Vox recently had a good analysis of an increasingly pertinent question: is the chaos emanating from Washington part of a diabolical plan to generate social unrest that can then be used to justify the imposition of martial law or its equivalent, or is it evidence (as if we needed any) of the incompetence and ignorance of the embarrassing buffoon sitting in the Oval Office?
That argument is already taking shape around Trump, as he ham-handedly issues executive orders poorly understood by his own bureaucracy and fires members of his administration. It is aptly captured in two recent essays.
The first is by Yonatan Zunger, a Google privacy engineer. It’s called “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” and it reviews the news of the past day or two through the lens of a unifying theory: By putting confidant Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, cutting agencies out of rule-making, and defying a court order, Trump is systematically attempting to reduce any checks on his power. He’s trying to concentrate power in a small counsel of trusted advisers (the “coup”) and avoid legal review.
The second essay is by political scientist Tom Pepinsky, in response. It’s called “Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders,” and it makes a simple point: The very same actions Zunger interprets as a devious, coordinated plan can also be interpreted as the bumbling, defensive moves of a weak leader who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.
As Pepinsky points out, all we have to go on is “observable” action. For example, perhaps Trump put Steve Bannon on the NSC to consolidate power, part of his intent to sideline the establishment figures who actually know something about American foreign policy. On the other hand, perhaps he brought Bannon into the NSC because he doesn’t understand the discussions occurring in that venue (or perhaps everyone in the foreign policy establishment is dragging their feet and otherwise trying to keep him from doing something that will trigger a diplomatic crisis or a war), and he brought in Bannon because he felt the need for a loyal “interpreter” he could trust.
The former is a sign of strength. The latter is a sign of weakness. Both have the same observable implication.
The author of the article, Dave Roberts, prefers the latter explanation; as he notes,
[N]arcissistic, paranoid tribalists are rarely geniuses, because genius requires a certain detached perspective, an ability to step outside oneself, which is precisely what narcissists lack.
In any event, Roberts says that the consequences of Trump’s behavior will be determined not by his intent, but by the strength of the institutions that have shaped our ability to resist.
If we’re looking to understand the course an authoritarian takes through a country and its history — what’s he’s accomplished, what’s likely to happen next — the place to look is not his intent, but the institutions and norms of the country he seeks to dominate. They, not his ultimate goals and desires, are what most determine the ultimate shape and consequences of a regime.
Think of a bull loose in a china shop. How much damage will it do? The relevant variable is not the bull’s intent. A bull’s gonna bull. The relevant variable is how equipped the china shop is to stop the bull. How many tranquilizer darts does it have, or, I don’t know, nets? (I didn’t think this analogy all the way through.)
The point is, how far an authoritarian can blunder forward, violating norms and degrading institutions, is determined by the strength of the norms and institutions he encounters. They determine when, or whether, he is constrained….
What will happen next depends not on Trump, but on America’s institutions and norms — the courts, the military, Congress, civil society, journalism. It is their strength, not his, that will determine how this story ends.
I like this analogy, muddled or not.
Trump is a raging bull. (As Jon Stewart memorably told Stephen Colbert a few nights ago on the Late Show, the “official language” of Trump’s America is bullshit.)
We the People must be the poisoned darts.