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Trump’s ‘Brains Trust’ and the FDR White House

When Donald Trump’s fellow New Yorker, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, assumed the White House in 1933, he brought with him a trusted group of experts who helped him write speeches, form policy positions, and bounce around ideas. The term “Brains Trust” (since shortened to “Brain Trust” in common usage) was coined by New York Times reporter James Kiernan.

A modern day FDR

Trump fashions himself a modern day FDR. A president for the “forgotten man.” A president who will take a flagging, hurting America out of the depths of despair and emerge the most powerful nation on earth. If you read any biography of Roosevelt, you see how Trump’s self-image lines himself up with the man.

  1. FDR was a quick study. His main mode of acquiring information was conversation. He did not read many books.
  2. FDR possessed the charisma to connect with large numbers of the American people. He was an expert at using the “new media” of the time: radio.
  3. FDR possessed vaulting self confidence. He presumed to make the presidency into whatever he wanted it to be–conformed to his own image.
  4. FDR possessed “noblesse oblige” – a sense of patrician duty, as a wealthy man.
  5. FDR possessed strong character. Courage, tenacity, hopefulness.
  6. FDR possessed a clear vision of America and her role on the world-historical stage.
  7. FDR possessed the political skills to get his vision communicated and his programs enacted.
  8. FDR enjoyed an element of luck–events lined up with his own agenda.

[Source: The Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University]

FDR’s “Brains Trust” were mostly legal experts who knew how to bend law to Roosevelt’s liking. Names like Louis Brandeis, who became a Supreme Court Justice, Harold Ickes, and Basil O’Connor were associated with FDR’s great social and economic New Deal. The closest equivalents  Trump has on his team are Chris Christie, Reince Priebus and Stephen Bannon.

These men are most like “Second Roosevelt Brains Trust,” an expanded circle including Thomas Gardiner Corcoran and the firebrand General Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson. Bannon is much like a parallel-opposite universe version of brain truster James Warburg, mixed with Gen. Johnson’s middle finger. Priebus is a composite, a get-it-done man obsessed with the boring details.

But FDR didn’t really listen to his “Brains Trust.” And Donald Trump doesn’t really listen to his advisers.

In the campaign, Trump’s closest advisers were his adult children and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Entering the White House, Trump has absolutely no clue what is required to build a West Wing staff, never mind an entire administration. Following his business instincts, he chose people he believes will be personally loyal to him, speak plainly, and offer competing views. He will likely ignore their advice but use their viewpoints to gauge reaction among various groups.

Trump sees himself as a Republican FDR–taking care of the “forgotten man,” jobs, the economy, veterans, but with a McKinley-style protective tariff, and a quid-pro-quo foreign policy tilt toward Henry Cabot Lodge and the Senate Irreconcilables. Trump sees America as reliving the years between 1919 and 1933, with both parties indulging in an excess of browbeating, oppressive moralizing, albeit from different viewpoints. Meanwhile, regular Americans suffered.

Agreeing With Everyone, Listening to No One

Having both a populist, “alt-right” icon in the White House, along with the RNC’s polished lawyer chairman is Trump’s way of being FDR.

Describing how Churchill found Roosevelt “slipperier than he had expected,” historian Frank Costigliola wrote:

FDR gave nearly everyone the impression he agreed with them. An observer described his emotional energy: “There was a warmth about the man that made you believe he was trying to help. He was trying to go your way.”

When “60 Minutes” interviewed Trump, he looked straight at the camera and told his “alt-right” followers: “Stop.” Then he appointed Bannon to a senior role, sending decidedly mixed messages.

Bannon’s appointment drew sharp criticism from political operatives on both sides of the aisle who see Bannon as being too close to the alt-right and white nationalism. Breitbart has published stories with headlines stating that women faced with harassment online should “log off” and called Republican Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew.”

President Obama said that Trump told him he would maintain a strong “commitment” to NATO, after repeatedly challenging NATO’s role and relevance during the campaign. Obama, who is leaving on his last international trip of his presidency, will try to calm world leaders’ fears about Trump as an unpredictable and unstable force at the helm of the world’s only superpower.

“I think that’s one of the most important functions I can serve at this stage during this trip is to let them know that there is no weakening of resolve when it comes to America’s commitment to maintaining a strong and robust NATO relationship and a recognition that those alliances aren’t just good for Europe,” the president added. “They are good for the United States and they are vital for the world.”

Then Vladimir Putin, NATO’s greatest critic, called Trump and the two “discussed combining efforts in the fight against terrorism, talked about ‘a settlement for the crisis in Syria’ and agreed their aides would begin working toward a face-to-face meeting between them.” The Washington Post reported:

Trump appeared to absolve Russia from responsibility for intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, and questioned the relevance of NATO, which has charged Moscow with engaging in provocative air and sea actions on the alliance’s eastern flank.

