What if Trump was Actually Competent?
Congressional leadership’s unwillingness to stand up to the President should be deeply concerning, to say the least.
Last week, on the heels of his gross mishandling of the Neo-Nazi Rally in Charlottesville, Donald Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio. After “condemning” the Charlottesville terrorism by blaming “both sides”, by insisting that not all people marching at the white supremacist rally were white supremacists, and by claiming that some of them were “very fine people”, Trump was facing serious criticism. So what did he do? He held a rally to whine to his supporters, complained about the media misrepresenting his words (while actually misrepresenting his own words), and decided to pardon a racist piece of shit who had been shown time and time again to be acting outside the law.
This is easy to ignore for a few reasons. For one, you can only focus on so much at a given time. We’re still dealing with the fallout of our President’s failure to condemn Nazis (which really shouldn’t be that fucking hard a thing to do), as well as the fact that there are still fucking Nazis in our country, and apparently they feel comfortable enough to march openly in our streets, let alone do so with a nod to our President, who they (rightfully) believe to be on their side. That’s certainly enough to occupy one’s mental space for the time being.
Secondly, it’s almost hard to fathom how one man could be this deplorable. How could you follow up an inability to condemn racist terrorism with the pardoning of a racist criminal? At some point, it’s tough to find the outrage because it’s tough to truly wrap your head around. But that’s what Trump does. He digs a hole, and then he digs it deeper. Remember when the access hollywood tape of him bragging about sexual assault came out? His response was to downplay it by calling it “locker room talk”, and then pivot to attacking Bill Clinton. He even brought women who had previously accused Bill of sexual assault on camera before his debate with Hillary. It was truly and utterly disgusting. But that’s how Trump works. While most normal people either apologize for their mistakes or simply move on from them, Trump amplifies them.
But the main reason one might feel inclined to downplay Trump’s pardoning of Arpaio was because of just how typical it was. There was nothing unique, brave, bold or special about what Trump did; in fact, it was blatantly obvious and utterly predictable. We’ve seen this tale time and time again. When Trump is being attacked, he looks for approval. When he wants approval, he goes to his base. And what makes his base happy? Doing something absurdly and unequivocally racist or discriminatory.
It’s easy to think that — and I would likely agree — at some point, we have to stop collectively playing Trump’s games. He feeds on attention. It’s what got him elected. I think Trump likes saying and doing things he likely knows will be controversial. It riles up his base, it focuses attention on him, it pisses people off, and it makes him feel special and unique. But Trump’s giant game of “piss off as many people as possible and be as controversial and deplorable as possible” is getting awfully old. When the baby has a tantrum, you ignore him. And when Trump does stupid shit, one might be inclined to think, you don’t give him the satisfaction of any attention.
So I can see why Trump’s pardoning of Arpaio would be easy to scoff at and brush to the side. But I think it’s at least partially worth focusing on insofar as it points us to a much more concerning problem: Trump’s pardoning of Arpaio is yet another indication of both his cruelty towards ordinary citizens and his utter disregard for the law. And the degree to which Trump’s authoritarian impulses have gone unchallenged by congress should be deeply concerning for the citizens of this country, as it shows our vulnerability toward a potential Authoritarian future, even if said future were not led by Donald Trump.
Donald Trump: Scary Candidate, Lazy President
If you go back and watch the tape of Donald Trump campaigning, it was some scary stuff. He truly acted and sounded like a brutal authoritarian leader. Even if his ideology wasn’t always coherent or consistent, his speeches were almost always angry, hateful rants, filled with vicious, aggressive, and base language. He incited violence at his campaign rallies and spoke of punishing his enemies, using whatever means necessary to do so. It was strictly an us vs them mentality, with no room for nuance or compromise. And his enemies weren’t really enemies of the United States; rather, they were anybody who he saw as standing in his way. If you weren’t with Donald Trump, you were against Donald Trump. And if you were against Donald Trump, there would be no mercy.
As a President, he’s been a little different. Sure, he’s still filled with anger and still thinks in terms of a base tribal mindest. But it hasn’t been with quite the same level of intensity. If anything, his first eight or so months have been that of a President deeply disinterested in governing. He still tweets a lot, but reports from the white house have painted a picture of a man with absolutely no interest in governing. He can’t even manage to read through reports or sit through meetings. He even once admitted that he missed his old life and that this new job was a lot harder than he expected. (Cue world’s smallest violin) Republicans more or less seem to be ignoring him at this point, understanding that if they let him vent on Twitter, he won’t do much to get in their way legislatively. As Chris Hayes of MSNBC recently suggested, Trump seems to want to be able to say whatever he wants without having to be held accountable for it (his anger whenever the media accurately reports things he previously said seems to support this). And that certainly wouldn’t mean having to actually take steps to ensure that his ideas are enacted into policy. His legislative agenda (or lack thereof) seems to support this notion, as outside of a lot of meaningless executive orders, he has very few substantive legislative accomplishments to show for his first 100 days.
This is not to downplay any of the very real and serious damage Trump has done up to this point. His immigration ban, definitely his most harmful action, has instilled fear into immigrants across the country and has broken up countless families, as has his empowerment of immigration authorities like ICE. His reversal of police reform, led by notable racist Jeff Sessions, will certainly not help the African American communities that have been devastated by racist policing. His withdrawal of Obama’s transgender guidance as well as his ongoing attempt to ban trans people from the military are incredibly harmful to a community of people that already struggle to be seen as people just like the rest of us. He has empowered hate groups and hate crimes, permanently altered our discourse for the worse, done his best to erase the issue of climate change from public conscience, and has embarrased our country and lowered our standing across the world. And this is all in less than a year.
