Are Trump’s stumbles a brilliant ploy to “deconstruct the state,” a political performance, or actual incompetence?
If I were a Trump supporter, I’d be furious at the coverage of the president’s first 100 days. The mainstream media has engaged in a bout of competitive schadenfreude as headline writers and columnists vie for the distinction of deriving the most pleasure from the administration’s failures.
This was, after all, the un-president: a man without qualifications to serve, without a popular mandate from the voters, and, once elected, without much interest in the day-to-day slog of governing. At every opportunity, he seems to prefer to decamp to his Florida mansion, retreat to the nearest links, or set off on yet another “victory tour” of the states he won in the election.
In the lead up to the 100-day mark on April 29, ABC and The Washington Post published a poll demonstrating that Trump, at this juncture in his tenure, is also the most unpopular president in the modern age. Even the administration’s last-minute efforts to tap into the more nationalistic sentiments of the electorate by bombing the Syrian army, bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan, and threatening to bomb the North Koreans seemed to make little difference. Only 42% of the country approve of the president’s performance (compared to Obama’s 69% at the same point in his first term).
At the bottom of The Washington Post article on this poll, however, is a fascinating little tidbit. Pollsters asked the respondents which candidate they supported in the presidential election. Not surprisingly, the figures corresponded more or less to the popular vote. Respondents said that they favoured Clinton over Trump by 46% to 43%.
But then, when asked whom they would vote for if the election were held again today, the respondents delivered a surprise. They actually favoured Trump over Clinton, 43 to 40%.
That’s astonishing. The candidate who lost the popular vote, who has done pretty much nothing since the inauguration other than put his foot in his mouth or on the putting green, who has the lowest approval ratings after 100 days of any president in the modern era, would still beat Hillary Clinton in a rematch — and probably not just in the Electoral College either.
There are three reasons for this cognitive dissonance. First, although her greatest sin is that she’s a conventional politician, Hillary Clinton inspires considerable hatred across large tracts of American politics. Second, a certain fraction of Trump supporters will stand by their man even if he were to sweep aside his orange comb-over to reveal a pair of devil’s horns. According to the same poll, although only 85% of Clinton voters pledged their continued allegiance to their candidate, a remarkable 96% of Trump voters refused to budge in their support. Talk about brand loyalty.
Which brings us to the third reason. The Trump administration has indeed displayed unprecedented incompetence in its first 100 days. But not everyone in the country views that incompetence the same way that the mainstream media does. Indeed, two separate and opposite theories have emerged to explain away what, according to the common-sense view, looks like a lot of people in high places who just don’t know what they’re doing.
The uses of incompetence
According to the adherents of the first theory, the administration of Donald Trump is so dedicated to the deconstruction of the state that it’s using incompetence as a tool. What better way to tear down liberal social programs and undo the regulatory apparatus than to install the manifestly ill-equipped, like Scott Pruitt at EPA or Rick Perry at DOE, in agencies devoted to missions they either don’t understand or don’t appreciate?
Meanwhile, President Trump is making contradictory statements, changing his positions on a daily basis, and spouting outright falsehoods in order to throw off his adversaries, both domestically and abroad. His enemies will underestimate him. They won’t be able to predict his actions. They’ll be scared into adopting conciliatory positions for fear that, like a ruthless and entirely unprepared narcissist, he’ll lash out irrationally and without his country’s best interests at heart.
In other words, what might seem like mental illness is in fact deliberate craftiness.
The second theory holds that the Trump administration is honestly trying to get things done, but a “deep state” – composed either of Obama appointees or national security operatives – is opposing him at every turn. Indeed, this deep state is so influential that it’s turned Trump’s head on Syria (to bomb Assad), China (to make nice), Russia (to destroy the promise of détente), and trade (to back away from a border-adjustment tax).
The “deep state,” according to the more conspiratorial sources, is aligned with a range of international actors, all arrayed against Trump. This list includes international financial institutions, transnational political entities like the UN, and liberal elites (who might not even be liberal, like Angela Merkel of Germany).
Certainly Trump advisers like Steve Bannon are committed to cutting back on all the parts of the government they don’t like (while beefing up those parts they do). And certainly the administration has encountered considerable resistance inside the Beltway and in the world at large to its more radical programs. Yet these explanations are not fully satisfactory.
Which leaves the third possibility – that the incompetence of Trump and his cronies is neither a strategy nor the result of a counter-strategy. The US government is a tremendously complex mechanism, and even smart policy wonks like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama made big mistakes in their first 100 days. Install an ignorant and incurious president who’s brought in a coterie of the narrow-minded and what do you expect?
