What happens when an executive branch of seasoned technocrats is replaced by an executive branch of chaos monkeys? We’re about to find out.
On November 8, America and the world witnessed a seismic anti-government vote, the implications and ramifications of which won’t be clear for years. But already one thing is coming sharply into focus. This wasn’t a vote against the government, it was a vote against government in general. The Americans who voted for Trump not only voted against Hillary Clinton; they also voted against Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and every other professional politician who was running for president.
Donald Trump’s main qualification for president, in the eyes of many of his voters, is precisely that he is not a politician, that he is going to shake up Washington and break the clubby business-as-usual chain of continuity that stretches back for decades. What’s more, that promise is entirely credible. No one alive has ever lived under a president like Trump, who has no real conception of the nobility of public service, and who considers important cabinet-level positions to be “lollipops, things you give out to good boys and girls.” (That phrase comes from Eliot Cohen, a Republican national-security grandee who first urged Republicans to work for Trump before vocally changing his mind.)
Under president Trump, it is scarily possible that the U.S. could become Kenya, and that power will be centralized in a White House where loyalty is valued above everything else. The president has awesome power, especially in foreign policy, and controls a vast network of agencies devoted to exercising that power–not only the Pentagon and the NSA and the CIA and the State Department, but also enormous swathes of the Treasury, the Justice Department, and many other parts of the Executive Branch.
Up until now, that network has been filled with public servants who care deeply about their country and about doing what is best for it. Sometimes they are Democrats, sometimes they are Republicans, sometimes they are hawks, sometimes they are doves. Certainly they disagree with each other, and play favorites, and become obsessed from time to time with petty internecine rivalries. But almost none of them are people who would think it a good idea for an under-briefed president-elect to be talking to heads of state unprepared, on unsecured phone lines, and generally making a mockery of Washington protocol. Can that protocol be stifling and frustrating? Of course it can. But does it serve an extremely important purpose? Yes.
In the U.S., both parties have historically been quite good at governing. One of my favorite examples is the Treasury Under Secretary for International Affairs. That’s one of the 4,000 or so political appointees who are appointed by the president. It’s a really important job, despite the fact that, to a first approximation, no one has ever heard of it. You almost certainly can’t name the current holder of the position (it’s Nathan Sheets). But even George W. Bush, who was happy appointing John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the UN, appointed super-smart technocrats like Randy Quarles and Tim Adams to the position.
Every single holder of that position, for decades, has been over-qualified for the job, and has quietly and efficiently attempted to ensure America’s long-term best interests by looking after the economic health of the world upon which America relies. Not one has been a political hack; all of them have served their country by devoting brutal hours of hard work to a job that pays a fraction of what they could be earning in the private sector.
America literally has thousands of such jobs, and one thing has kept them filled with top-caliber people: the persuasive power of the presidency. When the president of the USA phones you up and asks you to serve your country by taking on an important government job, it’s very, very hard to say no.
Unless, of course, that president is Donald J. Trump.
The one rule that everybody in the Executive Branch follows, from the vice president and cabinet members all the way down to the meekest assistant undersecretary, is that they always defend the country’s policies as the president’s policies. The person making the decision is always the president, even when everybody knows that the president has delegated the decision-making to someone else. Which means that it’s very hard to serve in any Executive Branch role without broadly agreeing with the president’s agenda.
Donald Trump is the first president America has ever known who will have real difficulty finding qualified candidates who also broadly agree with his agenda. Indeed, his entire campaign was waged against the kind of permanent political class that fills such roles.
It’s possible that Mike Pence and Reince Priebus will be able to persuade Washington’s technocrats that they should take the jobs being offered; certainly a large swathe of the Republican party seems more than willing to give its new leader the benefit of the doubt. But Trump has given no indication that he wants to start filling those roles with the kind of career technocrats who are most qualified to do them. It is much more likely that he will install loyalists with no real knowledge of the complex institutions they will be inheriting.
The implications, especially at the national security level, are terrifying. America is still, whether it likes it or not, the global hegemon: Its civil servants set the tone and direction for the entire planet. But unlike almost every other advanced country, America’s civil service is dominated by political appointees. In the UK, a large and permanent civil service can effectively stymie most political bright ideas. In Belgium, the country can go 589 days without any formal government at all, and it doesn’t really matter, because Belgium is small, and because its bureaucrats are perfectly good at keeping the country ticking along.
Most countries are a bit like the American diplomatic service: While ambassadorships are handed out like plums to friends and big donors to the president, the real work gets done by the permanent staff. (Also, because of America’s hegemonic status, a lot of international diplomacy takes place in Washington, rather than in foreign capitals.)
In a Trump administration, by contrast, the ambassadorships are going to be harder to fill: They’re expensive, and Trump has relatively few big donors who are interested in such jobs and who will happily defend him to Parisian high society. It’s the Washington positions that will go to his friends and donors, and those positions have real power.
It’s inconceivable that Trump’s loyalists will just sit in these crucial positions and do nothing. They’re going to want to break stuff–indeed, that’s exactly what Trump’s voters want them to do. That would also serve Trump himself just fine: After all, chaos is a natural cousin of tyranny. The only question is only how much stuff Trump is going to be able to break, over the course of four years in power. And whether, once it’s broken, anybody will be able to put it back together again.