Talking Points

The unimportance of Trump's incompetence

The most talked-about essay of the past week is undoubtedly Robert Kagan's "Our constitutional crisis is already here" in The Washington Post, a long, gripping examination of the very serious danger that Donald Trump poses to American democracy as the country approaches the 2024 presidential election.

But that doesn't mean everyone is convinced. Ross Douthat of The New York Times finds the argument unpersuasive because Kagan (like, Douthat thinks, most liberal Trump worriers) fails to take into account Trump's incompetence. What we learned from Trump's time in the White House, according to Douthat, is that he had barely any idea how government functions or how to get it to do his bidding even on ordinary issues of policy, let alone in launching a successful coup. Hence Douthat concludes that anyone who insists that "Trump is personally going to organize his way to a constitutional crisis without any of the powers he enjoyed in 2020 needs to deal with the reality of how incompetently he used all those powers from '16 to '20."

That might be a persuasive critique if Kagan had suggested that Trump would single-handedly manage to reverse a loss in the 2024 election, making himself president through fine-tuned manipulation of the levers of power. But that isn't Kagan's argument at all. Kagan claims the following: that if Trump runs, he will win the GOP nomination; that if he's the nominee and he loses the election, he will claim he was robbed a second time by voter fraud; and that the consequence of this claim will be much worse than what happened in the aftermath of the 2020 election.

The outcome won't be worse because Trump is some kind of genius at controlling the institutions of American democracy, which would of course be much more difficult for him to do from the outside looking in than it was with him fuming in the Oval Office last winter. The outcome will be worse because of the one political talent Trump does possess, which is the demagogic manipulation of public opinion — precisely the same skill he wielded in 2016, first to take over the GOP and then to win his narrow victory over Hillary Clinton.

It is this skill that has persuaded two thirds of Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen. It's this skill that has inspired a series of Republican-dominated states to replace election officials with Trump loyalists. And it's this skill that keeps most Republicans in Congress from speaking out against Trump's civically corrosive lies.

It wouldn't take any kind of governing competence at all for Trump to sow chaos after the 2024 vote, which is really all that Kagan predicts, including "weeks of competing mass protests across multiple states as lawmakers from both parties claim victory and charge the other with unconstitutional efforts to take power."

Where would such chaos end? I have no idea, but it's nowhere good. And Donald Trump has more than enough talent to pull it off.