Thus, the Trump administration has engaged in a stunning display of ham-fisted, tone-deaf, and downright incomprehensible policy maneuvers. It mishandled its travel ban (twice), fumbled the health-care replacement bill, and alienated members of congress on both sides of the aisle with its initial budget proposal. Trump has had embarrassing interactions with the leaders of Russia, Australia, and Germany (among others). The only obvious victory in its first three months has been the appointment of a Supreme Court justice, but that required Senate Republicans to deploy the “nuclear option” and confirm with a simple majority (rather than the hallowed tradition of the filibuster-proof 60 votes).
Then there have been the self-destructive appointments. The congressional confirmation process weeded out a few of the worst performers, like labour department designee Andrew Puzder, while scandal claimed others, like national security adviser Michael Flynn and would-be NSC communications head Monica Crowley.
But the Trump administration has also been quite effective in auto-destruction, as James Hohmann points out in the Post. Here are some of the early departures from the Trump team: Chris Christie (head of the transition team), Katie Walsh (deputy chief of staff), Boris Epshteyn (special assistant to the president), Gerrit Lansing (chief digital adviser), Anthony Scaramucci (head of the Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs), K.T. McFarland (deputy national security advisor), Craig Deere (NSC senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs), and Shermichael Singleton (senior adviser to Ben Carson). Close to the exit door are counter-terrorism advisor Sebastian Gorka (for his ties to a Nazi-affiliated organisation) and Sean Spicer (whose incompetence as press secretary has become legendary).
The Trump revolution has been devouring itself at record speed.
What Americans think
Public opinion pollsters suffered a huge loss of credibility after the results of the 2016 presidential election came in. Up to the last minute, the well-respected FiveThirtyEight site was giving Hillary Clinton a 71.4% chance of winning.
One of the problems with polling is that it doesn’t capture the relative fervency of the respective constituencies. Hillary Clinton had fire in the belly, but many of her supporters did not. Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, were more fired up than even their candidate.
That’s why the latest poll out of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is somewhat misleading. The headline is that the US public sides more with the mainstream foreign policy establishment than with Donald Trump on issues from trade to NATO. Thus, according to the poll, a clear majority of Americans favor US commitment to existing security alliances, embrace economic globalisation and free trade, and support robust engagement in world affairs.
The council acknowledges, however, that on certain key issues, the public diverges from the elite:
The American public and opinion leaders are in fact divided over several key issues, including the importance of protecting American jobs, US immigration policy, and the importance of protecting US allies’ security. Perhaps not coincidentally, these areas where elite-public gaps exist are also the issue areas where Donald Trump’s message has resounded the loudest.
Wait a second. These three positions are in fact the flip side of the three issues where the preferences of the public and the Blob supposedly overlap. Americans have a rhetorical commitment to globalisation but they actually put American jobs first. They believe in NATO but they actually don’t see the important of coming to the defence of allies, which is the essential element of the security alliance. And they want the US to remain engaged in the world but not to the extent that the world engages with us by coming to our shores.
Then, if you look closer at the supposed overlap, it dissolves into the same problem of fervency that threw off the compasses of pollsters in November 2016. For instance, 41% of Republican voters view globalisation negatively and 36% want the US to stay out of world affairs. Meanwhile, 79% want to “build a wall” to keep out immigrants, and 75% see Islamic fundamentalism as a critical threat. The numbers are even starker for Trump’s core supporters.
Now take another look at Trump’s first 100 days from this perspective. The administration cancelled US participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement and made an expensive bid to keep US manufacturing jobs. It has continued to press for the “Wall” on the border with Mexico in the face of congressional opposition. It signed executive orders to keep out people from seven (then six) predominantly Muslim countries.
Everything else is noise. Sure, some of Trump’s far-right supporters were angry that he bombed the Syrian Army, didn’t withdraw the US from NATO, alienated Moscow, and banished Steve Bannon from the National Security Council. But Trump’s core supporters don’t care much about these issues. What the liberal media sees as failures, flip-flops, or sheer incompetence comes across, in Trump country, as good-faith efforts to upend the foreign policy consensus and fundamentally reorient US priorities.
Incompetence, in their view, is fake news. The first 100 days, as staged by fading reality star Donald Trump, has been practically a second American Revolution.
But incompetence has very real effects. Domestically, the courts and congress and civil society can contain the damage to a certain extent. Internationally, the damage could be catastrophic.
This week, Trump invited the Senate to the White House for a briefing on North Korea. Virtually every expert on North Korea from across the political spectrum has called a preemptive strike a very bad idea. A competent administration would heed these words. An incompetent administration might decide to roll the dice because it doesn’t understand the game, the odds, or the consequences.
If you thought the first 100 days were bad, prepare yourself for something incomparably worse, something that even Trump country would recognise as an epic fail.