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March 23rd 2017 print

Roger Kimball

The One Thing Trump Must Get Right

If Donald Trump manages to unravel the prerogatives and power of the bureaucratic elite whose rules and regulations reach deep into the interstices of everyday life to hamper initiative, stymie independence and stifle originality, he will have fulfilled his most important campaign promise

trump with whip IIThe other day, The New York Times ran one of their signature wrinkled-brow politics-masquerading-as-news pieces about Donald Trump.  The New York Times, in case Australian readers are innocent of this datum, does not like Mr. Trump. This particular column, about Trump’s transition team, was half minatory, half I-told-you-so crowing. “Trump Lets Key Offices Gather Dust Amid ‘Slowest Transition in Decades,’” shouted the headline. The State Department: “hushed and virtually empty.” The Pentagon: woefully understaffed. Treasury, Health and Human Services: “many senior posts remain vacant.” Things are bad, Comrade, bad. “Seven weeks into the job,” Trump is “months behind where experts in both parties, even some inside his administration, say he should be.”

Experts, eh? According to the Times Trump’s failures to fill many positions “has left critical power centers in his government devoid of leadership.” “There’s no question this is the slowest transition in decades,” said one of those experts the Times drags in to second its opinions. It is a “flawed transition” that paints an “unmistakable picture” of “dysfunctional transition effort.”

In fact, Trump has filled all his key cabinet posts and has, moreover, filled them with people very unlike the dramatis personae of recently past cabinets. Trump’s cabinet is manned not by political apparatchiks, think-tank denizens, or academics. It is manned by successful — the most successful — businessmen, entrepreneurs, and military men, people whose chief aim will not be to “protect their turf” and coddle the bureaucracy under their charge but rather to get the nation’s business done as efficiently as possible. The Times did quote Trump observing that “a lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary.” Yeah, right. Whoever heard of cutting government jobs?  Can’t be done. Shouldn’t be done.

But guess what? It is being done. On March 13, the Trump administration released an Executive Order calling for a “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch.”  It directs the head of the Office of Management and Budget to “propose a plan to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies  . . .  components of agencies, and agency programs.”

Eliminate unnecessary agencies . . .”

When was the last time you heard of a President actually set about doing that?

The document is quite specific. Within 180 days, the Director of the OMB is charged with submitting a plan “to reorganize the executive branch in order to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of agencies.” Moreover, this is no mere shell game, where Department A is renamed Department B and given new offices, a larger staff, and a more lavish budget on the other side of the Potomac.  No, the Executive Order calls for eliminating “unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs, and to merge functions.”

I like it. And it is worth stressing that it is of a piece with other initiatives undertaken by Trump, e.g., a hiring freeze on non-essential government personnel, making staff cuts of 20% and  and a budget cut of 10%. The aim of all this, as Trump said in his inaugural address,  was not simply to transfer power from one party to another — chaps with different hats but the same grasping hands and insatiable appetite for your money — but to transfer it from Washington to where Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson and the rest of the Founders thought it should be, to We the People.

This is an essential part of Trump’s oft-declared ambition to “drain the swamp” of Washington. Many politicians have said something similar. No one, not even Ronald Reagan, managed to do it.  (In Reagan’s defense, he had two different goals, both of which he achieved: defeat the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union and cut taxes.) Trump actually seems to be in earnest about taking on The Bureaucracy.  Whether he will succeed is entirely up in the air.  If I had to give odds, I would say about 65-35 in favor of Trump.  But then I am known for my sunny disposition.  Other bookies, pointing to the extraordinary resilience (not to say insanity) of the “anti-Trump” and “never-Trump” agitators discount those odds sharply.  Time will tell.

But it is largely on this question that Trump’s Presidency will rise or fall. Yes, he will, like all leaders need a bit of luck. Where would Marcus Aurelius have been without the Miracle of the Rain in the Marcomannic Wars? When the Romans, besieged by the Quadi, were bottled up and dying of thirst, a sudden rain storm delivered them from certain defeat and they went on to rout the enemy.

But luck takes one only so far.  The rest of the distance is covered by policy, formulation and execution. To understand the radical nature of Donald Trump’s administration, one needs to consider his unofficial and unconfirmed cabinet colleague. No, I do not mean Steve Bannon. I mean James Burnham, the American political philosopher who helped start National Review in 1955 and whom William F. Buckley Jr. called “the number one intellectual influence on National Review since the day of its founding.”

