Published April 29, 2017
After a series of meetings and phone calls with high-ranking officials this month, a Republican who deals regularly with the Trump administration confided in me about his frustration. “The dysfunction in this White House just knows no bounds,” he said.
Of the many things people worried about before President Trump took office, it turned out that the main problem was his incompetence rather than his authoritarian tendencies — at least so far.
This isn’t to say that Mr. Trump has no successes to speak of. His appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was a masterful stroke; so was the naming of much of his foreign policy team, with the notable exception of the former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
But the early days of the Trump presidency have been marked by extraordinary ineptitude. We saw it right out of the gate, with his botched executive order barring refugees from particular countries. Since then the missteps have piled up: the failure of the Republican House to pass the American Health Care Act; petty arguments with allies; the conscious decision to leave hundreds of key appointments unfilled, which in its faux populism is more significant than it may appear.
Taken together (and of course I am leaving a lot out), these developments paint a portrait of a man who was wholly unprepared to fulfill his primary job requirement — to govern competently and well. At some level, Mr. Trump knows this. As he put it this week, “I thought it would be easier.”
This has been something of a theme of the Trump presidency. One telling moment came when the president, speaking to the nation’s governors about his health care plan, said: “Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” A second came when Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany reportedly had to explain over and over again to Mr. Trump that he could not make a trade deal with Germany directly but only with the European Union. A third came when Mr. Trump, in describing his conversation with President Xi Jinping of China about North Korea, admitted, “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.”
Having worked in three presidential administrations, I know that every president and every staff member faces a steep learning curve. You’re forced to make important decisions in a compressed period of time, without all the information you would like, often causing unintended consequences. There’s nothing that prepares you for it, even if you’ve done it before.
Still, we’ve never seen anything quite like what’s happening with Mr. Trump.
In 2016, many voters saw ignorance not as something to be embarrassed about but as something to be celebrated. The fact that Mr. Trump had no record of public service and no qualifications for public office turned out to be advantages.
Mr. Trump was a disturbing pioneer of how to run and win while being utterly contemptuous of the complexities of politics. Having dismissed the political class as stupid “losers,” he promised that he alone would fix everything “very quickly” and oh-so-easily. Chaos was his creed. Statecraft was for suckers.
But what worked on the campaign trail can’t possibly work over the span of a presidency. The 2016 campaign, more than any before it, showed us how extraordinarily wide the gap between what it takes to win the presidency and what it takes to govern has become.
I realize that this all sounds hopelessly old-fashioned and out of step with our angry, cynical times. For many Americans, frustration with our political leaders, which is understandable, has transmuted into contempt for governing itself, which is dangerous — a trend that verges on a desperate kind of political nihilism.
But sometimes we learn the value of something by its absence. In the age of Trump, perhaps we will discover anew that there is an art not so much to the deal but to governing.
We might begin with this recognition: Governing requires a command of issues, a vision and the ability to translate the vision into legislative reality. Those who govern well think tactically and strategically. They know how to negotiate and compromise, when to dig in and when to relent, and how to adjust to unanticipated consequences.
Effective political leaders are able to mobilize public opinion on behalf of their agenda, surround themselves with wise advisers who will challenge them and ask hard questions. They’re organized. They pay attention to details. They avoid creating unnecessary distractions and they stay clear of scandals. They find ways to work with the opposition party and they see the pattern of events sooner than the rest of us. And they know themselves, including their own weaknesses.
Perhaps no president has possessed all of these qualities. But what sets Mr. Trump apart is that he possesses almost none of them. He places astonishing confidence in his instincts, in listening to his gut. This improvisational approach can work for a Rat Pack singer or a reality television star; it doesn’t work nearly as well for a president.
What troubles many of us who have devoted much of our lives to politics is that we have a president who doesn’t believe in the higher purpose of his office, which is grounded in the conviction that governing well can advance the human good. There are many things for which Mr. Trump will finally have to answer. My guess is that his daily denigration of politics and governing will be right near the top.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the previous three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer.