Even Autocrats Can Be Incompetent

David Brooks, two weeks ago, on Trump’s erratic leadership:

If the figure at the center can’t give consistent, clear and informed direction, the whole system goes haywire, with vicious infighting and creeping anarchy.

Thus the current centrist consensus: that the real danger of a Trump presidency isn’t oppression but incompetence. Instead of an autocratic menace seizing power through fiendish plots, Trump will be a weak buffoon who spreads disorder through careless errors. Because he’s all gut, no head, his administration will lurch from one crisis to another, but without exerting real control, much less gaining power. If you want to explain the Trump presidency, think maladroitness, not malfeasance.

I think these centrist critics of Trump don’t quite understand the implications of their own critique.

Sure, Trump’s presidency is anarchic. But how is Trump likely to respond to that anarchy? If Trump’s carelessness leads to general mayhem, how else can he respond but by doubling down on the political skills he demonstrably does possess: fearmongering, propaganda, demagoguery, and a talent for redirecting public attention toward the farce or scandal or scapegoat du jour?

Maybe Trump will blame his misfortunes on the media. Maybe he’ll pick flamboyant fights with other D.C. factions. Maybe he’ll blame foreigners. Maybe he’ll mollify his supporters by persecuting minorities and dissenters. Or maybe he’ll choose symbolic sacrifices from among his crew of toadies and hangers-on, as he did with the bumblers and thugs on his campaign staff. Probably he’ll do all of the above.

Then what? All this Sturm und Drang will only make things more chaotic, more vicious, more anarchic. Leading to greater strife in the government and greater discontent in the populace. Leading to more paranoia and insecurity on Trump’s part, leading to more scapegoating and sensational feuds, leading to more unrest and anger …

This is the essence of politics in the personal style: everything revolves around the leader’s persona, his fights, his fancies, his favorites, his fears. Political fortunes depend on loyalty and court intrigue and the leader’s manipulation of his subordinates, making corruption the essence of government. A corrupt government is ineffective and untrustworthy, so the leader can only keep power by casting his rotten regime as the inevitable alternative to some scarier existential threat–an enemy abroad, a traitor within. This leads to pointless battles and cruel persecutions, which diverts energy from the ordinary work of government and provokes stronger dissent. And on and on.

Right-leaning moderates like Brooks all seem to think that because Trump is new to Washington, responsible Republicans and D.C. fixtures will have the skill and probity to “contain” him, which is to say, that they’ll be willing and able to interrupt the cycle described above. At worst, we’ll get four years of factionalism and inaction. At best (in their view), we’ll get something like the neocon agenda, artfully assembled by Pence and Ryan while Trump squats somewhere with his fast food and Twitter account.

Really? Who are these responsible, capable, upstanding Republicans? What government have the pundits been covering? Come to think of it, I’d say that liberals hoping for Trump to be exposed as a fraud and denounced as a failure have underestimated Trump and overestimated the public. Trump’s administration will either be bumblingly inert or actively destructive. Either way, he’ll have ample cause to do what he does best: telling lies and laying blame. It’s worked pretty well for him so far.

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