The establishment in this country is stuck in early November, 2016. Donald Trump is a bad dream, but the bad dream is almost over: soon, DC will once again by ruled by a member of the Bush and/or Clinton dynasties, and all will be right in the Beltway once more.
For those of us who have woken up, understanding the Trump phenomenon is the most important problem in politics. There are three basic models you can use to explain Trump’s victory: Team Trump, Trumpism, and Trump. The left and the establishment right (but I repeat myself) suffer from a halo/horns effect: if they don’t like Donald’s style, they won’t like his policies; if they don’t like his policies, they don’t think much of his allies either.
This is, I’m sorry to say, pretty stupid. I get it: you don’t like Donald Trump. But, Trump won, and there’s a sort of conservation principle in play, where every time you get further evidence that he is, say, a poor public speaker, that’s further evidence that either his policies were more appealing than you thought, or his team was better than it looked.
Establishmentarians try to cheat by using Russian hacking as deus ex machina, as if Russia hacked white Americans’ serotonin production to make them start killing themselves well before they elected Trump—as if Russia hacked Nielsen for years to make it appear that Trump was a natural on television with a large and devoted following.
But I always say: don’t get mad; get inside your enemy’s OODA loop and then get even. The Russian conspiracy theory is in fact a subset of my framework; Putin is just a key member of Team Trump.
The day after election day was a very bad day for some poor apparatchik, who had to tell Vladimir Putin that, despite lots of hard work, he had colossally fucked up, and Donald Trump had actually won. We will never know how hard Russia tried, or what they wanted, but let’s consider two possible outcomes in 2016:
- The extremely loose-cannon Donald Trump becomes President, and does god knows what over the next four years. Maybe he’s Vlad’s best buddy; maybe he randomly decides that Russia should start paying tribute to Mongolia again. Who knows?
- Donald Trump wins roughly 268 electoral votes, and parlays his enormous media presence into a nonstop campaign against Hillary Clinton’s legitimacy, such that the biggest accomplishment of her entire presidency is that @realDonaldTrump has an even bigger follower lead over @POTUS.
More on this in a later post, but: it’s abundantly clear that Russia’s geopolitical ambitions are defensive with respect to America, not offensive. Anything they can do to keep America weak is worth doing, and the two best things you can do to keep America weak, circa 2016, are putting Hillary Clinton in charge and giving Trump reason to think he deserves to be in charge instead.
Team Trump is more than just Vladimir Putin and a squad of spirited bot writers and for-profit trolls. He also had Michael Cohen, the most divorce lawyer-looking guy ever to practice law; Paul Manafort, who even Washington DC lobbyists thought was an amoral scumbag; Roger Stone, a dirty trickster who bragged about playing dirty tricks (and, incidentally, once ran an ad in a swingers magazine, using his real email address); and on down the line. If DC is a giant high school, Trump did 100% of his recruiting from the Rejects Table in the cafeteria.
And yet, anyone who has kept in touch with their high school friends has probably noticed that the rejects are, if not more successful than average, at least higher variance.
Every establishment goes through a life cycle where the founders are high-variance, and the followers are lower and lower-variance. The more important the institution, the more it prizes stability over skill. But even stability is something smart flakes can effectively fake. So we end up with this paradox where DC is full of boring people, and of talented people who apply their talents to appearing boring.
If you’re optimizing for following a well-trodden path to the Presidential nomination, you should absolutely hire boring grinds whose resumes consist entirely of institutions with great name recognition. But if you want to beat the odds and you know you’re likely to lose, you might as well go for broke: Roger Stone might have a dozen ways to ruin your campaign and one way to save it, but that’s better than hiring Chad Van Der Beltway, who is absolutely guaranteed to take you from 3% in the polls all the way up to 3.5%.
This is not some brilliant contrarian strategy on Trump’s part. This is Trump and everyone else merely responding to incentives. When Trump started running, he wasn’t especially prepared, so all the establishment talent was already working for the establishment. In the early days of his campaign, Trump still looked like a sideshow, which meant that mocking Trump was a way for Republicans to cheaply virtue-signal. Trump, the tell-all memoirists all tell us, values loyalty. He’s reluctant to hire someone who’s dissed him in the past or seems likely to in the future. (As Scaramucci demonstrates, this is a good instinct.) So in the first three months or so of the campaign, every Republican operative took themselves out of the running unless either a) they were too busy doing real work to care about elections, or b) they were on board with his views.
