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America’s pathetic autocrat

Donald Trump’s authoritarian instincts have been checked by his incompetence.

President And Mrs Trump Depart White House For 11-Day Trip To Asia Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The most important struggle playing out in American politics right now is between President Donald Trump’s thirst for power and his inability to use it effectively.

In a November 2 interview on WMAL radio in Washington, DC, Trump lamented his inability to use his authority to prosecute his political enemies. “You know the saddest thing, because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump said. “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.”

Trump’s instincts remain chilling. Ten months in the job have not eased his yearning to wield the autocrat’s iron authority; instead, they have magnified his frustration, his sense of persecution. That’s the bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Trump’s 10 months on the job have revealed that he lacks the focus, the persistence, the strategic sense, to become the strongman he dreams of being. We have elected an authoritarian, but an apparently incompetent one. That is the bit of luck on which we are gambling our political system.

But let us not become so world-weary, so jaded, that we let an admission this grotesque pass without alarm. As the Atlantic’s David Frum wrote, “President Trump is changing us. Had any predecessor said the things about FBI Trump said ... the country would have been convulsed.” But Trump’s comments did not lead every paper; they did not drive every newscast. That is, in itself, an injury. The country is becoming accustomed to the president of the United States speaking like an autocrat, lamenting that he is not sufficiently able to use the federal government to pursue his political enemies. Shock is a defense mechanism. We should worry when we notice we are losing ours.

To the extent we let Trump’s comments pass, it is because we are calmed by his incompetence, lulled by his indiscipline. "He says some crazy shit sometimes," one senior GOP aide told Politico. "We are getting used to handling it." We have grown accustomed to ignoring our president, or to assuming others will keep him contained. Sen. Bob Corker, the chair of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, calls the White House an “adult day care center” — a description meant to insult Trump, but also meant to comfort the nation with its implicit assurance that it is not the president who is truly in charge.

Our complacency also reflects our estimation of Trump. Read his statement again: “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.” To hear those words from another president would be to assume that frustration would be followed by action, that the executive would be busying himself behind the scenes figuring out how to achieve what it is he wants done, that his top aides would be strategizing options and concocting workarounds.

With Trump, follow-through is presumed unlikely. He does not have the attention span to drive past the obstacles before him. Many of his top aides view him with alarm, and see part of their job as containing his worst behavior. The courts have, thus far, served as an effective check on his impulses, and comments like these will make it yet easier for them to play that role going forward. And Trump has systematically alienated many of the institutional actors whose support he would need for a power grab — he has attacked the FBI and the CIA, insulted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, feuded with key members of Congress. Like a cartoon villain, he is more interested in monologuing about his dastardly schemes than in doing the hard work necessary to achieve them.

Is this, then, the case for optimism? That we have installed a would-be autocrat in the White House, but luckily he is too limited to achieve his goals, too distractible to pursue his ends? If so, it is a damning kind of comfort, both in what it says about Trump and in what it says about us. The president of the United States is openly musing about his desire to use the power of the state to punish his enemies and we react with a shrug; we comfort ourselves with his incompetence.

What if Trump were focused, disciplined, capable? What if his ends were the same but his means were changed? What if he worked assiduously to build relationships with the intelligence agencies, the military, and congressional leaders? What if he let illiberalism drive his actions even as he carefully chose his words? What if he was able to build a well-staffed executive branch where talented loyalists worked daily to achieve his goals?

Remember that Trump, for all his flaws and failures, has nevertheless marshaled a powerful machine behind his worst instincts. Much of the American right has eagerly followed him into the breach and is even now pushing him to go further. The conservative media has responded to the Russia investigation by trying to persuade itself, and its followers, that it is Trump’s enemies who should be investigated, that the special prosecutor must step down. Congressional Republicans are trying to build Trump’s case, or at least be seen trying to build Trump’s case, even as they block efforts to peer into Trump’s finances or protect Robert Mueller’s investigation. And amid all this, 31 percent of Americans continue to say that Trump has both the temperament and the personality required by the presidency.

It is worth considering the possibility that there are ways in which we got lucky with Trump — illiberalism comes in many forms, and some are much more compelling, effective, and persistent than he is. And we are vulnerable to them. If nothing else, we have proven that.