Who exactly is in charge in the Trump White House? That the question is being raised at all is reportedly very vexing to President Donald Trump, and understandably so. If it really is true that an internal “resistance” within his administration is undermining his authority, as many have convincingly claimed, he has every right to be concerned, as do all of us. The executive branch is as powerful as it is vast, yet its power ultimately rests on its democratic legitimacy. If the elected president is not truly in charge, that legitimacy is dangerously compromised, as my colleagues David A. Graham and David Frum have recently argued. At a rally in Billings, Montana, the president seemed to agree with them, warning a receptive audience that “unelected deep-state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.” But before Trump can reassert his command, he must confront his own role in allowing his administration to descend into chaos.
The first challenge facing Trump is distinguishing between the “deep state,” a favorite term of Trump’s for veterans of the federal bureaucracy who are in a position to defy his authority, and the “swamp creatures,” his decidedly unflattering characterization of the nation’s permanent political class, its GOP wing very much included. Some of the president’s recent remarks, including his Billings address, elide this distinction between the deep state and the swamp creatures. Though it’s certainly true that the internal resistance consists of unelected women and men, its most consequential members aren’t deep-state operatives. They are, to the contrary, Republican operatives he himself appointed to high office.
Remember that Trump came into office without a sizable cadre of experienced and disciplined political loyalists committed to implementing his political program, which was itself mostly improvised. Rather, he had a small coterie of trusted relatives and friends, none of whom had substantial executive-branch experience, and a somewhat larger set of allies he had collected over the course of his campaign, most of whom joined forces with him opportunistically, many because they had damaged or marginal reputations in Republican politics. Presidents need capable allies to ensure their priorities are honored, and Trump simply didn’t have them. He was thus forced to rely primarily on GOP swamp creatures to contend with the deep-state bureaucratic insiders.
The president and his allies have long seen so-called deep-state operatives as enemies, and that is to be expected. If the only problem Trump faced was recalcitrant bureaucrats making it difficult for his political appointees to pursue coherent, well-defined objectives set out by the Oval Office, he’d have plenty of company among his predecessors. Yet it is not just deep-state operatives who are at issue. It is also that at least some of the swamp creatures fear, not unreasonably, that Trump’s inconstancy, vanity, and cruelty represent a danger to the republic. These swamp creatures thus find themselves more aligned with the deep-state operatives who share their concerns than with the commander in chief who appointed them to high office. More prosaically, even those swamp creatures who have every intention of faithfully executing his wishes are flummoxed by his inattention to numerous policy questions that demand presidential leadership. Without clear and consistent guidance from the president, these appointees are left to choose among Trump’s various clashing pronouncements, and to clash with other officials who interpret his ambiguous commands differently.
Short of traveling back in time, Trump can’t undo the effects of his disengagement from the policy process, nor can he conjure up a cadre of national populists with the experience necessary to staff the upper reaches of his administration. What he can do, though, is choose his battles. Given Trump’s limited attention, he ought to reach an accommodation with the deep-state operatives and the swamp creatures in the national-security domain, where he has been consistently overmatched and where the downside risks of rash decision making are notably high, while refocusing his energies on shoring up his electoral coalition. It should go without saying that this would be less than ideal. Under normal circumstances, having the president delegate responsibility over foreign and defense policy would be ill-advised. But it is in the realm of national security that Trump’s erratic decision making has proven most deleterious to his standing within the White House, and where he ought to at least consider cutting his losses.
Domestic policy is, at least in principle, more tractable. By sending a clear, forceful, and consistent message on domestic policy, Trump can either compel the swamp creatures to swallow their misgivings and follow his lead or, if the messages prove too ideologically uncongenial, drive them out of his administration and into forthright opposition. And what is the message he should send? In short, he should return to one of the central themes of his presidential campaign: that he is a different kind of Republican—one who is more attuned to the interests of the working class than the donor class.
Drawing on the work of the Public Religion Research Institute, Amy Walter of “The Cook Political Report” recently observed that while the president continues to fare well among white evangelicals, his support among non-evangelical whites is markedly lower, including among non-evangelical whites without a college degree, and it may well be falling. Winning over these voters will mean adopting a more pointedly populist posture.
Consider that vulnerable Republicans have steered clear of campaigning on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the central legislative achievement of the Trump presidency. Though middle-income households might eventually benefit from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, there’s little evidence that its tax cuts have been met with great enthusiasm by ordinary voters, a development that could reflect its tilt toward corporate tax cuts over tax relief for the millions of U.S. households that pay more in payroll taxes than income taxes. Rather than address this political vulnerability, Trump has exacerbated it by, for example, backing a measure that would effectively cut taxes on capital income, which overwhelmingly flows to the country’s highest-income households. This is exactly the sort of proposal one would expect from the swamp creatures the president is said to hold in low regard. A more populist Trump might instead call for, say, hiking taxes on capital gains and then using the proceeds to boost the paychecks of low- and middle-income workers. This is the sort of proposal working-class independents who reluctantly backed the president hoped he might pursue, and it’s the sort of proposal that would demonstrate Trump really has taken back his administration from the swamp creatures.
Instead, the president is acting as if he trusts that the swamp creatures have his best interests at heart and that railing against NFL players will be enough to secure his political future.