Political Inexperience and Information Overload in the Age of Trump

There are two other unique characteristics about Trump’s first month in office, which did not make my top three takeaways but which, nevertheless, may become more relevant descriptors of Trump’s presidency down the road if they persist or are not addressed. These issues have continued to be important well into Trump’s first 100 days in office, so for this reason I felt it would be relevant to make a brief post discussing them.

  1. Political Inexperience:

To put it bluntly, Trump’s presidency has, so far, resembled a month-long amateur hour. Not only is Trump the most politically inexperienced individual to be elected U.S. president (having neither prior military experience nor experience as an elected official), but many of his Cabinet members also lack expertise in their respective posts. Exactly one-third of Trump’s 15 Cabinet nominees have absolutely zero prior government experience, and at least as many lack relevant qualifications for the post they will be heading. To give a few examples: Ben Carson (Department of Housing and Urban Development) has never been involved in housing policy; Rick Perry (Department of Energy) was not aware of the Department of Energy’s role in safeguarding the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons; Betsy DeVos (Department of Education) is a Republican donor with no public school background; and Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency), while not an actual Cabinet nominee, has sued the very agency he will head at least 13 times.

In theory, bringing in political outsiders having private sector experience has its benefits. It has the potential to prosper innovation and provide ingenuity in an entrenched, far too stagnant bureaucracy. In practice, however, the downfalls of this approach have already become evident. It takes only the disastrous, botched rollout of Trump’s immigration and refugee executive order (“Muslim Ban”), which led to over 700 people — many of whom otherwise had valid work visas, green card status, or permanent legal residency — being detained in the first weekend of its implementation, to see that. If similar situations of haphazard implementation repeatedly arise, it’s only a matter of time before the political inexperience of the Trump administration starts to better resemble, and be perceived as, something far more dangerous: incompetence.

2. Information Overload:

I’m referring to two distinct, albeit related, phenomenon here when I use the phrase “information overload.” On the one hand, I’m referring to information overload in terms of media coverage on what the president is doing on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, I’m also referring to it in terms of the ability to determine the accuracy of said coverage in an age of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” The particularly excessive information overload occurring during Trump’s presidency is, in my opinion, partly a deliberate political strategy by Trump and partly a byproduct of the age of social media. Trump, an expert at manipulating news, understands how to dominate the 24/7 news media cycle and divert attention away from the substance of his policy decisions. He accomplishes this, in part, through regularly tweeting extravagant claims and accusations, ranging from personally calling a judicial decision “terrible” to belittling Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s clothing line, which far too often get as much coverage as his actual policies. The result being that, even though Trump is not necessarily doing more in his first month than past presidents, every tweet or comment he makes is so sensationalist that in today’s media it is considered newsworthy, resulting in an oversaturation of news that distorts what actually matters.

This problem of information overload has been compounded by the rise of “fake news” on the media’s side and “alternative facts” on the Trump administration’s side, to the extent that people do not know what information to trust. Fake news is a phenomenon that gained prominence during the 2016 election, referring to the spread of misinformation either via traditional media or social media with the intent of misleading others. However, many in the Trump administration now use the term “fake news” more loosely to refer to any type of news that is negative/biased. For example, Trump has called traditional media outlets like CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, and the New York Times fake news to varying degrees, particularly when their stories rely on anonymous sources. While the mainstream media was clearly anti-Trump in its coverage in many cases and while the overreliance on anonymous sources and some dishonest reporting has left much to be desire, it is also clear that Trump is just labeling any news that is critical of him as fake, even in instances when the evidence says otherwise.

