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.

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.

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.

Takeaways From President Trump’s First Month in Office #1

It has been just over one month since Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States, and I can think of no better way to “celebrate” that milestone than by officially kicking off this blog with a post discussing just that. There has been an abundance of political news over the course of the last month, much of it filled with tears, drama and heartache, but our goal is to cut through the clutter and focus on the big picture through a more analytic lens by identifying the essential takeaways from Trump’s presidency so far. The three takeaways identified, which will be elaborated upon in subsequent entries this week, are what I believe to be the recurring themes that will continue to inform how Trump’s presidency will develop over the next four years. With that being said, let’s get started…

TAKEAWAY #1: TRUMP INTENDS TO KEEP HIS CAMPAIGN PROMISES:

Given Trump’s penchant for ambiguity, grandiose rhetoric, and mercurial political beliefs, many on both the Left and the Right seriously questioned the extent to which Trump intended to follow up on his campaign promises as president. One month in, I think it is safe to say that Trump has every intention of doing so and no intention of moderating his campaign positions to appeal to those outside of his original support base. This is most evident in Trump’s pursuit of two of his most oft-repeated and controversial campaign promises, cracking down on illegal immigration and instituting a “Muslim ban.”

In respect to cracking down on illegal immigration, Trump seems to be proceeding full steam ahead with his proposed Mexican border wall, despite continued concerns over its cost (assumed to be at least $21.6 billion) and implementation. On January 25, 2016, Trump signed an executive order to “secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall…to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.” While Trump’s border wall is projected to take over three years to build and is unlikely to move forward until Congress secures funding for its construction, the executive order represents a significant and concrete step in Trump’s effort to uphold one of his central campaign promises. Additionally, Trump is pledging to strip sanctuary cities of their federal funding, beefing up border security through additional personnel and resources, and expanding the criteria for the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants.

A similar pattern can be seen with Trump’s actions to implement the promised “Muslim ban.” On January 27, Trump indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States and temporarily banned individuals from seven predominantly Muslim nations (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen) from entering the U.S. for a 90-day period. While the temporary travel restrictions were not strictly speaking a “Muslim ban,” seeing as there were over 40 other Muslim-majority nations exempt from the restrictions, they were a clear evolution of Trump’s campaign promise and were designed with the same purported intention of establishing an “extreme vetting” procedure to keep “bad dudes” out. In fact, former mayor of New York City Rudi Giuliani, a frequent Trump supporter who was involved in the original drafting of the executive order, said the equivalent in an interview on Fox News, stating that the intention behind the executive order was finding “the right way to do [the Muslim ban] legally.” While the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled against reinstating the executive order, which has been temporarily blocked by the lower courts, Trump has been steadfast in declaring that his administration is looking into issuing a revised executive order that addresses the legal challenges while still maintaining the same general travel restrictions

The crackdown on illegal immigration and the “Muslim ban” are not outliers when it comes to Trump acting on his campaign promises. Even beyond these two examples, Trump has employed a “shotgun approach” in an effort to check off, or at least give the appearance of checking off, the majority of his campaign promises in the quickest way possible. Out of the eighteen measures he listed in his 100-day action plan, Trump has already made significant progress in 12 measures: 1) a hiring freeze on federal employees; 2) a requirement that for every new federal regulation two existing regulations be eliminated; 3) a five-year ban on lobbyists; 4) a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government; 5) announcing an intention to renegotiate NAFTA; 6) withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; 7) lifting Obama-Clinton roadblocks on energy infrastructure projects; 8) picking a replacement for Justice Scalia; 9) canceling funding for sanctuary cities; 10) expanding deportation of illegal immigrants; 11) suspending immigration from “terror-prone” regions; and 12) directing the Secretary of Commerce to identify all foreign trading abuses.

Trump’s apparent commitment to following through on his campaign promises is a reflection of the broader idea that what you see is what you get when it comes to Trump, and it is about time we take the implications of that seriously. The Trump we are seeing as president, and that we will continue to see as President, is the exact same Trump we saw in the campaign trail, with all the same populist, nativist appeal, all the same character faults, and all the same political divisiveness.