Dumb on Policy, Smart on Politics

Why Trump gets away with total ignorance on the details of his own agenda, according to Business Insider’s Josh Barro.

Josh Barro.
Josh Barro. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by New America.

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Josh Barro, a senior editor at Business Insider, contributor at MSNBC, and the host of KCRW’s Left, Right, and Center podcast. Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss Donald Trump’s intelligence, how the president uses comedy to sugarcoat his cruelty, and how centrist technocrats screwed up the politics of immigration.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: Are you enjoying this moment? By “this moment,” I mean the last 14 to 15 months of being a political commentator?

Josh Barro: No, I’m not. I worked in public policy think tanks for a few years before I did [political commentary], and I wrote specifically on state and local government finance. So the reason I got into writing about politics was to be able to write about some of those issues, where I felt like I was able to explain things more clearly than people might otherwise hear them explained, help them understand relatively complicated areas of policy and what’s a good idea or a bad idea.

And our politics are just not very much about policy right now. There’s been some major policy. The tax cut bill was obviously an important policy change in a lot of ways. The news that we’ve had on the tariffs over the last week or so, if the president actually goes through with this policy, will have important economic effects, but there’s been a lot of time spent on, frankly, bullshit. Or sometimes on things that are important cultural disputes, important cultural questions about who we are as a nation, that sort of thing, where even if they are important, I just feel like I don’t have particular expertise to add to that. The conversation often is not very edifying, and I don’t feel like I can necessarily make it more edifying. So it has not been my favorite 15 months to be engaging with political conversation.

It seems like we’re now in this weird place where focusing too much on policy almost seems unimportant, or a misleading way of understanding what’s going on. I go crazy when people debate the ins and outs of what Trump said about DACA policy. It just seems irrelevant to understanding how Washington, over these last 14 months, is actually working.

Yeah, that’s varied from issue to issue. And in a lot of these policy discussions, I’ve had to try to figure out when’s the right time to engage with some of the details. Now you had things like the tax bill, where the details really did matter, because they were actually going to do something. But it wasn’t true that the details mattered initially. Every so often, the president would say, “The White House is going to come out with a tax plan.” And it was clear that his staff has no idea that it was his intention to make a tax-plan announcement, and they’d come up with some one-pager or three-pager that had no real new information on it. He’d float an idea, and there was talk that maybe he’ll raise taxes at the top of the income spectrum. Steve Bannon was actually pushing for the idea within the White House, but I don’t think that ever really got serious consideration.

But then you did get to a point in the fall where they really were crafting legislation, where the details really were likely to end up being law and mattering for the economy and for individual tax payers’ lives. So it’s not always stupid to engage with the details, and I think we may see a point coming up on trade where the details matter. But there have been other issues like infrastructure, where the president just says stuff, and it has no particular relationship to what the government might actually do.

But then the other thing is these big, overarching cultural conversations are not all bullshit. A lot of them are about important questions of American values, and if that’s what elections are about, that’s an important phenomenon to engage with. It’s just a very different thing from policymaking.

Trump clearly, as you have previously mentioned, has political instincts about, say, not cutting entitlements, which I think both of us would agree are more in tune with the average voter than, let’s say, Paul Ryan’s policy instincts. But do you attribute that to him fundamentally getting it? Where do you stand on his intelligence or political intelligence after observing him for a year and a half?

I think he understands certain things about the way a lot of people feel about the government, but I think that his gut-level instincts also lead him astray in certain ways. We’ve seen that on the gun issue, where there’s a few things that Trump repeats as themes over and over again. There’s all this stuff about us versus them. Everything is a zero-sum exchange. We win and they lose, or the other way around. It’s how he views trade and immigration. It’s part of why trade is one of the few issues that he’s had a consistent ideological position on over the last 30 years.

Another thing is he’s obsessed with strength and this idea that you have to be strong, you have to respond to force with force. And the thing he keeps saying about mass shootings and school shootings in particular is that we can’t be on defense. We need to be on offense. And that’s why you have to arm the teachers.

But in other areas, he has understood that people have a sense that things used to be better in the past in certain ways. They have this nostalgia about the American economy. There’s an idea—partly an invented idea—that basically middle-class and industrial jobs used to work a lot better than they do right now. I think that has connected with people, even if the tariff policy is not necessarily connecting.

And on immigration, he’s understood that the elite consensus got way out ahead of where the country is. There’s a significant amount of demand for fairly extreme rhetoric on immigration, but there’s also a lot of demand for immigration policy that is to the right of where the Democratic Party got itself, having moved far to the left on the issue over the last eight years. So I think it’s been a mixed bag, but the man got himself elected president, even though he really shouldn’t have. So that’s fairly impressive.

If I’ve ever read anyone who I’ve considered kind of a centrist technocrat, it would be you, which I would assume you would view as somewhat of a badge of honor, to be referred to as that. Or not. What do you think?

I think centrist technocracy has not had a great decade.

That’s where I was going with this question.

[Laughs.] And we’re still reckoning with this. A lot of the big mistakes were in monetary policy, especially in Europe. The eurozone, which was absolutely seen as a technocratic project, has been a disaster, especially for Southern Europe, and it’s been fueling a lot of these populist movements.

And then the other problem has been immigration, which I view as actually a substantive problem in Europe. In the U.S., I don’t view it as a substantive problem, even though there’s obviously political disagreement over the issue of immigration. I wrote a piece about this about a month after Trump got elected, about no-choice politics, where basically you have these situations where the political establishment has contrived a situation where there is only one choice available to the public.

On immigration, both in the U.S. and in Europe, it’s been a contrived, no-choice thing, where in the U.S., you had lax enforcement around immigration for a very long time that created this very large population of unauthorized immigrants. And then you get all these individual situations. They have children who are U.S. citizens, so if you deport the parents, then you’re splitting up families. And you have all these people who were brought in as children, so you can’t deport them, because what did they do? They didn’t choose that. But then you can’t deport their parents, either, because then you’re splitting up families again.

Basically you created the situation where it was unreasonable to send all these people back. So you had no choice but to admit them to the United States and give some sort of amnesty.
The logic of that makes a certain amount of sense, except whose fault is it that there was no choice? It’s the people who were running the government in the 1990s who chose not to enforce immigration policy in the first place, so that you didn’t have all these individual family situations created.

There’s reasonably suspicion that this was done on purpose, because people wanted a more lax immigration policy that they couldn’t get passed through Congress, and there’s reasonable suspicion that it will happen again if you do some sort of comprehensive immigration reform. You’ll have a new immigration policy, and then there will continue to be illegal immigration, and then we will come back and have to do this again in 25 years because you will have a lot of sympathetic cases for people where there’s no reasonable choice other than to bend the rules for them again and allow them to immigrate as well.

You’ve seen that on a scale in Europe also, where because of the rules that bind the entire EU, you’ve had a number of policy areas, including immigration, where things have been forced on people in ways that feel anti-democratic. People have freaked out about this. They have punished the establishment. Basically, if responsible political parties won’t offer the public choices on some of these issues, then they will vote for irresponsible political parties. It’s been a disaster largely of the making of the technocrats.

Is there something inherent in centrist technocracy that you’re likely to have these kinds of problems? For example, in the case of immigration, I guess you could say that the reason that no one wanted to enforce these things was because the interests involved didn’t want them to. I guess what I’m wondering is: Does this change your larger analysis of whether centrist technocracy can work, rather than just think, “Oh, various bureaucrats made stupid choices or choices that were politically unfortunate”?

Why did you not have robust immigration enforcement? It’s partly because interest groups on both sides didn’t really want it. Businesses wanted to have cheap labor available to them, both legally and then also illegally. Part of the advantage of illegal immigration is that they don’t have to pay people minimum wage. They don’t have to follow labor laws. And then on the left, you had various reasons for wanting higher levels of immigration. Often, the people who might immigrate are relatives and associates of people who are already here. It’s perfectly reasonable that they want those people to be able to immigrate. There are also political effects. Democrats benefit from demographic change in the country. So basically you had two sides of the issue that were not motivated to enforce, and those interest group voices, especially the business community, are overrepresented in Washington.

And the other problem with this is the tendency of technocrats to look at these issues as purely technocratic issues of optimization. Basically, what’s the right immigration policy? What leads to the highest GDP per capita in the U.S.? It doesn’t acknowledge the cultural questions, where people say things like, “I feel like I’m losing my country.” And you can just say, “That’s racist,” which fine. But those people vote. And if you don’t allow those questions to even be considered as part of the political process, then people are going to look for options outside the standard political establishment, whether that means Donald Trump or outsider populist parties in Europe.

As for whether a centrist technocratic government is possible that works well, we’ve seen some countries that have avoided these problems. Canada and Australia are good examples.
Canada has managed their immigration system very well, and they have a large number of immigrants.

You said earlier that you thought that immigration was a substantive problem in Europe but not in the United States, but people are still feeling this way. You don’t want to just write these people off and say they’re all racist, blah blah blah. But if it’s not a substantive issue, then why are people so upset about this?

