Is Trump All Bark and No Bite?

His incompetence and weak staff suggest that he could wind up a historically weak president, not the autocrat that his critics fear.

President Donald Trump speaks during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Feb. 10, 2017, 3:06 p.m.

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.

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