Eric Davis: New leader is off to a dubious start
Donald Trump’s presidency began last Friday with a dark and foreboding inaugural address. The President portrayed America as a dystopia (“carnage”) and laid out a mix of populist, nationalist and protectionist responses. Unlike almost all of his predecessors, Trump said nothing in his inaugural address about history, the Constitution, freedom, equality, justice or liberty.
This tone continued the following day, when Trump went to CIA headquarters. After brief remarks about the importance of the intelligence community and his respect for it, Trump veered off into a lengthy riff about his “enemies” in the media, the “great” crowds at his inauguration, and his campaign record as a “winner.”
Saturday ended with Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, claiming there were far more people at the inauguration than were actually present (“alternative facts,” as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway put it), berating the press for biased and inaccurate coverage, and then refusing to take questions.
On Monday, Trump behaved much more conventionally. He met with business executives and labor leaders, signed executive orders about trade negotiations, received the president’s daily intelligence briefing, had a working lunch with Vice President Pence, and conferred with congressional leaders, while Spicer held a normal briefing with the White House press.
The contrast between the Trump of the weekend and the Trump of Monday is certain to recur throughout his presidency. The contrast, if not conflict, between more-or-less mainstream Republicans and populist outsiders is built into the structure of Trump’s administration.
Within the White House, Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, and Spicer represent traditional Republicans, who made their careers in state party politics, the Congressional Republican Party, or both. Other White House advisers, such as Steve Bannon and Conway, came from Trump’s campaign, and are much more oriented toward an outsider, populist and sometimes nihilist perspective. Bannon has actually called himself a “Leninist,” saying that Lenin “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.”
There is another very important White House adviser, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. His appointment represents a throwback to pre-modern monarchies in which kings would surround themselves with loyal family members.
In foreign policymaking, Trump’s White House national security adviser, Michael Flynn, believes international affairs are marked by a “clash of civilizations,” that Russia, a “civilized” Christian nation, should join the U.S. in a global war against “radical Islam,” and that the structure of military and economic alliances that has developed over the past 70 years does not take into account states’ legitimate pursuit of their own self-interest.
Other foreign policy and national security officials, particularly Defense Secretary James Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, believe in the importance of the alliance system, working cooperatively with allies, and being skeptical about Russian intentions, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
As of this week, Trump has no mainstream academically trained economists in the White House to advise him on the macroeconomic implications of domestic and international policy. The few economists he has are all protectionists, far removed from the main currents of the economics profession. Previous Republican presidents included among their senior advisers nationally respected academic economists such as Martin Feldstein of Harvard and Glenn Hubbard of Columbia.
Trump himself appears to have little interest in the details of policy, whether domestic or international, other than repeating phrases he used on the campaign trail. Thus, he is particularly susceptible to the arguments of the last person to talk to him. This makes it critically important that people who have regular access to the president — such as Preibus, Bannon, Flynn, and Kushner — ensure that he is exposed to a full range of views on those topics that get pushed up to the presidential level. Whether that will happen is very much an open question.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.