A double narrative surrounds the Trump administration, and in a reflection of the schizophrenic nature of American politics right now, each account is true. On one side, we have the story familiar to anyone who has glanced at a major newspaper or looked at television in the last seven months: the Trump White House is a rat king mired in chaos, lies, and betrayal. According to this perspective, Donald Trump is a leader with no capacity for self-reflection, whose every action is driven by and feeds his amour-propre. He cannot advance his legislative agenda, and judges routinely strike down his executive actions. Palace intrigues threaten to destroy the administration from within, and his courtiers run to the press to leak the latest news in order to destroy their rivals. The whole thing at times looks like something out of Hogarth—if not Hieronymus Bosch.
Another perspective exists on Trump’s first six months, however, which looks past style and toward—surprisingly—substance. President Trump’s administration has taken on a host of major initiatives, many of which have lingered at the top of conservative wish lists for a decade or more. The appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in some ways could justify the entire Trump presidency. Trump will make hundreds of lower-court appointments as well, and he appears serious about keeping his promise to shape the judiciary in the mold of Antonin Scalia.
On energy, the administration has been busy—and effective. Opening China to American imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) will alter the world’s playing field on energy and feed a boom in the construction of LNG export terminals. Trump’s rollback of EPA regulations is unprecedented, and his expansion of pipeline-building is salutary. The president has refocused U.S. energy policy from feel-good but evidence-poor measures addressing climate change to harnessing America’s resource wealth for economic growth. Abandoning the charade of the Paris Accords was window dressing—the agreements were self-defined and unenforceable—but the message was clear: the Democrats’ war on hydrocarbons is over.
Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has moved aggressively to reverse the Obama administration’s attempts to achieve social engineering through the legal system. Sessions ordered a halt to the practice of channeling corporate settlement funds to nonprofit advocacy groups, which essentially guaranteed left-wing organizations a semi-permanent funding stream. The attorney general is reviewing consent agreements that DOJ signed with a number of municipalities accused of racist policing to determine whether the charges are valid or were generated by Black Lives Matter-style ideological excesses. As homicide rates rise in many major cities, the Trump Justice Department is pouring resources into law-and-order measures. And this week, the DOJ announced that it would begin investigating affirmative action policies in college admissions to determine whether they intentionally discriminate against white and Asian applicants.
In foreign affairs, Trump used harsh language about NATO as a lever to compel member nations to pay their fair share toward their own defense. Amid hysterical claims that he was prepared to let Russia resume hegemony over former Warsaw Pact nations, Trump went to Warsaw and delivered a stirring defense of Western values, praising the Polish people for their courage in fighting enemies from all sides. Trump clearly declared that America stood with Europe’s smaller nations in their struggle to maintain sovereignty and national identity. Defense Secretary James Mattis’s strategy of “annihilation” of ISIS appears to be working, too, as former strongholds like Mosul fall in Iraq and hundreds of thousands of civilians begin returning home.
Under any other administration, these accomplishments in the first 200 days would be acknowledged as significant, and the president would be reckoned a serious, can-do executive. But even Trump’s staunchest supporters must admit that there are major problems within the White House that could destroy a promising administration from within; and some of these flaws possibly reflect Trump’s own labile personality.
Trump’s mastery of the camera made him easily among the most charismatic political figures in modern history. Even his detractors were mesmerized by his screen presence; CNN and MSNBC would drop their regular programming to televise Trump campaign speeches, during which he wasn’t shy about peddling his own brand of steaks. But unlike Hitler or Mussolini, with whom he is so often and so tiresomely compared, Trump’s speechifying is anti-sublime. Trump is more like a rambling Borscht Belt comedian who occasionally pulls off a zinger. Translating that style to the presidency is a rough fit, at best. Trump’s Twitter habit, while a revolutionary way for a president to communicate with his base, leaves him open to scorn when he missteps, which is not infrequently.
Trump’s biggest problem is, paradoxically, the quality he touted as his greatest strength. “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people,” he explained to the Washington Post while campaigning last year. And many of his Cabinet-level appointments have been excellent. But unlike beauty pageant production or real-estate development, the “deliverables” in a presidential administration are less tangible, and the rules and standards of staff performance are harder to measure in politics than in business. “Personnel is policy” means more than hiring people with the same policy goals: it means that without cohesion of purpose and, yes, loyalty, a team is nothing but a set of competing personal agendas. Through whatever formula he or his advisors used, Trump has taken the idea of a dialectically energized “team of rivals” and created in the West Wing a battle royal, or a game of musical chairs played to machine-gun accompaniment.
Despite the drumbeat for impeachment and calls for resignation from the Left, the Trump presidency has immense potential to effect lasting, positive change. But the president must tune out his negative press, exploit the areas of consensus that exist with Democrats in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and—critically, and soon— get a handle on his staffing problems. If Trump continues to inhabit the conflicting realities of competence and chaos simultaneously, the dissonance will destroy his presidency before it really gets going.
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