The incompetent autocrat

Perhaps the best phrase ever uttered about Trump’s presidency came just the second week in when Ben Wittes brilliantly summarized Trump’s original Muslim ban as “malfeasance tempered by incompetence.”  That has only been more true in succeeding months.

Ezra today on Trump’s incompetent authoritarianism:

The most important struggle playing out in American politics right now is between President Donald Trump’s thirst for power and his inability to use it effectively.

In a November 2 interview on WMAL radio in Washington, DC, Trump lamented his inability to use his authority to prosecute his political enemies. “You know the saddest thing, because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump said. “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.”

Trump’s instincts remain chilling. Ten months in the job have not eased his yearning to wield the autocrat’s iron authority; instead, they have magnified his frustration, his sense of persecution. That’s the bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Trump’s 10 months on the job have revealed that he lacks the focus, the persistence, the strategic sense, to become the strongman he dreams of being. We have elected an authoritarian, but an apparently incompetent one. That is the bit of luck on which we are gambling our political system. [emphasis mine]

But let us not become so world-weary, so jaded, that we let an admission this grotesque pass without alarm. As the Atlantic’s David Frum wrote, “President Trump is changing us. Had any predecessor said the things about FBI Trump said … the country would have been convulsed.” But Trump’s comments did not lead every paper; they did not drive every newscast. That is, in itself, an injury. The country is becoming accustomed to the president of the United States speaking like an autocrat, lamenting that he is not sufficiently able to use the federal government to pursue his political enemies. Shock is a defense mechanism. We should worry when we notice we are losing ours.

To the extent we let Trump’s comments pass, it is because we are calmed by his incompetence, lulled by his indiscipline. “He says some crazy shit sometimes,” one senior GOP aide told Politico. “We are getting used to handling it.” We have grown accustomed to ignoring our president, or to assuming others will keep him contained. Sen. Bob Corker, the chair of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, calls the White House an “adult day care center” — a description meant to insult Trump, but also meant to comfort the nation with its implicit assurance that it is not the president who is truly in charge.

Our complacency also reflects our estimation of Trump. Read his statement again: “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.” To hear those words from another president would be to assume that frustration would be followed by action, that the executive would be busying himself behind the scenes figuring out how to achieve what it is he wants done, that his top aides would be strategizing options and concocting workarounds.

With Trump, follow-through is presumed unlikely. He does not have the attention span to drive past the obstacles before him.

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