It’s not like Trump is any more credible than the news organizations he derides. Since Trump’s election his administration has constantly been touting “alternative facts,” a term coined by Kellyanne Conway in an attempt to dismiss factually incorrect statements made by Trump and his team. As president, Trump (and his administration) has made not just claims that lack any sort of proof (i.e. Obama wiretapped Trump Tower and millions of illegal immigrants voted to prevent me from winning the popular vote), but also statements that are 100 percent, unequivocally false (i.e. the murder rate in the country is the highest it has been in 47 years, only 109 people were affected by executive order on immigration, I had the biggest Electoral College win since Regan, etc.) Regardless of what you think of the media’s credibility overall, Trump is worsening the problem: in Trump’s limited time in office I’ve witnessed some of the most blatant disregard for facts or any semblance of objectivity that I’ve ever seen in politics — and that is frightening.

There has always been bias in politics and the media, but it is reaching a point beyond that of, for lack of a better word, intellectual dishonesty. There are people who support Trump that genuinely believe everything he has to say, there are others who hate Trump and trust every word uttered by critics in the media, and then there is the vast majority of people somewhere in the middle that do not know how to, or have the time to, process and check the validity of the conflicting news they are fed. Having an administration that deliberately makes unsubstantiated claims and a media that prioritizes sensationalism over accuracy has made it increasingly difficult for the American public to distinguish the important from the trivial, the factual from the fictional — and what a disservice to American democracy that is.

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Takeaways From President Trump’s First Month in Office #3

Takeaway # 3: TRUMP REPRESENTS THE RETURN OF JACKSONIANISM*:

*Sorry for the late post on this, everyone. I had to deal with other matters since the previous two entries. Going forward, you should, hopefully, be able to expect at least one post a week.

Other political commentators have mentioned this in the past, but it merits repetition now that we have seen Trump in action: Trump’s presidency is the rebirth of Jacksonianism — stylistically and substantively — in both domestic and foreign affairs.

Let’s look first at stylistic similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump as it pertains to their personalities. Jackson’s contemporaries — and historians since — described him as thin skinned, vindictive, and arrogant. Thomas Jefferson personally called Jackson “dangerous” saying, “He is one of the most unfit men I know for [the presidency]. He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions…his passions are terrible.” Historians that have studied Jackson have made similar remarks about Jackson’s governing style, such as Robert V. Remini who has said that Jackson “could hate with a Biblical fury and would resort to petty and vindictive acts to nurture his hatred.” These characterizations cannot be dismissed as character attacks by critics, seeing as they are grounded in Jackson’s own actions. Jackson personally went against those he felt slighted by including former Vice President John Calhoun, his opponent in the 1832 presidential election Henry Clay, and Bank of the United States president Nicholas Biddle.

If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone; Trump’s personality has been described in almost identical ways to how Jackson’s was. Former U.S. President Barack Obama has called Trump a person who is “unqualified, doesn’t do his homework, doesn’t know basic facts that you need to know if you’re going to be President of the United States.” Fifty former national security officials that worked in Republican administrations were, likewise, worried about Trump’s temperament, signing a letter saying he would be “dangerous” and “the most reckless President in American history.” Again, comments like these about Trump have been ubiquitous across the political spectrum and cannot be dismissed purely as character assassination. Trump himself has demonstrated the vindictive, petty, and arrogant character of his personality through instances in which he says “I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” demeans everyone he disagrees with as “losers” while attacking their professional integrity, and calls the idea of attacking back 100 times stronger when someone attacks him a “way of life.”

Now let’s turn to similarities in policy and governing. Many of Jacksonian democracy’s core tenets, such as populism, patronage and — to a more limited extent — protectionism have found a modern-day equivalent in Trumpism. Just as Jackson rose to power in 1828 by decrying the establishment and elevating the “common man,” so too did Trump rise to power in 2016 by espousing the idea, in his inauguration, that “for too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost” and promising that “January 20th2017, will be remembered as the day the people became rulers of this nation again.” Just as Jackson developed a spoils system that prioritized party loyalty above education and any other qualifications, so too has Trump increased the reliance on political appointees based on personal and party loyalty, including Ben Carson and Betsy Devos. Just like Jackson heeded his “Kitchen Cabinet” over official advisors, so too is Trump believed to be heeding more the opinions of informal advisors like Steve Bannon. Additionally, both Jackson and Trump share protectionist tendencies, although protectionism was not necessarily a crucial ideological component of Jacksonian democracy. Jackson personally supported tariffs as a way to protect domestic industries from British merchants and said that the economy needed to become more “Americanized” to serve its own people. Trump echoes this statement when he says, as he did in his inauguration speech, that his administration will follow the two simple rules of “buy American and hire American” and that “every decision on trade…will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