What is Trumpism?
Academics invent fake political views, but every genuine political movement is the result of some great leader just doing whatever makes sense to them, after which a bunch of smart political scientists start figuring out what the pattern is. Xi Jinping Thought is not something Xi Jinping thought up. American Affairs, The Journal of American Greatness, and a few other outlets have tried to articulate a coherent version of Trumpism, which usually goes like this:
- Long block quotes from Strauss, Schmitt, Burnham, or somebody like that.
I believe the core of Trumpism can be summed up in two lightly-contradictory precepts. First: America has overpromised in some broad, off-the-balance-sheet sense. And second: we’d be a great country again if we acted like just another country, instead of trying to rule the world.
If you look at a lot of American viewpoints from a non-American perspective, they’re attempts to universalize stuff that’s really particular to us. We act like “freedom of religion” is some kind of universal value, but in lots of the world it’s simply not—many branches of Islam, for example, don’t recognize the legitimacy of the state except in the sense that it helps to enforce Islamic law. The current Pope doesn’t emphasize this much, but “separation of church and state” has been specifically condemned by the church; it’s the heresy of Americanism.
“Free Trade” is another one of these pseudo-universalist terms that is actually a very American term. I recently read a fascinating anecdote in Steve Coll’s Private Empire about the US State Department trying to persuade the Chinese that there’s no such thing as a strategic interest in oil, since oil is so cheap to transport. As long as you have a port, you can ship oil to your country for about a dollar a barrel, so it’s ridiculous to get your own supply. Of course, the Chinese are listening to this, and what they’re hearing is “You don’t need your own supply of oil unless you ever plan to risk pissing off the US Navy,” which in Mandarin translates directly to “You need your own supply of oil.”
American foreign policy reminds me of many other times that Americans have flubbed at localizing their products. Facebook allegedly thought West Africa was full of bisexuals, because everyone said they were “Interested In” both men and women—it being out of the question that you’d have, much less talk about, any sexual orientation other than straight. Users just thought “Interested in” was a broad question with some oddly specific answers. Trump knows what sells, and where; he didn’t try marketing Trump Steaks in India.
There’s a theory about marketing that you mostly market by identifying and exploiting people’s doubts about themselves. Trump’s a master of that, because he identified some very reasonable doubts: American can barely be all things to all Americans, much less to another six and a half billion people we don’t understand all that well.
What do we make of Trump, the person? If hiring losers and weirdos were the secret to success, we’d have a lot more successes. If practicing the politics of strategic unambition—of only trying to achieve realistic goals, instead of fantasizing nonstop about the impossible, then every honest person who’s ever taught or attended public school would have a shot.
Even if these conditions are both necessary for a Trump presidency, they’re not sufficient. You need Trump, the guy.
Trump’s appeal is a huge validation of Schmitt’s Concept of the Political. Here’s a man who is indeed defined by his enemies.
How does Trump define his enemies? The intellectual wing of Trumpism tries to identify coherent principles behind the fights DJT picks, but this is just a way for people with high verbal IQs to show off, like when people try to find justifications in their religious texts for whatever the whim of the moment is (“Upon this rock I will build my church” is obviously a reference to the importance of guitars at mass.)
What’s actually going on is that Trump has an insane talent for bullshit detection, and he’s in a target-rich environment. Time after time, Trump picks a fight, I’ll assume it’s stupid, and then I’ll realize that—hey, now that you mention it, that guy’s right.
Take the Universal Postal Union, for example. At first this sounded like Trump randomly trying to find a way to fuck over Jeff Bezos, a task that appears to occupy more of his waking hours than I, personally, would want a President to spend that way. It turns out, though, that the postal treaty was really stupid and should have been fixed long ago. It made sense at a time when poor countries weren’t converging with rich countries, when it was in effect a subsidy for personal letters and little gifts. But convergence is happening, mostly due to the direct and indirect effects of China’s resurgence, and in that world it makes absolutely zero sense that the cost to ship something from Shenzhen to San Antonio is lower than the cost to ship it from Dallas.
