Whenever a reactionary populist regime takes power and begins doing illiberal things, the same question arises among its critics: How much of this is part of a master plan and how much is just flailing? What is the exact mix of incompetence and ill intent?
That argument is already taking shape around Trump, as he ham-handedly issues executive orders poorly understood by his own bureaucracy and fires members of his administration. It is aptly captured in two recent essays.
The first is by Yonatan Zunger, a Google privacy engineer. It’s called “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” and it reviews the news of the past day or two through the lens of a unifying theory: By putting confidant Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, cutting agencies out of rule-making, and defying a court order, Trump is systematically attempting to reduce any checks on his power. He’s trying to concentrate power in a small counsel of trusted advisers (the “coup”) and avoid legal review.
The second essay is by political scientist Tom Pepinsky, in response. It’s called “Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders,” and it makes a simple point: The very same actions Zunger interprets as a devious, coordinated plan can also be interpreted as the bumbling, defensive moves of a weak leader who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.
The problem, Pepinsky says, is that we only have the outputs to go on — the appointments, the executive orders. We don’t see the inputs or deliberations, which is what we’d need to be able to properly discern the intent behind the outputs. This leaves us with “observational equivalence,” i.e., a set of observations that underdetermines an explanatory theory.
Multiple theories fit the facts. Pepinsky calls it the “qualitative equivalent of curve-fitting.” He offers an example:
President Trump may have brought Steve Bannon into the NSC because he is consolidating power and intends to sideline all regular establishment players in the formulation of American foreign policy. Or he might have brought Bannon into the NSC because he is so isolated that he needs someone who he believes he can trust, and everyone in the foreign policy establishment is dragging feet and dissembling. The former is a sign of strength. The latter is a sign of weakness. Both have the same observable implication.
It is observational equivalence, especially in regard to opaque, secretive, authoritarian regimes, that leads to so much “Kremlinology,” so many attempts to divine the intent behind erratic actions.
An authoritarian’s success is determined by circumstance, not intent
Most Kremlinology isn’t very useful. My theory is that authoritarian demagogues are more alike than they are different. Most of them are narcissists. They are, at root, fearful, paranoid, and tribal, which drives the macho posturing and obsession with loyalty. They have a kind of animal cunning for how to manipulate people, dominate, and accrue power.
But for the most part they aren’t evil geniuses. (One of Russian journalist Masha Gessen’s recurring themes about Putin is what a “grey, ordinary man” he is.) Indeed, evil geniuses are pretty rare — or, to put it more precisely, narcissistic, paranoid tribalists are rarely geniuses, because genius requires a certain detached perspective, an ability to step outside oneself, which is precisely what narcissists lack.
What authoritarian regimes do is blunder forward, grasping and grabbing power whenever and wherever they can, building secretive inner circles, surrounding themselves with supplicant state media, demonizing dissenting voices, and punishing enemies. They do this not because of some 12-dimensional chess analysis of the political landscape, but because that’s what narcissism and zero-sum thinking does. They are more like animals driven by instinct than chess masters driven by strategy, though of course there’s a range (with Trump being on the far blinded-by-narcissism end).
If we’re looking to understand the course an authoritarian takes through a country and its history — what’s he’s accomplished, what’s likely to happen next — the place to look is not his intent, but the institutions and norms of the country he seeks to dominate. They, not his ultimate goals and desires, are what most determine the ultimate shape and consequences of a regime.
Think of a bull loose in a china shop. How much damage will it do? The relevant variable is not the bull’s intent. A bull’s gonna bull. The relevant variable is how equipped the china shop is to stop the bull. How many tranquilizer darts does it have, or, I don’t know, nets? (I didn’t think this analogy all the way through.)
The point is, how far an authoritarian can blunder forward, violating norms and degrading institutions, is determined by the strength of the norms and institutions he encounters. They determine when, or whether, he is constrained.
So if we want to know what’s next with Trumpism, it’s not necessary to determine exactly how self-aware he is, the precise admixture of evil genius and rage addled amateur. An authoritarian-minded regime will continue trampling norms and accruing power as long as it can. It will blunder forward until restrained.
What will happen next depends not on Trump, but on America’s institutions and norms — the courts, the military, Congress, civil society, journalism. It is their strength, not his, that will determine how this story ends.