Beg pardon, but can all these be true? Can Trump really support “a strong and robust NATO relationship” and at the same time “absolve Russia from responsibility for…annexation of Crimea” at the same time? Mixed messages and “slipperier” than expected.

In all things, Trump wants to make every personal meeting be about the person meeting with him leaving believing they have Trump’s full agreement and support. They will have, most of the time, neither. Trump has never signed a document without knowing the specific method he will use to get out of the commitment, take a more powerful position, or simply walk way.

Trump’s Big Problem

Trump’s biggest problem is that he’s no Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt came from genuine old money. His family had genuine patrician roots, a history of philanthropy, war heroes, and Teddy. Politics was a family sport for the Roosevelts, and they were quite good at it.

In contrast, Trump is Al Czervik–crass, nouveau riche, parsimonious, rococo. You’d no more find Donald Trump in the rustic accommodations at Warm Springs, or driving his own car, than you’d find him ironing his own shirts. (But Trump insists on styling his own hair.)

Roosevelt had no real chips on his shoulder, other than his disability, which he handled with alternating resignation and alacrity. He believed he had a duty to America and that the smart elites had the solutions for the common man’s problems. In peace, and in war, that was Roosevelt’s overriding ethos. The Constitution, human nature, historical claims of ethnic peoples, and God’s will be damned.

Trump believes a bit more in human nature: the baser sort that craves and values money, power, and fame. As to the other items, he’s about FDR’s equal. As much as Trump claims to be an anti-establishment populist, he’s really an elitist in disguise, except that the actual elitists reject him as unfit. President Obama and Hillary Clinton meant exactly what they said about unfitness (as did many conservatives with Ivy League pedigrees).

The unanswered–and unanswerable but for hindsight–question of a Trump administration is if the new president will have the intellectual wherewithal to cope with the strategy, implementation, negotiation, and dispensation of government at the executive level. It’s one thing to sit around with Donald, Jr., Eric, Ivanka, and Jared Kushner, then issuing orders to his closest associates. It’s quite another leading a cabinet meeting.

A casino version of FDR

FDR’s administration was famous for infighting. The battle between Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and diplomat William Bullitt was well known–involving Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Bullitt even went on a rant accusing Welles of being a homosexual (a scandal at that time, which led to Welles’ resignation)–although the truth of it was never fully proved–earning Bullitt Roosevelt’s eternal scorn.

Trump’s transition team and undoubtedly his cabinet will also be marked with scuffles, outright venom and “knife fights.” CNN reports:

Donald Trump’s transition is being marked by sharp internal disagreements over key cabinet appointments and direction, both for internal West Wing positions and key national security posts, sources involved in the transition team tell CNN.

One source with knowledge of the transition described it as a “knife fight.”

Priebus and Bannon. John Bolton or Rudy Giuliani as secretary of state; Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn or Lt. Gen. Ron Burgess as national security advisers; and Sen. Jeff Sessions in some cabinet-level position. These are names from all over the political spectrum, all with personal loyalty to Trump at one point or another, but none to each other.

Building a team around a man without a core policy, who easily agrees with everyone but listens to no one is a recipe for conflict and chaos. That’s how Trump will govern. It’s very much like FDR, but garish, without Roosevelt’s graceful soft edge. It’s a casino version of FDR.

Prediction: Disharmony and Elitism

On health care, immigration, NATO, abortion, ISIS, and nuclear proliferation, Trump says whatever will either make people feel at ease, or throw them off balance, depending on the reaction he’s looking for. Don’t look for consistency, coherence, or harmony in a Trump administration.

President Donald Trump has one of the greatest opportunities to actually get things done in a four year term. With control of both houses of Congress, nearly enough state legislatures and governorships to unilaterally pass and ratify Constitutional amendments, and executive powers unparalleled in the history of the presidency, Trump could really make conservatives’ dreams come true.

But disharmony, competition, infighting, backbiting, and the incoherent rantings of self-obsession could stand in the way of Trump’s triumph.

Despite all this, I must recognize that Stephen Bannon is no intellectual Neanderthal, indeed he’s an elitist’s elite: a U.S. Navy officer, Harvard Business School, and Goldman Sachs–he sounds more like Ted Cruz than Vermin Supreme. Bannon knows the ropes, try as he does to set them on fire.

Trump’s “Brains Trust” of the establishment foundation-builder Priebus, firebrand Bannon, and a cadre of smart people might pull off the improbable. After all, they won the election.

But if you were expecting a small government, Tea Party, liberty-minded group of rugged boots-and-chaps-wearing Reaganites, you’re going to be disappointed. Trump’s “Brains Trust” is every bit as buttoned-down, big government, central planning, and ask-no-questions as FDR’s was.

And Trump himself is just as determined to ignore them all as was his New York predecessor.



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