Last week, officials in Puerto Rico announced that it would be several more months before the island would have its electricity restored. The logistical challenges of repairing the devastated infrastructure across the island are unprecedented, certainly. But part of the issue likely comes from a lack of energy from the executive branch, where President Donald Trump’s worldview is having an influence. In short: the Trumpian worldview is all about freeloading and how to respond to it.
For decades, Trump has been associated with “deals.” In The Art of the Deal, Trump offers a romantic view of them on the very first page, declaring, “Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.”
Trump fancies himself a brilliant businessman who has made hundreds of millions of dollars by being on the winning side of deals with various counterparties. His prowess as a negotiator in the business world should be a model for governments and politics. As head of a business, the interests of the business in various deals were his paramount objective. As head of America, the interests of the American people in various deals are his paramount objective. As president, Trump has cast this as “America First.” He laid out his case in his September speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
In foreign affairs, we are renewing this founding principle of sovereignty. Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens — to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values.
As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first. (Applause.)
All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens, and the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.
But making a better life for our people also requires us to work together in close harmony and unity to create a more safe and peaceful future for all people.
The United States will forever be a great friend to the world, and especially to its allies. But we can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return. As long as I hold this office, I will defend America’s interests above all else.
This was an extension of the fundamental conceit behind Trump’s campaign. Trump argued that America has been on the wrong side of deals because of bad negotiation and stupidity, and that putting him in charge would ensure that the raw deals stopped.
Stated differently, Trump argues that the goodwill of America has been exploited by freeloaders and enabled by naive or stupid American leaders. Indeed, we see this across many areas; it is a sort of grand-unifying Trumpian worldview. In remarks to pharmaceutical companies:
We’re going to be ending global freeloading. Foreign price controls reduce the resources of American drug companies to finance drug R&D innovation. I think you people know that very well. Very unfair to this country. Our trade policy will prioritize that foreign countries pay their fair share for US manufactured drugs so our drug companies have greater financial resources to accelerate the development of new cures. And I think it’s so important, because right now it’s very unfair what other countries are doing to us.
On the Paris Climate Accord:
Our government rushed to join international agreements where the United States pays the costs and bears the burdens while other countries get the benefit and pay nothing. This includes deals like the one-sided Paris climate accord. Where the United States pays billions of dollars while China, Russia, and India have contributed and will contribute nothing.
On trade with South Korea and China:
We are being absolutely devastated by bad trade deals. We have the worst of all trade deals is with China. We have a bad deal with South Korea. We’re just starting negotiations with South Korea. South Korea, we protect, but we’re losing $40 billion a year with South Korea on trade. We have a trade deficit of $40 billion. The deal just came up.
I have been very, very direct with Secretary Stoltenberg and members of the Alliance in saying that NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations, for 23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense.
This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States. And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years. Over the last eight years, the United States spent more on defense than all other NATO countries combined. If all NATO members had spent just 2 percent of their GDP on defense last year, we would have had another $119 billion for our collective defense and for the financing of additional NATO reserves.
We should recognize that with these chronic underpayments and growing threats, even 2 percent of GDP is insufficient to close the gaps in modernizing, readiness, and the size of forces. We have to make up for the many years lost. Two percent is the bare minimum for confronting today’s very real and very vicious threats. If NATO countries made their full and complete contributions, then NATO would be even stronger than it is today, especially from the threat of terrorism.
And you know that one of the worst deals that anybody in history has ever entered into. we have begun formal renegotiation with Mexico and Canada on NAFTA. Personally, I don’t think we can make a deal, because we have been so badly been taken advantage of. They have made such great deals, both of the countries, but in particular Mexico. And I don’t think we can make a deal. So I think we’ll end up probably terminating NAFTA at some point. Probably. But! But! I told you from the first day we will renegotiate NAFTA, or we will terminate NAFTA. I personally don’t think you can make a deal without a termination, but we’re gonna see what happens.
All of these fit very neatly into the worldview of the dealmaker. Trump sees America as uniquely strong: why doesn’t America use its strength to bully others into getting a better deal for itself? Instead, America has made “bad deals.” Indeed, Trump is skeptical, on balance, of the benefits of the Pax Americana, and it has fallen on Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis to explain to him why America benefits from its overseas commitments.
