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Emperor Trump’s Favorite Horses

Caligula wanted to elevate an equine to high priest. Trump has similar plans for his favorite toadies.
April 12, 2019
Emperor Trump’s Favorite Horses
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages and Shutterstock)

You’ve probably heard the stories about Incitatus.

Incitatus was Caligula’s favorite horse. According the historian Seutonius, Emperor Caligula planned to appoint the horse as a Roman consul. According another ancient historian, Cassius Dio, Caligula made the horse a high priest. These legends were, supposedly, illustrative of Caligula’s madness and contempt for the rule of law.

Modern historians dispute these accounts, of course. The prevailing wisdom now is that to whatever extent Caligula did promote Incitatus, he merely did so in order to own the elites of his time—to show them that they mattered so little that even an animal could do their jobs. According to these revisionist historians, Caligula never actually meant to have his horse made consul and didn’t really mean that his horse was a high priest. He was just trolling his enemies.

Whichever case is true, it’s pretty clear that we have now reached the Incitatus phase of the Trump presidency.

The Federal Reserve Board is made up of appointees who are typically apolitical economists, academics with backgrounds in public policy, or professionals with extensive experience in banking and finance. In recent weeks President Trump has proposed two men who are manifestly unqualified for such positions.

He has done so because he is displeased with the performance of the man he made chairman of the Federal Reserve, Jay Powell. More specifically: The president is displeased that the chairman of the Federal Reserve does not take orders from him.

And so the only real qualifications of Stephen Moore, who has been formally nominated, and Herman Cain, who has faced opposition from senators even without Trump submitting his name, are that they are 100 percent, down-the-line, button-men for Trump.

Here’s Catherine Rampell on Moore:

A decade ago, as the Fed was battling deflation (that is, price declines ) during the financial crisis, Moore preposterously fearmongered that hyperinflation (that is, out-of-control price increases ) was nigh: Americans could soon be carting “wheelbarrows full” of cash a la Weimar Germany. Moore has also repeatedly predicted that tax cuts would pay for themselves—both at the federal level, and in Kansas—despite all evidence to the contrary. . . .

A newspaper banned him from its pages because of his struggles in getting basic statistics right. During the dozens of times I’ve debated him on TV, he has persistently misstated easily Google-able facts. These include whether the country is experiencing deflation, whether Canada’s tariffs are “twice as high as” ours, and whether the Fed predicted that Trump would crash the stock market. (Nope, nope, and huh? ) . . .

Moore is a political operative: His policy choices appear to be determined by what’s best for his party, not what is best for the economy. You can see that in the way he cherry-picks or misstates economic numbers in TV debates; or in the fact that he once gleefully nicknamed the Trump tax cuts he helped design “death to Democrats,” predicting the law would hurt unions, colleges, Obamacare, and blue states writ large.

Two years ago, Moore claimed, “I’m not an expert on monetary policy.” Which is, you know, the entire reason the Federal Reserve Bank exists.

Moore’s only qualification for the job is that he wrote a worshipful book called Trumponomics. Trump knows that when he kicks his spurs, Moore will be ready to run.

If it’s even possible, Herman Cain is probably more of an embarrassment. Cain, the man behind America’s worst pizza chain and the ridiculous 9-9-9 tax plan is such a transparently ridiculous nominee that even Republican senators feel free to trash him out loud.

What’s Cain’s qualification for the job? It’s that he founded a PAC called America Fighting Back, whose entire reason for being is to encourage Republicans to support President Trump, on every issue, no matter what.

“Do you seriously want a guy on the Fed that has a whole organization, the only purpose of it is to encourage Republicans to do whatever the president says he’d like you to do?” one Republican senator asked Politico.

“We” might not want that. But it’s pretty clear that this is more or less the only attribute the president of the United States values.

In 2016, the good-faith conservative argument for Donald Trump went something like this:

Yes, he’s vulgar and untrustworthy. Yes, he breaks some valuable norms. But at the end of the day, the machinery of the system is so vast and heavy that he won’t be able to damage anything important. The guardrails will hold. And in the meantime, we’re likely to get some policy outcomes that we prefer.

The Moore and Cain nominations make that position harder. Politicization of the Fed is the type of destabilization that could lead to worst-case scenarios.

Yet it’s worse than that, even. The nominations of Cain and Moore to the Fed are acts of genuine malice toward the weighty obligations of governance. The president is mocking his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.

And it’s not just Moore and Cain.

Have you noticed how many high-ranking appointments in the Trump administration are now “temporary” or “acting”?

Mick Mulvaney is the acting chief of staff. Peter Gaynor is the acting administrator of FEMA. Russell Vought is the acting director of OMB. Kevin McAleenan is the acting secretary of homeland security. Patrick Shanahan is the acting secretary of defense. Defense and Homeland Security . . . who needs them, anyhow?

Why is this? Why would a chief executive staff large portions of his administration with conditional appointments? There are only two explanations. Either the president is lazy and disorganized. Or he is trying to exert an extra level of control.

Firing a confirmed secretary of defense, for instance, is a big deal. People would notice. Which gives a confirmed secretary some small bit of leverage in dealing with a president. Not enough leverage to force the president’s hand—but enough to force the president to listen to an opposing view if the SecDef thinks the commander-in-chief is making a mistake.

President Trump does not want his top advisers to have even that level of independence. You could look at this charitably and call it top-down management. The less charitable interpretation is that he values lockstep loyalty over intelligence, judgments, skill, or experience.

This should not be a surprise. We’ve all gotten used to the fact that the president’s two most trusted advisers are his 37-year-old daughter and her 38-year-old husband. But just because we’re used to it does not mean that it is normal.

It’s true that upon taking office, Donald Trump found that the weight of our system of government did constrain him from acting out his every wish. But Trump has slowly learned to get around these built-in safety measures. That’s why he fired Jeff Sessions and replaced him with a more compliant attorney general. It’s why he declared an extra-constitutional state of emergency to grab funding for his wall. It’s why he first tried to bully his Fed chairman and is now trying to circumvent him by stacking the board with loyalists. It’s why he’s slowly turning over senior positions and refusing to restock them with permanent, Senate-confirmed hires.

Even if you were inclined to hope for the best in a Trump presidency, the guardrails look a lot more wobbly than they did three years ago.

Correction, April 12, 2019, 9:03 a.m.: The article originally said that “David Bernhardt is the acting secretary of the interior.” On April 11, 2019, Bernhardt was confirmed by the Senate, 56-41, 66 days after being nominated to the post.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.