The accepted wisdom in Washington is that we’re facing the threat of authoritarianism with the administration of Donald J. Trump. The president’s self-aggrandizing nature, impulsive personality, and irascible manner (expressed in a torrent of angry tweets) raise legitimate worries about his presidency. George Orwell’s classic 1984 is again a bestseller, bought by liberals fearful of the rise of totalitarianism in America. But what if the opposite is the case? Trump’s incompetence, his inexperienced staff, and his administration’s slapdash ways could make him a historically weak president. What if, beneath all the bluster, we find out that President Trump is less than the sum of his tweets?
The Ninth Circuit’s unanimous ruling against the president’s executive order on immigration was a serious rebuke to the president’s power. With an evenly divided Supreme Court, his travel ban may never be implemented in its current form. He spent valuable political capital on a hastily arranged policy, and isn’t showing signs of backing down. His administration could draft a scaled-back order that would accomplish much of the same goals, but the president isn’t acting like he wants to back down from a fight. That means his agenda could be stalled for weeks, as Washington focuses on the legal battle on a sloppy executive order that few in his party are eager to defend.
Meanwhile, all the optimism that unified Republican control of government would lead to a productive start is fading fast. Republicans, fearing the political blowback for repealing Obamacare without a fallback plan, are hopelessly divided on how to tackle the issue without alienating the public. Trump even suggested they should punt the issue into next year. Conservative groups, such s the Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth, are outraged over the possibility of a “border-adjusted tax” as part of tax reform, and leading GOP senators are following suit. Trump appears confused on what his administration’s priorities are, with GOP leaders getting mixed signals from the White House.
Even Trump’s ability to bully from his pulpit is backfiring. His high-profile feud with Nordstrom over its removal of his daughter’s clothing line is only emboldening the retailer to position itself as a voice against the administration. As it turns out, speaking out against a deeply unpopular president can be good for business; Nordstrom stock rose more than 4 percent in the four minutes after Trump criticised the chain in a tweet. And the feud needlessly exposed White House counselor Kellyanne Conway to legal trouble after she promoted Ivanka’s products on national television, a decision that drew harsh bipartisan rebuke. Public pressure also forced Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to drop out of Trump’s business advisory council. Town-hall protests are bubbling up in some heavily conservative districts, including the ruby-red seat of House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz.
Despite all the public’s anxieties, there are signs that American democracy is in much healthier shape than critics claim. The courts are showing little deference to the White House so far, and will likely act as a check on executive power. The media have gone into overdrive, eagerly calling out the administration’s misstatements in a way not seen during the Obama administration. Leaks from within the administration are generating near-daily embarrassing revelations that are hobbling Trump’s White House. Leading publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have attracted many new subscribers, a sign that the public is highly engaged in matters of state. There’s a newfound appreciation for obstruction in Washington, and that’s a healthy sign for American democracy, which depends on a muscular minority to make the government truly responsive.
As Politico’s lead story put it Friday: “Being president is harder than Donald Trump thought.” If that’s true, it’s a sign that the president may be in a weak position to govern effectively. That weakness would carry negative consequences on the international stage, with America’s traditional role as global leader at risk. And it runs counter to the idea that we’ve entered a harrowing new age of autocracy, as David Frum’s provocative Atlantic cover story puts it. If the first three weeks of the administration are any indication, the Trump administration may be more of a tragi-comedy than a horror story.
1. A sign of the difficult times Democrats face: One of their top pollsters, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, lamented that most of the issues that the Democratic base is exercised about have little appeal to voters who voted for Obama and then flipped to Trump. “Nothing he’s doing is depriving people who voted for him. He’s simply checking off the boxes of campaign promises,” the pollster said, citing the president’s travel ban and anti-free-trade posture. He dismissed the fury over Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s nomination as a product of the clout of teachers’ unions, doubting it would resonate with the broader public. According to the pollster, the only issues that have the potential to resonate with persuadable voters are: defunding Planned Parenthood and potentially Obamacare, if Republicans roll it back in a way that would cause people to lose health coverage.
The pollster’s frustration is endemic within the Democratic Party’s professional class. So far, the party is hoping that tweaking its message could help woo back Obama voters. But the Democratic base’s cultural disconnect from these otherwise-winnable voters is making that rebuilding process all the more difficult. As I’ve argued in this column, the party’s more logical path back to power runs through winning GOP-leaning suburban voters disaffected with Trump. But the base’s no-holds-barred opposition to everything Republicans do is making that option more difficult.
2. Chaffetz drew national attention this week after his town hall in a Salt Lake City suburb was filled with anti-Trump voters, booing at the mere mention of the president’s name. It’s quite unusual to hear such anti-Republican sentiment in Salt Lake City, one of the most Republican metropolitan areas in the country. But the region moved sharply away from Trump in this year’s presidential election. In fact, Chaffetz’s district had the largest swing away from the GOP in the country—going from a 78 percent Romney district in 2012 to a 47 percent Trump district last year. (Most of the defectors backed third-party candidate Evan McMullin.)
So perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Chaffetz broke from the administration, which he has rarely done so far, and recommended discipline against Conway for using her office to promote Ivanka Trump’s business. Politics still matters—as long as voters have a say.