Donald Trump is going to be president, notwithstanding the handwringing in the national security policy community about whether they should agree to serve in his administration (here, here, here, here, here). Concerns are understandable given Trump’s unorthodox campaign and often extreme statements. But there is an element of hubris in these commentaries and in discussions I have had in the think tank community, where I work. The fact is that Trump does not need us. He is not going to come crawling to us for our expertise. He is going to govern no matter what we do. It is time, therefore, to take Trump seriously and to support, shape, or oppose his policies in specific ways.
I understand that the policy community, especially the liberal wing, needs to work through the stages of grief before arriving at acceptance. Many experts are still not there yet. Trump’s victory was a surprise and an upset and that takes time to assimilate. Further, Trump ran against the established policy community (we are “the swamp” he pledges to “drain”), so it’s not surprising that the policy community has reciprocated with distain.
Nevertheless, Trump won. All of us, myself included, need to think about what the country is saying in that victory. It clearly wants change, change that might not be comfortable for us in the establishment. We’ve all written about how change is disruptive, but we did not think that applied to us. Hunkering down and hoping that the next election cycle brings establishment elites back to power will not be productive. This might be just a four-year interlude in the political life of the country, but it might be a long-term realignment of political power — if the white working class remains alienated from the coastal elites and aligned with the Republicans.
How, then, might the national security policy community usefully support, shape or even usefully oppose the policies of a Trump administration? Despair over a “post-factual” world is understandable, but premature. Trump made clear 30 years ago in his memoir, The Art of the Deal, that he uses extreme language as a negotiating tactic, an opening offer before ultimately making “the deal.” Further, as he moves from the “poetry” of campaigning to the “prose” of government, his administration needs viable and sensible ways to implement campaign rhetoric. There are two ways the policy community can participate: making pragmatic arguments and finding common ground.
Donald Trump is a businessman and practical arguments, as opposed to moral and theoretical arguments, appear to resonate with him. For example, Gen. (ret.) Jim Mattis, Trump’s choice for secretary of defense, argued that “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which Trump supported during the campaign, don’t work, but that offering prisoners “beer and cigarettes” is far more effective in getting them to talk. Trump said he was “impressed by the answer.” Making a moral argument, that these techniques are unethical or “not who we are,” would not have been effective. Trump believes that he should use all tools at his disposal to safeguard the American people. But a pragmatic argument, especially from a credible source, appears to have resonated.
The second approach is by finding common ground, even where experts disagree with some — or most — of Trump’s ideas. Common ground does not mean that either side gives up its core principles, only that there may be policies and actions that both sides can support even as they disagree in other areas. For example, Trump called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and criticized restrictions on U.S. manufacturing and energy production. Having an argument about “science deniers” against “economy wreckers” will not convince either side.
But there are some things that the country might usefully do regardless of where one stands on climate change. In the Department of Defense, improving the energy efficiency of facilities by upgrading heating and air conditioning systems and increasing the efficiency of aircraft and vehicle engines would be worth pursuing purely on the grounds of their monetary savings. Further, developing new technologies for operational energy — that is, the use of energy on the battlefield — would be worthwhile because of the tactical and operational benefits. Every gallon of fuel saved is a gallon that does not have to be transported thousands of miles across dangerous territory at risk to military convoys.
A similar argument could be made about the (infamous) wall on the Mexican border. It’s relatively easy to build a physical wall, and that would fit with Trump’s desire for infrastructure projects, but there is no way the Mexican government will pay for it. However, the Mexican government might be willing to spend money to improve security on its side of the border, which has badly deteriorated in many areas, and that would benefit both countries.
Even if Trump moves toward mainstream Republican thinking, which he appears to be doing, that won’t be acceptable to many on the left. But that’s okay. It is the nature of American politics that people will disagree. But all of us need to get specific. Denouncing his proposals as “dangerous“ or his supporters as “deplorables” and refusing to engage won’t help. It failed during the campaign and will just exclude many thoughtful people from important policy discussions.
Here’s the bottom line: As much as many people in the policy world would just like to wash their hands of the next four years, boycotting Trump will only hurt the policy community, because he doesn’t think he needs what we have to offer — so we’d better actively try to sell him our ideas.