Donald Trump has repeatedly announced that he will have the “best people.” The top economic minds in the country will work in his treasury, the most accomplished security policymakers will staff his National Security Council, and the most brilliant architects will design his tremendously majestic Great Southern Wall. Trump is not the only one to posit this argument, however. A lot of his apologists in the Republican Party who know that Trump is vastly unqualified utilize this argument to reassure themselves and respond to criticisms from those skeptical of Trump’s governing ability. Unsurprisingly, I am entirely unpersuaded. First, I’m very skeptical that Trump could even attract the best and brightest if he were to become president. Second, I don’t think having good advisors is sufficient. Finally, I think papering over all of Trump’s deficiencies by simply asserting that his advisors will miraculously solve all of his shortcomings is disingenuous and an abdication of one’s civic duty to vet the actual candidate running.
The biggest problem for Trump is that very few policy experts want to tarnish their reputation by working for an imbecile like him. Indeed, over 120 GOP national security experts have pledged to avoid serving in a Trump administration, and a large number of prominent Republican economic and foreign policy experts have publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton. To be fair, Trump has won the support of some prominent GOP national security types within the legislature, but this is rather meaningless because these kinds of people are generally not the ones that staff the executive bureaucracy. It’s not the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee that sits in the NSC, it is academics and think tank analysts, the very people who shudder every time Trump appears on TV.
The longer the race goes on, the more we see a divide between the national security types that support Trump and those that don’t. Nearly every Trump supporter is a serving party member who must endorse Trump in order to get reelected and keep their job. By contrast, every expert whose livelihood is not at stake clearly and vehemently denounces Trump and his positions. This is quite telling because it means that there is very little organic support for Trump from within the expert community that he claims will provide him with our country’s greatest minds. If the only qualified people who support him are doing it simply to keep their jobs, it is unlikely Trump will be able to attract much new talent.
Another problem for the argument that Trump’s advisors will compensate for his inexperience is that having good advisors is simply insufficient to effectively craft policy. As Elizabeth Saunders, a political scientist at George Washington University specializing in the role of leaders in foreign policy decision making, points out in a recent article for the Monkey Cage, presidents require some degree of experience in order to effectively oversee and manage their advisors. For example, she contrasts the First Gulf War with the Second Gulf War. Both wars involved many of the same foreign policy decision makers, with Cheney and Powell serving in prominent positions during both conflicts. What was different, however, was the president. George H. W. Bush had arguably the most foreign policy experience of any modern president. Thus, he had deep and intimate knowledge of the workings of the military and the potential costs of intervention. This, according to Saunders, provided him three major advantages. First, it meant that he was able to effectively vet and critique proposals drawn up by his staff at the DoD, NSC, and State Department. Second, it forced underlings to be more thorough and diligent because they understood that their ideas wouldn’t simply receive a rubber stamp of approval. Finally, it meant that Bush was able to take controversial positions that differed from his party’s orthodoxy because he had sufficient credibility as a foreign policy expert to ignore certain political pressures.
His son, George W. Bush, did not have the same degree of foreign policy experience, and that became readily apparent during the Iraq War debacle. Instead of drawing up detailed plans and acting in a subservient, advisory role, Cheney and Rumsfeld effectively managed the entire conflict without much input from George W. Bush at all. Even more concerning than the usurpation of Bush’s power was the alienation of Colin Powell during the second Bush’s presidency. Powell has always been very cautious about intervention, and this was an asset during the First Gulf War, where Powell acted as a moderating voice against the more hawkish members of the George H. W. Bush administration. During the lead up to the Iraq War, however, he was totally ostracized, and American foreign policy suffered because of it. Clearly, then, foreign policy experience is a major asset that has an impact on American foreign policy even when the advisory staffs are kept largely constant. Trump can have the smartest people in the world, but unless he knows enough to vet their plans and hold them accountable, there is no guarantee that he will be able to effectively manage U.S. foreign policy.
Of course, it is important to point out that experience is not always an asset. Experts tend to overestimate their predictive abilities and overvalue their expertise. This can be dangerous because it means that they are generally less open to hearing alternate points of view and adapting their strategies accordingly. The problem with Trump, though, is that he suffers from the pitfalls of both too little and too much experience simultaneously. Trump objectively has zero experience in managing foreign policy, meaning that he will be unable to effectively manage and vet the policy positions recommended by his advisors. However, he is also an extremely arrogant man who is seemingly incapable of listening to others and heeding their advice. Indeed, he has on multiple occasions belittled the role of experts and has even announced that he “knows more than the generals.” So not only will Trump be uninformed, but he will also be unwilling to shift his views and adapt to new information. Being inflexible or uninformed is dangerous when you are the leader of the United States. Being both simultaneously is downright fatal. Of course, Trump might eventually learn as he spends more time on the job. Unfortunately, most qualitative analyses of presidential learning suggest that it is a very slow process, and it will likely be made even slower for Trump due to his obstinacy.
There is also a more abstract reason for rejecting the argument that Trump’s advisors will magically fix all of his deficiencies, and that is that they aren’t the ones running for president. I could just as easily argue that Clinton’s team of advisors will make all of her policy weakness go away (and this is probably more accurate because she actually does have an extensive and deep network of experts), but that isn’t a reason to vote for her. Indeed, if I made this argument to a Trump supporter, I imagine they’d laugh at me. Look, we get to elect the President, not his or her advisors. Thus, the only information that should be relevant to us is the experience of the actual candidates. Asserting that mythical advisors will miraculously solve the candidates’ problems is a cop-out, and it’s an argument that could be made for both Clinton and Trump. Indeed, the only reason people make this argument is because they know that head to head, Trump is but a shadow of Clinton when it comes to actual government experience. As citizens capable of voting, you all have a responsibility to look at the candidates’ positions. If you just pretend that all of the candidates’ problems will magically vanish because they will bring in the “best people,” you are deluding yourself and you are failing in your civic duty. Period.