We’ve been fearing the possibility of Trump’s succeess in exerting his executive authority to corrupt and ultimately extinguish American democracy. His assault on the meaning of “truth” and “lies” has blurred that crucial distinction in the minds of his followers. He has denounced the free press as the “enemy of the people” and barred the White House briefing room to major news outlets that have criticized his administration. He is prosecuting a group of people based on their religion and has accused the protesters who oppose his policies of being paid to do so. His spokesman, Steven Miller, has firmly asserted that the president’s authority “will not be questioned,” Trump’s response to the thwarting by the judiciary of his immigration ban.
Trump loves to win and basks in praise. Putin called him “bright and talented,” prompting Trump to say it was “a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.” Conversely, Trump hates losing so much that he vehemently denies defeat in the face of all evidence to the contrary. (How often has he insisted on his “record-breaking” electoral college win and attendance at his inaugural?) He retaliates against real and perceived criticism by discrediting its source, like the “so-called judge” who stayed his travel ban. Even worse, he tweeted, “if something bad happens blame him and court system,” directing opprobrium away from his incompetent overreach and against the courts.
Trump’s most hostile remarks and actions are vindictive. Consequently, the likelihood of Trump’s failure, not his success, as president is giving rise to a new fear— that Trump’s anger and frustration will fuel his hostility to democratic institutions. Journalist Ezra Klein is turning from dread of Trump’s autocratic nature to alarm at the president’s demonstrated unwillingness to learn the ropes in his new job in order to govern effectively. Klein began to recognize that
Trump might have the will to power, but he doesn’t have the discipline for it. Grim scenarios suggesting his presidency would grow too strong missed the likelier scenario that it would be extremely weak.
Klein cites the “convincing” argument of Yuval Levin, editor of “National Affairs” journal:
I think the more plausible cause for worry is that he will be a dysfunctional president. He seems to have come in without a clear sense of the nature and character of the presidency in our system, and he’s not playing that role but rather using the presidency as a platform for playing the role he has always played. And for now the White House team seems to be reinforcing that rather than counteracting it. The result of that seems more likely to be dysfunction than autocracy.
The infighting and inexperience of Trump’s staff, its failure to fill many administrative posts, Trump’s uncontrollable impulses to immediately tweet his reaction to what he sees on television, the weakness of his executive orders that can’t withstand judicial review all manifest the dysfunction of the White House. “How is he going to go from here to strongman?” Klein asks.
But Ron Klain, chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden adds his voice. Klain theorizes that “If Trump became a full-fledged autocrat, it will not be because he succeeds in running the state.” He continues,
It’ll be that he fails, and he has to find a narrative for that failure. And it will not be a narrative of self-criticism. It will not be that he let you down. He will figure out who the villains are, and he will focus the public’s anger at them.
We’ve already seen that dynamic. If “something bad happens,” because of the stayed travel ban, then blame the judge and the courts. If the press is critical, don’t give them any access, call their reporting fake news and lies. Neutralize the opposition by smearing it: the “lying” New York Times,” “most overrated” actress Meryl Streep, “unwatchable” and “not funny” “Saturday Night Live.” Trump vanquished his rivals for the presidency by branding them with slurs: “low energy” Jeb Bush, “Lyin'” Ted, “crooked” Hillary, etc.
Who will have the power to curb Trump’s worst impulses? Who is going to call him out? We need more than two Republicans. John McCain and Lindsay Graham can’t do it alone. What will it take for others step up to the plate?