In foreign policy too, Trumpism starkly resembles Jacksonianism, at least in respect to how political scientist Walter Mead defined the term. Mead, who believes that American foreign policy can be divided into four major schools of thought (Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian), defines Jacksonianism as a populist, political philosophy whose adherents believe that the most important goal of the U.S. government should be the physical security and economic well-being of the American people, that America should not be extensively involved in the affairs of other countries unless not doing so poses a national security threat (in which case all available force must be used), and that America is a “folk community” based around the notion of white identity politics. According to Mead, Jacksonians are only “intermittently concerned with foreign policy” and coalesce more around policies rooted in a sense of “honor-driven egalitarianism and fiery nationalism.”

While we have yet to see how Trump’s foreign policy plays out in practice, his statements on the issue give every indication that he falls within this Jacksonian foreign policy tradition. Like Jacksonians, Trump sees everything through the scope of national security, and he believes that the government is justified in using any means necessary to protect Americans – and ‘American values’ – at home. This explains his willingness to use unrestrained force against ISIS including waterboarding, his desire to build a Mexican border wall to keep people he views as “rapists” and “killers” – and their culture – out of the country, and his insistence on further building up the military and the U.S. nuclear arsenal so that the country remains “top of the pack.” As the New York Times sums up, Trump is a person who takes action first, who “sees the world as chaotic and threatening and inhospitable to traditional American objectives like democracy promotion or international institutions…[and where] the United States must pursue its interests narrowly, unilaterally, and with unapologetic force.” This is as by the books of a Jacksonian worldview as it gets.

Trump is poised to bring about a fundamental shift in U.S. politics by reverting the country back to the Jacksonian tradition, but whether he will be successful in doing so and whether his legacy will be similar to that of Andrew Jackson remains to be seen. A worthwhile comparison here can be made to Richard Nixon, considered by some to be the last Jacksonian president, to whom Trump has often been compared. Nixon, like Jackson before and Trump since, had an abrasive, unapologetic personality, was considered anti-establishment, and expanded executive power. Yet Nixon in the public mindset is remembered neither for being a Jacksonian nor for the policies he enacted, instead being overwhelmingly remembered as “a crook” that used his political power for personal gain. True, Jackson’s legacy is also marred by his involvement in the forceful removal of Native Americans (Trail of Tears), but at least he is still remembered, to a large extent, for his accomplishments: serving as the president of the common man, expanding democracy, and heralding in the Second Party System.

This much is certain one month into Trump’s presidency: Trump’s persona, like those of the Jacksonians before him, will loom large over national politics for years to come – a blemish of America to some, a return to form for others – but his legacy and the lasting implications of his presidency will be judged by whether he successfully chooses to rise above his persona to genuinely address the discontent with the state of politics in the country – like Jackson did – or fails to do so and digs his own grave – like Nixon did.

Trump and Marx: The Rule of Money in Bourgeois Society

I was a young, bright-eyed undergraduate student when I was first assigned to read Marx’s “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society” from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the series of notes penned by young Karl Marx in Paris first published nearly a century after their composition. In it, Marx contended that in a capitalist society, since money has “the property of buying everything,” it is thus “the object of eminent possession… the pimp between man’s need and the object, between his life and his means of life.” Money has the ability to buy not simply goods and services, but to ascribe its possessor individual characteristics and virtues that he would not otherwise have. Quoting Goethe in his manuscript, “Six stallions, say, I can afford, is not their strength my property?” Marx outlines this power of money- that “that which [one] is unable to do as a man, and of which therefore all [his] individual essential powers are incapable, [he is] able to do by means of money” making money the “truly creative power” in Bourgeois society.

