Maybe the most pernicious myth in American politics is also among the most cherished. It is the faith-based conviction that the federal government can be run like a business, and it would be if we only had leaders with the fortitude to make enemies of the corrupt careerists who thwart this common sense idea. We are in the earliest days of a grand experiment to test the validity of the notion that the businessman’s dispassionate acumen can transform our sclerotic federal government into something with private sector efficiency. So far, it’s not going well. On Saturday, Donald Trump revealed once again why the insidious cult of the manager is a blight upon the American imagination. In the process, he also sacrificed his credibility and humiliated his core supporters.
In the campaign season, Donald Trump sold himself to the public as first and foremost a fixer. His principal qualification for high office was his lack of experience in government and a healthy disrespect for the political process. He was populist, yes, but also non-ideological. To the extent that his policy preferences could be expanded upon in detail, they drew from both Democratic and Republican prescriptions. Trump presented himself as above the petty ideological squabbles that have paralyzed Washington for decades. He was invested only in what worked.
The lie to all this was laid bare on Saturday amid a remarkable display of executive rigidity and incompetence.
The businessman-president is supposed to be, above all else, competent. There was none of that evident in the terrible implementation of the president’s executive order banning entry into the U.S. of not just refugees but visa holders and legal permanent residents from seven Islamic world nations. The merits of this policy are dubious even to those Americans who believe in an abundance of caution when it comes to preventing potential terrorists from infiltrating the United States. Merits aside, the implementation of this policy was stunningly inept.
The order banning even longtime residents from seven suspect countries in the Middle East and North Africa was signed on a Friday evening without forewarning. The local authorities and agencies tasked with implementing this sweeping policy were given little guidance from the White House and, as such, were forced to improvise. The result was utter chaos.
American citizens were incarcerated. The news was dominated by images of 5-year-old children and elderly couples being detained by airport security officials. Families were separated as visa recipients learned only upon landing in the United States that they were to be sent back to their country of origin. Foreign nationals who risked their lives to work with American troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan—the recipients of a special visa reserved for those who demonstrate an urgent and extraordinary claim to the benefits of American asylum—found themselves abandoned by the country they served.
All these sympathetic victims of a sloppily implemented policy were not merely the products of incompetence but ideology. The debacle on Saturday demonstrated that the Trump administration isn’t composed of serenely aloof pragmatists; the most hot-headed dogmatists have the reins. According to CNN, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, presidential speechwriter and committed immigration restrictionist, overruled guidance from the Department of Homeland Security to exempt green card holders from their blanket entry ban.
Late Saturday night, a federal judge put a stay on the portion of the order subjecting U.S. visa holders to deportation. It was the first legal defeat for the Trump administration, and it was entirely avoidable. The president’s broad discretion over the implementation of immigration law was established in the Obama administration, and most of the order imposing a moratorium on the intake of asylum seekers remains in place. The administration’s humiliation in the courts was entirely the fault of the inexperienced ideologues with the president’s confidence. On Sunday, the White House quietly retreated, abandoning the provision of Trump’s order affecting green card holders.
Those who believe in the necessity of this executive action and the value of restrictions on both legal and illegal immigration should be livid with this president. A reckless administration carelessly mishandled their policy preferences. In response to the draconian and needlessly injurious execution of this policy, spontaneous mass protests overtook America’s transportation hubs and galvanized Donald Trump’s opposition. The scope of the political damage done both to their cause and its champion in the White House is unclear, but damage has been done. Americans do not stomach this kind of gross ineptitude in boilerplate politicians, much less in a president elected to be the antidote to the lazy inertia of Washington D.C. This was an unmitigated political disaster for Donald Trump and the administration he leads. It was only day eight.