“I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” - William F. Buckley
Republican primary voters are excited by the prospect of an “outsider” sashaying into Washington. This appears to be at least half of Donald Trump's appeal (the other half being his flair for dog-whistle politics). Even Ted Cruz, an unaccomplished senator with a reputation for unlikability, sailed to the top of the polls with an anti-establishment platform. Indeed, Cruz's campaign began to collapse the minute he cozied up to the Republican power structure.
There is, however, an obvious downside to electing a neophyte to the presidency. It's not the kind of thing you'll hear much about on the campaign trail, but it matters nevertheless. One of the most important tasks a new president has is to staff his administration with policy experts and experienced bureaucrats. These are the people who effectively run the government.
This is an arduous process for any new administration, but it will be especially problematic for Trump. Politico interviewed five dozen veteran Republican officials, people who have served in previous administrations and understand the terrain, in order to gauge their interest in working for Trump. The results are unsurprising. From Politico:
“'I would never serve in a Trump administration,'” said James Capretta, a former Office of Management and Budget official under George W. Bush. 'The person at the top is unfit for the presidency. He's made that very clear with his behavior.' Added Matt McDonald, another Bush OMB veteran: 'I wouldn't vote for Trump, much less work for him. I don't agree with half his ideas, and the other half I don't really believe what he said.' One former Republican official who worked in the EPA put it this way: 'You'd have to worry about your future career and the way you're perceived in these things.'”
The views expressed above were common: Competent people do not want to associate themselves with Donald Trump. And this is true across sectors. Why, for example, would someone who understands foreign policy want to serve a president who thinks we should intentionally kill the family members of terrorists? Something so outrageously stupid as that offends hawkish generals and dovish peaceniks in equal measure.
It's one thing to run a substance-free media-centric political campaign; it's quite another to govern that way. I'm no fan of technocrats, and government bureaucrats are easy to caricature, but it's foolish to pretend they're not necessary in a bloated, byzantine system like ours. Any president, Republican or Democrat, needs capable administrators, experienced people with policy expertise who can navigate the machinery of government.
“The bottom line is Trump will be able to fill these jobs because there is a whole class of people who want these titles so badly it doesn't matter who is president,” said one former George W. Bush official. “But these are B- or C- level people. They are honorable, but not very good. The A- level people, and there are not that many of them to begin with, mostly don't want to work for Trump.” This is particularly true for high-level positions, like Cabinet members. Unless someone is willing to throw off their dignity entirely (a la Chris Christie), it's hard to imagine serious people publicly backing a man who has so thoroughly disgraced the office, and who knows so little about the presidency or, as President Obama put it, "the world generally."
One of the few things Trump has proposed on the stump is rewriting the corporate tax code and shrinking the national debt. If you take him seriously on this point (I don't), you know he can't accomplish this without a team of talented officials at the Treasury department and elsewhere. This, however, will be near-impossible for Trump. “Not only will I not work for Trump, I'll continue to use my voice to actively oppose him,” a former White House and Treasury official told Politico. “Trump isn't merely distasteful or wrong on policy – he's a danger to the country.” If this is any indication of popular sentiment among the pool of prospective candidates, Trump's transition process is stalled before it begins.
In the unlikely event Trump is elected, William Buckley's dream of a government led by non-political naifs will be fully realized. We'll learn, in the worst way imaginable, what it's like to have people who truly don't know what they're doing make hugely consequential decisions on the basis of half-understood facts.
We'll learn, in other words, what an America made great again truly looks like.