Donald Trump's model of the presidency is The Apprentice

And a White House ruled by 'You're fired!' would be disastrous

Would Donald Trump run the country like his television show?
(Image credit: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

After a convention widely considered a near-apocalyptic disaster, the electorate should have a pretty good idea of what kind of campaign Donald Trump is going to run: one based overwhelmingly on fear, and on Trump's unique ability to quell that fear through vigorous leadership.

But what kind of leader would Trump actually be, in the unlikely event of his victory?

Consider the following dichotomy. Trump, in his acceptance speech, touched not at all on the themes that animate social conservatives. There was no mention of the need to defend traditional religious belief, or the traditional family, or the unborn. There was no invocation of the place of the divine in American life at all. The party platform, on the other hand, is a reactionary document that is obsessed with these very issues, and that has lurched further to the right on them even as the country has moved the other way.

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Similarly, the nominee has repeatedly hammered on the theme of wage stagnation, and the need to reverse the decline of manufacturing and the rise of finance in the American economy. But the GOP platform has virtually nothing to say about these issues, and on the convention day ostensibly devoted to putting America back to work, the speakers focused instead on the need to put the Democratic nominee in prison.

Or consider this. After picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, Trump remained uncertain enough about his choice that his agonizing leaked to the press, while in person Trump has been unable to muster even the bare minimum of normal respect for the man he wants to put a heartbeat away from the presidency. But before making the offer to Pence, Trump's own son reportedly advertised the position (to Ohio Gov. John Kasich) as the most powerful in the history of the vice presidency, with control over both domestic and foreign policy. (The Trump campaign now denies ever offering the VP slot to Kasich.)

On the one hand, Trump the nominee has staked out highly idiosyncratic territory for his campaign, leading his party in a new direction that thrills his supporters and terrifies his detractors, even when they believe he is likely to lose. But on the other hand, Trump seems to be doing nothing to actually move the party, institutionally, in the direction he claims to be leading, or even to have an interest in articulating what that direction might be. And he seems exceptionally eager to hand off the job of figuring out what he would actually do to others — others that include very traditional orthodox Republican figures like his running mate.

This might give comfort to those Republicans who strongly oppose Trump's deviations from party orthodoxy, but who see him as a vehicle, however imperfect, for getting back into power. But it shouldn't. A Trump presidency is overwhelmingly likely to disappoint enthusiastic and reluctant supporters alike.

Trump appears to be operating on a model of the presidency that looks something like the role he played on The Apprentice. He will be the king, surrounded by courtiers who make proposals of various kinds, some of which get approved. When they don't work out, he'll ostentatiously banish them from court. So long as the courtiers are the ones making the suggestions for what to do, they will constrain the possible courses of action. But serving at the pleasure of the king they will have no ability to direct it. And they will be first in line for blame when and if the proposed policy goes wrong.

For example: Suppose the GOP wants a large tax cut for the highest bracket, as new Republican presidents always propose, and as Trump in fact proposed during the campaign. A Republican Congress passes the law, and Trump signs it — and then the deficit explodes, giving Trump bad press. What would President Trump do?

Not having any investment in the policy itself, most likely he would fire his Treasury secretary, denounce Congress, and demand proposals to reverse the rise in the deficit, whether by raising taxes or by cutting spending. If these reversals led to further economic dislocation, the cycle of blame would get wider — but orthodox Republicans would inevitably be in the crosshairs.

Or, let's say someone less orthodox on foreign policy gets Trump's ear, and Trump repeats comments about how Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg. When President Putin takes the opportunity to give the green light to Russian separatists in eastern Estonia to demand independence, what would President Trump do?

Not wanting to take the blame for instigating a crisis in the Baltics, most likely he would fire his secretary of state and denounce the Estonian government for provoking the separatists. When our allies express alarm, the cycle of blame would expand to include them as well. Regardless of how far the crisis escalated, purported realists and advocates of a more restrained foreign policy would get the lion's share of the blame for proposing a policy that Trump was incapable of executing.

Meanwhile, on Trump's signature issue of law and order, what is Trump going to do if crime ticks up on his watch — as well it might, given that crime rates are driven primarily by variables outside of his control — or if there is a spectacular incident like a terrorist attack, or an ambush of police such as occurred in Dallas? Would he try to calm the nation and explain that his new policies will take time to work? Isn't it more likely that he would blame the incompetence of underlings, and demand ever more alarming legislation in response?

Those who hope to subvert a Trump administration by staffing it with traditional party loyalists need to ponder what happens when Trump decides those loyalists need to be purged for failing him, and what the party will be left with when he's through. And those who are heartened by finally having a nominee who claims to be their voice need to ponder what it means when that voice seems able to say only one thing consistently: It's not my fault.

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Noah Millman

Noah Millman is a screenwriter and filmmaker, a political columnist and a critic. From 2012 through 2017 he was a senior editor and featured blogger at The American Conservative. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Politico, USA Today, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, Foreign Policy, Modern Age, First Things, and the Jewish Review of Books, among other publications. Noah lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.