Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Trumpty Dumpty or Trumplestiltskin?

As the second week of the Trump presidency rolls on, the struggle ensues to make sense of the herky-jerky motion of the administration in power. So much frenetic activity has transpired to so little discernible constructive purpose that it is difficult to place the current political moment into a comprehensible framework. Two general pictures have begun to emerge among observers grappling with the problem of "Trumpology."

David Brooks of The New York Times exemplifies one side of this analytical divide. He sees the Trump administration as "incompetent" and worse than "amateurs." In his view, "the Trump administration is less a government than a small clique of bloggers and tweeters who are incommunicado with the people who actually help them get things done." Brooks does not completely acquit the Trumpites of bad intent. He calls them out for their ethnic nationalism and bigotry. But he attributes the chaos they have sown to inadvertent malpractice rather than nefarious design.

Though this view is eminently plausible, it is understandably contested by those who view Trumpian entropy with an even more jaundiced eye. This latter perspective is embodied by Yonatan Zunger, who blogs at Medium. Taking together all of the actions and statements of the Trump administration's first week, Zunger asks if they should be read as the trial balloon for a future coup against the democratic institutions of the U.S. government (funded by a recently acquired 19% share in Russia's state oil company).  Where Brooks sees amateurism and incoherence, Zunger sees a "tight inner circle" that "is actively probing the means by which they can seize unchallenged power." All of the provocations (what Heather Richardson calls "shock events") of Trump's first days are not, in this view, arbitrary or unplanned, but are deliberate attempts to gauge the reactions of various federal agencies and to induce "dissent fatigue" in the wider public.

It is easy to see why Zunger's view is persuasive. It is difficult to believe that the denizens of the Trump administration, having risen so precipitously to such heights of power, could possibly be as incompetent as the tenor of their first weeks would suggest. If one eliminates that possibility, then fitting the observable facts into a pattern of malignant intent is the next natural choice.

Zunger's read cannot be dismissed as entirely far-fetched. Nor, it must be emphasized, are the two scenarios outlined by Zunger and Brooks necessarily mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible that the Trump administration (or different parts of it, to varying degrees respectively) are simultaneously deliberately anti-democratic and incoherently maladroit. Time and circumstance will tell which of these two Trumpological analyses is more accurate. Two things are clear from the outset, however.

The first is that, whether they are blundering or scheming, their penchant for callousness and cruelty (and the pain they inflict) remains the same. Whether his travel ban order was a botched attempt to make good on a polemical campaign promise or a clever ruse in pursuit of unconstitutional power, Donald Trump knew it would cause misery and hardship to hundreds of people, and he did not care. However one slices it, Trump's politics incorporate a degree of sadism. His claims to political efficacy all revolve to one degree or another on the promise to make the "right" people (that is, the "wrong people" who don't hold the privilege of being deemed "real Americans") hurt.

The second clear imperative of the Trumpian moment is the urgent need for citizenship. In the end it will not matter whether or not Donald Trump's actions were taken with an eye toward unlimited power. The damage this mode of governance will do to our democratic institutions will be similar in the long run in either case. Citizens on all sides of the political spectrum must stand up and demand that Donald Trump govern in a way that does not sow anger, fear, and chaos, and that the rest of our government (the House, the Senate, the courts, the governors, the state legislatures) hold him accountable to that constraint. In the end, only our vigilance and active civic engagement can insure that our Republic will survive the length of Trump's tenure in office, whatever the truth may be about his intentions and competence.

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