Democrats and the media are confused about the meaning of Donald Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. The president-elect’s critics say his appointment of wealthy Republicans to cabinet positions is hypocritical and reveals him to be a phony populist. “Hypocrisy at its worst,” cry Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “Trump’s Economic Cabinet Picks Signal Embrace of Wall St. Elite,” reads the headline on the New York Times. “Stick a sterling silver fork in Trump’s ‘populism,'” reads the title of a Washington Post column.
This is the same sloppy thinking that led practically everyone in politics and media to believe Trump would lose the election. If populist voters despise wealth, then why did they back Trump, the wealthiest man ever to become president, who paid for much of his own campaign and bragged on the trail about using bankruptcy and tax laws to his advantage?
The mark of a populist isn’t his net worth but his relationship to the establishment, his rejection of the ideologies, fashions, clichés, and manners of the political and social and cultural elite, his attitude toward the capacities of ordinary people to manage their daily affairs. Rich as he might be, Donald Trump’s candidacy was an exercise in populist confrontation and polarization. He ran against the eastern establishment of both parties with his opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, criticism of global trade, and repudiation of the foreign policies of the last two presidents. His blunt, uncouth, dramatic, untutored, brash, politically incorrect manner was about as far as one can get from elite habits of deference and groupthink. For decades, the nation’s cultural and political elites treated him with disdain, disgust, or ironic fascination. Trump was the original deplorable. That’s how he forged a gut connection with his base of white voters without college degrees.
Only a liberal could believe that Trump’s pledge to drain the swamp was an attack on the wealthy or on market economics. While he and Bernie Sanders struck similar notes on trade, Trump happily attacked the Vermont senator as a socialist nut. The swamp to which Trump and his audiences refer isn’t Wall Street per se but an interlocking system of major financial institutions and multinational corporations, lobbyists, academics, media, and, most importantly, the consultants and rent-seekers in Washington, D.C., that get rich despite failure after failure in economic, foreign, and domestic policy.
The “Contract with the American Voter” that Trump outlined in his October 22 speech at Gettysburg did not include provisions saying no one with Goldman Sachs on their resume would serve in his administration. What he pledged instead were term limits, a hiring freeze on federal workers, “a requirement that for every new federal regulation two existing regulations must be eliminated,” five-year bans on executive and legislative branch personnel from lobbying after leaving government, lifetime bans on White House personnel from lobbying for a foreign government, and a “complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections,” as well as “seven actions to protect American workers,” “five actions to restore security and constitutional rule of law,” and legislation to reduce and simplify corporate and individual taxes, impose tariffs to protect U.S. industry, add $1 trillion in infrastructure spending over the next decade, create a federal school choice program, end Common Core, replace Obamacare, make child care expense tax deductible, build the wall and crack down on illegal immigration, give more resources to police, increase defense spending, and reform the VA. All in his first 100 days in office.
This expansive and substantive agenda was the hidden story of the 2016 campaign. So obsessed were we with the accouterments of the Trump phenomenon—the crowds, the controversies, the tweets, the harangues, the drama—that the only people who heard the details of his program were the ones that attended his major speeches or listened to them on talk radio. Now, as president-elect, Trump faces the challenge of enacting even a part of this grandiose vision. His cabinet selections give us an early clue into the character of his incoming administration. And they tell us his fight with the political class is just beginning.
It’s been reported that Trump has cited Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as he mulls appointing Mitt Romney as secretary of State. But the Trump cabinet looks less to be a team of rivals than a team of outsiders. The men and women Trump has nominated are largely in sync with the program on which Trump campaigned, and while Trump enjoys delegating and hearing different opinions, it is unlikely any member of the cabinet will last long if they displease or undermine or embarrass him. The big worry for Trump isn’t infighting. It’s the massive bureaucratic resistance that will soon greet his nominees.
Only one of the men and women nominated by Trump has experience managing the gigantic and recalcitrant organizations that comprise the administrative state: Elaine Chao, who served as George W. Bush’s secretary of labor and is now slated to head the department of transportation under Trump. White House counsel Don McGahn knows Washington as an attorney and former chair of the FEC. And, as I write, there are two members of the administration who have experience as elected executives: Mike Pence and Nikki Haley.
But Haley has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs, and she’s going to be ambassador to the United Nations. Senator Jeff Sessions is liked by his peers and has been a U.S. attorney and state attorney general, but he never has had as much authority as he will have next year. Neither Reince Priebus nor Steve Bannon has served in government, much less the White House. General Flynn made his reputation as a hard-charging “disrupter,” K.T. McFarland’s last government job was in the Reagan administration, Betsy DeVos is a philanthropist and activist who will be new to government, General Mattis is an American hero beloved by Marines but also a stranger to domestic politics, Mike Pompeo was elected to Congress six years ago, and Ben Carson is, well, Ben Carson.
The press has covered the economic team of Steve Mnuchin at Treasury and Wilbur Ross at Commerce as a win for insiders. However, as successful as Mnuchin and Ross might be, neither is the sort of insider who routinely traverses the Acela corridor, alternating between government office and lucrative business interests. And both are at odds with establishment thinking on economics. The Wall Street Journal editorial page on Thursday slighted Mnuchin’s praise and concerns for small banks. Ross’ views on trade are as heretical as Trump’s.
This roster of new personnel is a reflection of the man who put it together, the ultimate outsider who relishes combat with entrenched institutions such as the media, the political parties, and Clinton Inc. But he and his top officials will have to draw on all their talents amid the bureaucratic inertia and conventional wisdom of Washington life. They ought to remember that the CIA chewed up and spat out President George W. Bush’s director Porter Goss, just as the World Bank revolted over Paul Wolfowitz.
Trump supporter Newt Gingrich, who won’t be joining the administration, advises incoming cabinet officials to read Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive. “President-elect Trump and his senior team have to acquire the habit of asking of every situation, ‘Is this a symptom, or a problem?'” writes Gingrich. “If it is a symptom, they must take some time to look for the real underlying problem. When they solve that problem, they will have solved orders of magnitude more symptoms.” The problems are large and daunting as Donald Trump and his team of outsiders prepare to take up residence in the swamp.