I’ve read a lot of confused takes trying trying to make sense of the Trump administration through a traditional left-right lens. I’m sure you have, too. They use words like “pivot” and “establishment” and they struggle to explain when and why Trump does things other Republicans complain about. I find this particular style of Kremlinology unhelpful. Whether “conservatives” or “moderates” are winning is less than half the story.
The biggest division in the Trump White House is between ideologues and grifters. Ideologues care about policy; grifters don’t. Ideologues sometimes fight viciously among themselves over their policy commitments, but they’re united by having commitments at all. Grifters are driven only by the enrichment of the Trump family and the appeasement of Trump’s ego.
Within the ideologue camp, the starkest contrast is between ethno-nationalists (economically populist, isolationist, and sometimes overtly racist) and globalists (economically libertarian, cosmopolitan, and not necessarily racist). There are also disagreements about military policy, but the overall distance between hawks and doves is much narrower.1 There are no analogous divisions within the grifter camp; any side cons they have going are small and personal. The grifters, as I said, are unconcerned with policy for its own sake, but are happy to go along with whatever position is more expedient at the moment.
The other deep division is a matter of style rather than substance: there are douchebags and there are snowflakes , with drones somewhere in between. The key here is shame: the douchebags are psychologically incapable of feeling it, the snowflakes struggle with it constantly, and the drones keep it at bay by crossing their arms and scowling at the floor. Douchebags call up reporters for lengthy profanity-laden tirades; snowflakes call up reporters to say how embarrassed they are; drones call up reporters but ask not to be quoted by name. Douchebags don’t quit because they can’t take a hint; snowflakes constantly wring their hands about quitting but never go through with it; drones quit when asked but never on their own. Douchebags make Trump angry by stealing his headlines; snowflakes by public signs of disloyalty; drones by telling him ‘no’.
Within the Republican party over the last two decades, there has been a rough correlation between ethno-nationalist ideologues and douchebags on the one hand (“conservatives”) and globalist ideologues and drones on the other (“moderates”). But this alignment of substance and style has always only been rough and partial, and one of the things that Trump did during the campaign was to expose, in literally spectacular fashion, how hard it is to pin down a grifter on the conventional political spectrum.
Trump himself is a douchebag grifter, and at the extreme on both axes. But consider some of the other players, past and present, in his administration:
With this multi-dimensional taxonomy in mind, some of administration’s personnel gyrations make more sense. Consider the linked fates of Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. In January and February they were at each other’s throats, fighting over policy. But by July, as ideologues working for a grifter increasingly hostile to ideologues, they found common cause in fighting for policy at all. Priebus, of course, went out on his ear – but that was primarily for being a snowflake in a position where Trump wanted a douchebag. He got one par excellence in the person of Anthony Scaramucci. Then Scarmucci flew too close to the douchebag sun, so he was one of the first go when Kelly started firing douchebags of all stripes.
In conventional political terms, it looks as though the White House lurched away from Priebus’s pro-business Republican establishment towards Bannon’s insurgent right-wing populism, and then quickly back. Those shifts are to some extent real – a collateral consequence of Kelly’s housecleaning is that the globalist ideologues have (or perhaps had) an open shot on goal in getting Trump to push their tax agenda. But it would be a mistake to see the back-and-forth primarily in those terms, not when so often the motivations are personal rather than political, driven entirely by personalities and rhetoric.
At least when it comes to setting policy, the palace politics of the Trump court are less important than they seem. Trump may swagger and rage like a medieval monarch, but unlike them he lives in a modern media environment. His ministers can keep the courtiers out of the throne room, but they can’t keep the king from seeking the counsel of Vulpes et amici or from listening to the tweeting of a million birds in his ear. The flow of information – both the raw “facts” and the all-important framing – to the current president depends less on White House staff filters than at any time in living memory. James Murdoch’s personnel decisions matter in a way that John Kelly’s don’t: more turns on whether Hannity keeps his job than on whether Bannon does.
The place in which it matters more who survives each successive purge is not in who has Trump’s ear at the moment but in who is there to take orders from him. The Office of Legal Counsel is of the view that the President could scrawl a legally binding executive order on a napkin, but Trump’s tweets are deeply underspecified. Someone has to translate them into directives specific enough to implement on the ground and defend before a judge. When that someone is a Steve Bannon, you get the first Muslim ban: malevolence tempered by incompetence. When that someone is a James Mattis, you get the transgender ban: malevolence subjected to a slow rollout. When that someone is a Leonard Leo, you get Neil Gorsuch.
This is why the current apparent depopulation of the White House staff is significant: Trump’s capacity to execute is dependent on having the cadres to embrace his vision, such as it is, and carry it into effect. One reason the “Reagan revolution” deserves the name is that it swept into Washington a large and ideologically coherent cohort of conservative officials and bureaucratic professionals capable of leaving their stamp on every significant government program. To the extent that anything like this is happening under Trump, it’s a bumper crop of grifters and douchebags with an ethno-nationalist streak – and there are only enough of them to destroy existing programs, rather than to create enduring alternatives. This is the future of your Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen.
Except for this: shift your attention from the White House to the agencies and things look rather different (with the notable exception of the State Department under the singularly ineffective Tillerson). The left may mock and disparage, but the reaction from every conservative I’ve talked to has been consistent: Trump’s cabinet is a conservative dream team, and they’re moving quickly and confidently across a wide range of issues. Perhaps simply because Trump has neither a personal financial stake in nor any actual knowledge about most of what the agencies do, he’s been content to leave things up to a crop of appointees who are mostly ideologues and mostly drones.
The current status of the Trump administration, then, might be described as an administrative inversion. The White House, ordinarily the center of policy direction, is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and dignity wraiths die like dogs. The real action is in the agencies. Trump, in this view of things, functions primarily as an electoral rocket car: destructive and uncontrollable, but at least capable of getting things moving. Some Republicans are sticking with Trump because of his style rather than in spite of it – better a right-wing douchebag than a left-wing snowflake – but even those driven by ideology still have something to like. Trump himself may be less than worthless in pushing the policies they care about, and his White House may be a badly-written daytime drama, but as long as he can sign bills and judicial commissions, he’s better than any available alternative. 2
There are ways this alliance of convenience could fall apart, but they are less direct than, “Trump says something else utterly indefensible,” or “The White House staff keep on murdering each other with pickaxes.” These are daily occurrences now, and they are not really news when they happen. Anyone who is ever going to have an experience of total moral clarity about Donald Trump has already had theirs by now. One possibility is that high-profile failures of the conservative agenda in Congress undercut the hope that legislative (as opposed to merely administrative) success is possible under Trump. Another is that Trump’s own appetite for drama and domination – something that is both innate in his personality and strongly encouraged by his preferred media diet – causes him to act out in ways that sabotage the political prospects of his supposed allies and the policies they care about. This is what it takes to get Congressional Republicans upset. Better to have the douchebag grifter inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, they reasoned during the election, but now here he is in office, inside the tent and still pissing inside it. It’s enough to make a drone ideologue go full snowflake.
The reason is that Trump’s path to power as a Republican outsider effectively fenced out both Give Peace a Chance leftists and Carthago Delenda Est neoconservatives of the second Bush administration – that is, anyone committed to significant and sustained departures from the status quo. Trump himself defines both ends of his administration’s military Overton window: tough-talking swagger and fear of getting blamed if something big goes wrong. ↩︎
Mike Pence is technically unavailable, even though he’s next in the line of succession. The only plausible way to remove Trump without party-destroying revenge would be a massive stroke – or something else disabling his ability to yell and tweet. ↩︎