As a candidate Donald Trump excoriated his party’s reigning orthodoxies. As president, however, he is running a fairly conventional administration in his first seven months, at least in the policy realm. What happened to making America great again?
The truth is that the new movement had troubling signs from the beginning. “People who went all-in for Trump were engaged in total wishful thinking,” complains one former Trump campaign policy adviser. According to him, “I think that in his gut Trump isn’t wedded to the establishment. But the idea that Trump’s sort-of vague intuition about this stuff would translate into any serious effort to cultivate the kind-of ideological team that could really catalyze a shift . . . there’s just no evidence of that. I didn’t see it on the campaign. And I don’t think—from what I know of how they’ve done hires—I don’t think ideology is a factor.”
Prominent backers of the New York mogul who were there with him from the early days—Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie and even former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski—did not get senior roles in the administration. At the Cabinet level, only Jeff Sessions and perhaps Michael Flynn seemed dyed-in-the-wool ideological national-populists. Instead, his White House was staffed with business titans and generals with whom he had limited previous association—Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis, Steven Mnuchin, Gary Cohn and Wilbur Ross. He seemed to largely eschew bomb-throwers or the politicians who most robustly voiced support for Trumpism the ideology, such as Duncan Hunter or Kris Kobach. As early as January, one Washington conservative political professional (who refused to vote for Trump) boasted to me that he was both thrilled and stunned with the cabinet selections.
Roger Stone Jr., the controversial political consultant who sometimes has the ear of the president, has been saying in the press for months that Steve Bannon and his ilk made a mistake by not using more of their “political capital” on staffing choices, leaving them isolated when their mercurial boss had a change of mood.
Flash forward to this month and the editor of the magazine charged with defending Trumpism—trade protectionism, noninterventionism in foreign affairs, and skepticism of immigration and globalization—has renounced the president. Julius Krein of American Affairs is now on the warpath. “Bannon’s vision,” he says, “of nationalist populism is completely idiotic.” He blames the president for messing this up: “The core problem is at the top. It was always going to be such a weird administration . . . It had to be very nimble, and unite all these different strands. And, when that’s missing at the top. It obviously doesn’t work.” Krein singles out Mattis and Ross as excellent choices, but says that their influence is constrained by a wholly undisciplined president.
Are Neocons Better at Playing the D.C. Game?
In the first days following Trump’s election, establishment, even neoconservative, personnel were considered for roles. Nikki Haley, now UN ambassador, has been reported to have been offered the job of secretary of state before Rex Tillerson. In April in New York, she denied the offer, but confirmed the consideration. “The original call that I received to go to Trump Tower was to discuss Secretary of State,” Haley said. “No, he did not offer it.” Haley is firmly associated with the neoconservatives Trump has claimed to loathe, and during the primary she attacked Trump and endorsed his rival, Marco Rubio.
One reason the likes of Haley rose to the top is that many realists shunned Trump. “There is also the problem that few credentialed realists were eager to work with [Trump],” Scott McConnell, founding editor of The American Conservative, told me. “None were willing to play the game of looking for entry points—as the neocons did early on, with at least some success. . . . [Trump] seemed to have made most initial choices based on whom he might have seen on TV, and relied heavily, and probably overly, on the military, where top people were willing to work with him. He never really had connections to either nationalists/populists or realists—though neither group is that well entrenched in the D.C. think tank world.”
Haley likely came right up to the line of the only hard-and-fast rule of Trump world: no prior explicit and total renunciations of the man himself.
“I do think if you’re on the record saying nasty things about Trump, or the Trump family, that stuff can really hurt you,” the former campaign aide told me, in line with a longstanding rumor about Trump’s hiring.
Elliot Abrams, the former Reagan official nixed as the State Department’s number-two man, was one victim of this policy. Abrams declined comment to the National Interest for this story. And Haley’s position clashes and own personal ambition have had very real policy implications already. Widely thought to be a future presidential candidate, Haley has often stepped out ahead of the State Department with far-more hawkish language in her statements and public appearances as ambassador.
