Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail that as president he would hire "the best people." Reporters enjoyed snarking about what that might mean, exactly. But as Trump picks his Cabinet, we are starting to get one message loud and clear: Trump's best people are not in the political class. It is decidedly short of the journalists, wonks, consultants, lobbyists, think-tankers, and politicians that normally staff the executive branch's top tiers.
We shouldn't be so surprised. In many ways, Trump's victory was a victory won over the political class itself. Practically everyone in Washington, D.C., detested him. And Trump was also opposed by almost the entirety of the conservative wing of the political class: the conservative journalists, columnists, and policy experts. One of the Trump campaign's underlying themes was that D.C. was filled with idiots who messed everything up. They're to blame for the financial collapse, and the Iraq War, and the terrible rollout of ObamaCare.
In response, the political class all laughed at Trump's strategy of holding rallies and letting Clinton spend twice as much as him. After the victory, the band of outsiders that got aboard the Trump Train early are laughing now.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) looked at the Cabinet and declared it full of "Goldman, Generals, and Gazillionaires." Hedge fund manager Ray Dalio quantified just how much private sector experience Trump's picks have: a cumulative 83 years in the private sector vs. 55 years in either government or military (mostly military). By contrast, Obama's first Cabinet had achieved a cumulative of five years in the private sector vs. 122 years in the government or military (mostly government) before joining his incoming administration. Trump's Cabinet is tilted more toward the private sector than any administration in history, and Dalio predicts this may inject into the economy the "animal spirits" that spurred so much growth in the 1980s.
We could write off Dalio's comments merely as one of affinity. Trump has put people like Dalio in charge. It's not just Goldman Sachs executives, like Steve Mnuchin at treasury, or financial titans, like Wilber Ross at commerce. Linda McMahon, co-founder of the Stamford-based World Wrestling Entertainment, was tapped to run the Small Business Administration. For labor secretary, Trump's choice is Andrew Puzder, CEO of the company that runs Carl's Junior, Hardee's, and other fast food chains. Unsurprisingly, Puzder has been a proponent of low-skilled immigration, although he has indicated his commitment to serve Trump's vision of greater control over the border. And in the prime position, ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson is Trump's pick for secretary of state.
One potential problem is that Trump's Cabinet will find their duties running a giant public bureaucracy boring and unremunerative, leading to a higher than usual rate of turnover. It's not easy to change the culture at a corporate agency where executives can fire people by the thousands. It will be much harder at federal agencies.
On foreign policy, Trump has drawn especially from the ranks of the military. Retired Lt. General Michael Flynn will be national security advisor. John F. Kelly, a four star Marine general, is to head homeland security. And another Marine Corps general, James Mattis, has been tapped to lead defense. This also isn't a surprise. Much of the foreign policy community publicly rejected Trump during the campaign. That probably suits Trump, who doesn't see the world order the way they do, as based on ideological affinity and the stability of long-term security arrangements. Instead, he sees it as transactional and potentially dangerous. Of course he would draw on men who know how to create some danger on our behalf.
The exile of the political class from the top jobs of the Trump administration may partly explain the emotional resonance of the Russian hacking story. In a great many of his appointments, Trump is effecting something like a coup. Official Washington looks up and simply doesn't recognize the new set of bosses.
Some fear that this new set of corporate and military personnel will likely turn the government into one big scheme to feather their own nests. It's a cute bit of self-flattery to imagine that Washington, D.C., is a place where self-interest is a newcomer.