It is not about the monkey, it is about the machine.

In the late 1980s I found myself sitting at a research institute in Rio de Janeiro pondering the sad fact that George H.W. Bush (aka Bush 41) had just been elected president. This was a guy who sat down the hall from Reagan’s desk and yet who claimed that he had seen nothing and heard nothing when it came to Iran-Contra and the drugs for guns schemes being run out of the Oval Office using Ollie North as the facilitator. With his having been a former CIA director, decorated WW2 pilot, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, US Representative, Ambassador to the UN and US envoy to China (before a US embassy was established in Beijing) as well as Vice President, I found it hard to believe that Bush 41 had no clue as to what was going on down the hall.

So there I sat in the Institute cafe, moping over my cafe com leite as I pondered another four years of Republican presidents. At that moment a Brazilian colleague showed up and asked me why I looked so sad. I told him. His face lit up in a big grin and he told me that to the contrary, I should be encouraged by the news. Given that he was a dyed in the wool Marxist scholar and activist who had suffered through the days of the US-backed dictatorship, I found his comment odd. When I asked why he believed so he said: “The US is the best country on earth! Here in Brazil we always look for one person to take us out of darkness and into civilisation. But in the US it does not matter if you have a monkey running the White House because the machine continues no matter what!”

That is why despite the gloom and doom occasioned by Donald Trump’s election as US president, there is a sliver lining in that cloud. It lies in the institutional edifice of the US State–that is, the complex of commonweal institutions, agencies, norms, rules, practices and procedures, plus those who administer them–which will serve as a restraining device on his most spurious instincts and largely dictate the limits of what he can and not do in the Oval Office. Mind you, I am not talking about the so-called “Deep State,” which I have trouble believing exists if for no other reason than it would have prevented Trump from assuming office one way or another. Instead, I am talking about is the conglomerate often referred to as the Federal Government, in all of its facets and permutations.

I have said publicly on repeated occasions that assuming the presidency is like putting on a straight jacket. When one takes the presidential office the entire weight of US history, good and bad, falls on one’s shoulders. This includes assurances, commitments, guarantees, obligations, promises, responsibilities, rewards and threats made in the past and occupying the present that may be possible to modify but which are hard to summarily rescind or revoke. Even in the latter case the process for withdrawing from established policy is generally slow and fraught with challenges, be they legal, political or diplomatic, and can elicit unintended or unforeseen consequences or responses (such as those occasioned by US troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The presidency also inherits the entire edifice of governance–its rules, its mores, its  promotion schedules in a bureaucratic architecture that is huge and by design very compartmentalised and specialised in its legally allowable administration of policy. In fact, when freshly elected presidents attempt to  throw a cloak of campaign promises on an institutional apparatus that may or may not be disposed to following executive directives, the result may be bureaucratic resistance rather than supine compliance. When the president-elect campaigns on a promise of  “draining the swamp” that is the institutional nexus between public and private rent seeking, the stage is set for a confrontation between individual (presidential) will and institutional preservation. The odds do not favour the individual.

The idea that Trump is going to summarily dispense with assorted policies involving trade, security, immigration, domestic energy exploitation, press freedoms, civil rights and the like is wrong because he simply cannot unilaterally do so without challenge. Those challenges have already begun over his refusal to declare conflicts of interest with his business ventures and will continue across the gamut of his presidential endeavour. They will come from many sides, including from within his own party and congressional leadership. However grudgingly, he (or better said, his advisors) have begun the process of walking back most of his signature campaign promises, which may or may not emerge in modified form.  Even in areas where he is sticking to his guns–say, on withdrawing from the TPPA–the more likely outcome is that Congress will force a withdraw-and-renegotiate compromise rather than a full and final abandonment of it. As his mate Rudy Giuliani has explained, things are said in the heat of battle on the campaign trail that were never meant to be followed through on, and now is the time to bring America together. Given how divisive the campaign was, that will be a big ask.

Needless to say, that also makes those who voted for him look like a bunch of suckers.

The compromises being forced upon him are evident in the arguments about his senior level appointments. On the one hand naming Steve Bannon (of alt-Right/Breitbart fame) as Senior Counsel and Strategist has produced a wave of repudiation and calls for his dismissal because of his publicly expressed anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist and generally bigoted views. On the other hand, his consideration of Mitt Romney for Secretary of State has elected howls of disapproval from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was one of the first to endorse Trump after his own presidential bid failed, was rewarded for his troubles by being sacked as transition team leader on the orders of Trump’s son-in-law, whose father has been successfully convicted in the early 2000s by Christie during his days as a federal prosecutor (ostensibly because of Christie’s involvement in the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal). This has alienated many self-designated “pragmatic” Republicans who saw reason in Christie’s approach to governance and were willing to overlook his errors in judgement in backing Trump and pursuing personal vendettas while governor.

