Trump Has No Idea How to Govern

I recall speaking with an old friend back in 1980 as we neared the end of the presidential election between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. I was undecided over how to vote and expressed the indecision to my old colleague who without hesitation stated he was voting for Reagan.

“Carter’s a good man,” I recall him saying, “but it seems to me he knows how to run for president but not how to be president.” It was an interesting observation, and a concise enunciation of what had driven my indecision. Nonetheless, I still had to give it more thought.

President Carter was an experienced politician and executive. He had been a Georgia State Senator and later Governor. He had survived the rough and tumble of state party politics at a time when southern Democrats were becoming southern Republicans, when segregation and integration were still widely unsettled in Georgia. The experience was invaluable to Carter when he became president as he invited many highly qualified people into his administration.

The Carter leadership line-up included the very experienced Cyrus Vance as Secretary of State; the highly regarded Harold Brown at Defense; and the Washington-savvy Joseph Califano at Health, Education and Welfare. As national security advisor Carter picked the brilliant Zbigniew Brzezinski, a noted international theorist. Carter even appointed James Schlesinger, once President Richard Nixon’s Defense Secretary to head the newly established Department of Energy. By any measure, his cabinet was an all-star team.

But the Carter White House operation itself was something else. In an effort to ensure avenues of access were open to him, Carter initially decided not to have a chief of staff. But within a year he had learned that if no one is the keeper of the door, there will always be a lengthy line outside in no particular order. Carter eventually realized this and chose as chief of staff his old campaign guru Hamilton Jordan. But Jordan’s skills directing an always chaotic political campaign proved to be ill suited for running a disciplined White House operation.

Nonetheless during his first two years in office, Cater enjoyed major successes. In 1978 he brokered a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and came up with a way to establish normal diplomatic relations with China while sidestepping the seemingly unsolvable issue of Taiwan. However, in 1979, Carter’s third year in office, things began to seemingly slip out of control.

Iran, a pillar of American influence in the Middle East began to degenerate into disarray and the government of the reigning Shah collapsed in February 1979 and was replaced by a clerical regime openly hostile to the United States. The loss of Iranian oil production and supply tightness elsewhere created an “oil shock” that drove the price of gasoline sky high while creating long lines at American gas stations. Carter’s decision to allow the deposed Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment set off a chain of events resulting in the November 1979 attack on the American Embassy in Tehran and the seizure of most of the American staff as hostages — a circumstance that would drag on for the rest of Carter’s term.

Lastly in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in an effort to prop up a shaky communist government that had taken control of the country. Although the collapse of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were likely unrelated, serious concerns arose that Moscow was taking advantage of the diminished American position to advance its own aggressive agenda.

Although little to nothing Carter had done caused the crises of 1979, he seemed unable to find a way out of them. Moreover, as he entered election season in late 1979, Senator Ted Kennedy decided to challenge Carter for the Democratic nomination. This appearance of incapacity was most prominently on display when the complex rescue mission Carter launched to rescue the hostages in April 1980 was a spectacular failure. Carter was seemingly unable to successfully address anything from party politics, to economics, to international affairs. In short, despite the all-star team he had assembled, and his early success, by the spring of 1980 he and his immediate staff seemed unable to govern. Reagan handily defeated him at the polls that November.

Much of this is eerily similar to where we are today with President Donald Trump. Like Carter, Trump has been forced to face a serious challenge not of his own making, this time the steady spread of the deadly coronavirus and the resultant economic downturn. And like Carter, none of Trump’s efforts to slow or stem the damaging economic impacts have been successful. Unlike Carter, however, Trump has no idea what to do, no relevant experience to draw upon, no capacity for getting the country behind him, and no deep well of governmental expertise to bring to bear. In other words, if Carter gave the impression of not knowing how to govern although he actually did, Trump is giving the impression of not knowing how to govern and actually doesn’t.

Carter understood the government and had experienced leaders in all of the major agencies. Furthermore, after a shaky start his White House under chief of staff Jack Watson would eventually function more smoothly. Although Carter’s approval ratings fell steadily throughout 1979 as the public reacted to the immediate problems with gas prices while the memories of the Camp David agreement between the Egyptians and Israelis dimmed, when the hostage crisis erupted Carter’s approval rating jumped up twenty percent. It did not begin to fall again until the unfortunate rescue mission failed, a failure for which Carter took — as he should have — full responsibility.

