How disorienting is political reality in the Trump era? So disorienting that people who devote their lives to observing and analyzing politics can't even agree on whether President Trump is inches away from abolishing democracy and turning himself into a dictator — or if, instead, he's a pitifully weak president who regularly demonstrates his impotence.
This elemental confusion has reached a crescendo during the coronavirus crisis of the last six weeks. Faced with a genuine emergency, Trump has responded by holding daily press briefings in which he rails against journalists, spreads propaganda and disinformation, and demonizes scapegoats. He's also proclaimed that his office gives him the power to do anything he wants and that he could summarily adjourn Congress and use his recess appointment power to bypass the Senate's role in confirming judges. And then there's the most bizarre and irresponsible example of all: the president using Twitter to foment civil unrest against state governments attempting to combat a pandemic.
Yet over this very same six weeks, numerous governors have taken the lead in imposing public-health measures to fight COVID-19 and in laying the groundwork for the gradual loosening of social restrictions. Compared to the decisive actions of Govs. Andrew Cuomo in New York, Phil Murphy in New Jersey, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, and others, the Trump administration has been inept and ineffectual, with the president himself constantly displaying his characteristic impetuousness and inconstancy. The result has been slowness and sloppiness at the federal level that contrasts sharply with displays of nimbleness and competence in states and localities.
So which is it? Is Trump a would-be authoritarian or an enfeebled executive? Dangerously strong or perilously weak?
The answer is both. And until we come to terms with this reality, we will fail to grasp the distinctive character of the danger the Trump presidency poses to our political system.
Presidents have two broad spheres of power. The first is their ability to command the federal government — executive branch departments and agencies, administrative and regulatory bureaucracies — to do things. When it comes to this power, Trump is an extremely weak and ineffective president — as some of the sharpest political analysts on the left have long contended.
This weakness is very clear in the current crisis, when the federal response has been so much more minimal than what we've seen at the state level. But it's actually been true from the start of the Trump presidency, when efforts by the White House to shift policy on immigration and other issues through executive orders immediately ran into roadblocks, and other initiatives that required congressional approval (like appropriating money to build his border wall, or funding infrastructure projects) went nowhere even when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.
Eventually Trump and his advisers figured out ways to work around some barriers and to change policy direction in areas where presidents have long enjoyed the exercise of broad discretion (like trade). But the overall result has been far less of a policy sea-change than Trump's fire-breathing rhetoric might have led one to expect. In many respects, Trump has governed as any Republican elected in 2016 would have — which is one important reason why he's enjoyed such consistently high approval numbers from members of his own party.
Nowhere is this clearer than in what is likely to be the administration's biggest achievement: the appointment (so far) of nearly 200 hardline conservative jurists to the federal courts, including two justices to the Supreme Court. It's perfectly understandable that Democrats and others on the left are unhappy with this record, but a president working with the Senate majority leader to confirm judges in conformity with constitutional norms and procedure is hardly evidence of dictatorial overreach. On the contrary, when such routine appointments are the principal accomplishment of an administration, it's a sign of a weak and undistinguished president.
But this isn't the only kind of power a president wields. The other power is rhetorical — the ability to use language to shape public opinion. It's in this respect that Trump displays genuinely tyrannical tendencies.
Cries of alarm about Trump's authoritarian instincts have tended to come from the center-left and center-right. In response, the president's defenders, as well as those on the left who see him as weak, have repeatedly insisted that what matters is what a president does, not what he says. Trump isn't a tyrant. He merely plays ones on Twitter — and he does so precisely in order to trigger his critics, to provoke them into paroxysms of panic and alarm. That makes them look both unhinged and wildly, irredeemably biased against the president, which Trump uses to keep his support at maximum strength among rank-and-file Republican voters, who love having their ardent hostility to the mainstream media validated.
There's a lot of truth to this account of the president's motives and the immediate consequences of his anti-democratic statements. But it is woefully incomplete.
Trump's dictatorial proclamations point in a much darker direction. Every time the president asserts absolute powers, every time he claims to possess the ability to do things the Constitution doesn't permit him to do, every time he stirs up and actively encourages populist animosity against duly elected public officials, every time he calls journalists enemies of the people who peddle fake news, he normalizes the idea, moving public opinion among a portion of Republican voters a little bit further in the direction of accepting and approving of authoritarianism. Words matter in politics — especially the words of the president, and never more so than in an age when he has the ability to speak to his most rabid supporters instantly and directly.
In many respects, Donald Trump is a weak president. But he talks like an authoritarian strongman, and with each autocratic word he primes a portion of the country for tyranny. Trump himself may not possess the inclination or capacity to act on what his rhetoric is preparing — to test just how many Americans, and how many members of the government, would go along with an explicitly anti-democratic act by the president and his advisers. But that doesn't mean that a successor in the White House will be so constrained.
Trump isn't a dictator. But he's paving the way for a tyrannical tomorrow.
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