Starved of Elites Michael Flynn’s resignation is indicative of a long-term problem for the Trump Administration
The staffing of the Trump Administration will always be its Achilles’ heel, from the lowest echelons of its 4,000 positions to be filled to the Cabinet level of the mandarins who decide many of the US Executive branch’s policies and their details. Regardless of the factual and moral truth in the matter of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s discussions with the Russian Ambassador and his report on the content of the discussion to his superiors, the political truth made his position untenable even for Trump at his most defiant. While public contention has reached new heights with the Trump Presidency, every new Administration has had its staff criticized, scrutinized, derided, lambasted or slandered until a stable and workable political formula could be found.
The Trump Administration is different because its anti-establishment credentials have been blown out of proportion both by new levels political polarization within the political class and by the strident attitude of the American media complex towards Trump as his political power (and political resilience) became apparent. The same media has been termed “the real opposition party” by purported White House “eminence grise” Steve Bannon, whose thoroughly pedestrian but well-argued conservative views are being given a sinister gloss by constant media attention, second only to Trump himself (whose love of Puccini’s operas has recently been revealed as indicative of his fascist leanings, given supposedly new insights into the famous composer).
A systemic issue for the anti-system candidate
Many of Trump’s staffing choices make sense when viewed from the perspective of the dearth of credible and loyal talent available to his Administration. The puzzled tone of media appraisals of Trump’s choices appears disingenuous in light of the reported opposition to Trump by the same managerial class he needs to govern effectively.
But the same anti-establishment appeal that propelled Trump to the White House, and which a careful observer might find overblown or rather narrowly focused, is also the source of a main weakness of the Trump Administration, as it has been practically cut off from the limited supply of elites which any leader needs to run the country. Without these elites, their compliance and their loyalty, policymaking becomes much more difficult and implementation much more likely to fail or be sabotaged from within. The Administration which has been boycotted in this way finds itself in a “self-fulfilling prophecy” with regards to being ineffectual or a disappointment. Many of Trump’s staffing choices make sense when viewed from the perspective of the dearth of credible and loyal talent available to his Administration. The puzzled tone of media appraisals of Trump’s choices appears disingenuous in light of the reported opposition to Trump by the same managerial class he needs to govern effectively.
This is one of the possible reasons for the weakness of his Executive Order regarding the entry ban of individuals from seven countries, which was guaranteed to attract legal challenges and therefore had to be “airtight” with regards to how it was written and explained for it to be its own best evidence during the 9th Circuit appeal hearings that later took place. Basically, Trump’s White House could not yet supply the legal talent he needed to enact his program in the face of wide ranging opposition from the other centers of power, formal and informal, within the state. This is a problem President Obama did not have, because his goals were much better aligned with the general zeitgeist of the ruling class, while differing and dithering on the details. This is why his own Executive Order which restricted refugees and visas from certain countries, which was the basis for Trump’s order, did not arouse significant ire or systemic challenge. Even his program for amnestying illegal immigrants without a legislative project was only stopped by concerted grassroots efforts from the population which spurred Republican legislators into action, despite the various amnesty proposals in the past being bipartisan projects, such as the “Gang of Eight” led by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
Therefore, we can anticipate many more policy misses by the Trump Administration, stemming not only from continuous oppositions, but the failings of his executive apparatus. These problems may eventually be fixed, but at the cost of precious governing time, during which his Party may lose its majority in both Congressional houses and his own position may become vulnerable to impeachment.
The logic of regime stability and continuity
As mentioned before, Trump’s staffing choices and difficulties make sense when you consider that he is loathed not only by his formal opposition, but also by many within his own Party, and especially the nomenclature and expert class which any Republican President would have relied on to staff his Administration. Firstly, many valuable people are simply opposed to Trump or unwilling to risk becoming a collateral target in the war against him. Secondly, people who would be willing to work with Trump are either untrustworthy because of their prior opposition to him or because of their revealed policy preferences. Loyalty matters to any politician and especially to one like Trump, both for subjective reasons related to his mindset, and the reality of his powerful, but tenuous position.
So who did Trump pick to run his branch of the government with him?
First, we have the few political allies he made during the campaign, especially “immigration patriot” Senator Jeff Sessions, who is now Attorney General. It is no coincidence that he was put in this position. In addition to having the necessary legal training and background, it was very important for Trump to put a loyalist in the most powerful position he has from which to implement his internal policies. The Attorney General runs the Department of Justice. Together with various agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, this would constitute the Ministry of Interior in another country, control over which would be critical for any leader trying to stay in power and implement policies in a politically divided landscape.
