Is President Trump an aspiring authoritarian dictator — or does he just play one on Twitter?
Many Americans have spent the better part of the 18 months since Trump's electoral victory fretting about the danger he poses to liberal democratic government in the United States. That's because he talks and tweets like a tyrant — relentlessly attacking the press, displaying contempt for norms of independent law enforcement, spreading paranoid conspiracy theories about the reliability of elections and the threat posed to the country by various minority groups, especially immigrants. (Among the latest examples was Trump's rabid speech at Saturday night's rally in Michigan.)
If you focus exclusively on what the president says, you might conclude that Trump is a despot overseeing the consolidation of an authoritarian system several clicks further away from liberal democracy than Viktor Orbán's Hungary. That so many on the left have modeled their opposition to the president on the idea of a "resistance" is a sign that many of them are doing precisely that — paying more attention to Trump's words than his actions.
Because when we focus on his actions, we're confronted by a very different reality.
The fact is that Donald Trump is an extraordinarily weak president. It is hard to declare him the weakest in American history — but only because the scope of the presidency has expanded so dramatically in recent decades with the rise of the administrative state and the national security state. But in the context of that more recent history, Trump is astonishingly impotent — a veritable portrait in feebleness.
As one well-connected Republican put it to me on a recent visit to Washington, the Trump administration is giving us a sense of what it would be like to have no president at all. The government goes about its business. Checks get mailed. Paperwork gets shuffled from office to office. But there is ultimately no one in charge to set priorities or establish an overarching direction.
The primary reason is that knowledge is power, President Trump knows almost nothing about public policy or how the government works, and he may well be ineducable. The result is an administration with a power vacuum at its core.
Trump's ignorance is behind his failure to make any progress at all on two of the signature proposals from his campaign: the building of a wall along the southern border and the passage of a substantial infrastructure bill. Neither have happened because his own party in Congress is divided about whether to support either policy, and Trump himself has no idea how to go about getting the opposition to bend to his will.
Trump's White House staff could help him, of course, but they're equally divided about the wisdom of both policies — and as we've seen over and over again since the start of the administration, Trump's staff is quite willing to gum up the works to prevent him from getting his way (at least in part because they think he's an idiot).
Witness the year-long delay in imposing trade tariffs, another of Trump's signature policies. As long as Gary Cohn was in the White House, he and allies (who favored free trade) were able to scuttle the president's plans for following a protectionist trade policy, despite the fact that presidents have enormous leeway to set such policy. Trump could have set out on such a path on his first day in office. Instead, it took well over a year and Cohn resigning for the president to prevail.
A similar dynamic played out in mid-April, when Trump learned that his U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley was set to announce new sanctions against Russia despite his own clear opposition to them. In a story on internal White House battles surrounding the issue, The Washington Post reported that the sanctions were dropped just hours before Haley announced them because Trump threw a temper tantrum.
The rant was sparked not only by having been kept out of the policy loop on the sanctions, but also by the way his staff had handled acts of retaliation against Russia for its alleged attack on a Russian national in the U.K. using a nerve agent. The U.S. ended up expelling 60 Russian diplomats, which was far more than Trump preferred.
The overall picture is of an administration running on autopilot — with the ostensible pilot occasionally thrashing about counterproductively to get some momentary modicum of control over the plane.
It would be one thing if the vacuum in the White House were counterbalanced by an assertive Congress eager to take back some of the powers it has allowed to be usurped by the executive branch in recent decades. But alas, there is no evidence of this at all. The GOP majority tried for months to repeal the Affordable Care Act and eventually failed. Then it spent months passing a large tax cut and a budget. And that's it. The rest of this year appears to be a wash, as Republicans keep their heads down while waiting for an expected Democratic wave to deprive them of their majorities. Precious little is happening at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
At least that's the case in the real world. In the virtual world of cable news, talk radio, and Twitter, things couldn't be livelier. And therein lies the paradox of our present moment.
Trump sees himself less as the lead actor on the political stage than as the foremost critic of the unfolding drama. He wants to insult, denounce, and antagonize — and above all to remain at the absolute center of the nation's attention. And one very powerful way to accomplish this is to drive the opposition absolutely crazy, in part by acting the part of a two-bit tyrant on Twitter.
Donald Trump may well be the least formidable president since the Second World War. And the truth is that if the rest of us stopped allowing ourselves to be goaded by his infantile provocations, he’d be even weaker.