Barely time for a quickie today, but it’s important to note that the political writer Christopher Caldwell has just thrown down to TrumpWorld and conservative populist nationalists (call us what you will) in general a challenge that still urgently needs to be met: nurturing a class of skilled, knowledgeable policy professionals large enough to staff a conservative populist nationalist president adequately.
Caldwell recognizes that success won’t come easily. As he explains cogently in a new Financial Times piece,
“For a populist, it’s hard to find good help these days. But it remains vital. The problem is not just institutional, it is temperamental. An effective populist adviser turns out to be a rare personality type: someone who loves bureaucracy enough to master its details, but hates it enough to join in pulling it apart.”
Indeed, this observation echoes one I made in 2018, when I wrote that the disruptive outsider Mr. Trump won the presidency, but continually lacked the benefit of “an advisory corps large and savvy enough to at least partly tame the federal bureaucracy.”
But however difficult, Caldwell is clearly correct that the shortage of competent policy help led to a series of “terrible” Trump hires who either couldn’t perform their jobs satisfactorily, or turned out to be establishment Republicans and conservatives who decided to undermine his agenda from the beginning. (See, e.g., here), with often crippling consequences for his presidency, and the nationalist populist cause more broadly.
In defense of the President, and to a lesser extent of the populists who have long possessed the resources to create this kind of shadow government, Mr. Trump’s staffing woes stemmed in an immediate sense from the surprise nature of his 2016 victory. He and his followers had been wandering in the political wilderness for so long that the prospect of actually running the country understandably seemed remote. And having never planned in detail for a governance opportunity, all were caught off-balance.
Going forward, this excuse won’t cut it. As Caldwell argues, a prime lesson of the aparent verdict of 2020 is that a populist President without large numbers of qualified hired hands will be a fatally underperforming President. So starting immediately to fill the gap, as opposed to squandering “four more years,” is imperative