His allies were so few, that both opponents and supporters were afraid of the unsuitable individuals he might place in high positions to repay their support. Thankfully, Trump was not that desperate or strapped for support, so New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was exiled due to the whiff of scandal hanging around him, Newt Gingrich was retired without explanation and Rudolph Giuliani, one of the more serious contenders for top spots, was eventually given a vague role in cybersecurity, where he might be waiting an opportunity for something more substantial. The fact that the man who came closest to derailing the Trump Presidential Campaign by encouraging third party runs to bleed votes from Trump, 2012 Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, was supposedly in the race for Secretary of State, shows Trump’s problems in accessing talent and the compromises and risks he was entertaining to fill that position well. Other allies, such as Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is a noted “immigration patriot” himself, found himself outside the DHS, where Trump wanted to place him, because of the internal politics of the transition team.
Meanwhile, strategic movements of assets were performed to enhance the position of loyalists. Anti-Trump Republican Nikki Haley was the Governor of South Carolina until being named Ambassador to the UN, a prestigious and important position for an institution for which Donald Trump will not appear to have much time or patience. He won not just by naming a woman from an ethnic minority in this position (always part of the political calculus in the US), but also by removing her from her original post, thereby ensuring that early Trump supporter Henry McMaster would advance from Deputy Governor to Governor of a state of middle importance.
Building up the “Trumpublican Party” is going to be a priority for Trump in the next four years, if he is to win a second term or do his best for a Trumpist candidate to have a chance at winning the election. This means slowly moving people favorable to his ideas in as many of the thousands of political positions in the local, state and federal governments as possible.
The new Cardinals
Building up the “Trumpublican Party” is going to be a priority for Trump in the next four years. This means slowly moving people favorable to his ideas in as many of the thousands of political positions in the local, state and federal governments as possible.
Secondly, we have the generals. We are hard pressed to find such a star-studded Cabinet in history as the one Trump has assembled, including for the role of Defense Secretary, which is usually (and unerringly for the past 50 years) reserved for a civilian, in order to better ensure the civilian control over the military. Trump’s preference for high ranking military men in his Administration (including for replacing former National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn) becomes logical when we consider his staffing difficulties. Generals are proven public servants in their own right, with intellectual heft and administrative competencies. The reflexive high regard in which they are held by the American people also helps lend weight to Trump’s pariah government, especially with his more questionable staff picks, which will be discussed below. Generals are, crucially, also adept at politics and the politicking within organizations, at least within their own realms and specialties. They also have very long and transparent track records with regards to their service, making them the ideal elite class from which Trump can make some staffing choices, especially since their culture values forthrightness, patriotism, deference to hierarchy, loyalty and so on, which are all qualities a leader looks for in a “Game of Thrones” type of environment. Their file also allows political players and desk jockeys to be more easily separated from the true military men Americans and Trump instinctively look up to. Flynn, who is currently undergoing his fall from grace, was a favorite of the roster of candidates due to his professional credentials and his quiet disagreements with the Obama White House, since he advocated for security policies which Trump later favored.
Two more figures who are widely respected are General Mattis (Secretary of Defense) and General Kelly (Secretary of Homeland Security). As in the case of General Kelly’s reported rejection of Kris Kobach in favor of forming his own DHS team, Trump knows already or will soon realize that his military picks are not yes-men, nor liable to agree with him on everything. This, too, adds to White House credibility, although it will make life difficult for Trump.
The Crassus of the Republic
Thirdly, we have the billionaires club, at least those who are still willing to deal with Trump after his betrayal of the increasingly rootless billionaire class. These are people whom Trump knows or knows about from his professional life and can be reasonably certain will be loyal to him if only out of self-interest (a successful government post is the crowning achievement of a lifetime of success). They are in no way anti-establishment, but can be induced to help Trump’s policies by appealing to their own goals (self-aggrandizement, compromises on policies which favor them etc.). Trump not only has a high percentage of CEOs and bankers in his supposedly anti-establishment Administration (14% at the top level), but a large number of them come from the cream of the establishment, which has its own internal hierarchies. Getting not one, but two Goldman Sachs bankers (Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn), and an oil executive (Rex Tillerson) in his Administration made many of his supporters wince painfully. Finance, energy, pharmaceutics, IT and consumer goods are some of the most globalized businesses, therefore the most likely to be beholden to globalist ideologies. Generally, billionaires in real estate (Trump), casinos (Sheldon Adelson, Trump donor) and a few other fields defy this trend towards the birth of Huntington’s “Davos Man”, as evinced by their colorful and controversial profiles.