It’s reasonable to suspect that all of this comes out of Trump’s experience in the zero-sum business world. Businesses are interested in making a profit, first and foremost; concerns outside of that are secondary at best, and foolish if they interfere with the primary objective. Where Trump errs on this is his incomprehension of international affairs and government as non-zero sum game. America is as much of a beneficiary of the Pax Americana as the “winners” in the individual deals. Of course the US spends more than its allies on NATO; it is generally richer and is a major beneficiary of the stability NATO provides. Security and stability are positive goods for American businesses. Even if on paper America is getting less, the intangible benefits of a predictable trade environment, freedom of the seas, and a lack of major wars far exceed the costs of these deals. (Not to mention the “unseen” benefits of economic dynamism and comparative advantage.) An American withdrawal from its commitments would endanger those intangible advantages and risk creating a world of increased proliferation, arms races, trade wars, and conflict.
Trump’s misunderstanding aside, this zero-sum approach to governance is at the core of his worldview: there are Americans on one side, and everyone else on the other side. America can help someone else, but it must “put on its oxygen mask first before helping others,” as former Trump spokesperson Katryna Pierson put it.
The natural disasters of the summer of 2017 have offered an instructive case study of the Trumpian worldview of freeloaders. Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico suffered from significant hurricanes in the summer. But based on what we’ve seen so far from the administration: if there is a dividing line between “Americans” and “everyone else,” Texas and Florida are on one side of the line. But Puerto Rico may be on the other side of that line. Instead of seeing Puerto Ricans as American citizens that the federal government has a responsibility to assist in the face of a natural disaster, Trump at times appears to see Puerto Rico as just another freeloader, expecting the benefits of American largesse.
As such, assistance to Puerto Rico becomes discretionary charity rather than responsibility. And Trump sees his mission as to stop the largesse. Note these tweets: the implication is that Puerto Rico is not contributing enough to the recovery.
…Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
…want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
Later, he suggested that the military really “shouldn’t have” to be distributing water on Puerto Rico, even though this is standard practice in a domestic natural disaster.
Trump on Puerto Rico: "We now actually have military distributing food—something that, really, they shouldn't have to be doing." (via ABC) pic.twitter.com/UUr2qujABr
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) October 16, 2017
Trump’s ideal view of America often seems limited to the map of the 50 United States, and as such extracting itself from its commitment to Puerto Rico is no different from extracting itself from its commitment to operating military bases in Germany or protecting South Korea and Japan. “We don’t have a country” if we don’t have control of the border, he often says. The “border” becomes the dividing line between the American president’s responsibility and the American president’s potential competitor or adversary. That Puerto Rico is not a foreign country but a United States territory full of US citizens seems less relevant, under the circumstances.
This worldview on freeloading essentially infects the rest of the executive branch. In a large bureaucracy, executives often exercise influence indirectly; there is too much going on for an executive to micromanage all of the ongoing activities, and the ones they manage directly are the ones they deem the most important. In the absence of executive energy in a given direction, a bureaucracy will move slowly, checking all of its boxes and avoiding risk; autopilot government lumbers. The logic of the bureaucracy is self-preservation, and the scariest thing for a given segment of the bureaucracy is executive scrutiny. Thus the bureaucracy follows the rhetorical cues of the chief. (This is likely why, for example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has acted more aggressively since Trump took office. This need not have been in response to direct orders from the president. But front-line managers aren’t stupid, and they can read tea leaves. Under a different president–say, one more friendly to immigration–ICE implementing its mandate so thoroughly might invite a rebuke.)
Put this all together: Trump does not appear to see Puerto Rico as part of his mandate. As such he puts very little pressure on the bureaucracy on the issue, and autopilot government does what it does. There simply has not been rhetorical urgency from the Oval Office on this issue. This has downstream effects, namely that things move slowly.
It is unlikely that Trump will move beyond his zero-sum view of global affairs at this stage; he has been touting his views on global freeloading for decades. In the meantime, one can hope that he moves that dividing line out a bit between America and the global freeloaders. At some point, people are going to pay attention to Puerto Rico, right?