Yes, Trump's in deep trouble — but there may be a disturbing method to his madness

Is Trump profoundly incompetent or a major threat to democracy? Those two things don't have to be different

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 17, 2020 9:58AM (EDT)

 U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an event with citizens positively impacted by law enforcement, in the East Room of the White House on July 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. The president highlighted life-saving actions by law enforcement officers and cited these examples as a potential negative effect that defunding the police would have on the lives of Americans. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an event with citizens positively impacted by law enforcement, in the East Room of the White House on July 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. The president highlighted life-saving actions by law enforcement officers and cited these examples as a potential negative effect that defunding the police would have on the lives of Americans. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the United States had set a record for new cases of COVID-19 in one day, with more than 74,000. And the death toll is now surging as well, although not yet approaching the terrible levels we saw in April. Indeed, the U.S. is one of four countries, including Brazil, South Africa and India, that account for more than two-thirds of all the cases on the planet. And we're No. 1!

Weirdly, despite all this winning, President Trump didn't celebrate this particular achievement. Instead, his minions at the White House arranged for him to host another inappropriate campaign rally at the White House. This time, instead of having the press line up like a bunch of potted plants they gathered friendly staffers in the Rose Garden to cheer Trump's incomprehensible rambling and give him the little boost he so desperately needs.

It's not surprising that he's down in the dumps. This has been a rough week for Trump's re-election efforts. There are reports that his plans to hold a big convention party amid a pandemic are fizzling. First the Republicans moved the convention from Charlotte to Jacksonville at his behest, which turned out to be a dreadful decision. And now Republican elected officials and delegates are refusing to attend en masse. Trump's polling is dismal, with Joe Biden leading him both nationally and in battleground states by healthy margins. It's so bad, in fact, that Trump finally pulled the plug on grifter campaign manager Brad Parscale and installed Bill Stepien, the master strategist who helped lead Republicans to their landslide defeat in the 2018 midterms. But as Salon's Amanda Marcotte has observed, no amount of rearranging the deck chairs on the USS Trump will have any effect as long as the captain of the ship is living in denial.

Nonetheless, his new crew has no choice but to go with Trump's gut, so they have decided to help him pretend that the country isn't in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century and instead hold another Rose Garden event to celebrate the administration's massive rollback of environmental regulations. Trump was giddy with excitement to see the big trucks. He likes trucks:

When Trump spoke, he said they had cut "25,000 pages of job-destroying regulations," saved the oil industry and cut auto standards, making cars cheaper and also "better, they'll be stronger, and they'll be safer."

But what pleases him the most is that he's "brought back" incandescent lightbulbs and improved the shower experience:

It's doubtful that voters are all that interested in these topics at the moment, and Trump's bragging about destroying environmental regulations strikes a particularly sour note at a time when people are suffering from the pandemic and tremendous economic insecurity. There's more than a whiff of fiddling while the country burns to see him out there babbling about dishwashers right now.

But it is a sad fact that his administration has done a tremendous job of destroying many of the government protections that allowed Americans to drive safer cars, drink cleaner water and breathe fresher air. The New York Times reported this week that a Harvard study shows that the EPA and Department of Interior have taken a wrecking ball to climate and environmental regulations. Even an incompetent brute like Donald Trump is capable of getting things done if he will allow his henchmen to do their worst.

We've seen the same phenomenon at the Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr. They have established dozens of new precedents under the "unitary executive" principle, not because Trump believes in such an arcane constitutional philosophy — of course he has no idea what that means — but because what benefits him also benefits the conservative legal project. Likewise, the Department of Homeland Security has become a singleminded instrument of Trump's cruel anti-immigration policies.

The fact is that while Trump hasn't achieved much of anything by the normal measure of a presidency — important legislation, leadership on the world stage or handling a major crisis — his empowerment of certain elements of the radical right has given him a legacy in spite of himself.

I've never been one to say that because he is ignorant and incompetent, he hasn't done much harm. Clearly he has. But I have always felt that he exposed weaknesses in our system and frankly, our society, that are likely to be exploited by a future authoritarian who is more efficient and capable than he is.

There's another dimension to Trump's accomplishments, however, one I hadn't thought about before. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post wrote about a new study positing that "demagogic populists" like Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil achieve at least some of their goals not by what we think of as authoritarian overreach but by what they call "executive underreach":

Law professors David Pozen and Kim Lane Scheppele present "executive underreach" as a species of leadership failure that's as destructive as executive overreach, defining it as a national executive branch's willful failure to address a significant public problem that the executive is legally and functionally equipped (though not necessarily legally required) to address.

But crucially, the paper links this phenomenon to fundamentally illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies: Hostility to science and expertise; and the leader's abiding faith in his ability to confuse the public with disinformation as a substitute for acting in the national interest...

I don't think I need to delineate all the ways in which Trump's response to the greatest crisis of his presidency fits that description. He blithely continues as he began, believing he can persuade the public that the pandemic isn't happening so they will party like it's 2019 and reward him with a second term. Rather than use the power that's vested in the presidency for its intended purpose — that is, in an emergency — he does virtually nothing, issuing empty threats and confusing messages and essentially making everything worse by failing to act as the system requires of the executive during a crisis. The whole thing falls apart when that vital part of the machine just doesn't work.

In other words, no one should take heart in the fact that Trump hasn't used the crisis as a means to consolidate power, as one might expect from such a fundamentally autocratic personality. He isn't capable of that, but he's more than capable of the form of illiberal leadership described above, which is every bit as destructive to democracy. 

Meanwhile, as usual, Trump keeps issuing hyperbolic, reality-show teasers about all the big things he plans to announce in the future:

And of course Mexico's going to pay for all of it.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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