John Kenneth Galbraith’s eight rules for Trump’s swamp
26 Jun 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Kaleenxian.

The man who promised to drain Washington’s swamp has water around his ankles. Alligators snap. Amid the rolling, roiling, rollicking Wars of Washington, Donald Trump needs a map of the swamp.

The Donald should uncouple from being his own communications director, turn off the TV, detach from Twitter, and trot round to the White House library. There he’ll find Washington memoirs recounting old battles, explaining the role of those 350 top jobs he hasn’t filled, and offering insights as fresh as tomorrow’s headlines.

Reading a whole book may be asking too much of Trump. He can get a lot from one chapter of the memoirs of John Kenneth Galbraith, a lifelong Democrat who slashed and crashed his way through the swamp during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. Galbraith’s eight rules of bureaucratic warfare are a guide for ‘how one moves in an organisation and moves an organisation’.

When fellow hacks left the Canberra press gallery to work for a minister, my parting gift consisted of Galbraith’s rules. Reports back from the ministerial wing were that the water flowing down the Molonglo to Lake Burley Griffin is surprisingly similar to what Galbraith found in the Potomac. Democratic swamps are alike, as are the denizens. Four decades old and as relevant as ever, here are Galbraith’s eight rules for Washington wars:

1. Either have the President behind you or cultivate that impression. By the same token, never suppose that you can fight the White House; if you are at odds, you must admit defeat and, if the issue requires it, resign. It’s a ‘notable art’, Galbraith observes, to get close to the presidency and use proximity for ‘echo and amplification’.

2. Use the media openly. The official with good access to the media is respected, even feared. The one who avoids reporters and who is without voice on their own behalf, confesses to an insecurity or diffidence that others exploit. The player who relies on surreptitious leaks similarly admits to a lack of effectiveness; they must spend much time covering tracks, and can be defeated not by judging the merits of the case but merely exposure of their activity. Most bureaucratic leaks proceed not from strength but from weakness. ‘Sneaky behaviour is always a confession of weakness; all experienced operators avoid it.’

3. Write. Make your views widely and persuasively known. Bureaucracy is large; one can see only a few people to effect direct persuasion. But there’s no limit to the number of people who can be reached by a well-argued paper. And if it’s readable it will be read, since reading is the principal occupation of bureaucrats. As Ambassador to India, Galbraith worked hard to make his cables ‘interesting or, on occasion, indecent or insulting, for I wanted to be sure they were read’. When senior players asked Kennedy to instruct Galbraith to tone down his muscular missives, the President refused, saying unlike most of his papers, Galbraith’s communications ‘lightened even if they did not inform his day’.

When fighting in the swamp, be the drafter of the document. The drafter can concede points without conceding substance. Be the one to draft the scope of the deal and terms of the concessions.

4. Given the choice between keeping the confidence of your friends and appeasing your enemies, never hesitate. It’s your friends who give you power. You can overcome opposition, but you cannot do it without allies.

5. Anger and indignation may usefully be simulated but should never be real. They impair judgment.

6. Think flexibly, act confidently. On foreign policy, as on economic policy, the essence of wisdom lies in not being too sure—no one can foresee for certain the outcome of a line of action. Nevertheless, for bureaucratic success, one must cultivate an outward air of assurance. Others who are themselves uncertain will make your confidence a substitute for their own doubts. If you lack assurance, they will substitute theirs.

7. Adopt a modest aspect of menace. Arrogance backed by substance can work. Many public officials will go against their convictions to avoid a fight. Galbraith notes his colleagues always thought he had ‘an unusually well-developed view of my own intellectual excellence’. As Galbraith was leaving for India, The New York Times ran a profile of the new ambassador. ‘At breakfast that day, President Kennedy asked me how I liked it. I said it was fine, but I didn’t see why they had to call me arrogant. “I don’t see why not,” said the President, “everybody else does”.’ When Galbraith wrote a monograph on the Art of Controversy, he advised that when attacked, a player must retaliate quickly and strongly—‘a demonstrated capacity for reprisal serves valuably as a deterrent’.

8. Be ready to lose and leave town: Be mentally accommodated to catching the plane out of Washington on any given morning. Nothing so weakens the position of a senior official as the knowledge that they so love the job that they’ll always, in the end, come to terms. However, Galbraith advises, never threaten to resign—‘that only tells one’s allies that one might abandon the field’.

Good luck in swamps everywhere. And take heart from Galbraith’s assurance: ‘Remember that most Washington battles are won not out of one’s own strength but from loss of confidence in others and the resulting rush to cover’.