Trump’s Toxic Innovations

Advocates and students of public sector innovation, myself included, usually assume that it is a good thing. But if innovation is a means to an end, it ultimately must be judged by the value of that end. The 9/11 attack embodied a classic innovation, taking two previously well-known terrorist tactics, airplane hijacking and suicide bombing, and combining them in an unexpected and devastating way. In addition to its immediate impact, the attack forced governments all over the world to commit billions of dollars that could have been spent more productively elsewhere on airport security. For al Qaeda, the attacks were a triumph, but for the rest of the world they are the quintessence of evil.

In my view, President Trump, who approaches politics as a form of warfare, has been an innovator in the development of political weapons. Most significantly, he has weaponized Twitter and tariffs. The neologism “weaponize,” is defined as adapting something originally used for another, benign, purpose for use as a weapon. I think weaponize should be the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year in 2020.

The New York Times on Sunday November 3 published “Trump’s Twitter Presidency,” an analysis of Trump’s more than 11,000 presidential tweets. It revealed that over half are attacks, that the vast majority are sent in the early hours of the morning when he is alone and unconstrained by aides, and that only 11 million of his 66 million followers are actual voting Americans.

Many of Trump’s tweets are outright lies, repetitions of his supporters’ lies, and defamatory attacks on his critics and opponents. These are intended to stir up the base. Many other tweets, however, are presidential commands. Herein lies the innovation in governance.

Richard Neustadt, the foremost student of the presidency of a previous generation and author of the landmark study Presidential Power, famously wrote that “the power of the presidency is the power to persuade.” Neustadt came to that conclusion because his study of history showed that the power of the president to command was surprisingly limited.

Neustadt approvingly quotes Jonathan Daniels, an aide to Franklin Roosevelt, who writes in his memoirs that “half of a President’s suggestions, which theoretically carry the weight of orders, can be safely forgotten by a Cabinet member. If the President asks about a suggestion a second time, he can be told that it is being investigated. If he asks a third time, a wise Cabinet officer will give him at least part of what he suggests. But only occasionally, except about the most important matters, do Presidents ever get around to asking three times.” Twitter overturns Daniels’s conclusion, because it gives the President an opportunity to ask a first time without delay or dissuasion by aides and with the world as witness. Trump’s use of Twitter is therefore an innovative expansion of the powers of the President.

Trump’s second innovation, also an expansion of presidential power, is his frequent imposition of tariffs under section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 on grounds of national security. This dovetails with the first innovation, because he announces the tariffs with tweets, often broadcast without consultation within the Administration. Many observers have criticized these tariffs as literally being “trumped up” because most of the governments against which they have been imposed are America’s strongest allies, countries that pose absolutely no threat to its security. However, the suspect tariffs can be imposed immediately and redress through challenges in the World Trade Organization (which the Trump Administration is working to destroy) and the US courts take much longer. Tariffs have thus served as an innovative economic lever against other nations to extract concessions or force them to renegotiate trade agreements with the US.

Innovations are generally evaluated in terms of novelty, effectiveness at achieving their objectives, and replication by others. Trump’s weaponizing of Twitter and of tariffs, in my view, both pass the novelty test. The jury of expert judges is out on whether they pass the effectiveness and replication tests. If the use of Twitter is as intrinsic to Trump’s presidency as The New York Times’s rubric suggests, the ultimate effectiveness test is whether he is re-elected. We have seen limited replication of Trump’s use of Twitter by other heads of government. I don’t think there are any who are using it to give commands. Some right-wing populist leaders are using tweets to stir up the base, but none as consistently and vociferously as President Trump. Another test will be whether Trump’s successor continues his style of tweeting or reverts to a more limited pattern.

Trump’s weaponizing of tariffs is tied up in the question of the impact of trade wars, which Trump originally proclaimed were “easy [for the US] to win.” The jury of experts is also out on whether trade wars will enrich the US at the expense of its trading partners or will result in a global recession that will damage the US as much as its trading partners. Many other nations have imposed countervailing tariffs on the US, but this is not evidence of replication of weaponized tariffs, because Trump has always started the trade wars. Here, too, a test of replication will be whether Trump’s successor continues to use section 232 tariffs to initiate trade wars, or perhaps whether a future Congress amends the Trade Expansion Act to withdraw that power from future presidents.

I conclude that, yes, Trump has been innovative in the use of Twitter and tariffs to increase presidential power but I predict that both innovations will not achieve their objectives or be widely replicated. I look forward to revisiting this post one year from now – after the next presidential election – and some years after that.

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