The series of columns I’ve been writing lately, floating implausible proposals for an ideologically unstable age, has been a useful way of avoiding the depressing subject of the Trump administration’s first 100 days – because really, in the face of such incompetence and chaos, what is there to say?
But precisely because this administration seems so hopeless, any constructive advice for the Trump White House automatically falls into the category of implausible ideas. So I can continue my ongoing series while also talking about Donald Trump – by proposing, as this week’s unlikely-to-happen proposal, that our president should go out and get himself a brain.
I do not mean a vat-grown cerebral cortex cooked up in some underground anti-aging lab funded by Silicon Valley immortalists … though I gather those may be soon available as well. I mean a brain in the sense that people (unkindly, but not inaccurately) used the term to describe Bill Kristol when he was the aide-de-camp to Vice President Dan Quayle 25 years ago: a person, or better a group of persons, who can tell Trump what specific policies he ought to support.
Because a core weakness of this White House, more devastating (for now) than the pugilistic tweets and permanent swirl of scandal, is the absence of anyone who seems to have thought through how one might translate Trumpism, the populist nationalism on which the president campaigned, into substantive policy on any specific issue except a temporary visa freeze.
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The dearth of Trumpists in official Washington was always going to be a major problem for this administration, both in staffing the White House and in negotiating with Congress. But it’s been worse than anticipated, because Trump himself doesn’t know what he wants to do on major issues and there’s nobody in his innermost circle who seems to have a compelling vision that might guide him.
A certain Steve Bannon – perhaps you’ve heard of him – was supposed to help Trump figure out all of this, perhaps with an assist from Michael Anton, the once-pseudonymous pro-Trump essayist now ensconced in the National Security Council. But there’s little evidence that either man’s policy vision has advanced much beyond, “The conservative movement has failed, let’s try something else.” Bannon seems to have been particularly useless during the health care negotiations, encouraging Trump to work with the Freedom Caucus one day and trying to bully them the next, while throwing out various critiques of the Paul Ryan bill that didn’t point toward anything coherent.
It was probably unreasonable to expect a 60-something whose life experience is all in media and Hollywood to suddenly turn into a one-man think tank, no matter how many French far-right agitators he name-drops. But a think tank is basically what Trump needs: a small brain trust committed to figuring out what parts of the mainstream GOP vision he should support and what heterodoxies it makes sense for him to champion, so that he isn’t stuck governing on the Heritage Foundation’s austerity budgets while his friends outside the administration urge him to expand Medicaid.
Some Trump supporters – the folks behind the new journal American Affairs, most notably – are trying to play that role already. But they’re getting going slowly; Trump needs something sooner, faster, now. He needs, in effect, a think tank inside the White House: a small group, separate from the process-oriented Domestic Policy Council, whose only task is to brief the president regularly on how Trumpist premises should shape any given legislative deal.
The way things are going, there won’t be many such deals struck. But this brain trust would have a longer-term purpose, too: It would be assigned to build up an easy-to-explain agenda that Trumpish candidates could run on in 2018, that Trump could champion if he tries to triangulate between Ryan and the Democrats, and that the president could campaign on when he runs for re-election. (Aren’t you excited for 2020, dear reader?)
Who might staff it? The people involved with American Affairs would be candidates, but I would also look to other dissident-conservative publications like The American Conservative, junior (that is, not yet set in their views) staff at places like Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute, lesser known right-leaning outfits like the Institute for Family Studies, and the offices of creative populists like Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. Possible brain trusters might include figures like F.H. Buckley, the George Mason law professor and Trump speechwriter who recently urged the president to come out for single-payer; Mickey Kaus, the once-liberal blogger turned Trumpista; and Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, author of a forthcoming book on Reagan’s populism.
All of this assumes that Trump cares about Trumpism as something more than a grift and that he can accept advice and counsel in a sustained way, without changing his mind the instant someone makes a different case. As I said, it’s a deeply implausible idea.
But so is every solution to this White House’s struggles – and we’ve still got most of four years left to go.