For his part, Giuliani stands to receive a important role in the Trump administration but interestingly, that role has yet to be announced in spite of Giuliani’s slavish boot-licking of the Orange One. This has led to speculation that he too is considered to have too much baggage to garner a cabinet-level prize such as Secretary of Homeland Security. What appointments have been made (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Mike Ryan as National Security Advisor, Betsy De Vos as Secretary of Education and Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador) have all met with wide-spread criticism on a variety of grounds (racism when it comes to Sessions, Islamophobia and mental instability when it comes to Ryan, and complete lack of relevant experience when it comes to De Vos and Haley). With 4000 political positions to fill, that makes for a a very fraught appointment process–and that is before the serious business of security vetting begins on pretty much all of them.

Whatever the provenance of the challenges, their conveyance will be institutional, be it from the courts, Congress or the federal bureaucracy. The latter is worth noting simply because translating policy initiatives into concrete action takes an institutional inclination (beyond capacity) to do so. As Ronald Reagan discovered when he tried to abolish the Department of Education, bureaucratic opposition, however self-serving it may be, is an excellent form of institutional constraint.

What this all points to is that not surprisingly, Trump’s presidency is off to a shaky start in spite of his desires and sometimes conciliatory rhetoric. That looks to continue well after his inauguration. Already there is talk of recounts, challenges and impeachment. So he may think, as he has said, that as president he has no conflicts of interest (in a reprise of Dick Nixon’s comment hat it is not illegal if the US president does it), or that he has a free hand when it comes to running the US government. But he is now learning just like Nixon that the hard facts of life in the Oval Office say otherwise.

The bottom line is this: no matter how strong the president may be at any given point in time and no matter the comparative weight of external events and presidential initiatives, the facts of life in the Oval Office are dictated by the institutional machine, not by the monkey that temporarily sits atop it.

15 thoughts on “It is not about the monkey, it is about the machine.

  1. Jon Stewart was saying in an interview that he thinks the Republicans will come to Jesus now they have all the arms of government, and discover big government. God help us if they do. If the Trump administration is as crazy as i fear it will be then we’d better re-arm, and fast.

  2. “I am not talking about the so-called “Deep State,”…”

    I think you are talking about the “Deep State”, actually. I agree that the “Deep State” in the sense of a secret cabal of generals and fellow puppet masters is just puerile nonsense.

    However, the real “Deep State” is exactly what you say. It is the cumulative inertia of the machinery of state, which (for better or worse) carries out its own agenda for its own reasons, only dimly and slowly influenced by what occurs in the theatre of elected politics.

  3. @RJL

    Where you see public service inertia, I see a deep sense of duty to the public good.

    Too few are unaware that the rise of the West was in large part due to the efficiency of bureaucracy.

  4. I hear what you are saying Pablo, but civil servants or state officials, whatever name they may go by, are either political themselves or the passive instruments of politicians. Either way, if there is a problem at the political level, that problem will work its way down through the system of government. We have seen here, in our own home town of Rotorua, that at least 80% of local government officials will lie to the public when instructed to do so by their political superiors, even though those officials may be perfectly honest people in their private lives. It was the same in Germany in 1936, and I suspect that it will be little different in the United States in 2016. A sanguine attitude is well and good, but it must be tempered with a dose of realism.

  5. Sorry Geoff.

    You may know about Rotorua but you appear to have little idea of how the US federal bureaucracy works. Extrapolating your observations from one small place in a very small country, or from 1936 Germany for that matter, just does not cut it when it comes to comparative political analysis.

    I will not bore you with accounts of my experiences working in the Pentagon, various military commands and the US intelligence community. But what I can say is that there are fundamental differences in the way that they operate that undermine your claims, and those differences are not exclusive to the places where I worked.

    For example, Just the vast size of the federal bureaucracy makes it impossible for political “problems” to trickle down to the grunt level on a regular basis. Moreover, the federal civil service are the repositories of institutional history, have numerous anti-corruption, political neutrality and ethics clauses in their contracts and, needless to say, have self and institutional preservation to think about. They know that political appointees come and go but they remain as the ongoing machinery of governance. Their institutional culture, in other words, is very dissimilar to the one you describe in Rotorua.

    Senior level career civil servants, those at GS-15 level and above, do not get to those positions by being manipulable by political appointees or sucking up to each cadre brought in by new administrations. In fact, it is more the case the other way around. Plus, there are intra- and inter-agency networks that can bypass, resist or facilitate policy initiatives depending on the latter’s intent.

