Ever since he took over the White House, the President has been doing what he promised in his inaugural speech—“transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American People.” Trump is an anti-centripetal force, reversing decades of centralization. His success in doing so leaves foreigners (including many people in London, where I live) deeply perplexed. All their friends live on the coastlines and subscribe to the idea that the middle of America is a place you fly over. Yet everybody in American politics knows that the fight is always for the middle of America. That’s where elections are decided and much of the country’s GDP is created. But, that’s not the America the world knows or likes. Engine rooms are seldom attractive. Trump’s approach transforms the flyover states into the “go to” places.
As a result, Washington and the world are apoplectic. By attempting to lessen Washington’s grip on power, Trump is draining away its lifeblood. The rest of the world doesn’t begin to know anything about state politics.
Trump’s Uber strategy has been to pull the cornerstones out from power structures that Washington rests on like the technocrats and the bureaucracy. The Washington intelligentsia are an arrogant bunch. They expected to be appointed to senior roles because they are “experts.” That’s especially true this time because the president is not.
But other than the trio of Reince Preibus, Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, there’s a lack of old Washington hands in the White House that’s probably unprecedented in the last century. (Jimmy Carter also stocked the White House with outsiders, but they were less hostile to government.) And the people thought to have the most power in Trump’s White House—Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump—have virtually no political experience.
Trump forges ahead without the traditional “wise men” and women. The Washington media has noted the number of government jobs that Trump has yet to fill, and they doubt his insistence that he has no plans to. But keep in mind that the National Security Council had 40 staffers in 1991 and more than 400 under President Obama. Can that many people realistically report directly to the president and vice president? Perhaps the bureaucracy has become too unwieldy and needed paring back? But each disappointed staffer vents his or her outrage to their long-cultivated friends in the media, blaming their plight on the president’s idiocy rather than on their own redundancy.
Trump is a bully. He punches to the jawline before opening a discussion. Unprecedented threats are followed by entirely new “deals.” He talks to the Taiwanese president before anybody else, threatens to label China a “currency manipulator” and drops America’s largest non-nuclear weapon in the midst of chocolate cake with Xi Jinping at his home in Mar-a-Lago. What was the result? China and the U.S. are increasingly aligned. Xi Jinping gave North Korea an ultimatum— China won’t stand for one more nuclear test (let alone Trump).
It looks increasingly like the U.S. will drop the currency manipulator threat in exchange for Chinese investment in the U.S. infrastructure upgrade Trump promised. The U.S. has decided to support China’s new international financial institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, after all. All this sets the stage for a deal. Instead of buying U.S. Treasuries, China will increasingly invest in the upgrade of hard assets like U.S. airports, ports and transportation links. Decades of carefully crafted diplomatic positions have suddenly been disrupted.
By winning and governing without them, Trump has disrupted other bedrocks of the Washington establishment—the fundraisers, the pollsters, the lobbyists, the diplomats. He is clearly disintermediating the political parties, as well, governing as an independent rather than as a republican.
Just like Uber, Trump is getting bad press. Like Uber, the White House has the air of an arrogant party of clueless frat boys. As in Uber’s case, rumours of probes and indictments lurk. But, just like Uber, some don’t care. Government is a service provider just like Uber. The customers may or may not like the methods Trump or Uber deploy, but they definitely want better service, whether from government or from taxis.
Washington needed paring back. Burning the establishment was never going to be an easy job. But, the one thing that didn’t need burning was the Constitution. Can Trump pare back the overgrowth of Washington without igniting a Constitutional crisis? That will be the difference between an Uber-success and an Uber-failure.