My professor, a self-fashioned libertarian quite far from a Classical Marxist himself, illustrated this message through the celebrity image of Donald Trump, at that time nothing more than a joke and caricature of a rich man who nobody dreamed would become or even run for the presidency. Few accuse Donald Trump, for instance, of being an incredibly handsome man, yet all of his wives have been attractive women. For a student of Marx, he may be “ugly, but [he] can buy for [himself] the most beautiful of women. Therefore [he] is not ugly, for the effect of ugliness-its deterrent power-is nullified by money,” to use Marx’s words. The idea was not to slander the then business magnate or to objectify women as Marx does casually in this passage, but simply to illustrate how money allowed this man to live life as though he were a much more physically attractive man. In a society without money, “you can exchange only love for love, trust for trust” and Donald Trump would probably not be dating supermodels.

I enjoyed the image of Donald Trump to explain the creative and transformative power of money and it stuck with me in the following years. I even used it to teach the same text to my own students, passing along the tradition from generation to generation. Donald Trump continued his cartoonish antics and I continued to take advantage of him to the benefit and amusement of my students. They were eventually too young to have the original run of The Apprentice as a cultural touchstone, but they knew the “orange man with golden hair” all the same. I did not think that it would evolve beyond an easy example and a cheap shot at a well-known cultural figure until the summer of 2016.

By that time, he had secured the Republican Party’s nomination and was notorious for a completely different set of reasons, related mostly to his campaign statements. I, however, still considered him to be a joke: a clown that ate up a lot of attention but had won his party’s nomination largely thanks to a set of rules that skewed the contest in his favor and would never be taken seriously enough to have a realistic shot at winning the general election. He was inarticulate, crude, presented no coherent ideas or plans, and had no experience in government. His opponent, on the other hand, was highly articulate, polished, and a policy wonk with decades of relevant experience. Based on their individual experience and qualifications, there was no comparison and there should have been absolutely no contest. Living in a world governed by human interactions alone, the candidate that was obviously a fraud would have been rejected soundly in favor of the candidate who, though flawed, had the appropriate experience and characteristics. It seemed that his ill-advised presidential run would significantly expand the amount of material I had to use in my lesson but nothing much more profound than that.

However, when I taught “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society” that summer I began to realize that far from simply being a pithy example of a wealthy man who enjoyed advantages in many areas over other stronger, smarter or better qualified people due to his wealth, the very phenomenon of Trumpism and his administration’s rise had come to symbolize the power of money in a much more profound way. In fact, the ideas of money being the creative power and ultimate good of bourgeois society were the overriding, if not explicit, themes of his campaign and subsequent governing style. The ability for Trump and his campaign to succeed depended almost entirely upon the virtues granted to him by his wealth, and the concerns of personal wealth continue to determine much of the young administration’s actions.

One has only to look at the language and rise of Trump’s campaign to see the power of money in action. Of course, Trump’s original and perhaps most consistently emphasized pitch was that he was a highly successful businessman which is generally code for an extremely wealthy person. He also more directly talked about how rich he was, as if personal wealth alone made him worthy and that wealth could stand in the place of individual qualifications which he lacked. To him and his supporters, his wealth was his virtue. Trump claimed directly that “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it” implicitly suggesting that relevant knowledge of the system of government could best be gained through his brand of participation which to that point consisted of large political donations, fraud and defamation suits and his seeming manipulation of the tax code. All of these activities are available almost exclusively to the massively wealthy, implying that Trump had essentially bought knowledge of the system that normally can be gained only through years of dedicated public service. This seeming use of personal wealth as a stand-in for knowledge and experience coupled with his claim that he would be uniquely able to assemble “the best people” for his administration calls to mind Marx’s words again:

I am stupid [or rather inexperienced], but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid? Besides, he can buy talented people for himself, and is he who has power over the talented not more talented than the talented?