What I should have said there is that there are significant problems associated with immigration in Europe that aren’t present in the U.S.

The U.S. just has a stronger immigration tradition that makes it easier to integrate immigrants. And then also, in some parts of Europe, you have problems with Islamism associated with immigrant communities that we don’t see in any significant scale in the U.S.

So then why are people here so furious about it?

It’s not that a majority of the country is furious about it. I think that if you had a Democratic candidate who was better able to relate to the public on a set of other issues, they would have defeated Donald Trump, who was running on an anti-immigration platform, and you’ve seen increasing public support for immigration since his election.

I don’t know—people are tribal. And people have opinions about immigration that are just based on who they want to live around. And I think that’s going to be true anywhere, but it’s not necessarily true of a majority of the country.

Do you feel that your idea of the average American or the average fellow member of your society has changed in the last couple years? Do you feel a different connection to your fellow citizens or the way you think about them?

I think on an intellectual level, I always knew that people don’t know a lot about policy, and people don’t know a lot about what the government does. And honestly, maybe they shouldn’t.
There’s not a lot of use for that knowledge day to day. There’s this concept called rational ignorance that basically, for most people, it’s not worth spending a lot of time developing deep, knowledgeable opinions about what the government does because they don’t run the government, and they’re not going to change what the government does. And so I guess I should have known that it was going to be possible to elect somebody who demonstrated manifest incompetence and a complete lack of knowledge or interest in what the government does. And yet he won. And nobody seemed to care.

There were arguments that were popular with people in the media, people in New York, people who follow politics very closely, about Donald Trump’s unfitness, that were unpersuasive to a lot of people. The one that I think is most interesting is the idea that Donald Trump is not an especially good businessman. He had all these business bankruptcies, and mostly, he seems to be good at doing businesses that involved licensing his name to somebody else who’s actually in the day-to-day business of running a business. And I feel like if you said that to normal people, they said, “Well how could he be that bad a businessman? Look how big his plane is.
Look how rich he is.” It makes sense as a first-order way to evaluate whether Donald Trump is successful. If he sucks so much at business, why does he still have all this money?

Appearances were deceiving, but it was hard to convince people of that because the appearances looked a certain way, and also because I think there was a certain distrust of the people who were saying that. It sounded snobby, and on some level, it was snobby. I think the opinions that people have about Donald Trump that have to do with his complete lack of taste, they are snobby. Now I think that the heuristics that we have used here, in the media, about Donald Trump and his lack of taste and what it means about him have proved correct. But they were snobby, and they sounded snobby, and I think people didn’t pay attention for that reason.

I think the one that’s more shocking to me than the snobbiness—and I agree, there was a certain snobbiness to some of that—is the cruelty, which I still can’t quite get over, has not registered more with people. He’s just not nice.

The weird thing about this, though, is he’s been like that forever. And yet, in his contexts, in business and entertainment, he was able to be like this and then turn on a dime and act like your friend again, and people would go along with it.

It’s like he’s clearly having fun, and it’s like people halfway feel like they’re in on the joke. So obviously, I don’t think Mexican immigrants feel this way. But if you’re some celebrity who was feuding with Donald Trump, and he said horrible things about you, you didn’t take it quite as seriously as you would with some other people. And frankly, I think some voters have felt that way. He did about as well with the Hispanic community as Mitt Romney had done, which is not great, but it’s millions and millions of Hispanics went out there and voted for Donald Trump after all the things that he said. There’s something about him that allows him to be nasty and for people to not react in the same way that they would react if a normal person was that nasty.

Before the campaign especially, there was a twinkle in his eye about some stuff. If you ever go back and listen to him on Howard Stern, there’s some sense that he has an understanding of himself as a character and could find humor in that. I find that to be less and less the case now. I don’t feel like he looks like he’s having fun. Occasionally, like with his tweet about the Oscars, saying I’m the only star—

Yeah, that’s what I was thinking of.

Yeah. That was funny. And I thought, “Oh, OK, there’s this Donald Trump who I kind of remember.”

It was funny, and it was self-aware.

It was funny and self-aware, exactly. And I find the self-awareness aspect of himself as a character to be less and less a part of him now.

I think it’s two things. One is that the cruelty appeals to some people, and it fits in with the message of basically, “They’ve been taking advantage of you, and I’m not going to let them take advantage of you anymore.” He demonstrates strength through cruelty, which I think is ridiculous, but it appeals to some number of people. But then the other thing to remember is that Donald Trump is not popular. So I think most people do have the reaction to this that you have to it. So if you’re asking, “Am I taking crazy pills?,” it’s no. Most people agree with you.