Incompetence

Donald Trump is right about one thing: the 100-day standard used to evaluate presidential performance is ridiculous, an artifact of the landmark accomplishments of FDR’s first months when a national crisis and congressional supermajorities made possible a torrent of policy advances the likes of which we are unlikely to see again. But like it or not, those evaluations are coming and they will be harsh.

At Wolves and Sheep, we are not bound by convention or inside-the-Beltway wisdom. So rather than wait another week, I submit to you my 92-day assessment (because, why not?) of the Trump administration.

You can divide the last three months into three distinct phases. Phase I: aggressive use of executive orders. Phase II: comedic attempts at unified governance. Phase III: blowing things up.

The administration was born in a flurry of Bannon-esque aggressiveness designed to establish the new president’s dominance through a relentless series of executive orders aimed at reversing the priorities of his predecessor and bellicose pronouncements that raised the specter of war with Mexico and Australia. Although it felt like a decade, this phase lasted just a bit more than a week before Trump found himself tripped up by the Constitution and the emergence of a resistance movement unprecedented in recent American history. The massive pushback to Trump’s travel ban at airports across the country made it difficult for the administration to defy court orders curtailing the president’s ability to act. Although it wasn’t apparent at the time, this early test of Trump’s use and abuse of executive authority was a turning point in the administration’s direction. It was far from clear at the outset that Trump would back down and respect court directives in the face of public pressure. He spoke and acted as if he was prepared to disregard anyone who got in his way. But political and institutional checks on the presidency held up, perhaps imperfectly, but sufficiently to prevent the new administration from claiming extraordinary power in the wake of the chaos it had intentionally created.

Forced into retreat and recognizing the need to engage congress in order to follow through on key campaign promises, the president turned his limited attention span to repealing and replacing Obamacare, something he once promised to do on day one and an effort considered so easy that he thought nothing of spending every weekend in Florida while congressional Republicans managed the details. Thus began the second and longest phase of the young administration, a period marked by what can best be described as a pantomime of domestic policymaking. Trump said things, Paul Ryan said things, Mitch McConnell said things, congressional hearings were held, legislation was drafted. But no one was doing the hard political work of coalition-building, a task only the president can perform by virtue of his institutional advantages of being chief legislator and party leader. The unprecedented spectacle of the Speaker of the House preventing legislation he drafted from coming to a vote in order to avoid the embarrassment of certain defeat revealed that campaign slogans are not policies, Republicans were not prepared to be a governing party, and the new president doesn’t understand much about the responsibilities or limitations of his office.

So he started blowing things up. It’s not unusual for presidents to turn away from the hard work of domestic policymaking in favor of the lure of foreign affairs, where congress traditionally defers to their actions and where they command an awesome array of military and, if they so choose, diplomatic forces ready to act on their order. But it often takes years for presidents to reach this point. Trump seemed to get there in a few weeks. No doubt bolstered by the ego boost derived from the relatively positive press generated by the missile attack on Syria, Trump turned his rhetoric (though not an armada) on North Korea. But his foray into foreign affairs was problematic on several levels. Impulsive behavior and the lack of a coherent policy, pushback by core supporters who believed candidate Trump’s non-interventionist rhetoric, divisions within his small inner circle, the importance of bread-and-butter issues to his voters, and the desperate need for a policy victory shifted the administration’s focus hastily back to domestic concerns as the 92-day window came to a close, with Trump trying to make one more push on healthcare despite intractable political considerations that will prevent Republicans from getting anything done.

Three months, three phases, and one common denominator: Incompetence.

Who would have thought that electing someone with no relevant experience, no attention span, no intellectual curiosity, no understanding of the job, no interest in the job, and no capacity for introspection would create domestic and international unrest? We’re willing to put up with a lot in our elected leaders but it turns out people want their president to exhibit at least some minimum level of competence. Remember George W. Bush? Long before the financial crash and before public opinion crystallized against the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, Bush lost the country because of his callous and inept response to Hurricane Katrina. The image of the vacationing president surveying the damage from 30,000 feet aboard Air Force One became a metaphor for his inability to take care of things on the ground, and his approval rating never saw the 50-percent benchmark again. For this president, who can’t see 50-percent approval with a telescope, almost every day has brought a domestic or foreign policy Katrina. Heckuva job, Donnie.

The silver lining in the administration’s litany of ineptitude is that we appear to be getting the best of a bad set of possibilities for the Trump years. In saying this, I do not mean to diminish the pain this administration has caused so many people at home and abroad or to trivialize the extensive damage it has caused to the nation or the world. But I have called Donald Trump an imperfect demagogue, and he is proving to be just that. It isn’t difficult to imagine how a more skillful, committed, capable and organized authoritarian figure would be able to command majority support while systematically chilling his opposition, dismantling the courts, silencing journalists and halting future elections. Whatever impulses the administration has exhibited in this direction have been kept in check by its own incompetence, allowing resistance to flourish while an angry electorate puts intense pressure on Republicans in unlikely places like Kansas and Georgia and, eventually, nationwide.

I have long felt that either the republic or the Republican Party could survive Donald Trump, but not both. The republic should be thankful for his incompetence, and for the real possibility that when his body of work is complete there will be little remaining appetite for a more perfect demagogue. Achieving this outcome will of course necessitate vigilance and resistance over a long period of time. It will also require good luck, because one unavoidable conclusion of the first months of the Trump era is that the same incompetence threatening to blow up the president’s party and its domestic agenda could blow us all up when exhibited in foreign affairs. No one is safe when there is a vacuum at the top. But after 92 days, global nuclear annihilation is emerging as the greatest risk posed by this administration. It could have been worse.