The MacGuffin Presidency MACGUFFIN (n) ~ In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.
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s many Americans get prepared for the End of Times on January 20th with the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump and even larger swaths of people around the world are inspired by the eloquent dire warnings of Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, it might be time for a single lone voice to offer a revelation: it may be big news that Donald Trump is going to be President; but it is far bigger news that the Trump Presidency is going to be the biggest MacGuffin in the history of televised action.

So get your popcorn ready, world, and remember the most important thing of all: that while a MacGuffin is usually effective in keeping the plot moving forward and maintaining your emotional peak investment, in the end it is also always intrinsically lacking any real meaning at all.

To prove this let us take and dissect several announcements that have all gone intensively viral across the web in recent weeks:

1. Trump fires all Ambassadors and Special Envoys, ordering them out by inauguration day.

The reality of this is more about being strictly rigid with the technical rule that has always been in place rather than being radically authoritarian with long-established tradition. Political appointees, which Ambassadors and Special Envoys are, usually expect to be replaced whenever one President leaves and another one enters the Oval Office, especially when that change also involves a switch in political party for the incoming President. In the past, many former holders of the Oval Office have allowed relatively slight extensions for such people to leave. What Trump has done is break with that relatively modern flexible interpretation of the rule, choosing instead to follow the actual rule in place to the letter by telling the political appointees over a month in advance that January 20th would be their final day to serve. It is also important to note that regardless of the presence or employment status of any Ambassador or Special Envoy, every single American embassy around the world has someone called the Deputy Chief of Mission. This person is almost without question a career Foreign Service Official specifically suited and experienced with running the everyday affairs of an Embassy while it undergoes the transition of a new incoming Ambassador. So the intimation that Trump is ‘firing’ all ambassadors and leaving our foreign missions in chaos is simply wrong.

2. House brings back the Holman rule allowing them to reduce an individual civil service or political appointee's salary to $1, effectively firing them by amendment to any piece of legislation. We now know why they wanted names and positions of people in Energy and State.

The Holman Rule actually goes all the way back to 1876 and does indeed allow lawmakers to cut the pay of individual federal workers down to $1. This viral coverage is almost universally tagged to the idea that it is a Republican attempt to be able to single out, for example, climate change scientists, for financial intimidation: if you de facto eliminate people’s earnings they will have no choice but to depart from that employment and seek wages elsewhere. Therefore, the huge outcry with this so-called reimplementation of the Holman Rule is that it is going to basically ‘de-science’ whatever the Republican Congress does not like. All of this sounds horrifically ominous and unjust. It also happens to be hyperbolic melodrama as it leaves out one critical aspect of the process: under the Holman Rule, any such amendment against an individual cannot be an arbitrary decision. Rather, the amendment in question has to face a vote from the entire United States Congress - the House of Representatives AND the Senate - and the vote must achieve a majority affirmation in order to be in effect. As we have already seen with the in-coming Congress, even though it is ‘controlled’ by Republicans, the Grand Ole Party has shown itself to be remarkably NON-unified on most issues and has not been successful in achieving majority decisions, even on the issues they were supposed to be united on. The Holman Rule is no such issue and therefore the likelihood of this ever being successfully engineered is extremely low.

3. The US Senate schedules 6 simultaneous hearings on cabinet nominees and triple-books those hearings with Trump's first press conference in months and an ACA budget vote, effectively preventing any concentrated coverage or protest.

This story has already been slightly deflated as 1/3 of those hearings have already been moved to different days. Ironically, this has drawn derisive anger from the right as ‘having caved’ to Congressional Democrats and proving the majority party has ‘no spine.’ So much for the characterization of Congressional Republicans being some form of neo-Dark Side army from Star Wars mythology, haughtily strutting about and chuckling at the impotent mewlings of progressives. In addition, scheduling a press conference on the same day as tumultuous confirmation hearings is not only NOT atypical, it is political PR 101: create news where you DO control the narrative if you are worried things could be happening elsewhere in which the narrative is largely out of your control. There can be no argument that Trump appointee confirmation hearings are going to be a circus beyond all circuses, with people clearly using the opportunity to turn it into their own specific platforms and personal soapboxes. That is the nature of modern-day confirmation hearings. It happened with Obama. It happened with W. It happened with Clinton. So, the decision by the Trump team to create a ‘political diversion’ by finally offering up the President-elect in a news conference (something he admittedly seems loathe to do so far) is a brilliant stroke of political strategy. But the concern that a press-conference will prevent concentrated coverage or protest is an empty conceit: given the size of the contemporary media and the supposed intensity of emotion against the incoming President, if protest is truly unable to manage multiple fronts that are not even that large or disparate then it seems the anti-Trump movement is not nearly as big or as passionate as it proclaims to be.

4. House GOP expressly forbids the Congressional Budget Office from reporting or tracking ANY costs related to the repeal of the ACA.

