I have the sense that a lot of people see no sense in the comings and goings of personnel in the Trump White House.
I think that’s because they’re looking through the wrong lens.
Through the lens of conventional patterns – which have now been conventional for so long, no one can remember when it was different – it all looks like an unstable mess. In conventional conditions, a president comes in, hires some top staffers, and then they mostly stick around for a while. Most of them are very conventional “politicos,” even if they’re not polished, buttoned-down Beltway types.
They think and act in the terms of political people, motivated by whatever has become banal in the general political understanding. However the major media define issues, that’s how the White House people understand them. They can be influenced by bad press, insidious narratives, campaigns of opposition. They give up at a certain point on trying to see outside the box of the major media narrative and the political consensus that prevails in Washington. And that’s if they were ever trying to see outside the box in the first place.
But those folks and their administrations had at least one key condition the Trump administration does not have. They weren’t being fought tooth and nail by people still holding jobs in the federal agencies. They weren’t being fought so strenuously by the mainstream media that the only way to get their own narrative out was to blurt out startling soundbites, and tweet in 140 characters.
If the Trump administration followed the conventional patterns of its predecessors, it would be a complete head-scratcher to its voter base, because it would look like it was going down without a fight.
I think people forget that gaining control of his own executive branch is Trump’s biggest fight right now. If you can’t figure out why Steve Bannon seems to be getting the cold shoulder all of a sudden, and Jared Kushner is reportedly running rampant at the National Security Council, take a step back and check your lens.
It’s not because Trump is crazy, doesn’t know what he wants his own policies to be, and/or is making an old nut’s mistake by promoting his son-in-law. It’s because Trump can’t have a National Security Council that doesn’t actually work for him, and he thinks Kushner is the guy who can start to fix that.
That, in turn, does not mean that Kushner will make things look pretty, and tidy up the raw edges at the NSC. It means he can break heads and root out problems. That’s a trust job, one that’s not about philosophy or Beltway savvy but about being absolutely trustworthy. I suspect Steve Bannon isn’t the right guy for that job, in terms of temperament or level of trust with Trump. It also sounds like Bannon couldn’t get on board with the strike on Syria, which is a significant difference of opinion with the president, for someone in Bannon’s role.
If you think Trump is being flopped around with a fishhook in his jaw, you’re just going to keep being wrong. That’s never what’s going on. We all ought to know that by now. If Jared Kushner is doing things people at the NSC don’t like, it’s because Trump wants him to.
The Trump administration isn’t a clown show. It’s an administration that doesn’t react conventionally when it is confronted with unconventional conditions. I’m as reflexively uncomfortable as the next person with all the unconventionality (including the constant exit of personnel) – but I also recognize the opportunity it represents. Were it not for having an unconventional president at this astounding time in human history, America’s fate would probably be written already. We are very close to the tipping point of being undone, like Rome or Athens, by street mobs and warring political oligarchs. In an environment of toxic, largely corrupted public communication, it takes unconventional reactions to overcome that.
I don’t know what will happen to Sean Spicer, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he kept his job, even after the “Hitler” gaffe. It’s increasingly clear that Trump hires and fires people for his own reasons, and not because he is being influenced by outside opinion. Spicer would probably be on probation at this point, because he’s not supposed to become the story. But he’s been representing Trump effectively up to now. Not representing what you think Trump should look like, but representing Trump.
A zero-defects mentality is an emblem of brittle, overextended convention. It’s the kind of condition that famously prevailed in the U.S. Navy at the outset of World War II. The Navy ended up firing a lot of timid officers with unblemished records, and replacing them with guys who may have screwed up a time or two, but got bigger jobs done.
My guess is that from where Trump sits, he’s not looking for the zero-defect squad his critics assume he must hanker for. That’s an outdated mindset, and the more Trump bucks the Obama/European legacy of not taking effective action and saying you did, the more outdated it’s going to be. Trump isn’t trying to please the MSM, and he doesn’t care what they say. They’re not going to shape his personnel decisions. What will shape his personnel decisions is the job he’s trying to get done.