The great Donald Trump confidence trick: symbolism over substance | Michael Paarlberg

The executive orders signed on Monday will raise mortgage costs and health care premiums for the very people the new president claims to champion

Donald Trump promised to do a lot of things on day one of his presidency. Instead, he spent his first full day in office at the CIA, trying to impress a roomful of intelligence officers by bragging about how many Time magazine covers hes been on. Is Donald Trump an intellectual? Trust me, Im, like, a smart person, he told them, which suggests he thinks the word intelligence in the government context means really smart.

When he finally got down to business, though, he showed he does know a few things, like how he got to where he is and what he needs to do to stay there. He may not have fulfilled the vast majority of those day one, first hour campaign pledges (deport 2 million criminal aliens, introduce congressional term limits, get rid of gun-free school zones), but the ones he did fulfill demonstrated hes smart enough to understand whats really important to his supporters, and to his party, even if theyre not always the same thing.

So two of his first executive orders broke with Republican party orthodoxy and trashed a pair of trade deals, the TPP and Nafta. Free trade deals are popular in principle with economists, unpopular in practice with pretty much everyone else. So its an easy political calculation, yet one thats eluded Republicans and most Democrats since the Clinton era. Bashing free trade may be hard for some of the GOPs ideological purists to swallow, but the promise of a permanent Republican majority in the midwest makes it go down a lot easier, and all the more so by the fact that neither executive order actually does anything.

Like any good con artist or semiotics philosopher, Trump gets the importance of symbolism over substance. His TPP order withdraws from a treaty that was never ratified by Congress in the first place. His Nafta order simply states his intention to renegotiate the treaty at some future date. A third executive order does the same to Obamacare, reasserting Trumps plan to dismantle it but doing effectively nothing. Something incredibly cryptic that nobody understands was how one former Republican Senate aide described the executive order, which sounds a lot like how Republicans talk about Obamacare. In fact, the brilliance of the orders is in their vagueness, allowing Trump to take credit for his opposition to unpopular laws without having to bear any of the costs: the messy task of actually taking away peoples health insurance will, after all, be left to Congress.

Similarly, another of his executive orders freezes hiring for a federal workforce that has already been effectively frozen for decades. The total size of the federal workforce today 2.8 million is the same as it was at the beginning of the Obama administration, and well below what it was under Ronald Reagan (3.15 million). As a percentage of the total workforce, the federal workforce has been shrinking steadily since the mid-20th century and is now down from 7% to under 2%, as Doug Henwood notes, lower than what it was when Obama took office. Several offices have been under hiring freezes for years, including the Social Security Administration and immigration courts.

Hiring freezes play well politically but provide little in value to taxpayers. All they do is accelerate outsourcing to private government contractors whose gleaming offices dot the northern Virginia landscape. They do the same work at twice the cost to taxpayers, often by the very same ex-federal employees wooed away by cushier, private sector salaries. Bashing federal workers is one thing both parties can always agree on; both Jimmy Carter and Reagan implemented hiring freezes as president. It lets politicians play to the anti-government crowd while lining their pockets with contributions from those contractors who rely on their budgetary largesse.

These orders wont do any good for the ordinary Americans Trump champions. Theyll raise their mortgages and healthcare premiums, and funnel more of their taxes to a small gang of politically connected beltway bandits. But they offer a cheap way to sell Trumps unique brand of populist nationalism to a still skeptical Republican party. They allow him to play to his base without actually doing anything. And they give him some very real benefits to dangle in front of Republicans and their funders, who will be happy to stomach a few empty protectionist gestures in exchange for the opportunity to drain the swamp right into their pocketbooks.

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