Carter’s problem was not that he did not understand the government; it was that the government simply proved unable to solve his problems. The Energy Department did not have the ability to increase gasoline supplies — in those days there was no strategic petroleum reserve (SPR), and the Defense Department did not have the ability to execute a complicated rescue mission on the other side of the world — in those days there was no Special Operations Command (SOCOM). But Carter and his White House staff were calling upon all the assets they could muster — diplomatic, military, and economic.

For Trump the situation is very different. Simply put, he does not understand governing or government, does not have experienced people in the key places, and has shown himself to be completely inept using the capabilities at his fingertips.

Trump’s lack of understanding about government was on full display early in the coronavirus crisis. Ten years ago the noted strategic thinker Dr. Andrew Krepinevich wrote a book titled 7 Deadly Scenarios. One scenario was the unconstrained and uncontained outbreak of a deadly pandemic. And over the past two decades the nation has faced several infectious outbreaks such as HIV, SARS, MERS, and Ebola — always containing and minimizing their impact. Agencies and activities have been directed to study pandemics, prepare contingency plans for them, and create response capabilities and stockpiles as feasible.

For a government this is an essential function. As President Dwight Eisenhower once commented, “Plans are worthless but planning is everything.” He added by way of explanation that, “the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.” But one has to plan because as Henry Kissinger had once observed, “the battlefield is a poor place for improvisation.” Government planning for addressing emergencies is, therefore, essential for reducing the scale of the inevitable improvisation.

As became obvious when the Covid-19 infection hit, however, the Trump administration in general and the president in specific viewed planning and those who do it as unnecessary overhead. Indeed for President Trump, the large majority of the government itself is inherently unnecessary overhead, one not needing either full staffing or experienced leadership. Accordingly, the office that had been established within the National Security Counsel (NSC) staff to coordinate the government-wide response to a pandemic had largely been disbanded. This meant that the Covid-19 battlefield was almost fully improvised with no clear leadership, no established division of labor, no know distribution plans, and no actionable plans for testing or containment. These plans existed, but seemingly no one in the Trump administration was aware of them or knew who had them. Available tools such as the Defense Production Act were not deployed, and the acquisition skills of the government’s largest acquirer — the Defense Department — were neither sought nor efficiently engaged. In other words, what the public saw was confusion, conflict, and a daily effort at “improvisation.” Unlike the past crises we have seen, as with Carter, as he deploys the government the president’s approval rating jumps up. For Trump, however, his ratings moved up only slightly before quickly beginning a steady decline as his daily press conferences became less useful and more bizarre.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Carter in 1980 and Trump forty years later is that Carter had a good White House staff and a stable cabinet. Certainly Hamilton Jordan had continuing struggles as Chief of Staff, and would be replaced by Watson in early 1980, but the NSC continued functioning under the steady and brilliant leadership of Brzezinski. Secretary Vance, who had opposed the hostage rescue mission, resigned after it failed, but was quickly replaced by highly respected Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. And Harold Brown continued at the pentagon.

By contrast, Trump is on his fourth chief of staff and the latest, Mark Meadows, assumed his position as the coronavirus threat was about to explode in late March. In other key agencies Trump was on his second secretary of state, his third secretary of defense, his fourth national security advisor, and his fourth press secretary. His two key advisors within the West Wing seemed to be his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who have wide and fluid portfolios for which they offer no previous government experience or known expertise. Kushner inserted himself into the coronavirus effort, created confusion over the actual intention of pandemic stockpiles, and then receiving questions and criticisms departed from view. The net result has been an ineffective and uncoordinated federal government response, and the passage of the coronavirus response to fifty different jurisdictions — the states.

Carter understood government, and had emplaced a competent one that was ably led, but it still proved unable to solve his vexing international and economic problems throughout 1979 and 1980. Trump by contrast has failed to establish a competent and stable government, and as a result has not ably employed government capabilities in a way that could help both him and the nation. Nonetheless, the public impression in both cases is of an incompetent administration and an ineffective government.

Despite the frustrations and setbacks, President Carter kept trying. He was on the phones coordinating the release of the hostages as President-elect Reagan was driving to the White House, and the hostages indeed flew out of Iranian airspace during Reagan’s inaugural address. But the public had slowly lost confidence in the Carter administration, judging that it had tried but failed. We will have to see in November how it feels about the Trump administration, which has essentially failed to try.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Tom Davis

Tom Davis

Tom Davis is a 1972 West Point graduate with a Master’s degree from Harvard University. He is author of the Cold War novels “Conclave” and “Empty Quiver”.