Having set up the importance of focusing on interest groups rather than individual personalities when analyzing the balance of forces that will shape political outcomes, let's turn to the most important individual -- President Trump. What group is he a representative of, what are its goals, and what kind of leverage do they have to wield to advance those goals?
Quite simply, he belongs to none of the interest groups. He is a total outsider beholden to none of the special interests. He doesn't represent Wall Street, the Pentagon, big oil, big pharma, the education system, the media, the Democrat Establishment, or the GOP Establishment. Instead he represents "the people," meaning average American citizens who have no organized lobby or set of institutions that advance their interests using whatever leverage they've got. A voice for the voiceless -- or as Trump put it, "The forgotten man and woman will be forgotten no longer".
What leverage did the people have to send their representative into government? It was not massive sums of donor money, connections with power players, paid operatives in the media, favors owed that were called in, blackmail material, or any of the other tools of the trade in Washington. They could only signal their allegiance to the Trump agenda -- following him on social media, tuning into his debates, attending his rallies, displaying his signs and hats and bumper stickers, choosing him when pollsters called, and ultimately casting a ballot for him on Election Day. Thankfully, it's only the ballot box results that matter as far as who ends up in the White House.
But now election season is long over, and the task is no longer getting Trump elected despite not representing any interest group. It is to actually implement the agenda for which the people flocked to him during election season. Build the wall, deport the illegals, kill the TPP and gut NAFTA, re-industrialize the economy, re-orient foreign policy away from the dead Cold War and toward fighting radical Islamic terrorism, use the military more for defense of the homeland than offense in the Middle Eastern sand pit, and drain the swamp.
So, is Trump going to give orders and the swamp will carry them out, just because he won an election? Get realistic: they will do everything they can to obstruct or reverse those orders. Just about everyone in the government other than Trump is representing one of those powerful interest groups, and the Trump agenda cuts directly against most of those group's goals.
So like hell they're going to just do what he says -- otherwise, he will... do what, exactly? Getting burned on Twitter is not going to end their careers.
It is time to acknowledge that Trump is no longer in his element like he was in the real estate industry, or the media world, where he had plenty of capital, built up over the decades, to bring to bear in negotiations and battles. He has no history of connections within the government that he can draw on -- at least, these connections are weaker than they are for the interests groups connected to the same people.
For example, Trump is connected to Rudy Giuliani, but if he tapped him to run Homeland Security in order to make serious efforts to protect the homeland against radical Islamic terrorism, he's going to find out that the GOP Establishment is connected to Giuliani also, and so are other major interest groups, given the size of Giuliani's role when he was in office. Trump's connection to Giuliani is as a real estate developer and media star in New York, where Giuliani was the Mayor, as well as being native New Yorkers. That's not enough to outweigh all the pressure that would come down on Giuliani from the established interest groups -- especially if Giuliani were to actually go about implementing the Trump agenda, rather than serve as a figurehead but otherwise do the GOP Establishment's bidding.
Who in the government, within any branch, owes Trump favors? Nobody, because he just got started in politics.
Who is he on the same team with? Certainly not the Republicans, whose party he destroyed during the primaries -- their candidates, their party leadership, their donors, their think tank policy crafters, their media outlets, and their history of results over the past generation.
That's not to deny that there are a handful of like-minded politicians who are willing to throw in with Trump, but so far it seems like it amounts to only one exception -- Jeff Sessions. Mike Flynn fit this profile as well, but we see what the Pentagon / Deep State was able to do to his role in the new government. The other members of the small Trumpian circle are also outsiders with not much political capital to bring to bear -- Steve Bannon (who at least has conservative media capital), Steven Miller (whose capital reduces to that of his former boss, Jeff Sessions), and maybe the odd Representative among 435 and who has no powerful committee appointments.
Having a say in the crucial policy battles within the federal government, let alone international relations, is a very high-stakes game that requires an ante that only the truly high rollers can afford. Lacking the degree of DC capital stored up by the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, or General Mattis, Trump is unable to even enter into the big negotiations as a truly independent player representing the people.
