Donald Trump is seemingly trying to piss as many people off as he possibly can. Obviously, he can’t anger his diehard supporters, but if there was any hope that Trump would play nice with “the political system”, it has been utterly extinguished.
Whatever your political affiliation, the first 9 days of Donald Trump’s presidency have been extremely weird. Even for his most ardent supporters, the use of sweeping executive orders rather than any tacit respect for the political process has been a bit surprising. I suspected he would start attacking Obama’s legacy quickly, but he’s already launched an all-out war on the fiscal, legislative and social practices of the previous eight years, including years of Republican obstructionism.
From my vantage point, he’s intentionally trying to distract and divide the American public. This is not a new concept, but its depth is extensive.
You surely know some of what he has tried to accomplish. The immigration restrictions did not need to be so draconian and cruel. He could’ve tossed any bone out to the conservatives — a suspension of new visas, even a ban on new arrivals — but he decided to go for full exclusion. The dual-citizenship restriction was incredibly shortsighted and bound to backfire. It’s clear that everyone from hardline liberals to freakin’ Bill O’ Reilly and Fox News are unsettled by this law, which again, did not need to be a huge crisis. Obviously any ban on refugees is morally shameful, but a more specific and well-planned order could have saved the administration PR headaches.
Other than creating a moral crisis for Americans and destroying his already nonexistent support amongst liberals and moderates, the immigration policy also undermines faith in the legislative and judicial system. The Democrats are painted as weak traitors to the cause if they don’t speak out against it and shelterers of terrorist if they do. The Republicans are seen as traitors amongst their new base if they do speak against it (cc. John McCain) and traitors to the Constitution if they don’t. The judicial system is a more implacable foe, but Trump decided to just fire the acting Attorney General who opposed him, so more chaos will likely ensue. Who really knows what laws to enforce anymore? Should we follow the president’s orders or the overrule of a Brooklyn federal judge?
We’re over a week in and no one really knows what specific side he’s on. His right-wing Tea Party credentials are defined, but there were reports that McConnell said no to Trump’s demand to “nuke the filibuster”. He continues to bang the drum of voter fraud. “His party” refuses to follow. He extended the minor but symbolically important Obama anti-lobbying policy for ex-federal employees instituted in the first days of 2009. He signed a Wall Street deregulation order, but also pulled out of the TPP (not important, but symbolic). How can you simultaneously be for deregulation and tariffs on Mexico? And for now, he’s keeping LGBTQ rights as is, according to the New York Times. One of the calling cards of the Pence wing of the Tea Party will not be answered just yet.
And the worst/best part is that he hasn’t actually done very much. He restarted the Dakota Pipeline. Okay, so how is that going to start being implemented? He reiterated that a wall would be built. Okay, when? How? When are you going to Congress with legislation? He imposed an ill-defined travel ban on certain Muslim-majority countries and pissed off millions. He said he’s take off two regulations for every new one proposed. What the fuck does that even entail? Can he take off banking reform in exchange for dog food regulation? He’s just saying things to distract everyone, please his supporters, and rile up the army of “concerned Americans” who still think that the sanctity of the Oval Office means that all is well or are just straight up racist trolls. He hasn’t even officially knocked out Planned Parenthood or the Affordable Care Act yet.
None of these contradictory policy positions should improve or decrease your opinion of Trump. He’s running the federal government like a crappy hotel chain, in which he can make orders and expect people to follow them. In sum, many of policies, in addition to being immediately assailable by the courts, make little political sense. There’s no sense of cooperation. There’s no sense that he’s going to come back to the Republican center-right. That’s why people voted for him. These people wanted him to be politically incompetent because it could shake up the system. Boy, is he delivering on that. If his goal is to sow confusion and distrust in everything, he is absolutely winning.
I think Trump’s worst-case scenario is if the deeply partisan split in Congress somehow realizes that they have a common enemy in the president’s overreach (well, it’s not the worst worst-case scenario, but still a bad one). His strategy, or perhaps the strategy of Breitbart white nationalist-enthusiast Steve Bannon (recently given powers over the National Security Council), is to keep America divided as long as he possibly can. It’s been the theme since the inauguration speech. He needs “American carnage” to stay popular. It’s probably still working.
The real question is if this is a strategy of malice or incompetence. Neither are mutually exclusive.
Malice: If he (or Bannon/his associates) does indeed want to do vast damage to the Republic and its government for the establishment of kleptocracy or authoritarianism, this is a damn good start. Debasing whatever trust Americans have in all its political and judicial institutions is a good start. Gutting the upper ranks of the State Department, discrediting the intelligence community and creating confusion over immigration laws are also a good start. Total trust in accountability journalism is already effectively dead.
The part about the intelligence community is strange, and once again plays into fears of Russian involvement. Trump initially removed CIA Director Mike Pompeo from the National Security Council, and then put him back. There have been rumors of lurid spy dossiers, suspicious ex-KGB deaths, Russian oil sales, etc. Whatever is true in these matters, letting them persist as conspiracy theories may actually work in Trump’s favor in the short-term as he dismantles trust in all available law-enforcing institutions, the CIA, FBI and DOJ included. If anything, Trump and his cronies are the Kings of the Conspiracy Theory, from emails to Pizza-gate. Apparently the crazy-conspiracist ex-general Mike Flynn has deleted his Twitter account and looks to be on the outs with the administration. Nobody knows what the hell is going on, least of all his supporters.
He doesn’t want to start aggressively backing Republican bills because he plans to ditch the Republicans and any check on his power. He wants to sow as much confusion, doubt and lies amongst Americans so that they eat each other. He doesn’t actually rule with a strong hand, he just says some proclamation and then watches the system collapse instantly. Obama signed an act within 9 days of his inauguration with full party control. Trump has just made a bunch of executive decrees with questionable legality. This practice is so designed he can backstab the Senate later on.
Incompetence: Alternatively, he could see himself as a true outsider, breaking every single norm and reigning like the decisive president he wants to be. In that case, he and his team are just spectacularly incompetent politicians (although they are still excellent self-promoters) and are trying to burn bridges from Day 1 through the end, whenever it comes.
In this scenario, Trump forgetting to put the NSC advisors on the list was an oversight because he didn’t understand. Bannon being put on the Council was an overstep because they thought they could just involve themselves on every step of national security. Trump’s contradictory stances and awfully implemented executive orders are just plain incompetence. He just wants to be popular, and he just wants to do what he said he’d do on the campaign.
For someone who has never spent a day in office, navigating how the complex American political system works is difficult. Case in point: Trump calling Rudy Giuliani asking him “how do I do a Muslim ban, and how do I use Microsoft Word”. There’s a decent chance that he’s using executive orders rather than push laws through Congress because he doesn’t have the mental stamina to do so. He’s probably stressed, being pulled in random directions by his advisors, and doesn’t actually care enough to care about the consequences.
What really matters is if he’s doing this out of malice or incompetence. There’s a decent chance that it’s both. I believe that the Supreme Court nomination tonight will be a major sign to whether he actually intends to govern or to sow more distrust.