In Donald Trump’s White House, Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer were more than chief of staff and press secretary. They were the president’s connection to the Washington establishment: the donors, flacks and apparatchiks of both parties whose influence over politics and the economy many Trump supporters wish to upend.
By firing Mr. Priebus and Mr. Spicer and hiring John Kelly and Anthony Scaramucci, President Trump has sent a message: After six months of trying to behave like a conventional Republican president, he’s done. His opponents now include not only the Democrats, but the elites of both political parties.
Since the start of his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump has made no secret of his dislike of the capital. But his contempt for the city and the officials, lobbyists, consultants, strategists, lawyers, journalists, wonks, soldiers, bureaucrats, educators and physicians who populate it becomes more acute with each passing day.
He ignores pleas to ratchet back his Twitter feed, rails against the inability of Congress to advance his agenda, bashes the press, accuses the so-called deep state of bureaucratic setbacks, and struggles to hire staff. In Robert Mueller, the special counsel, he faces a paragon of D.C. officialdom, investigating not only his campaign but also perhaps his finances. For Trump, the Senate’s failure to repeal Obamacare was more evidence of Washington dysfunction, and a reason to declare independence from Priebus, the Republicans and political norms. The call to “drain the swamp” is now a declaration of war against all that threatens his presidency.
What we have been witnessing is a culture clash: a collision of two vastly different ways of life, personal conduct and doing business. The principles by which Mr. Trump lives are anathema to Washington. He abhors schedules. He wants to be unpredictable. He doesn’t tune out critics, but responds ferociously to every one. He values loyalty to the executive above all, and therefore sees family, who are tied together by blood, as essential to a well-managed enterprise.
Mr. Trump has no patience for consultants and experts, especially the consultants and experts in the Republican Party who were proven wrong about his election. Insecurity is a management tool: keeping people guessing where they stand, wondering what might happen next, strengthens his position.
Mr. Trump’s bombast, outsize personality, lack of restraint, flippancy and vulgarity could not be more out of place in Washington. His love of confrontation, his need always to define himself in relation to an enemy, then to brand and mock and belittle and undermine his opponent until nothing but Trump catchphrases remain, is the inverse of how Washingtonians believe politics should operate. The text that guides him is not a work of political thought. It’s “The Art of the Deal.”
The difference in style between Mr. Trump and Washingtonians is obvious. D.C. is a conventional, boring place. Washingtonians follow procedure. Presidents, senators, congressmen and judges are all expected to play to type, to intone the obligatory phrases and clichés, to nod their heads at the appropriate occasions, and, above all, to not disrupt the established order. We watch “Morning Joe” during breakfast, attend a round table on the liberal international order at lunch, and grab dinner after our summer kickball game. No glitz, no glam, no excitement.
Washingtonians avoid conflict. When someone is disruptive on the Metro we shuffle our feet, look another way, turn in the opposite direction. Residents of the “most literate city” in America, we do not shout, we read silently. We lament partisanship, and we pine for a lost age when Democrats and Republicans went out for drinks after a long day on Capitol Hill. The extent of our unanimity is apparent in the Politico poll of bipartisan “insiders,” the vast majority of which, regardless of party or ideology, tend to agree on who is up, who is down, who will win, who will lose.
To say that Donald Trump challenges this consensus is an understatement. Not only is he politically incorrect, but his manner, habits and language run against everything Washington professionals — in particular, people like Reince Priebus — have been taught to believe is right and good.
This is what distinguishes him from recent outsider presidents such as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan: Both had a long history of involvement in politics, and thought the Washington political class might play some role in reform. Mr. Trump does not.
In this respect, Mr. Trump has more in common with Jimmy Carter. Neither president had much governing experience before assuming office (Mr. Trump, of course, had none). Like Mr. Carter, Mr. Trump was carried to the White House on winds of change he did not fully understand. Members of their own parties viewed both men suspiciously, and both relied on their families. Neither president, nor their inner circles, meshed with the tastemakers of Washington. And each was reactive, hampered by events he did not control.
If President Trump wants to avoid Mr. Carter’s fate, he might start by recognizing that a war on every front is a war he is likely to lose, and that victory in war requires allies. Some even live in the swamp.