Now Burnham died in 1987, so it might seem odd to accord him an honorary place on Donald Trump’s cabinet. Pedants might also point out that the chances are remote that Donald Trump has made a detailed study of James Burnham’s work. But those are mere details.  Burnham belongs in the constellation of Trump’s influences for several reasons.  There are, to start with, the two Ps: pragmatism and patriotism. Burnham was above all a pragmatic political philosopher. He reached through the mists of high-flown rhetoric to grasp policies that worked, that had a good chance of achieving the goals he wanted to achieve.

Part of Burnham’s pragmatism was realism about the metabolism of power. Burnham was famous as a staunch anti-communist crusader. His implacable anti-communism had a moral component: he saw, rightly in my view, that communism, whatever its talk of brotherhood and equality, was evil incarnate. And Burnham saw, too, that fighting communism was partly a rhetorical task—the West had to compete in the matter of visionary appeal—but also partly a matter of brute power.  “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Stalin famously asked. The iron fist inside the utopian rhetorical glove underwrote the advancement of communist tyranny.

Burnham understood that and was icily clear-eyed in his calculation of power politics.  It was one of the things that both fascinated and repelled George Orwell about Burnham.

In the news as I write is a report that Trump is planning to cut the US contribution to the UN by 50%. It’s a start.  Trump would, I think, have applauded Burnham’s response to the UN’s resolutions disapproving of US nuclear policy:“Why in the world,” he wondered, “should any sensible person give a damn what some spokesman for cannibalistic tribes or slave-holding nomads thinks about nuclear tests?” Good question.

And this brings us to the second “P,”  patriotism. Like Trump, Burnham put America first.  No, I do not mean that he was a follower of Charles Lindbergh any more than Donald Trump is. Rather, he saw that it was only by first catering to one’s own interests that one could successfully cater to the interests of others.  Put your own house in order, take care of your citizens, and you will conduce not only to their good but also to the good of others.  The “telescopic philanthropy” that Charles Dickens satirized in Bleak House had step-by-step become the foreign policy of the United States, to the detriment of the beneficiaries of our largess as well as the moral stature of the US.  Trump, like Burnham, aims to reverse that misguided policy.

But Burnham’s most important influence is to be found in his first and most famous book, The Managerial Revolution (1941).  Readers of Quadrant will be familiar with Tocqueville’s famous passages about the character and operation of “democratic despotism” in modern societies. It operates, said Tocqueville, not like despotisms of yore: instead of tyrannizing over man, it infantilizes him.  And it does this by the promulgation of rules and regulations that reach into the interstices of everyday life to hamper initiative, stymie independence, stifle originality. This power, said Tocqueville, “extends its arms over society as a whole.”

It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

Tocqueville’s analysis has led many observers to conclude that the villain in this drama is the state. But Burnham saw that the real villain was less the state than the bureaucracy that maintained and managed it.  The shepherd was really a flock of shepherds, a coterie of managers who, in the guise of doing the state’s business, prosecuted their own advantage and gradually became a self-perpetuating elite that arrogated to itself power over the levers of society.

Anatomizing this sleight-of-hand is at the center of “James Burnham’s Managerial Elite,” Julius Krein’s essay in the inaugural issue of the quarterly he edits, American Affairs. “Although the managerial elite uses the state as an instrument to acquire power,” he notes, “the real enemy is not the state but rather the managerial separation of political and economic power from the liberal social contract.”

This separation of the real power of society from the economy of politics renders the managerial elite all-but-untouchable.  And this, as Burnham saw, was the property neither of liberalism nor of conservatism but rather of anterior forces that engulfed both. “The contradiction of contemporary conservatism,” Krein writes,

is that it is an attempt to restore the culture and politics of bourgeois capitalism while accelerating the economy of managerialism. Because of its failure to recognize this contradiction, “much of conservative doctrine is, if not quite bankrupt, more and more obviously obsolescent,” as Burnham wrote in 1972. Since then it has only evolved from obsolescent to counterproductive. At this point, expanding “free markets” no longer has anything to do with classical American capitalism. It is simply the further emancipation of the managerial elite from any obligations to the political community. Likewise, promoting democracy as an abstract, universalist principle only undermines the sovereignty of the American people by rejecting national interests as a legitimate ground of foreign policy.

Donald Trump’s executive order is a sighting shot across the bow of the managerial elite that has hollowed out our democracy and elevated itself to a position of nearly untouchable unaccountability.  Really, it is not the pathetic battalions of females in pink hats and vagina costumes who should be protesting Donald Trump. It is the managerial elite who have incarnated Tocqueville’s warning about Democratic Despotism.  They are the real swamp dwellers who stand to lose if Trump’s ecological initiative to drain the boggy fen should succeed.

