Donald Trump's supporters saw it as a virtue that he and his closest advisers had no history in Washington politics. Trump claimed the outsiders would come in and drain the swamp.
The danger, if you grant that Trump truly intended to take power away from the self-dealing insiders, was that his unfamiliarity with the swamp would mean naivety that the savvy swamp creatures could exploit.
Sure enough, Trump showed that naivety recently, with regards to the Jones Act, the federal regulation that bars foreign-flagged ships from carrying goods between American ports. After Hurricane Maria, the administration eventually waived the Jones Act with regard to Puerto Rico, so as to remove one barrier to bringing aid to the devastated island nation. But before Trump took this action, a reporter asked him if he would waive it.
"We're thinking about that," Trump responded, "but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people... who work in the shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted."
That is, Trump was preserving a protectionist regulation because the industry that profits from it -- U.S. shipping companies -- wanted it preserved. Perhaps this was craven corruption by Trump, or perhaps it was hopeless naivety.
To be fair to Trump, he wasn't the first person in Washington to fall for the canard that a regulation is worth keeping if the regulated industry likes it. This was how we got the light-bulb law, after all: Republicans wary about a federal efficiency mandate got in line when the bulb manufacturers all explained that they wanted it. The light-bulb law effectively outlawed the traditional bulb, on which the profit margin was negligible, thus creating a market in which consumers were forced to buy more expensive, higher-margin fluorescents and LEDs.
Liberal supporters of industry and mainstream fact-checkers backed the regs on the grounds that industry liked them. And oddly, the Washington Post fact-checker thought that this fact undermined the veracity of criticisms of the regulations.
This notion is stubborn in Washington: that somehow if big business likes a regulation that means the regulation is harmless or beneficial. Seasoned free-marketers, though, see through this argument. They've witnessed airlines supporting airline regulation, big refiners backing pollution regulations, Philip Morris writing tobacco regulation, Mattel cheering regulation of toys, and a thousand of other examples of big guys using politics to crush smaller competitors.
Seasoned conservatives who have watched Big Pharma and the hospitals back Obamacare, and General Electric and Apple back climate-change laws, and Chamber of Commerce side with Obama on the stimulus and the Export-Import Bank, know not to trust big business.
It doesn't seem Trump has learned this lesson.
The same week he dithered on the Jones Act thanks to the shipping companies, Trump also imposed a huge punitive tax on domestic airlines and their carriers in order to please Boeing.
Bombardier is a Canadian aircraft manufacturer. When Delta airlines bought 125 medium-sized jets from Bombardier a few years back, Boeing cried foul because Bombardier had offered Delta a hefty discount. Boeing lobbied the administration to slap a punitive tariff on imported aircraft, punishing Bombardier for unfair trade practices (i.e., the discount it gave Delta).
The bizarre part of this spat was that Boeing doesn't even make a product that competes with the Bombardier C-series jets that Delta had purchased. Boeing has the political connections to punish a competitor, though, and it is using that power
Small airlines like Spirit and Sun Country—more reliant on the sort of small jets Bombardier makes—jumped in, trying to dissuade the administration from making the airplanes they use more expensive. In the end though, the biggest, most politically connected company won. Airlines and their passengers lost.
Corporate welfare has been a theme in this administration. While candidate Trump opposed the Export-Import Bank, President Trump has called for it to be fully restored. President-elect Trump's first big "victory" involved a large subsidy deal to keep Carrier from leaving Indiana.
There are exceptions: Trump's Food and Drug Administration is moving to remove barriers to generic drugs, and his nominee to head the Export-Import Bank, Scott Garrett, is a strong opponent of corporate welfare. Still, the root problem persists: Trump doesn't understand free enterprise well enough, or the swamp well enough to know cronyism when it comes knocking.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's commentary editor, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Tuesday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.