I only need to offer a simple direct quote from someone working in the CBO as to this ‘fact’ that has been catching fire all over the web:

"This is false. Section 3(h) on page 25 of HRes 5 establishes a point of order against a bill that would increase net direct spending by more than $5 billion in any of the four decades AFTER the budget window used for cost estimates prepared under the Budget Act. And it requires CBO to include in its cost estimates an analysis of whether the bill increases such costs in the long term (that requirement has been in place for quite some time). That section (in 3(h)(4)(A) and (B) then exempts ACA related bills from that long-term requirement. It has nothing to do with whether CBO can provide the normal cost estimates of legislation, including those related to the ACA. Furthermore, this a House rule; it does not apply to the Senate."

She added that the reporting on this has been very uninformed. Really? “Reporting” that has been almost exclusively dominated by unvetted blog declarations online (ie, not run by accredited members of the formal media), covering aspects of internal house budget procedural rules (an arcane and insane depth of bureaucratic weed-diving if there ever was one), is ‘uninformed?’ The only real question is whether it is uninformed or simply purposely misleading in order to enrage people over nothing.

5. Trump continues to throw the intelligence community under the bus to protect Putin, despite the growing mountain of evidence that the Russians deliberately interfered in the election.

The misdirection in this accusation has been breathtakingly impressive. First, it was not that long ago when there was open protest and a ‘throwing under the bus’ of the Intelligence Community for it supposedly having too much of a political role in determining whether or not America should have gone to war in Iraq. The Intelligence Community at the time rightfully protested what was a fundamental misunderstanding by the American public as to what its true function in American democracy was supposed to be: namely, the IC is to collect information, assess and evaluate the data, and present the report findings to actual policy-makers who are then charged with deciding what they wish to do with it. Under no circumstance in the entire history of the American Intelligence Community has there ever been a clamor, from the public or the IC itself, for intelligence professionals to be the ones to exclusively commandeer or determine foreign policy. The mere thought that it may have come close to doing that in a subtle and quiet way in Iraq back in 2003 made the entire country apoplectic with the supposed breakdown of our system of checks and balances. Now apparently, because it is Trump, the public’s desire is to do that very thing. It should be noted that the Intelligence Community has been the only player in this political charade to respectfully remind people that it seeks no policy-making role and only has a responsibility to report findings to the President-elect and at that point it is the privilege and responsibility of the President-elect to do with the reports whatever he deems best.

Finally, a comment really needs to be made about that so-called mountain of evidence proving ‘Russian interference.’ I have written extensively on this before so I will not repeat comments already made. But what does need to be emphasized is the innate danger the Democratic Party is crafting for its future political campaigns if it continues to ever more heavily lean on the Russian bogeyman as an explanation as to why it lost to Trump in 2016. The Russians almost certainly conducted some shady maneuvers that amounted to a semi-effective PAC ad campaign against Clinton. They did this because they were worried that Hillary was undoubtedly going to be the winner and her positions for several years had been decidedly and very publicly anti-Russian. Attempting to besmirch and weaken her ‘incoming mandate’ was not only wise, it was politically necessary from a Russian foreign policy perspective. But that interference did not rig voting machines or intimidate voters from participating in important swing states across America. It simply is not proven that Clinton lost because of the Russians. The important subtext in the IC reporting de facto makes note of this. But the increasing importance Democrats are placing on this issue, as if they have in fact proven it when they haven’t, only means they are looking for expedient escapism so as to not face their own flawed approach to the presidential campaign.

6. Trump breaks a central campaign promise to make Mexico pay for the wall by asking Congress (in other words, the American taxpayers) to pay for it.

This last entry is symbolic because it represents at least a dozen other issue points Trump spoke to on the campaign trail and has subsequently walked back since being elected. What’s odd is the progressive outcry about it. Since almost the entire Trump platform, point by point, was ridiculed and reviled by the Left in America during the campaign, you would think walking those points back would only mean progressives, liberals, libertarians, and moderate Republicans en masse could breathe a sigh of relief. After all, Trump KEEPING his campaign promises is what was repeatedly considered the political End of Times for these groups. Trump breaking most if not all of his campaign promises should therefore be a blessing. And yet it is not. It is instead used as another stimulus to enable garment-renting, hand-wringing anti-Trump kvetching, the intensity of which has perhaps never been seen in political America before.

And this, alas, seems to be the true nature and purpose of the MacGuffin Presidency. What Trump truly does, what he truly represents and strives to achieve is amorphous, ephemeral, immaterial. Quite honestly, it’s irrelevant. A MacGuffin, remember, cannot in and of itself BE. It serves only to set and keep the plot in motion. And Trump, whether he likes it or not, whether he realizes it or not, is the MacGuffin for both left and right, for liberal and conservative, for American and global, to draw their battle lines in the sand and fight. The next four years are indeed going to be interesting. But I doubt they will be because of anything Trump actually does. Because, in the end, President MacGuffin is not seen or heard. He simply moves everyone else along their devoted paths and agendas.

Dr. Matthew Crosston

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Vice Chairman of Modern Diplomacy and member of the Editorial Board at the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

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