As of this writing, Donald Trump has been President for less than two months. Pace the New York Times, he has moved with blinding speed, has indeed undertaken a sort of political blitzkrieg to keep his promises on enforcing immigration laws, repealing Obamacare, rolling back the regulatory state, and reinvigorating the military.  Behind it all, however, is an attack on the managerial elite that has overseen and extended the bureaucratic quagmire that has the West in its clammy and enervating grip.  If Trump manages to unravel the prerogatives of that elite, if he succeeds in handing back power to the political process, he will have fulfilled his most important campaign promise.  A key intellectual ally in that battle will be Trump’s silent and unacknowledged partner, James Burnham.

Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of the New Criterion and Publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St Augustine’s Press)

Comments [27]

  1. Jody says:

    Trump won’t last. The GOPs are after him now.

    • en passant says:

      Jody,
      Remember that you and I have a $1,000 bet about Trump being still President on 31st December 2018.

      It is good to see that there are people like you and I still left in this world who will put their money where their mouths are.

      • Jody says:

        Listen up! Trump has just had a major defeat (well, another one); his Obama care repeal bill has been dumped by the GOPs. Without their continuing support TRUMP IS NOTHING. Which part of this is confusing to you? It won’t matter anyway; the outcome will be the same. Trump will spend his whole presidency doing two things:

        1. Tweeting rubbish and attending rallies,
        2. Trying to keep hostile Republicans at bay.

  2. Keith Kennelly says:

    Trump will succeed simply because Jody’s assumptions are always wrong.
    His simplicity in not appointing people to overpaid positions is brilliant. Will they work for nothing? Simple as ABC.

    This equals his refusal to answer questions from the fake news outlets.

    According to Jody, last month it was only days before he was to be gone. The GOPs go to the electorate within a year. They’ll jump on Trump’s coat tails for the ride.

    But no, Jody’s been listening to and reading the biased media and fake news.

    She knows they and she are never ever wrong.

    I mean haven’t they been so right about Trump’s nomination, Trump’s Election, Trump’s connections to Russia, Trump’s unpresidential nature, Trump’s unnatural cabinet, Trump’s ineffectiveness, Trump’s dumping by the GOP (actually he dumped them) and a whole host of other hateful and anti Trump stupidities.

    All so predictable and boring.

    • Jody says:

      Stop making things up. I never said Trump had days; merely that he wouldn’t last beyond the next election and even before then it is doubtful.

      • en passant says:

        Jody,
        OUR bet is whether or not Trump lasts as President until 31st December 2018.

        You are beginning to sound like those catastrophists who keep moving the disaster day forward; you know like ‘there will be not a drop of oil left in the world by 2000′ (Ehrlich & Club of Rome, 1972), or Kenneth Field in the first Earth Day speech in March 1970 that ‘the North Atlantic will be frozen for months of the year within 20-years’.

        Your predictions so far have been on a par with Professor Ehrlich & Field so you are in bad company.

        • Jody says:

          That’s NOT MY BET; it was that Trump would not last till the next Presidential election. If you think that will be the end of next year then this reveals your own pessimism.

      • PT says:

        Doubtful Jody? You can’t remove him by a no-confidence vote. He has to be impeached by a 2/3 vote of the House, and then convicted by the Senate to be forced out. Any they need grounds for an impeachment! Or are you suggesting he’ll be assassinated?

        • Jody says:

          Not in the least doubtful; this is one of your own projections. Trump cannot survive without the supports of the GOPs and he’s NOT going to get it. They’ll be going to the people long before he does!!!

          Analysis 101.

  3. Dallas Beaufort says:

    Timely given the near bankruptcy of the state by these so called insiders who infest and detest private enterprise effort.

  4. Michael Galak says:

    There are many things Trump must get right. Here’s just a few of them:
    1. Align immigration with the needs and the priorities of the USA;
    2.Raise the costs and reduce the benefits of the Russian intransigence and aggression to perpetrators;
    3.Put the fear of G-d into terror sponsors, failed and rogue states;
    4.Reign in the runaway globalisation, which transfers the high technologies to a potential enemy;
    5. Free the USA from the insanity and ineffectiveness of the UN and similarly dysfunctional institutions;
    6.Withdraw foreign aid from the tin pot dictatorships, which does not reach those in need anyway;
    So much to do. So little time. So many detractors.