John Bolton is another example. Though Trump is an outspoken Iraq War critic, he considered the George W. Bush administration’s colorful cheerleader for secretary of state, national security adviser and deputy secretary of state. Bolton also declined comment for this story. Krein protested to me that Bolton is misunderstood, and actually would have been a great choice. McConnell ferociously disagrees: “The problem with Bolton is simple. If you liked George W. Bush’s foreign policy, especially the Iraq War and the idea of regime change carried out by the American military on a multi-country, pan-regional scale, and you want get that kind of policy going again, the search is over: he’s definitely the guy,” he wrote in December.
Could Things Have Been Different?
McConnell, a prominent ally of the Pat Buchanan movement that many contend augered the age of Trumpism, has argued that with Bannon gone, there effectively is no White House agenda, only a day-to-day quest for survival. And with Bannon’s exodus, along with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer (establishment professionals who nonetheless helped sell Trump to the party elite), it’s worth asking what sort of questions were asked of job applicants on the campaign and during the transition and afterward, if any.
One political professional who has advised Republican campaigns, including during 2016, finds the hiring of H. R. McMaster as national security adviser particularly curious, remarking “I don’t know how they could of” asked him any serious ideological questions, “given what they got.”
“When H.R. McMaster at his first staff meeting tells the collected staff that he does not agree with the use of the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ one would have thought would have come up in the job interview.”
That sentiment—and the sense of absolute obliteration of the Bannon wing in the administration—was seemingly confirmed by the resignation letter of Sebastian Gorka on Friday.
“Regrettably, outside of yourself,” he wrote to the president. “The individuals who most embodied and represented the policies that will ‘Make America Great Again,’ have been internally countered, systematically removed, or undermined in recent months. This was made patently obvious as I read the text of your speech on Afghanistan. . . . The fact that those who drafted and approved the speech removed any mention of Radical Islam or radical Islamic terrorism proves that a crucial element of your presidential campaign has been lost.”
The former campaign aide says he spoke with Stephen Miller, now White House senior advisor, and nothing of the sort came up, at least during the hiring phase.
“I did have one conversation on ideology,” the former aide tells me.
“After I was hired and everything, I got a call from Steve Miller. . . . Steve calls me and tells me: ‘The biggest contrast we want to draw is ‘Globalist Hillary’ versus ‘Nationalist Trump.’”
If anyone has the profile in the West Wing to directly ideologically succeed Bannon, it is Miller. But should he have such ambition, he might argue for a more scrupulous, even rigid system for hiring, lest the administration lets more globalists in around the president.
“I was a little surprised by that” conversation, the former aide tells me.
“And I probably discerned around that time that it probably wasn’t going to be a good ideological fit. But, again, it wasn’t like he and I talked about this or he asked for my views or anything. He just sort of said this is what we’re doing. . . . He had every reason to know that I wasn’t a Trumpian ideologue. . . . But it never really came up directly.”
A Silver Lining For Trumpists?
If there is a counterview, it’s that the so-called establishment forces now around the president—particularly the troika of Tillerson, Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly—aren’t really moderates, at all.
Mattis has been labeled by some as a stealth agitator for regime change in Iran, and an opponent of the nuclear deal, having developed a uniformly negative impression of that country’s government from his days in Iraq, where units under his command warred with the Shia militias.
Tillerson, of course, has been called a Russophile by critics—like his boss, too chummy with Vladimir Putin. And his efforts to pull the State Department away from global democratization efforts have been roundly criticized in the establishment.
Least commented on has been General John Kelly, now chief of staff. He’s a confirmed hardliner from his days heading up U.S. Southern Command—a portfolio of Central and South America. Not just anyone with that kind of knowledge of the situation and professional background would sign up to be the Homeland Security chief for a president who vowed to deport millions of people and build a wall on the Southern border, but Kelly readily did.
And who knows? Bannon might not be permanently out of the fold, if he even is at all. Trump is known to take late-night calls from a wide-range of actors, including from chums like Stone. Bannon has also argued that he is going to war “for” the president outside of the White House. His battlecry is clear, but whether he will win that war remains unclear.
Curt Mills is a foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills.