Yes, Mr President

Yes, Mr President

September 2018 | Politics

Attempts by senior officials to manipulate Trump into following their agenda are an integral part of the democratic tradition on both sides of the Atlantic.

An ambitious neophyte politician achieves high office only to encounter obstruction from his advisors at every turn. It's a dynamic best captured by Yes Minister, the classic BBC comedy about the working relationship between a cabinet minister and the civil service. It portrays the attempts of Sir Humphrey Appleby, a senior civil servant, to manage James Hacker, his cabinet minister boss, so that the government carries out Sir Humphrey's agenda rather than Hacker's. Margaret Thatcher is said to have been an avid fan of the program, in part because she recognised echoes of what was happening in her own government.

One of the frustrations that led to Brexit echoes this. Unlike most EU members the UK can't just copy and paste European regulations into law. The EU drafts its laws in accordance with the Civil Law system used in most EU member states. To become compatible with the common law legal system used in the UK they need to be redrafted by the British government before they can take effect in England and Wales. The civil service has frequently been accused of abusing this process to gold plate the legislation or to extend it in ways not intended by the European Commission. Noted EU federalist, Guy Verhofstadt, mused in the wake of the Brexit vote that the difference in legal systems between England and the rest of Europe might have made the result of the referendum inevitable.

Strength in Government

It is sometimes observed in Westminster that the difference between a strong cabinet secretary and a weak one is their relationship with their officials in the civil service. Whitehall prides itself on its impartiality, but if a cabinet minister hasn't mastered their brief then his officials will take it upon themselves to do it for him. A strong minister dictates policy to his officials, a weak minister has policy dictated to him by the civil service.

Thanks to an anonymous author in the New York Times we know that the Trump administration is being run along the same lines as the Hacker administration portrayed by the BBC in Yes Minister. In the article, it is claimed that senior officials drawn from the mainstream Republican party are manipulating the President's agenda and ignoring his decisions so that the administration is run according to their priorities rather than Trump's. This isn't a huge surprise, past presidents have encountered the same thing. Richard Nixon's orders were frequently ignored if the alcoholic president was drunk or in a temper. The same thing is reported to have happened on occasion to Ronald Reagan, a president not known for his grasp of detail. If staffers believed that the president was acting without a full understanding of the facts, they would delay implementing his decisions until he could be persuaded to reverse them. Reagan knew of his limitations and was open to expert advice, it is widely believed that Donald Trump is not.

Culture and Institutions

Trump based his business career on callous disregard for others, gut instinct and an ability to manipulate the media. He entered the White House expecting the federal government to work like a larger version of the Trump Organization. In reality, a democratic government is a very different beast from a family business. The requirement to negotiate and compromise is built into every level of the US political system. The founding fathers designed their constitution so that legislation could only be passed slowly after consideration of all the alternatives. This applies as much to the executive as to the other branches. It is alleged that Trump has no interest or understanding of this norm, and would rather be a dictator who can do as he pleases. In business, this approach is possible and can be successful given the right individuals. However, it goes against every tenet of American political culture. The Republican party are highly aware of this and are using Trump's short attention span and disinterest in detail against him. It is noticeable that the GOP have been highly critical of the author of the New York Times Op-Ed. A string of cabinet secretaries disowned it the day it was published, and not just because they were afraid of being fired. They disowned it because the existence of the article clued Trump into what was going on. It will be a lot harder to block Trump's crazier schemes now he's alert to the possibility of obstructionism from within the administration.

Trump, much like his supporters, is a disaffected conservative Democrat who feels alienated by the liberal values of the modern Democratic party. The Republican establishment bear no loyalty to Trump because of this, they are co-operating with him because they want to use his base to win elections further down the ballot. If they abandon him, they fear Trump's voters will return to their old party, regardless of their opinion of it.

Electoral Impact

The long-term consequences of this calculation are still unknown. Much has been written about Trump's mental state, and the impact that running the government will have on it. Trump has a fondness for conspiracy theories, and no one knows what will happen when Trump is defeated at the ballot box or what his supporters reaction will be. It is unlikely that he would accept defeat gracefully, nor is it conceivable that he would be allowed to outstay his welcome in the Oval Office. We may soon find out. According to Politico, Republicans are now concerned that they may lose both houses of Congress in November, a fanciful notion 18 months ago. Trump is unlikely to take this well.

The real risk is if the internal opposition to Trump within the Republican party were to disappear. There is another once prosperous country in the Americas run by a President with a suspect temperament who is widely regarded as being out of his depth. Opposition parties have been forced underground and governing party purged of anyone who disagrees with its leader. That country is Venezuela, a nation now experiencing economic collapse and 7 digit inflation. There is no possibility of Trump or the United States ever emulating the example of Nicolas Maduro. The economic and political institutions of the US are too strong, and even if Trump wanted to emulate Maduro's example, he would be unable to do so. This is a result of a democratic culture that is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Long may it continue.

Written by Alan Chatfield