    • en passant says:

      Michael,
      Add:
      7. Sink Obamacare and the diseased wart, Speaker Ryan with it
      8. Destroy his internal enemies in the GoP (McCain, Ryan, etc)
      9. Deport 1M illegals by the end of the year as an entree
      10. Withhold all Federal money from ‘Sanctuary Cities’.
      11. Pursue HillBillary and prosecute if justified – one law for all (not like Oz pollies). Prosecute Mayors breaking Federal Laws.
      12. Remove Comey from the FBI.
      13. Start implementing the findings of Chaffetz, Gowdy, et al through prosecutions by Sessions.

      It will be a busy week …

      • Dallas Beaufort says:

        14. Build the Wall

        15, Drain the Swamp

        16. Cut regulations ‘to the bone’

        17. Reduce taxation

        18. Re-energize the Entrepreneurial spirit lost to Nanny State servitude

        19. Re-balance trade to reflect intellectual property rights.

        20. Lead by industrial example showing where socialism is a complete failure ‘the road to impoverishment’.

        21. Ditch all Climate change dogma’s, now that it’s cooling for real.

  5. Keith Kennelly says:

    I have the time to check and I will.

    Whatever you said Jody it was an urgent hysterical rant.

    Only a matter of time: Minutes hours days weeks months years … does it really matter?

    Can’t you see how wrong you always are?

    Shouldn’t you be reassessing how you arrive at your predictions.

  6. Keith Kennelly says:

    En

    The word is catastrafarians, although I like catastrophists too.

  7. Don A. Veitch says:

    22. NATO drawback from provocations on Russia’s boarders.
    23. CIA, colour revolutions, regime changes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE.
    24. Trump to implement Henry Clay’s economic program (which he cited in a Kentucky Speech two days ago).

    • Jody says:

      Yes, we get your point. Meanwhile, Trump will have to continue fighting even bigger fires closer to home on top of this impossible agenda. And when he purses his lips and claims ‘I’m President and you’re not’ you know he’s back in grade school.

      • en passant says:

        Jody,
        Apologies, but I have not located our original bet. I will look for it again later.

        Everyone,for great fun read Jody’s comments on this thread: http://quadrant.org.au/opinion/qed/2017/01/medias-dark-distorting-prism/#comment-22176

        My favourite Jodyism:
        “Jody
        November 9, 2016 at 4:51 am
        Why worry about what Trump thinks? He’s yesterday’s news. GONE!!!!”

        “en passant
        November 9, 2016 at 11:11 am
        I will bet on Trump (just to upset Jody the Blind), as Armageddon is the alternative.
        On second thoughts, what is the difference between crooked, incompetent, lying Hellary in the White House and Armageddon?”

        “en passant
        November 10, 2016 at 7:52 pm
        Jody,
        You have gained a great deal of respect by your recognition that you got it wrong.
        There is a whole business opportunity here for you – and there are several ‘never-wrong’commentators on this website who sorely need your services.”

        The MacD side bet:
        en passant
        February 22, 2017 at 10:50 am
        MacD,
        Easy money for you: $1,000 says there is not a 1.5m sea level rise in the next 5-years. I have bet my new home on it.
        What odds are you giving me as you see a minimum of 3.5m just around the corner?”

  8. Keith Kennelly says:

    Which of course you recognise because you behave the same.

    With your ‘I’m right I’m right I’m right … justyou wait and see’ even though the evidence is overwhelming providing Ng you wrong.

  9. Keith Kennelly says:

    Now Jody

    ‘Trump will not last beyond the next election.’
    March 23rd. 6.50pm

    ‘Trump will not last till the next Presidential election.’
    March 24th. 3.20pm

    Do you forget what you say?

    • Don A. Veitch says:

      The Trump faction of America’s oligarchic new class will possibly, even probably, be brought down NOT by vague leftist shadow boxing (or Judy), but by Trump himself (he will do a deal), the Goldman-Sachs weasels in cabinet, the CIA rogues, and the well-funded Clinton rear guard. Trump is only fighting for his place in the sun, and is already doing deals to exit. Trump aka ‘the snowman’ is cold, pure white and will melt away when the heat is turned up.

    • Jody says:

      Oh, so they hold elections every 2 years now! I didn’t know this.

  10. Don A. Veitch says:

    ‘Judy’ above, should read ‘Jody’. But, thinking about it, much of the agit-prop in the USA is a scripted theatre, a ‘Punch and Judy’ show

  11. Keith Kennelly says:

    A Trump and Jody Show