Still, it’s really not as bad as it could have been. I understand that’s coming from a place of total and absolute privilege, and in no way am I saying it’s not really really bad right now. But I also implore you to wonder what Trump’s America might look like if he was actually smart enough to govern or interested in governing instead of just tweeting and watching TV? That notion should deeply concern us as we look toward the future.
What if Trump was actually competent?
During the campaign cycle, Republicans chastized people for overstating Trump’s danger. They scoffed at the Hitler comparisons, the warning cries of fascism and authoritarianism. They instead argued that Trump was just fighting “political correctness” — whatever the hell that means, and after a year of hearing it I still have yet to be convinced that it’s anything more than a cover for being overtly racist — that it was all an act, that he would surround himself with smart people, that he would calm down and become presidential eventually. It turns out they were just hearing what they wanted to hear. They were letting their hatred of liberals blind them and projecting their desires for what they wanted Trump to be onto Trump himself. Those who understood Trump’s danger from the start were the ones that took Trump seriously and didn’t make excuses for his words.
To be sure, Trump hasn’t become Hitler. But it hasn’t been because liberals were overreacting to his rhetoric. It’s because Trump simply doesn’t have the patience, interest, or intelligence in governing. The only thing standing between Trump and Authoritarianism, at least from a legislative standpoint, is Trump himself.
This is not to say that the efforts of the resistance from a civil perspective haven’t been fantastic. It’s been one of the few bright spots of this dark time to watch the people of society band together to stand up for their rights. The activism has been outstanding. Whether it be marching on Washington or calling your senators, the impact of civil involvement cannot be understated. Having worked for NCLD this past summer and having the wonderful opportunity to listen in on inside conversations in DC, I can confidently tell you that the advocacy efforts from a civil standpoint were a big reason, if not the main reason, that this administration failed to repeal Obamacare. Independent advocacy and non-profit groups such as ACLU, as well as courts such as those that challenged Trump’s immigration ban, have done a wonderful job resisting the president as well. This type of mobilization and standing up for rights is worth mentioning and worth celebrating, and it does make a difference.
But then there’s the legislative standpoint. And outside of those three Republican votes that saved Obamacare repeal (which again, I don’t say lightly), there has been almost no meaningful resistance to Trump (and releasing a tepid statement of disagreement after being prodded and then continuing to be silent and vote with the President does not count as meaningful resistance). And for a guy that really sounded like a true dictator when he was running his campaign, that’s concerning. And I get that it wouldn’t look good to stand up against your own party’s President, but to be honest, I don’t care. There are bigger issues at stake here, and you’re elected to serve your country, not kiss the President’s ass.
It’s not the machinery, it’s operator error.
I always cringe when people say that the Constitution failed with Trump, or that checks and balances failed, because the system is working exactly as it’s supposed to. Republicans could impeach Trump in a second if they wanted to. They just have no interest in doing so. Is there any doubt that if Hillary Clinton had done 1% of the things that Trump had done, she would have been impeached by now? (That’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is no.)
No, the only flaw that exists in the system that put Trump in office is that in a representative democracy, we are only as good as the people who vote. Yes, the electoral college is outdated and flawed, but it’s what we’re stuck with, and Trump still got 45% of the vote, when he should have gotten zero percent. We the people elected Donald Trump, just like we elected Paul Ryan and all these corrupt Republicans. At some point, as a country, we have to face that.
Plug the leak before the house floods.
I used Joe Arpaio as a segway into this discussion because it’s a perfect example of Republican leadership’s blatant disregard for Trump’s blatant disregard of law. And this is nothing new. We’ve watched it unfold for the past year, and congressional Republicans stood there and let it happen. Of course, they are not the only ones who hold blame. But as our elected representatives, they are the ones who hold the responsibility to fix it. They have failed us thus far, and there’s little indication they won’t continue to do so.
This should concern us, because it means if someone ran on an authoritarian platform like Trump’s, but actually had the drive to push through with it once in office, there’s no reason to believe that anyone in the government would be willing to stop them.
For example, take Steve Bannon. Steve Bannon was just ushered out of the White House, arguably because he took Trump’s beliefs too seriously. Bannon was arguably the most influential person in putting Trump in the white house, and he’s far from finished with his involvement in the public sphere. Bannon is like Trump in that he is a racist, bigoted, asshole. But where he isn’t like Trump is that he’s intelligent and devoted. He believes in what he says. He has a very coherent set of beliefs, and they are scary. He’s willing to do anything possible to bring those beliefs to fruition, and he’s intelligent enough to make the plans to do so and then to implement those plans. We saw him do it this last election.
Imagine if Steve Bannon ran for President, and won. Or anyone like him. Someone willing and able to follow through on their hateful brand of authoritarianism and white supremacy in a way that Donald Trump hasn’t been up to this point.
That should scare you. Donald Trump, as awful as he’s been up to this point, hasn’t been that guy yet, at least not to the extent that he could have been.
But what he has done has revealed a fundamental fragility in our Democracy, both with regard to the people that vote for our leaders, and with regard to those that are supposed to check the President when he’s in violation of what our Constitution stands for.
We’ll see what happens in these next 3 years, but it’s looking like America is going to come out deeply bruised but all right. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t an omen of worse things to come. If we want to keep our Democracy together and our country free, we need to find a way to address the cracks in the ceiling. Before it’s too late.