The other day the Trump administration announced a new trade deal with South Korea. It also announced that President Donald Trump was nominating the White House physician to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. What do these announcements have in common?
The answer is that both are indicators of how Trump views his job. He doesn’t seem to see actual policymaking as important; instead, he treats it all as an exercise in reality TV.
Unfortunately, what looks good on TV isn’t necessarily good for America, or the world.
Ronny L. Jackson, the veterans affairs nominee, certainly looks good on TV, as we saw when he gave Trump an excellent bill of health, including a declaration that the president, while overweight, is just shy of being officially obese – thanks to having apparently grown an inch in office.
However, girtherism isn’t the real issue here; as David Axelrod says, “a waist is a terrible thing to mind.” The point, instead, is that running veterans’ health is a management, not medical, job – and Jackson has no managerial experience.
But what does this have to do with trade deals?
Well, last week the stock market plunged on fears that Trump was getting ready to begin his long-threatened trade war. But then it made a partial comeback, as investors decided that he was mainly huffing and puffing.
That Korea deal supports the huffing-and-puffing view. Although hyped as a major victory, it’s basically a nothingburger in terms of its actual content. Korea will increase quotas that U.S. companies aren’t filling anyway and will divert a few percent of its steel exports to other destinations. It’s hard to escape the sense that the goal was to announce something, never mind the content, and call it a victory.
Once you start looking at the Trump administration as an exercise in publicity, not policy, you see signs of it everywhere.
For example, the director of the National Economic Council is often described as the president’s chief economist, but that’s not quite right. What the person holding that job is supposed to do is act as a coordinator: making sure that the president receives coherent economic advice, that policymaking in different departments is consistent with the administration’s overall vision, and so on.
Obviously, this requires a good enough understanding of economics to recognize good and bad advice, but it also requires other skills, managerial and diplomatic; basically, the council’s director has to be an honest and effective broker of other people’s ideas and actions.
So when Trump chose Larry Kudlow to replace Gary Cohn in that role, Kudlow’s remarkable track record on the economy – he’s been wrong about everything – was only part of the problem. Beyond that, nothing in Kudlow’s role as a shouting head on cable TV has prepared him for the job he’s supposed to do.
But no matter: According to Kudlow, the president says he looks “very handsome” on TV.
So Trump is acting as if his job were to run up ratings for his TV show, not to make actual policies. And in some ways this could be a good thing, since Trump’s policy ideas are often terrible. As I said, Wall Street had a big relief rally when investors tentatively concluded that Trump wants to only play at trade war, and can be bought off with symbolic wins that change nothing real.
Yet America still needs to be governed, and Trump’s lack of seriousness has consequences.
One consequence is that actual policy is mostly set by people with a hard-right agenda. Ben Carson, with his ever-changing explanations for ordering a $31,000 dining set, cuts a comical figure as secretary of housing and urban development. But never mind the furniture: In real life HUD seems to be abandoning its historical mission of fighting racial discrimination.
Similar turns to the right can be seen in many agencies. Trump hasn’t managed to repeal Obamacare, but his officials have undermined the program’s efficiency, driving up premiums and reducing coverage. Meanwhile, deaths and illness due to the collapse of environmental enforcement will be one of Trump’s enduring legacies.
Another consequence is that if and when America needs real leadership, there will be nobody home.
So far, the Trump era has been almost free from crises Trump didn’t generate himself. One of the few such events demanding an effective response was Hurricane Maria – and the response was disastrously inadequate.
So what happens if there’s a foreign policy crisis, a financial crisis, a health crisis, whatever? Fake wins like the Korea deal won’t do the trick; we’ll need actual policies. And who’s going to devise those policies? Lincoln had a team of rivals; Trump has assembled a team of poseurs.
And even if Trump should come to realize he needs better people, he probably couldn’t get them. At this point, everyone with some independent reputation knows that you can’t enter this administration without getting tarnished and diminished. Trump can’t even hire good lawyers!
So one of these days, the reality TV administration is going to bump up against actual reality. And it’s not going to end well.