Wealth as virtue also appeared in Trump’s claim to be self-funding his campaign. “By self-funding my campaign, I am not controlled by my donors, special interests or lobbyists. I am only working for the people of the U.S.!” Trump claimed in a tweet. Of course, his claim of self-funding was always dubious and he did engage in traditional political fundraising in the general election. However, the essential idea behind this claim of independence is that the extremely wealthy are immune to corruption. Even after the election, this sentiment remained. As articulated by Larry Kudlow in an op-ed in National Review: “Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption.” The absurdity of this statement, along with the irony of a self-described “supply-sider” questioning the ability of the wealthy to be motivated by monetary gains, has been better explained by others. For our purposes, here lies a straightforward endorsement of wealth as virtue. Once again, such association between honesty and wealth is outlined by Marx. “I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous… but money is honored and therefore so is its possessor… I am therefore presumed honest.” Reasons to think that Trump is individually dishonest and corrupt abound, but because he is wealthy, he must be virtuous. Unavoidably, a cornerstone of the Trump campaign was that he was both qualified for office and fundamentally more honest because of his wealth. He had bought his experience and his honesty and his supporters seemed to accept this wealth as virtue idea.

Beyond allowing Trump to win the presidency, his actions in his first months as president have demonstrated that the power of money will also inform his governing style. Evidence of this claim can clearly be seen in the people he chose to fill his cabinet. By all accounts, Trump’s cabinet is the wealthiest in history, having the greatest number of millionaires and billionaires. It also contains some of the least qualified nominees. Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy nominee, apparently did not even know the mission of the department he was nominated to run. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development nominee, has no experience with housing policy. Former Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder had a history of active hostility towards the interests of labor. What united all of them, more than ideological similarities or personal loyalty to Trump, were their extreme levels of personal wealth.

The most egregious wealth-based nominee, however, was Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The senate confirmed her to lead the Department of Education despite having no relevant experience and an abysmal performance in the confirmation hearings where Senators Al Franken and Tim Kaine very publically exposed her ignorance of the fundamentals of educational policy. What was most striking about these hearings was how little the public humiliation seemed to affect her. After all, she did not care about winning the approval of those particular senators because her money guaranteed her confirmation. Although not every senator that received campaign donations from her family voted to confirm, it is difficult to imagine that the Senate Republicans would have spent so much political capital in support of such an obviously unqualified candidate if she and her family were not large and consistent political donors. The DeVos appointment is thus the clearest example of “money as virtue” and “the wealthy as virtuous” being the guiding principle behind Trump’s cabinet selections.

Ultimately, the election of Trump represents the endorsement of money and wealth as the supreme good in society. Trump lacked any relevant individual traits or experiences for the presidency. Exit polls reveal that a significant portion of even those that voted for him doubted he had the appropriate temperament to be president. He is the only president to have entered office with zero years of experience in any level of government or the military making Republican concerns about Obama’s lack of experience in 2008 or calls to make the requirements to become president more stringent quite quaint. The major difference is that Trump spent years building a brand that equated his name with money, luxury and personal wealth. His supporters were not voting for a real business man but rather the image Trump had crafted over his entire career. The candidacy of Donald Trump was not an exercise in using money to buy an election directly but rather to place capital on the ballot as directly as possible. For that reason, it did not even matter that the Clinton campaign had more money than his. The Trump brand is the physical manifestation of wealth and luxury and Trump the avatar of the divine dollar. The primacy of capital in the global economic base now has its idealized image heading the superstructure. Trump’s government seeks to perpetuate the political and economic domination of capitalists with him as their head to protect and reinforce their interests.