And the outcomes so far confirm how outgunned Trump is in the great big DC battles. That is not his fault -- he wants to pursue the agenda he was elected on, but what leverage does he have to advance it, against the maneuvers of the interest groups who want the exact opposite?
The least important topics for Trump were revamping healthcare and re-writing the entire tax code. He did say "repeal and replace Obamacare" without saying anything specific, except for negotiating the price of prescription drugs, since the government is the largest single payer for those drugs (Medicare Part D) and ought to be enjoying a yuge bulk discount. He threw out a tax proposal that he talked about for a week, but never dwelled on, other than a general commitment to a middle income tax cut.
Re-shaping the entire healthcare system and surveying the entire tax code for revision -- those are clearly the GOP Establishment's primary agenda items, meant to benefit their interest groups, and are so complicated that they will surely bog down the Congress for the better part of its two-year term. And we saw what a hosing the Trump movement took in the recent spending bill -- I would not expect a whole lot better in the fall either, unless we luck into a windfall of political capital in the coming months.
If Trump had enough political leverage to get the GOP-controlled Congress to pursue his agenda, they would be spending those two years focusing on immigration / citizenship (no birthright), trade / industrialization, a latter-day Glass-Steagall Act to cut Wall Street down to size, shifting military alliances, humbling the over-reaching judiciary branch, term limits for Congressmen, and so on and so forth.
Within the executive branch, the Pentagon and Deep State have blocked his planned re-orientation of foreign policy and military affairs, have slow-walked or sabotaged building the wall (DHS solicited non-wall bids in addition to wall bids), and have not exercised Executive privilege to enforce the laws regarding foreigners coming in from terrorist-prone nations (even if it was the judiciary branch that was the main saboteur on the Muslim travel ban, DHS or DoD could send teams of armed men to enforce the ban).
So far, the only item that they are conceding to him is trade, probably because he can threaten them about losing the Rust Belt states if he doesn't have any progress to show on that issue by the next election. The GOP Establishment isn't entirely suicidal, and know that if they want to keep the White House, they need to keep those Rust Belt voters who took a chance on Trump and will immediately revert to blue states if it's business as usual on trade, manufacturing, and industry.
That is one key piece of leverage that he does have -- ability to deliver Rust Belt voters to put a Republican in the White House -- and wherever that leverage can be utilized, we can expect good work to get done, despite the interest groups being against it. Over time, this will create a new powerful interest group -- manufacturers, who haven't been a factor in government since the 1950s and '60s -- whom Trump and his successors will represent. But for now, he's getting progress done on trade and the economy without any interest group backing him, and only using his Rust Belt voters as leverage.
We were hoping that we would just elect Trump, and he would go about savaging the DC Establishment on our behalf like he was doing to them during the election season. But he has little leverage to take any of the big issues on, let alone all the ones that he promised progress on during the campaign. What leverage he does have is the support of the people. Going forward, if the Trump movement wants to accomplish anything, it is going to have to organize the Trump supporters out here in ordinary America, and send them off to battle.
First, by screening and then electing candidates for Congress who are for the Trump agenda, and not just the same old interest group puppets.
Then, by putting pressure on the other politicians. Making phone calls, spreading links over social media, holding rallies, surrounding the state capitol building, marching on the Pentagon, and the like.
The government actually is potentially responsive to the people in a democracy, if the people act like an interest group -- organizing collectively, identifying key items to be pursued, and then using their distinct leverage or political capital to advance those goals against their rival interest groups.
But the first step toward the American people taking control over the government is to acknowledge that the President is not omnipotent simply because he won an election. If he doesn't have much leverage at the bargaining table, it doesn't matter how skilled of a negotiator he is, how sharp his instincts are, how knowledgeable he is, or how selfless his motives are. In order for America to regenerate, the Establishment writ large must be cut off at the knees, and one man cannot do that by himself, especially when he arrives in Washington with a brittle-bladed sword and no armor but his own thick skin.
He must be willing to rally the troops, call in the cavalry, and march his army toward the battle lines if he wants to win. It is not enough for his supporters to catapault him over the castle walls -- he must now open the gates and lower the drawbridge from inside, and call on his men to storm the palace!