“His favorite technique was to keep grants of authority incomplete, jurisdictions uncertain, charters overlapping. The result of this competitive theory of administration was often confusion and exasperation on the operating level.”
You could be forgiven for assuming this comment referred to Donald Trump, the 45th occupant of the Oval Office. But you would be wrong. It was rendered by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. about none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States.
I am not suggesting that Donald Trump ought to be mentioned in the same breath as someone who rightfully appears on every short list of the greatest presidents in American history. But the two share a penchant for a decision-making and governing style that can best be described as adhocracy, which favors the unstructured and at times downright chaotic.
Adhocracy offers a sharp contrast to more formal styles of decision-making, in which participants with a legitimate stake in the outcome are included and others excluded; options are rigorously weighed in memos and then discussed at carefully run meetings; and those meetings in turn lead to decisions followed by clear assignments, closely monitored execution, and periodic review. Ideally, assumptions are challenged and resource considerations taken into account.
Certain individuals are attracted to adhocracy since it tends to underscore the unique position and authority of the president. It puts him in a dominant position where he can reward some and penalize others and play staff off against one another. Secrets can be protected as access to meetings and information can be arbitrarily restricted. But these and other sometimes-attributes are mostly beside the point—adhocracy is generally not consciously chosen because of its relative advantages, but rather emerges as a default position that reflects the proclivities of the president and those around him.
In reality, the dangers of adhocracy are many. The consequences of choosing a particular option are often not fully assessed in advance. Priorities are neither set nor maintained—trade-offs are often overlooked. Implementation tends to get short shrift. Turf wars tend to be common. Issues get revisited, not for good reason, but because a particular advocate is unhappy with what was decided and persuades the president that the decision needs to be overturned. Such behavior can quickly lead to a torrent of leaks. It all demands a great deal of the president, who effectively acts as his own chief of staff.
The Trump administration has been characterized by adhocracy during its initial months. The initiative limiting immigration is a case in point. The new policy was not vetted fully within the administration—indeed, then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates first read the decision after the text of the new executive order was published online. Efforts by administration officials to argue that the policy was not aimed at Muslims were undermined by statements from the president suggesting the contrary. It comes as little surprise then that various courts have ruled against it and that many analysts have judged the new policy could diminish security by alienating and radicalizing some of the more than 3 million Muslims already living in this country.
The president’s address to the leaders of America’s NATO allies in Brussels in May offers another example of adhocracy. At the core of the alliance is the notion of collective defense (expressed in Article 5 of the Treaty that created NATO)—that an attack on one is an attack on all. President Trump had raised questions in public about his willingness to stand by the commitment. The expectation in Europe was that he would reaffirm Article 5 in his speech—indeed, the draft approved by the National Security Council and several members of the Cabinet did just this. But at the last moment several advisers reportedly intervened with the president and persuaded him to take out any reference to Article 5. An address that was intended to strengthen NATO did just the opposite. To be sure, the president declared his fealty to Article 5 on his next trip to Europe, but even this welcome clarification (which came during his Poland speech) could not undo the uncertainty the earlier incident had fostered.
A third example of adhocracy at work involves the Middle East, where the president signaled to his Saudi hosts when he visited in May that he had signed on to their policy of sanctioning and isolating Qatar. The problem was that the president appeared unaware of Qatar’s military importance to the United States (a base there is home to more than 11,000 American forces and much military hardware) and that neither his secretary of state or secretary of defense was on board with the policy.
The irony and tragedy is that an administration such as this, one that entered office having little experience with or knowledge of foreign policy and governing, is precisely the wrong kind to have chosen such an approach. It would have made far more sense to have chosen a highly organized decision-making system akin to that of George H.W. Bush.
Adding to the problem is this president’s penchant for tweeting, best understood as issuing modern-day White House statements that, for the most part, are not vetted by others, much less subjected to formal interagency review as actual statements or speeches would be. At least as consequential are the lack of senior appointments in both the State and Defense Departments, something that robs the president and his senior team of professional expertise and historical memory; the barely controlled access to the Oval Office; and the unclear and overlapping roles of powerful advisers (including Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon) whose influence is based on their relationship with the president rather than their organizational position.
What is obvious is that Donald Trump is comfortable with an approach to running his presidency based on what worked for him in the private sector. But there are few if any parallels between his former life and his current one. The political world is defined by relationships rather than transactions, and by numerous actors at home and abroad with independent power. Navigating such a world is difficult and precarious. Process and procedure offer protection—something George W. Bush learned the hard way when he launched the war with Iraq without having thought through many of the predictable consequences.
That said, no amount of formal process can guarantee that bad decisions will be avoided. The Trump administration apparently decided to pull out of the Paris accord after considerable discussion. President Obama unwisely removed U.S. troops from Iraq and intervened in Libya after multiple National Security Council meetings. And there is the reality that process can become an excuse for inaction, something demonstrated more than once by the Obama administration in Syria.
Still, by embracing adhocracy, the incumbent president has opted for a style of governing that reinforces his weaknesses and increases the chances of major blunders. What, then, should he do? For starters, the National Security Adviser needs to be empowered. There can only be one decision-making system. The president should reduce the number of senior White House staff with broad portfolios—or, if he is determined to keep them, they should be subordinated to Cabinet members or appointed to positions with defined rather than general, advisory responsibilities. Treating tweets as formal statements to be vetted would help, as would filling out senior levels of the administration. Whether Donald Trump will agree to any much less all of this is doubtful, as presidents gravitate toward the system they want, not the one they need.
Could Trump succeed if he refuses to change? As noted, FDR embraced adhocracy and succeeded. Still, he paid a price for it. He made his share of unforced errors, from a failed attempt to pack the Supreme Court to interning Japanese Americans. At the same time, he steered the nation through the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and World War II. But FDR’s success only underscores just how extraordinary he was. He was also experienced, having been assistant secretary of the Navy and governor of New York. Donald Trump, lacking FDR’s gifts and experience alike, is unlikely to fare nearly so well.