An ancient Chinese proverb argues that “when there is turmoil under the heavens, little problems become big problems, and big problems are not dealt with at all. When there is order under the heavens, big problems are reduced to small problems, and small problems should not obsess us.” Judging by the account furnished by John Rogin of the Trump administration, everything was done, consciously or not, to heighten the conflict, therefore making it unmanageable.
Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century is a fascinating book that describes the dynamic within the Trump government, an administration characterized more by chaos than by organization and clarity of purpose. Trump’s team failed to find the way of turning the rhetoric of the president into concrete policies or of managing the diverse factions marshalled within his administration to advance (or impede) the consolidation of an agenda.
In the relationship with China, the central theme of the book, the only word that can portray what took place there is chaos, throwing open the door for the Chinese President to make headway with his own agenda, being as he was in full control of his government. Not by chance does Rogin begin the book with a quote from Mao that rhymes with the previously mentioned proverb: “There is great chaos under the heavens… The situation is excellent.”
Although the book refers to the strategy -if what occurred there can be called that- of the Trump government toward China, there are myriad commentaries and chronicles throughout the text regarding other matters that motivated the president and that create a window to observe his way of operating. Therein appear NAFTA, meetings with diverse presidents, the contempt of Trump for the ordinary citizen (his most solid political base), the logic of foreign intervention in U.S. politics, his disdain for the members of his own cabinet, and his tortuous fashion -instinctive and off the top of his head- of arriving at a decision on issues as complex and sensitive as the World Trade Organization (WTO), Taiwan, China, USMCA, North Korea, Covid, etcetera. Enormous disorder one would not expect from a superpower with a nuclear weapons arsenal within reach of its president.
Trump did not anticipate winning the 2016 election. His campaign was hinged on instinct, contrary to what electoral strategy professionals considered elemental, but it was successful because it matched the feelings of a broad segment of the electorate. That victory emboldened him to proceed with an agenda based essentially in his perceptions and mood of the moment. As Bob Woodward illustrates in Rage, instead of according their place to the professionals, he regarded their function with scorn and appointed or removed them from their posts constantly, frequently with great gusto, usually in a visceral manner.*
Thus, a highly institutionalized government ended up operating on two planes: that of the president’s spur-of-the-moment decisions, and that of a professional bureaucracy attempting to maintain a semblance of order. Between both extremes, the political functionaries (appointed by Trump) fought over controlling the agenda, while some accused others of being dominated by the “Swamp” or the “Deep State,” which is nothing more than professionals dedicated to doing what they always do: preserving the status quo, whether that is their intention or not.
Rogin’s account of the factions exercising control over the distinct moments of the administration is perhaps what is most valuable about the book. A group of amateurs in governmental affairs in charge of transcendental decisions and in permanent conflict, some for pressing Trump’s rhetorical agenda forward (like Bannon), others seeking to “correct” the president’s agenda (like Bolton), while still others strived to protect the status quo, above all in economic matters and those involving international trade (like Cohn, Mnuchin and Kushner). The latter, the president’s son-in-law, comes across as the meddler, lurching back and forth among his personal interests, saving his father-in-law from his worst instincts, concerning himself with the stock market and promoting some relevant international agendas. Surrounding all of this, during the first years of the administration, members of the military in strategic posts (such as White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor) were able to sustain an outward appearance of order, as if they were the adults in a kindergarten.
The manner of functioning of the Trump administration was much worse than one could imagine. While some of its objectives were meritorious, most importantly that of breaking with the bureaucratic inertia that supposes that all that exists is good and warrants no change, Trump’s personality, his inexperience (and poor experience) did nothing other than create and magnify a perennial chaos that, nevertheless, engendered new realities, such as the conflict with China, the renegotiation of NAFTA, and the legitimacy of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Along the way, he destroyed crucial relations and deepened the internal conflict.
Most governments endeavor to resolve or manage the problems and conflicts that they encounter. Some try to change the world. Most do no more than stay the course, just barely. Trump, and others, like Mexico’s, end up by demolishing more that they build, enhancing the problems and rendering them unsolvable.
*Christopher Buckley’s Make Russia Great Again is an extraordinary comical version of the same administration.