Our petulant president
With each new juicy and jaw-dropping anecdote from Bob Woodward's bombshell book Fear: Trump in the White House, which will be released next week, the truth about President Trump becomes ever more clear: He is the most unprepared and unworthy president in American history.
This is a man who reportedly called his own attorney general "mentally retarded," with the accent of a "dumb Southerner"; who felt condemning white supremacists was his "biggest f---ing mistake"; and who rather casually mused about want to "f---ing kill" Syria's Bashar al-Assad. (Trump, of course, says the whole book is full of "made up frauds, a con on the public.")
This much is clear: Almost every day President Trump violates a different norm or governing procedure. Whether it's contemplating a pardon that hasn't gone through the normal process or weighing in on policy because he saw something on Fox News, Trump routinely ignores decades or even centuries of precedents shaped by presidents of both parties.
Each time this happens, the left, and some on the right, react with alarm. They correctly observe that most of the safeguards in our democracy owe to norms and traditions, not legal barriers. They also point to ominous parallels from the past when democracy collapsed, replaced by dangerous authoritarians or fascists.
But these warnings miss something crucial: More evidence points to Trump being a petty, woefully unprepared person than a budding authoritarian with a master plan. Rather than trying to crush democracy, he is just trying to run the country as he ran his family company.
This doesn't make Trump any less bad or less dangerous, but understanding and acknowledging this difference is critical to persuading those Americans who have doubts about Trump, but don't hate him, of the danger he poses. And winning over these voters is crucial to electing Democrats in 2018 and Trump's eventual challenger in 2020.
Norms and governing traditions mean little to Trump.
He has demonstrated it repeatedly. In his first week in office, he enacted a travel ban without adequately consulting the requisite agencies and departments, leading to chaos and legal smackdowns. Months later, he pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of violating a court order, without consulting with the Justice Department or following the procedure for pardons abided by his predecessors. He's also blatantly ignored obstruction of justice statutes, persistently tweeting things about the Russian investigation, violated ethics rules, exposed classified information, and, just last week, refused for a time to lower the flag over the White House to honor the late John McCain because of petty personal animosity. The list goes on.
Trump's disregard for norms and protocols has unquestionably weakened our democracy, fractured relations with allies, and led to a series of poor, even cruel actions that have morally stained the country while harming millions.
This behavior has also produced endless warnings about the autocratic tendencies lurking in Trump's actions and diatribes. A Google search for "Trump" and "authoritarian" returns a whopping eight million results alone.
But while understandable, these warnings miscomprehend Trump's essence and motivations.
He might seem like a despot, but above all he's acting like what he is: a man whose work experience consists of running a family-owned business and being the star of his own television show. In these environments, no one told Trump "no," he could fire anyone who crossed him, and there were no constraints on his authority. Whatever impulse struck him, he could act upon.
The presidency should be a totally different beast, with far more constraints dictating behavior. And it would — if Trump understood the presidency. But he is woefully ill-informed thanks in part to his disinterest in briefings or preparation.
He bristles at any advice that tries to temper his whims. After all, he heard countless warnings during the 2016 campaign that ignoring norms would provoke disaster only to score a stunning victory — reinforcing his instinct to do things his way.
This toxic combination means that, as an anonymous senior administration official wrote in The New York Times this week, "meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed, and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back."
It is this ignorance, incompetence, and unwillingness to rely on expertise — not a sinister intent to undermine democracy — that drive Trump's worst tendencies.
If Trump is admittedly dangerous, why does it matter that admonitions about the risk he poses get his motives wrong or oversimplify the situation? Because these warnings come off as hysterical to the many Americans who are skeptical of Trump, but don't accept the darkest views of him. And that risks them tuning out Trump critics.
To these Americans, Trump may be a lot of negative things: boorish, petulant, even foolish. But they simply don't see him as a budding dictator. And they're probably right.
Their opinions also matter because it is these voters who will determine the fate of the Republican congressional majorities in November, as well as Trump's eventual political fate. They must be convinced of the danger that Trump poses, and the best shot of prosecuting that case is through making the more believable — and equally damning — case: Trump has proven utterly incapable of doing the job, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
That's the strongest case for constraining him over the next two years and replacing him in 2020.