A Different Category of Hacks in a Trump White House

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Dorf on Law post two days ago (which I updated and lightly edited yesterday morning, before it was cross-posted on Newsweek's website as "What Could Presidents Trump, Cruz or Clinton Actually Achieve?"), I pondered the on-the-ground consequences of electing one of the three presidential front-runners.  Not the consequences in the sense of what it would mean to elect the first woman president, or alternatively to choose one of the two xenophobic extremists, and not the political consequences of one party's implosion, but the actual policy making that would take place under each of those would-be presidents.

One point on which I focused is the "under the radar" activities that are necessarily part of any presidential administration.  I noted that Hillary Clinton in particular would be especially careful about her appointments to Executive Branch positions (not just cabinet secretaries, but undersecretaries and deputies, as well as all manner of official advisors and so on), because she would take office knowing full well that the Republican-dominated House of Representatives would refuse to work with her on anything at all.  As far as the issues that normally dominate White House decision making, the sort of issues on which newspapers report every day and on which there used to be negotiations between the President and Congress, I have no doubt that Clinton would regularly propose sensible initiatives (on climate issues, tax proposals, and so on).  Everyone would know, however, that such efforts were doomed and would thus be importantly symbolic, at best.

This means that Clinton would most likely look to keep the high-quality people who have staffed the Obama Administration, and others like them.  These include the people who select the other people who will be appointed to various positions.  With all of the experience that Obama veterans now possess in governing within the constraints of existing executive authority (which includes, of course, efforts to stretch executive authority), the Clinton White House could be expected to continue to govern the country reasonably well.

I should emphasize that I am not endorsing all of the envelope-pushing that we have seen under Obama, especially in foreign affairs.  I am simply saying that the Obama people (a group that includes a lot of veterans from Bill Clinton's administration) have proved to be able to run the government without much drama, and to find ways to achieve some important things, even in the face of to-the-death opposition from Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Paul Ryan.  Republican attempts to demonize high-level appointees like Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch have turned up nothing scandalous, but are simply a combination of policy disagreements and disinformation campaigns that feed the Republican base's rage.  ("Holder wants to disarm you!")

A Cruz Administration would also be carefully constructed, but the emphasis would not be on policy expertise or competence but on ideological purity.  The Reagan and Bush II eras included plenty of scandals and controversies in which clearly unqualified political hacks were put in important positions, in order to achieve under-the-radar neutering of agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Hello, Clarence Thomas!), and the Bureau of Land Management.  And that is in addition to the more obvious high-level ideologues like former Attorney General John Ashcroft.  Presumably, Ted Cruz would look for more people like them, for both high-level and invisible positions.  It would be substantively terrible, of course, but it is something with which the country unfortunately has a great deal of experience.

In my Tuesday post, I puzzled over the question of how Donald Trump would staff his administration.  It is certainly imaginable that he would do essentially what Cruz would do, because he would have been elected largely with the support of many people with movement conservative and religious right credentials.  But it is also imaginable that Trump simply does not care about those people, and he would be perfectly willing to stick his (stubby little) fingers in their eyes.  More likely, he would be bored by the very idea of making staffing decisions, and he would turn over such decisions to someone completely unknown to the outside world.  That person could be almost any type of conservative, and in fact could even be a moderate on many issues, as far as we can tell from Trump's own history.

In short, we really do not know who would work in a Trump administration.  After I published my Tuesday Dorf on Law post, however, Professor Dorf suggested in an email that there is one predictable category of appointee in a Trump White House: business hacks.  Professor Dorf mentioned Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor who surely did not understand the double-entendre when he described backing Trump as a "no-brainer" last Fall.  Although Icahn subsequently said that he would not serve as Trump's Treasury Secretary, Professor Dorf's point is still an important one.  The non-religious part of the Republican coalition has long included mainstream business types, but the business wing of the party has itself grown increasingly extreme over the years.

Essentially, we are talking about the people who refuse to understand that Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved capitalism.   These are the people who watch CNBC and Fox Business Channel (and who frequently appear on it), who think that their success in business proves that they are geniuses, and who truly believe that progressive taxation is motivated by jealousy.  (As I have written on this blog before, e.g. here, there is a surprisingly persistent belief among business conservatives that liberals are trying to "punish" them for being successful.)

These are the people who think that "free stuff" for poor people is sure to be wasted, because poor people do not know how to spend money correctly.  (See, e.g., my discussion here.)  These are the people who thrill when commentators call unemployed people "losers," and who think that it is meaningful and sinister that the federal income tax includes exemptions for poor people.

Of course, many such business hacks would show up in any Republican's Administration.  (Never-President Romney was one of them, in many ways.)  I am sure, for example, that John Kasich's long experience on Capitol Hill has put him in contact with all of those players.  And as much as Ted Cruz is driven by religious zealotry, he would also surely put people in place at all of the business-relevant agencies (definitely including the Department of Labor) who would be driven by CNBC-like business extremism.  The notion of "enlightened self-interest," which many business leaders understand, is lost on this crowd.

Still, Professor Dorf's comment captures something about Trump's unique position in the political universe.  Trump supporters happily invoke names like "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap (which I described here) to argue that Trump would lay off all of those supposedly lazy bureaucrats in Washington, and it is easy to think that Trump would be especially willing to hire modern versions of infamous former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who reportedly advised President Herbert Hoover to "liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate," rather than try to support a failing economy.

Ronald Reagan's acolytes famously arrived in Washington in late 1980 and early 1981 sporting neckties emblazoned with Adam Smith's image.  Trump's people, obviously, will have to wear Trump neckties, but their mantra is very likely to be, "You're fired -- and you deserve it, you loser!"  Hopefully, we will never have to find out whether I am right.