TAKEAWAYS FROM PRESIDENT TRUMP’S FIRST MONTH IN OFFICE #2

TAKEAWAY #2: GET USED TO UNILATERAL EXECUTIVE ACTIONS DURING TRUMP’S PRESIDENCY:

Love it or hate it, the use of executive actions (be it executive orders, proclamations, or memoranda) to dictate U.S. policy is here to stay, if Trump’s first month in office is any indication. Not counting periods of war, the use of executive actions has typically ebbed and flowed depending on a president’s relationship with Congress, but in general its use has grown in both scope and significance under the veil of “national security” since George W. Bush’s presidency, reaching levels unprecedented in the post-WWII era.

The idea that Trump too is an aggressive proponent of unilateral executive action may seem odd, if one were to look only at Trump’s statements prior to assuming the presidency. On July 10, 2012, Trump castigated Obama for his reliance on unilateral executive power, tweeting “Why is @BarackObama constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority.” Trump frequently made similar comments on the campaign trail. In one instance, Trump criticized President Obama’s use of executive orders when it came to gun control, saying “Wouldn’t it be nice if [President Obama] could get Congress together. And, you know, do it the old-fashioned way…[Obama] just wants to sign executive orders all the time…it’s no good, and it’s no fair.” Trump subsequently went on to say that he would regularly work with Congress and prioritize dealmaking as President.

Despite these previous assertions, however, Trump has begun his mandate not as a dealmaker but as a CEO, employing the same “pen and phone” strategy that Republicans and Trump himself have spent years criticizing President Obama for. According to Fox News, Trump has signed 24 executive actions in his first month, 12 of which have been executive orders, spanning everything from national security to the economy.

To be fair, this isn’t a substantial deviation from Trump’s two most immediate predecessors if we focus specifically on executive orders, which are the most reliable measure of unilateral executive action since they must be catalogued by law. President George W. Bush issued 7 executive orders and President Obama issued 16 executive orders in the first month of their first presidential terms, which puts Trump right in the middle. Merely focusing on the number of executive orders issued, however, misses much of the nuance. While Trump has issued fewer executive orders than Obama did during his first month in office, Trump’s executive orders are more significant in terms of policy implications, particularly because many deal with hot button issues. Out of Obama’s 16 executive orders, 5 merely established executive advisory councils (i.e. White House Office of Urban affairs and President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board) and another 4 addressed government contracting and federal employee rights. Even Obama’s executive orders with the greatest potential for policy disruption, orders 13491-13493 which ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities in Cuba and reviewed the government’s lawful interrogation and detention procedures, had no immediate effect. At least four of Trump’s executive orders, on the other hand, have had immediate policy implications, specifically executive orders 13765 and 13767-13769, which waived the economic burden of ObamaCare and laid the groundwork for Trump’s immigration policy, respectively.

Obviously, being only one month into Trump’s presidency, this all has to be taken with a grain of salt. Trump may very well end up being a successor to Lyndon B. Johnson, who was renowned for his ability to compromise with Congress. The ability to get things passed through Congress and the use of executive actions are not mutually exclusive endeavors for a president, and they never have been. The frequency with which Trump continues to issue executive orders over the next two months will perhaps prove a more reliable indicator of the balance he will strike as president between dealmaking and executive power and of the extent to which his actions represent a departure from other recent administrations. For instance, neither George W. Bush nor Obama maintained the same pace of issuing executive orders that they had in their first month in office for the remainder of their first 100 days (George W. Bush issued only 5 executive orders between March and April of his first year in office and Obama issued only 3).

When one takes a holistic look at the strategies and comments Trump has made as president, however, such as his labeling of the media as the “enemy of the American people” and judges that criticize his policies as “so-called judges,” his assertion that presidential power to control immigration and protect national security cannot be reviewed by any court, and his disdain for dissent within the executive branch, it seems likely that Trump will continually revert to his reliance on the bully pulpit and executive actions when he faces increased opposition from Congress or other setbacks to his agenda. In this sense, Trump’s presidency is positioned to not only be a continuation, but an extension of the recent expansion of executive power, with “national security” certain to remain its perennial justification.