In praise of White House dysfunction

United States
 Photo: Crhis Kleponig-Pool/Getty

As it turns out, Donald Trump is not very good at running the US government.

The question for progressive internationalists is: should we be sad about this?

In recent months, Trump has faced a string of high-level departures from his staff. The New York Times described the rate of turnover as ‘head-snapping’, reporting that ‘as [the] White House’s revolving door whirls, chaos is the only constant’.

Many analysts have pointed to this tumult as a sign of wider dysfunction. Throughout government, an unusually large number of posts remain vacant. The Washington Post has tracked the absence of several hundred ‘assistant secretaries, chief financial officers, general counsels, heads of agencies, ambassadors, and other leadership positions that experts believe are critical for the federal government to function effectively’.

For some liberal critics, Trump’s inability to provide a firm rudder for the ship of state is inherently disastrous.

Representing this view, Foreign Policy magazine – a bulwark of the Washington establishment – published a 2017 article entitled ‘The Swiss cheese Presidency: why Trump’s inability to fill key positions makes America weak’. In it, Democratic officials from past administrations bemoaned how the President’s lethargy in eliminating staffing gaps would hinder US diplomacy.

But is Trump’s incompetence really such a bad thing?

To a certain extent, defending good government must be part of a progressive vision. We want the Department of Labor to be conducting proficient inspections of workplace safety. We want the Social Security Administration to deliver retirees’ cheques on time and the Department of Justice to enforce statutes against discrimination.

Yet, the people Trump has entrusted with significant responsibilities are so vile and dangerous that we should be grateful he has neglected to find many more. Those who have taken office have not worked to tend the administrative state, but rather to undermine it.

In this context, we should see inefficiency as a virtue.

Scott Pruitt, the stalwart oil-industry ally who now heads the US Environmental Protection Agency, has arguably run one of the administration’s more industrious departments – one ruthlessly determined to cut restrictions on fossil fuel exploitation and pesticide use. In contrast, housing and urban development secretary Ben Carson’s damage to public housing has been relatively limited, as he appears to have focused mostly on buying lavish mahogany dining furniture for his office.

Given the choice, I’ll take the loafer.

But there’s also a more radical question in play; one that asks whether a liberal faith in institutions is always warranted. After all, there are parts of the federal bureaucracy – say, the CIA – that we might prefer not function at all, even under a more enlightened head of state.

Immigrant rights advocates argued that President Obama’s deportation forces were all too efficiently managed – separating families and tearing apart communities. Moreover, that administration’s National Security Agency was frighteningly competent in expanding a vast network of global surveillance, with the NSA tracking the phone calls of millions.

The State Department evokes more ambivalence. Given its size and stature, the US no doubt needs skilled diplomats. And yet, even among the ‘apolitical’ corps of career foreign service professionals – those meant to be unbiased technocrats, rather than ideological foot soldiers – there is far too little critical scrutiny of the US image of itself as a benevolent hegemon.

The result is a disturbing consistency, across Democratic and Republican regimes.

For instance, when Hillary Clinton took over as secretary of state in 2009 – displacing George W Bush’s appointee – her department continued demonizing the Latin American ‘populists’ who dared to challenge US mandates or adopt economic policies that flouted IMF preferences. As a result, the administration failed to consistently denounce the coup in Honduras that year, and it ultimately worked to legitimize the country’s murderous post-coup government.

If that’s the model for a well-managed government cruise, Trump’s drifting and directionless dinghy can start to look unexpectedly appealing – its lunatic captain notwithstanding.

New Internationalist issue 513 magazine cover This article is from the May 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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