    For example, do you really think that Defense, State, CIA and the Justice Department are just gong to bend over and comply if Trump orders a resumption of torture or the commission of war crimes? Do think that ATF, US Marshalls, and FBI (to say nothing of state and local governments) are going to just go along with trying to deport 11 million people, including US citizens?

    The bottom line is that Trump has assailed, denigrated and reviled the federal civil service across the board and has spoken of firing thousands of federal employees. That alone guarantees that they will resist him at almost every turn, and because he has no clue about how government works and is staffing his senior appointments with sycophants and loyalists rather than experienced heads who know the ropes, it is very likely that many if not most of his policy initiatives will die within the bureaucratic labyrinth before they see the light of day.

  6. The American public is fortunate if its public servants are of a superior moral character to those who work in the service of the state and local government in New Zealand. If your reading of the situation is correct (and I do not suggest otherwise) then I would agree that neither the American people nor the rest of the world have much to fear from a Trump administration.

  7. RJL:

    I accept your definition of the “deep state” as being what I refer to as the “State” or Federal government, although I was trying to counterpoise that conceptualisation against the notion put forth by conspiracy theorists of various stripes. I also tend to agree with your take on bureaucratic inertia as a good barrier to political manipulation.

    Luc: Welcome back. Without getting all Weberian on the deal, it is clear that a spirit of public service does animate many in the Federal bureaucracy, although I also think that individual and organisational self-interest has a lot of influence as well.

    However, that notion of service cannot be applied to many political appointees, who basically are selected for partisan reasons and adhere to partisan lines. In one of my past lives I had a political appointees colleague who ended every policy debate within our shop with the line “will the White House be comfortable with this?” If the answer was “no” then he opposed it regardless of the merits of the case. That pretty much sums it up.

    Geoff: I do not think that career civil servants in the US federal bureaucracy are of morally superior character so much as I believe that institutional depth and systems of horizontal and vertical accountability have imbued many with a deep sense of organisational ethos that makes their crass manipulation by political figures much more difficult than what appears to be the case here in NZ (and I could be wrong about how the NZ civil service operates).

  8. Nice to see your spirits back up Pablo.

    Only other thing to add is you might be “slightly wrong’ about the NZ civil service. Its not as bad as the US appears but political manipulation is a known fact of life above a certain level. I say that as a mid level NZ civil servant with unfortunate experience of such things.

  9. It’s a well known fact that the NZ civil service is exceptionally morally denegerate. The US civil service has its problems but it’s a beacon of virtue by comparison.

  10. Atrotos may be right although I don’t that it is necessarily a “well-known” fact (the state manages to keep most scandals off our screens) and I wonder whether New Zealand is really exceptional, or simply typical of post-colonial societies elsewhere around the globe?

  11. “It’s a well known fact that the NZ civil service is exceptionally morally denegerate.”

    I’ve worked in the public and private sector in NZ and the UK, and didn’t find those in the NZ public sector “morally degenerate”. Just ordinary people, with what seemed like a higher than average number of lefties, intellectuals, and people wanting to make a difference. Anecdotal evidence of course :-)

  12. “It’s a well known fact” usually translates as “In my opinion”. “Exceptionally morally degenerate” begs the questions “Exceptional by what standards?” and “morally degenerate in what ways?”. It would be more helpful if Atrotos was to make specific criticisms of the moral failings of the New Zealand state and local government services.
    On the other hand Seb Rattansen fails to recognise that a significant number of so-called “public servants” in New Zealand are also deceitful, dishonest and corrupt.
    I personally have no hesitation in naming those who have shown themselves to be corrupt, and give the benefit of the doubt to all others.

  13. I would prefer if people commenting on KP not use the forum to push their (hyperlinked) barrows. EA’s site is good for that.

  14. Seb is right to ask for evidence, and Atrotos has not been forthcoming, so the fault really seems to lie with Atrotos in this case. Having said that, the suggestion that “people not use the forum to push their barrows” could do with some clarification, since providing a forum for people to “push their barrows” could be construed as the normal function of a political website. There is no doubt a point at which contrary opinions relentlessly expressed become aggravating, and Pablo seems to be suggesting that EA Blair/kiwifirewalker tolerates contrary opinion more willingly than Pablo/kiwipolitico. I doubt that EA would want to dispute that point

  15. I only object when people move off-topic and/or endlessly argue about some sidebar to the original post. often with little knowledge of the subject they are arguing about. EA is more accommodating of such things.

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