A new report from Axios, the Cliffs Notes spinoff-cum-competitor to Politico, reveals that Donald Trump, our President, spends “around 60%” of his time in what former Chief of Staff John Kelly dubbed “Executive Time.” Kelly’s drive and acumen as an administrator were always overrated by a press that’s too easily awed by a man with a salad bar on his chest, but Executive Time is an admittedly inspired coinage. It so perfectly says to different audiences precisely what they want to hear: to the big-boy President and his remaining admirers, that his unstructured, unscheduled hours are, well, executive, and to the ranks of vicious White House infighters and the President’s many angry detractors, that he is probably taking a dump.
Twitter, which in the last few years has turned into something like a terrible night of sketch comedy where the drinks are watery and the only prompt is Donald Trump, pounced. The President, whom many believe literally to suffer from dementia in addition to his being a racist, sexist, fascist-adjacent, serial-harasser madman, is also revealed as lazy. This, I think, is one of the weird underlying articles of faith in the modern meritocracy: that to be busy and indefatigable, even when everything you do and accomplish is bad and evil, is better—professionally, ethically, even morally—than to be a couch potato who spends the majority of his time staring into the flickering light of the electric-blue hearth and tweeting orthographically-challenged exhortations to his panting fans. Everything Donald Trump does is wrong, in other words, and, also, he should be doing more of it.
In fact, Trump’s yawning days are not that much different from those of any other high-flying executive. From Elon Musk claiming to work 100 hours a week to huge CEO surveys purporting to separate mere managers from visionary leaders through statistical analysis of the granular details of their daily activities, there is a thriving subgenre of the business and financial press that explains, and advocates for, the ways effective executives really spend their time. (Actually, most of the recent articles seem to refer back, directly or indirectly, to a single, 6-year study published in 2017.) In general, the upshot is: these guys work more than you, certainly more than the louche, dissipated Donald Trump.
Do they? On the surface, the genre suggests a far stricter regimen than the sprawling, unscheduled blocks of time on Donald Trump’s daily schedule. But even a cursory look at the stats reveals something much more like the appearance of being busy, with most of the day given over to series of meetings in hour-long blocks, many of them recurring one-on-ones with direct reports and other underlings. The heroes of business spend much of the rest of their time on the phone and doing email.
None of this is really in contrast to what the White House says and the Axios report admits: “The private schedules we published below do not list all Trump’s meetings over the past three months.” As New York Times correspondent Annie Karnie noted, Trump’s catch-all executive time is less a suggestion that the poor man is confusedly wandering the halls than that he and his administration don’t necessarily want you, us, anyone to know who they’re talking to all day.
It is also worth noting that the President–in a literal turn to a common businessman brag–lives at the office (as he did when he lived, and worked, in Trump Tower). The distinction made by critics, who are fond of pointing out that Trump rarely makes his way to the actual Oval Office before 11 a.m., gives both too much and too little credit to the geographic distinction between home and office. This, too, is common among the executive class, who view much of what we normal schmucks see as something other than work as just one more subdivision of their busy days: a commute, a lunch, a flight, a round of golf. Trump himself gets a lot of grief for his avid pursuit of the world’s dumbest sport, but would you really argue, at the end of the back nine, that playing golf is distinct from the business of Donald Trump, which is itself just…being Donald Trump.
In either case—whether the President is live-tweeting Fox or listening in befuddled silence to the crackpot wife of a Supreme Court Justice hold forth about the obsessions of memeified conservative Facebook—the President is mostly doing what other executives spend most of their time doing: sitting in rooms with people, talking and being talked to.
In this regard, the modern senior executive suite is, more even than modern middle management, the final form of what David Graeber called the “bullshit job”—the workplace as a skein of time-filling make-work whose main output is the unending, circular production of more holds on a never-ending Outlook calendar.
In the late aughts, when I had recently moved into a management position myself, I was put in charge of scheduling and organizing a biannual meeting between our CEO, some of his leadership team, and an external advisory committee. Like most advisory committee meetings, it was largely a formality. The committee would gather for a catered breakfast or lunch; our executives would talk at them; someone would ask a gentle question or make an over-general suggestion; the important folk would filter out; the rest of us peons would hang around to divide up the cookies and fruit to take back to our respective offices.
Because of the occasionally sensitive nature of the topics discussed, however, we found it necessary to hold a series of agenda-crafting and -review meetings prior to the actual advisory meeting, sometimes augmented by conference calls with a select group of advisory committee members who also sat on the actual board of directors. At one point, I figured out that we had spent seven hours in meetings to prepare an agenda for a single subsequent 90-minute meeting. These pre-meeting agenda meetings generally included five or six people, including our CEO, and so in the end we spent the man-hour equivalent of an entire workweek putting perhaps ten bullet points on a piece of paper.
Whatever the President of the United States is doing—and I am sure it is a great big steaming pile of not much—is, like so much about this big steaming pile of administration, not some terrible aberrance, but a grimly funny apotheosis.