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.