Outsiders cannot succeed without at least a number of Insiders on their side, who are adept at pulling the establishment’s levers but also willing to work with or for the Outsider. Without them, an insurgency either fails or succeeds so completely that it destroys the establishment as well as the object of dispute.
In the long run, it was the only smart move he could make, because Outsiders cannot succeed without at least a number of Insiders on their side, who are adept at pulling the establishment’s levers but also willing to work with or for the Outsider. Without them, an insurgency either fails or succeeds so completely that it destroys the establishment as well as the object of dispute, as many would-be revolutionaries in Africa and South American found out to their woe. Paraphrasing Nixon on his pursuit of the Jewish vote through overt support for Israel, you do not need all of the Insiders on your side, but you do need some of them.
It is notable that Trump’s only support from Silicon Valley came from Peter Thiel (and Carl Icahn, who has a wider repertoire of interests). The rest of Silicon Valley has been very hostile to the Trumpian worldview, as TMFI has highlighted in a previous analysis called “Googlelections”. It is worth noting that Peter Thiel has exhibited considerable moral courage in supporting Trump during the election, as his positions have made him a pariah within his community for defying the very liberal consensus and have attracted significant opprobrium from those who thought that his sexual orientation made him the automatic political chattel of the Democratic Party.
The “Cardinal Nipote”
Fourthly, we have friends and family within the Administration. This is the part that will make most modern Americans uneasy, regardless of their support for Trump. It is not unheard of, given the dynasties and families of American politics, such as the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts and the Kennedys (brothers occupying the Presidency and the Attorney General position simultaneously, while maneuvering to make the latter, Robert, the next President) and, later on, the Clintons and the Bushes, to name the more well-known ones. However, there was a clear trend in 2016 to reject both dynasties which were present in the race (through Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton) which were too much associated with the status-quo in the minds of the electorate. However, Trump, like the stereotypical king, mobster boss or, a more benign comparison, the head of a family firm in a country like Italy, finds that the people he can trust the most are members of his family, which makes it reasonable to bring them in as agents of his rule.
They are not necessarily optimal from the perspective of the competency of those recruited in this way and by these criteria, and they speak badly about the state of the society which must employ such models, but they are a useful strategy for survival and stability.
There is a reason familial ties appear over and over, independently, in leadership castes throughout human societies and history – because these models work in a low trust environment. They are not necessarily optimal from the perspective of the competency of those recruited in this way and by these criteria, and they speak badly about the state of the society which must employ such models, but they are a useful strategy for survival and stability. There have been numerous studies made about the family firms of Italy, which depend on blood or marriage ties for its managerial staff (and also in literature, with the Struan mercantile company of the Taipan and Noble House books by James Clavell). They inevitably hit a size limit when there are not enough family members to continue expanding operations and maintain trust, and also lose out on not being willing to risk using outside talent.
They are indicative of the environment where they are formed and may be reformed later, should the environment change. Trust in the US political system is at an all-time low these days and, while Trump cannot expect to govern with family and friends, it was a pragmatic decision for him to use his, otherwise successful, family firm model; to the extent it is applicable to the US. His daughter and his son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, are said to be very close and influential advisors. As for friends, he named his ally in bankruptcy proceedings, Wilbur Ross (an accomplished businessman, though as much of an establishmentarian as Bain Capital’s Mitt Romney was) as Secretary of Commerce, his lawyer with strong Zionist views, David Friedman, as the Ambassador to Israel (if he is confirmed) and so on. He might need a loyalist in Israel given reports of disloyal actions by the elements of the US intelligence community who oppose him, such as allegedly warning Mossad to limit the information flows to the White House, as reported by Haaretz and many others.
The time bomb
Finally, we have the Republican and Democratic cadres, who are actually much more numerous than the above categories put together, which is why the Trump Administration will face so many threats from the interior over the next four years. Some of these were named by Trump as the price for whatever Party support he may gather, in addition to agreeing to compromise on many of his policies and to support the Republican Congress in legislative projects he would have otherwise compromised with the Democrats on, as befits an ideological centrist.
His Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, is an important Republican nomenclaturist (and campaign financier) from the newly conquered state of Michigan. Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, is a former Bush era appointee who is also the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an off-and-on Trump basher who is therefore amenable to political horse-trading. Many of the cadres were inherited by Trump and will likely remain in their positions due to staffing difficulties, becoming a perpetual source of threats to the Administration as it embarks on controversial projects.
The American civil service is especially liberal, just like the security and military structures lean conservative. The State Department is also homogeneously liberal and will not care much for Trump’s foreign policy positions, which contradict the internal culture that has developed over the years with regards to America’s calling to expend itself for the world and its “mission civilisatrice” with regards to human rights, democracy and minority rights of all kinds. There are dissenters in all of these departments, just like there are in the most hallowed liberal organizations (and there were liberal dissenters in the more conservative periods), but they stay silent for the sake of their careers and reveal themselves only afterwards. This is the case of diplomat W. Lewis Amselem, who, after retirement, runs a very conservative blog on diplomatic affairs called The DiploMad.
Some of these were named by Trump as the price for whatever Party support he may gather, in addition to agreeing to compromise on many of his policies and to support the Republican Congress in legislative projects he would have otherwise compromised with the Democrats on, as befits an ideological centrist.
As mentioned before, the fear of betrayal or of his agenda being hijacked under his nose has led Trump to denying employment to the “usual suspects” from within the Beltway Think Tanks which Republican Presidents would employ. This presents its own challenges, since Trumpism is an ideology without dedicated and networked mainstream Think Tanks, scholars and literature (though some are reasonably close) to provide the intellectual underpinning for advancing a civic nationalist-republican worldview. He will have to build them up in the future to make the ideological shift the US is undergoing under his influence more sustainable and not simply reliant on long repressed public sentiment. But this does not help him with his staffing concerns for now. For US Presidents, their first and greatest obstacle is not Congress, which has its own defined role, but their Administrations, leviathans with significant inertia which are too complex for a single man or even a competent Cabinet to run against their will, let alone change them. This is why Trump has adopted draconian policies regarding the social media profile of government institutions, forbidding them from publishing on their own without validation from higher up, specifically to not undermine the White House for ideological reasons. This move is destined to fail in the age of information leaks, but is a testament to how, instead of having the reins of state in his hands, Trump finds it more like sand slipping through his fingers.
Of course, surprises do occur – Michael Anton, a one-time writer for the neoconservative magazine run by William Kristol and speechwriter for the Bush Administration, is now a Senior National Security official in the Trump Administration. He was also revealed to have been writing under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus (a Roman official – a pseudonymous tradition dating back to the Founding Fathers) during the campaign. He ran the Journal of American Greatness until his possible discovery led him to shut it down and then wrote the widely quoted “Flight 93 election”, in which he compared the Trump phenomenon to the people storming the cockpit to thwart the terrorists which had taken over Flight 93 on 9/11 and were going to crash it into the White House. He was later named by the New Yorker Magazine as part of “a rogue group of conservative thinkers [which] tries to build a governing ideology around a President-elect who disdains ideology”. He has been unmasked only recently and after his former boss had compared him to the role of philosopher Carl Schmitt within Nazi Germany.
A recurring pattern
Ultimately, in addition to the turbulent future we predict for Trump, we must remember another lesson that all would-be reformists and revolutionaries must learn or have learned in the past – it is not enough to be right or to have public support for change to happen. Your rivals can cripple you without ever giving your arguments a fair hearing, if they can control the finance which you need to campaign, the media which you need for exposure to your message and the social climate which you need to be perceived as a respectable person advocating respectable positions and not be excluded on the basis of rote demonization. Then, even if you win the first battle, which is the election, whatever establishment you are fighting holds many of the cards. They control the clerical staff and intelligentsia you need to implement your agenda, the institutions forming the elites from which you must recruit your staff and the institutions which emit respectable opinions opposing your efforts without your having a similar apparatus to counteract them. Under these conditions, it is all but inevitable that the opponents of change are the ones best placed to ensure that the failures they are predicting will also come to pass, thus invalidating your political platform by association. Few leaders are able to enact change in such a system, or set the wheels in motion for an ideological successor to do so. If Trump manages to do it, with the checks and balances arrayed against him, as well as a bipartisan consensus in favor of the maintenance of the current system, then he will have truly ushered in an era of American Caesarism. Now we just have to decide who his Octavian will be.