Creative Destruction, or Just Destruction?

The Trump administration’s efforts to disrupt the political world in recent months should be no surprise to anyone. After all, Trump promised to be disrupter-in-chief if elected and to “shake things up.” His supporters on the right were happy to ride on this train, claiming that such an approach would clear the debris of the current system and lead to lots of fresh ideas.

A favorite theme they embraced was the notion of “creative destruction.” The term was made popular by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the evolving, destructive power of capitalism, in particular its tendency to undermine old structures in the process of creating new, more efficient ones. Because of the term’s somewhat mordant irony, political commentators have not hesitated to employ it in reference to political change as well.

Newt Gingrich was one of the first users of the theme during the primaries, seeing  Trump’s candidacy as analogous to “kicking over the table.” It amounted to a bid to overturn and replace political correctness, big bureaucracies, current trade policies, public employee unions, and the like. He framed it both as an “American rebellion” and a “consumer revolt.” Later in the primary season, Ilana Mercer, a “paleo-libertarian” and recent author of The Trump Revolution, saw “creative destruction” as a means of upending a similar list of “sacred cows.” She equated Donald Trump with a “force of nature” heralding  a new age.

And now with the new age upon us, Richard Manning of Fox News uses the motif to describe such accomplishments as Trump’s spirited junking of a long list of economic and immigration regulations and his “re-ordering” of American world interests beginning with the rejection of the TPP, all in the happy cause of a “complete rebooting of the system.”

Such appeals to destruction and the creative process are worth noting because they offer some sort of overall framework for Trump’s actions. The problem is that while the “destruction” part is clear to the observer, the “creative” part seems elusive. What happens after step one is never clearly depicted or expressed.

The inattention to the aftermath of destruction is nowhere better illustrated than in the Trump administration’s approach to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). With little interest in the details of legislation, Trump simply wished to be rid of the existing program as quickly as possible. Any combination of repeal, replace, and delay would suffice for him. Handing the issue off to a Republican Congress, Trump cheered on what became a top-down, secretive process that skipped all ordinary order and procedure. The deadly consequences of the bills that were fielded in the House and Senate according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office were never taken seriously by Trump or the vast majority of Republicans, who gave a “What me worry?” shrug in the face of them. By a quirk of fortune we were spared the deadly consequences by a last-minute moment of honesty in the Senate.

The notion of creative destruction seems similarly off the mark in describing Trump’s international behavior. Trump’s withdrawal, or threatened withdrawal, from a series of multilateral agreements including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and lately the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) presents the international community with few if any positive options.

Indeed, given the time required to bring together multiple actors and reach intricate compromise in political compacts like the Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Agreement–over a decade in each case–the possibility of their unraveling presents an ever-present danger and not exactly fertile ground for creativity. The model of the second law of thermodynamics comes to mind.

Moreover, Trump’s peevish opposition to international trade agreements raises the prospect of grave economic disruption. His simplistic proposal of bilateral talks to replace multilateral ones is a poison pill for most nations because they have everything to lose by them. Unlike multilateral agreements, which present a relatively level playing field and a common set of rules for all participating countries, bilateral ones enable powerful nations (notably, the U.S.) to use their negotiating leverage to hold the upper hand and to introduce unique requirements to guarantee their ascendancy. It is hardly surprising that in the wake of Trump’s sinking of the TPP, countries like Japan have shown little interest in bilateral talks with the U.S., instead holding out for an agreement in concert with other Pacific nations. The fluidity of the issue puts the future of trade relations in a state of high uncertainty.

The sad fact, as suggested by the above examples, is that the Trump  administration governs largely by impulse, with scant signs of reasoned forethought. Behind the recent flurry of pronouncements and decisions lies a strange void, something that hangs almost like an uncompleted sentence. Not since the illogical conduct of Wilhelm II’s Germany on the eve of World War I has a world power shown itself so strategically inept. It is entirely possible that those who come after Trump will look back upon his administration as an historic model of political malpractice. The message to all politicians: First, do no harm.

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