When America was fat and happy, we could afford not to question our assumptions, even as they got more expensive by the year. But now that’s catching up with us. Trump can just pick one shibboleth at a time—the Post Office is good! Immigration is great! Free trade creates wealth for everyone!—and he can assume that it’s gone too far and needs to be reined in.
I still maintain the semi-autistic libertarian instincts of my youth, so I worry a bit when Trump goes after something like free trade. Doesn’t he know Economics 101? Given that he went to Wharton, yeah, he probably does. He probably knows that the Econ 101 models that support free trade make some assumptions about the fungibility of capital that aren’t quite valid, viz. in a Ricardian world, having 1/10th of a semiconductor industry is 1/10th as profitable as having 100% of one. But in market after market, China has found that they can master the labor-intensive end of the supply chain and work their way up.
That’s particularly profitable when you run the Beijing IP Two-Step. It works like this: you find an American company with some technology it would be nice to have. You tell them you will help them market their technology to a billion Chinese consumers, but unfortunately there’s a bit of red tape, and the fastest way to get to market is to form some sort of joint venture where your American IP gets transferred to a Chinese entity.
A few months later, by some miracle, Chinese knockoffs of this gadget are available wherever electronics are sold, at a low, low price that reflects the absence of any R&D costs to recoup. How do you say “shrug emoji” in Cantonese?
China’s GDP doesn’t really grow at 6.5% per year, but this is one of the ways they get close: by stealing our stuff in what is ultimately a mad-libs version of a Nigerian email scam.
Donald Trump probably doesn’t know this, but he certainly senses that something like it is true, just through the hyper-political skill of figuring out where his opponents seem to have the most doubt. Everyone at Cato knows what free trade is doing to American workers; they know we messed up on the cost side of the cost-benefit calculus, and we’ve got the overdose deaths to prove it.
Every time you’re confused by a Trump success, which should be often, apply this pattern and see if it has some explanatory power. It really does work, across all sorts of cases, even situations like North Korea.
Foggy Bottom experts: “North Korea will always have the upper hand, since their leader is more willing than ours to risk nuclear war.”
DJT: “Hold my Diet Coke.”
There’s a yin and yang to Trump’s skill at sensing weakness: he’s also hard for other political players to read, because he’s immune to shame. Normally, when a politician does something naughty, like avoiding taxes, calling someone fat, defending a guy who tried to seduce multiple teenage girls, having sex with a playboy model while his (ex-model) wife is caring for his newborn son, etc., he is expected to apologize.
Donald Trump… does not meet expectations, here.
We’ve apparently forgotten what it’s like to deal with someone who just isn’t going to back down. Maybe establishment types in DC are just too soft and coddled, and more of them should spend a summer doing construction or something. There is this culture of admitting your moral failings and denying your intellectual failings, which Trump reverses; he’s perfectly willing to tacitly concede his mistakes by doing a complete 180 on a policy decision, but he’s utterly intransigent about the playmate stuff: he didn’t do it, and if he did aren’t you jealous?
A Unified Theory of Trump
In history, our sample size is 1 at best. Sometimes it’s actually zero, because we’ve gotten the story so completely wrong we’re basically addressing fiction. Given this tiny sample size and the highly contingent nature of history, any sufficiently satisfactory theory is going to overfit.
What I’m doing in this post is not so much positing a theory of Trump as sketching out a range of possibilities. Ultimately, Trump won. The establishment is going to deal with that. They can deal with it by whining, begging their shrinks to up the dose, resolving to be Even More Ready For Her next time (assuming she’s not Ready For Hearse by then), experimenting with novel electoral strategies like calling your opponents racists, etc. Or they can sack up and figure out what Trump got right and they got wrong.
There’s a risk, though, o ye of the Beltway. As it turns out, the most coherent theory of why Trump won is that, in many ways and on many issues, Trump is actually right.