Maybe Trump's game is to disrupt the Beltway's normal MO just for disruption's sake

Headshot image of Dan Calabrese
Published by: Dan Calabrese on Thursday September 07th, 2017

And maybe that has the potential for amazing returns . . . provided anyone knows how to take advantage of them.

It seemed like just about everyone ripped President Trump for making a debt-ceiling deal with Democrats and throwing congressional Republicans under the bus in the process. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan wanted to raise the debt limit enough to get everyone past the 2018 elections, while Democrats were only willing to go three months.

The Democrat proposal was the easier one to get done, but it's the worst idea in terms of policy. It also likely gives Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi leverage on issues like the border wall and tax reform that they wouldn't otherwise have, because now Republicans have to fight yet another debt ceiling battle when they would ideally be working on these legislative priorities and others that Trump favors.

If you look at the situation in isolation, and through the lens of conventional Beltway strategy, it looks like Trump made a huge blunder. He weakened his own party's position while alienating his party's congressional leaders. Beltway Politics 101 says you never do these things.

But if you're Donald Trump, you might offer the following rejoinder: Following Beltway Politics 101 has given us $20 trillion in debt. It passed ObamaCare and then couldn't repeal it. It's created a tangled mess of a tax code. It budgets dishonestly, regulates irrationally and passes law with no intention of enforcing them, at least not for everyone.

When Trump became president as a political novice, conventional wisdom said that he had to hit the books and learn the ways of Washington so he could succeed at governing. He had to surround himself with old Beltway hands, follow their advice and learn how to work the system. He had to learn Washington-style strategy and deploy it consistently.

He has not done that, a fact that has clearly not escaped the notice of the Beltway establishment. Mitch McConnell openly declares that Trump doesn't understand how to govern and that his expectations of Congress are unrealistic, even though he only expects them to do what they say they're going to do every time they campaign for re-election. The media take polls asking people if they think Trump is mentally unstable, then breathlessly informs us that 40 percent do. (Who needs credentials in mental health when you can just answer a poll?) Renegage employees of the executive branch leak to the media about things as mundane as the killing of a fly in the Oval Office, all so the nation will understand that its president is a bumpkin and a lunatic and an amateur and an egotist.

And while it's hard sometimes to discern a pattern in the things Trump does, we can absolutely point to one thing he has done consistently since he took office: Upset the Beltway establishment, and draw forth outsized reactions.

And I'm starting to wonder if this is Trump's whole game: Disrupting the way things are normally done just for the sake of disrupting it, not out of spite but as a strategy.

Trump's broad view of Washington is not a secret: He thinks it's dysfunctional and can't solve problems. Nothing that's happened since he took office contradicts this view in the slightest. Trump took office with expectations that his administration could work with Congress to repeal ObamaCare, reform the tax code, slash regulations, open up domestic energy, appoint conservative judges and build a border wall to get control of illegal immigration.

The parts of this he couuld do via executive action have yielded impressive success. The parts requiring congressional action have clearly not, despite nominal Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. Meanwhile, the federal bureaucracy has worked behind the scenes with the news media to undermine Trump and his agenda at every opportunity.

These are not surprising developments. The Republican Congress was a joke when we had it during the Bush and Obama Administraitons, and there's no reason to think it will be any better now. The federal bureaucracy is a self-serving behemoth that views the American people with contempt, and is more than willing to undermine anyone - including a president - who threatens its comfortable status quo.

Washington is very good at appearing to be in motion but accomplishing little or nothing as a result of all the motion. Ever see a football play where a ball carrier runs from one side of the field to the other, then back again, but never manages to get across the line and ends up tackled for no gain or even a loss? That ball carrier is Washington. It did a whole lot and accomplished nothing in the process.

And typically, presidents of both parties go along with the charade - even though they may be privately frustrated as hell - because they fear that if they upset the establishment they will forfeit any hope of ever getting cooperation on anything.

None of this is new. It's been going on for a very long time. What's new is Donald Trump, and his approach to all of it. When Congress fails to do what it said it would do, Trump attacks its leaders on Twitter. When people leak, Trump tells the attorney general to go after the leakers. When the attorney general drags his feet because that's the normal Washington way, Trump attacks his own attorney general. When the media does what the media usually does to Republican presidents - but with a far greater intensity because of their personal hatred of Trump - he gives it back to them the way no president has ever given it to the media.

And every time Trump does these things, the establishment loses its mind.

The result to the general public is that it looks like everything is in complete chaos. They blame Trump for this because he's the man in charge and he's the variable that brought it all about. When Obama was in office, he behaved like a normal president and everything seemed to work in the normal way. There was partisan rancor, of course, but for the most part it played out in the manner to which we've become accustomed. There was a lot we didn't like, of course, but we didn't have the impression that the entire government had become a dysfunctional trainwreck.

Now we do. Because it has. But here's the rub: Then, as now, nothing that needed to get done was getting done. Then, the comforting appearance of normalcy helped us feel a little better about the lack of progress. Now, everything seems to have gone to utter hell.

And yet, the substantive results are no worse now than they were then. In fact, they're better. Trump is trashing idiotic regulations. He's strengthened America's position in world energy markets. He's tilting the balance on the federal judiciary back to the right. When he can act on his own, he's making good decisions and delivering good results. When he has to work with the rest of Washington, nothing gets done because they're too busy freaking out about how he's disrupted their standard M.O.

And the more they freak out, the more the public is noticing. I'm not suggesting you'll see this reflected any time soon in Trump's approval ratings. They're still abysmal. They might stay that way throughout his presidency. But I'm not sure he cares. The more he exposes the reality of how Washington operates, the more the public is coming to understand that Washington did not just become a trainwreck when Trump took office. It's been that way for a very long time, and because of Trump's highly unconventional method of dealing with it, he's been able to provoke actions and reactions from the establishment in which they unwittingly show the public who they really are.

GDP growth for Obama's final year? A measly 1.6 percent

What this may have the effect of doing is to blow Washington's cover entirely, such that the public is no longer placated by the illusion of movement that accompanies no progress whatsoever. The public may come to understand that our problems do not remain unsolved because solving them is too hard, but rather because the people we've sent to Washington to solve the problems don't really want to do that - and the people who pay to work for the federal government actually just work for themselves and take our money to do so.

If the public wises up to all this because Trump has goaded this charade out of the shadows, it will no longer be possible for Washington to pretend to govern while it really just protects its own way of life.

But what then? That's the big question with all this. It is surely necessary to tear down this stronghold before you build something new that's serious about governing. But tearing something down is always easier than building something. Trump has offered a vision of a government that looks out for the interests of the regular people instead of serving global establishment interests. That is a very appealing concept, and a lot of people voted for him because of it. I'd say that corrupt government he promised to tear down is much weaker today, largely because of his determination to expose it.

Once it's been effectively neutered by the public's permanent lack of confidence in it, though, exactly how does Trump build a new one that does what it's supposed to do? I hope he has an answer, because the destruction is necessary, but it can't be the end of the story.

Dan's new novel, BACKSTOP, is a story of spiritual warfare and baseball. Download it from Amazon here!