James Madison and a little more Lee Kuan Yew. But it is Mr. Madison who still sets the rules, making a snap-your-fingers-and-demand-results approach to leadership more likely to end in frustration and failure than in lasting damage to American institutions.
Meanwhile, this theory of the Trump presidency leaves a policy environment more fluid and open than any in my political lifetime. Apart from a few vivid campaign promises on immigration and infrastructure — which have also been renegotiated since the election — Trump has radical freedom of action. He owes no one, holds no definite ideology and will be forgiven even the worst heresies by his supporters (at least for the moment).
So, for example, it is possible that Trump will pursue the most ambitious, controversial redefinition of the federal role in helping the poor since Lyndon Johnson — block-granting Medicaid and most other welfare spending, and tying the remainder to work requirements. Or Trump could find this contentious, time-consuming debate a distraction from other priorities. He could choose, instead, to give governors more flexibility on Medicaid requirements, block-grant a few programs, increase the earned-income tax credit, experiment with enterprise zones and push for his daughter Ivanka’s child-care and maternity leave proposals.
And Trump’s convictions on welfare policy may not even matter much in the end. His large tax cuts and commitment to a balanced budget may force nondefense discretionary spending — only about 16 percent of the budget — to be a repeated blood donor, until it is pasty white and weak.
The openness of Trump’s policy options, however, is currently a boon to lobbyists, consultants and advocates of all stripes. If ever talking with the right person at the right time with the right message has been important, it is now. Almost nothing has yet been ruled in or ruled out. Tea-leaf reading is at a premium. But who can possibly predict what will be in President Trump’s budget address to Congress in February? Who can know what Trump does not yet know himself? In the period between now and then, the identity of a presidential administration will be determined, in many areas from scratch.
How Trump’s manner of doing business will translate to the office of the president is equally difficult to predict. He has shown a willingness to violate norms of diplomacy and dignity normally enforced by a sense of priority. He seems caught in a cycle: a few days on message, then a conspiratorial or bullying statement or tweet, then a scramble by Republicans to solicit intervention from “the family,” who give the president-elect the political equivalent of lithium and get him back on message before the next manic stage. Republicans are now finding strategic brilliance in this attempt to keep the whole world off balance. But what happens when President Trump can truly throw the whole world off balance?
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."