In his 1967 book on Organizational Intelligence, Harold Wilensky praised President Roosevelt for maintaining a state of creative tension in the US administration. Wilensky reckoned that this enabled FDR to get a more accurate and rounded account of what was going on, and gave him some protection against the self-delusion of each department.
(In FDR’s time, of course, it was considered entirely normal for an administration to be staffed by a bunch of white men with similar education. And yet even they managed to achieve some diversity of perspective.)
Early reports of Donald Trump’s administration suggest an unconscious echo of the FDR style. Or perhaps a much earlier pattern.
At the center of it all has been a cast of characters jockeying for Trump’s ear, creating a struggle for power that has manifested in a mix of chaos, leaks and uncertainty. The Trump White House already bears more resemblance to the court of a Renaissance king than to most prior administrations as favorites come and go, counselors quarrel over favor and policy decisions are often made by whim or without consultation. (Guardian, 4 Feb 2017)
But it is difficult to see this as “creative tension” resulting in an “accurate and rounded” view.
“Trump thinks he’s invincible,” says Hemmings, who doubts whether his advisors will ever question or criticise him. “Usually leaders choose the people around them to keep them in check, and Trump needs people to temper his hotheadedness and aggression. Instead, he’s picked advisors who worship him.” (Independent, 2 Feb 2017)
Wilensky’s book also discusses the dangers of a doctrine of secrecy.
Secrets belong to a small assortment of individuals, and inevitably become hostage to private agendas. As Harold Wilensky wrote “The more secrecy, the smaller the intelligent audience, the less systematic the distribution and indexing of research, the greater the anonymity of authorship, and the more intolerant the attitude toward deviant views.” (Gladwell 2010)
And secrecy seems to a key element of the Trump-Bannon modus operandi.
“These executive orders were very rushed and drafted by a very tight-knit group of individuals who did not run it by the people who have to execute the policy. And because that’s the case, they probably didn’t think of or care about how this would be executed in the real world,” said another congressional source familiar with the situation. “No one was given a heads-up and no one had a chance to weigh in on it.” (Politico 30 Jan 2017)
But perhaps in reaction to the Bannonite doctrine of secrecy, there has been a flood of leaks from inside the administration. Chris Cillizza suggests two possible explanations – either these leaks are intended to influence Trump himself (because he doesn’t take anything seriously unless he hears it from his favourite media channels) or conversely they are intended as a kind of whistle-blowing.
Marx thought that history repeated itself. (Alarmingly, Trump’s Counselor Steve Bannon adheres to the same view.) So are we into tragedy or farce here?
Rachael Bade, Jake Sherman and Josh Dawsey, Hill staffers secretly worked on Trump’s immigration order (Politico, 30 Jan 2017)
Chris Cillizza, The leaks coming out of the Trump White House cast the president as a clueless child (Washington Post, 26 January 2017), The leaks coming out of the Trump White House right now are totally bananas (Washington Post, 2 Feb 2017)
Malcolm Gladwell, Pandora’s Briefcase (New Yorker, 10 May 2010)
Rachel Hosie, The deeper reason we should be worried Donald Trump hung up on Australia PM Malcolm Turnbull (Independent, 2 Feb 2017)
Linette Lopez, Steve Bannon’s obsession with a dark theory of history should be worrisome (Business Insider, 2 Feb 2017) HT @BryanAppleyard
Carmen Medina, What is your Stupification Point? (6 May 2010)
Joseph Rago, History Repeats as Farce, Then as 2016 (Wall Street Journal, 4 November 2016) paywall
Sabrina Siddiqui and Ben Jacobs, Trump’s courtiers bring chaotic and capricious style to White House (Guardian, 4 February 2017)
Puzzles and Mysteries (January 2010)
Enemies of Intelligence (May 2010)
Delusion and Diversity (October 2012)