By Michael C. Williams
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa
For much of the public and the political classes, Donald Trump remains a mystery. The Twitter tirades and legislative fiascos, the constant media feuding, the insults and outrage all seem to reveal a president who is not simply politically inexperienced, but who is incompetent, perhaps even unfit for office. For Trump’s critics and opponents, this narrative is in many ways comforting. Worried as they may be, they hope that although buffoons or narcissists may be dangerous, they are also erratic, ineffective, and liable to political self-destruction. Given enough time and sufficient checks in the interim, the aberration will pass and normalcy will return.
This view is pervasive. It may also be profoundly wrong. At the very least, it flies in the face of three basic facts. First, Trump’s success as a businessman. However checkered this record might be, and whatever reservations one might have about how easily acumen in property development translates into political skill, this is not the record of an incompetent. Second, Trump’s remarkable ability to parley business success into celebrity. Today’s business world is certainly closer to show business than ever before, but no one has navigated the transition between the two as successfully as Trump. Third, and most obvious, his ability to mobilize both of these achievements to fuel his remarkable rise in politics. One need not like, agree with, or admire Trump to recognize that his ascent to the White House against huge odds was a remarkable achievement. This is not the record of someone lacking in strategic acumen.
All this raises the prospect that it may be the baffled observers and outraged critics rather than the president who do not know what is going on. Their continual angst, dismissal, and disbelief is not only a result of their inability to grasp Trump’s strategy, but may actually be an outcome of that strategy — testimony to Trump’s success, not to his failure. To see the potential of this view, it helps to look a little more deeply into some of the ideas animating the kind of conservatism that Trump often espouses and that a number of his advisors systematically advocate. At the heart of this position is a specific attack on liberalism. This is not simply the traditional conservative stand against big government or the welfare state. It reflects a deeper, more radical view of the power of liberal politics and the strategies conservatives need to adopt if they are to successfully challenge and dismantle that power.
The core of this view is that the power of liberalism does not lie in its domination of the traditional organs of representative government — the legislative and executive branches — but is instead vested in its domination of public culture, and the functional and “expert” parts of the state: the bureaucracy and judiciary. The permissive, multicultural, redistributionist values promoted by cultural elites and the institutions they control, and that decry and denigrate conservative principles at every opportunity, are the bedrock of liberal power.
At the level of government, these liberal values and policies dominate not primarily through their success at the ballot box (where they are often defeated) but through the power of the “managerial” or “administrative” state — the judges and bureaucrats who have captured ever greater power through their ability to interpret and implement legislation at their discretion and to shape policies and programs in line with their own views and values, often in ways contrary to those of elected representatives and their generally more conservative constituencies.
For “Trumpian” conservatives, three strategies follow from this view of the political landscape. First, to wage a continuous assault on “liberal” values and culture: to de-naturalize liberal dominance in these areas; to provoke its defenders into confrontations that reveal the partiality, not universality, of their views; and to generate constantly shifting (and thus novel and re-energizing) struggles against specific liberal adversaries or “enemies” who can serve as foils against whom conservative forces can find common cause, with the president as their champion.
This tactic of constant provocation (to which pleas of “please just stop” from within even the president’s own party are meaningless because they ignore its strategic uses) supports a second initiative: dismantling the administrative state. Here, the president’s role as the master of distraction keeps liberal adversaries preoccupied with railing against the latest “outrage” while the unspectacular restructuring of bureaucratic and judicial power goes on apace.
To be sure, this process has proceeded more slowly than Trump would have liked, but he has already scored some notable successes. While the media and the political elite have been consumed by the spectacle of the president engaged in a Twitter war with a couple of second-tier breakfast TV presenters, his new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency undertook a rollback of laws and regulations unprecedented in the organization’s 47-year history.
Simultaneously, Trump’s signal judicial triumph has been the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, whose stress on legislative pre-eminence and restrictive view of the regulatory authority of government agencies provides another powerful ally. To understand Trump’s strategy, we need to pay attention to these kinds of initiatives, instead of focusing in the usual way on signature legislation or grand political bargains.
Seen from this perspective, what emerges from the White House is not just a tale of disarray and indiscipline, but a much more substantial strategy aimed at dismantling liberal power, disarming opponents, and distracting critics. This view corresponds much better with Trump’s previous achievements than the out of control narcissist. We need not disregard Trump’s personal characteristics and see him as some kind of super-Machiavellian, a dissembling genius who coolly calculates behind a carefully constructed façade of volatility. Great strategists rarely resemble this model. Instead, they are more often “of their time” — individuals who grasp intuitively as well as reflectively certain enabling dynamics and possibilities.
Trump’s claim that he is a “modern president” in response to critics who accuse him of being “unpresidential” is worth considering. Possibly one of the most troubling implications of taking Trump seriously as a strategist is that it tells us as much about ourselves and our times as it does about him.
This article is part of a six-blog series that follows from a workshop on International Relations in a Post-Liberal Era. The workshop was hosted by CIPS and marks the start of the Copenhagen–Ottawa Research Exchange (CORE). For other blogs in this series, click here:
After Abdication by Peter Marcus Kristensen
NATO: A Liberal Alliance in an Increasingly Illiberal World? by Alexandra Gheciu
Liberal Interventionism: The Crisis Within by Katja Lindskov Jacobsen
In Africa, “America First” means “Development Last” by Rita Abrahamsen
CETA after Opinion 2/15: Legal Clarity or Confusion? by Jens Ladefoged Mortensen