“I can’t wait for the 100-day shit to be over,” an exhausted senior administration official told Politico. Well, it’s over now, and nothing is on fire — that’s worth some celebration, at least. Donald Trump’s madcap milestone week proved to be his presidency in miniature: packed with controversy and aggravation and effort and fear, but ultimately amounting to little.
Trump said he would pull out of NAFTA, but after being talked down by aides and foreign leaders, didn’t. He tried to pass his health care bill — which had been amended to make it easier for insurers to discriminate against the sick — but failed. He demanded a tax reform plan only to learn his staff didn’t yet have one, so he made them release one anyway, with ridiculous results. He saw a cruel immigration order stopped by the courts, and responded by musing publicly about breaking up a different court. (He appears to have gotten confused.) Even the routine procession of PR emails and boasts turned into farce, as when Trump’s staff miscounted the number of executive orders FDR signed during his first 100 days, and claimed Trump had signed more. (He hasn’t, not even close.)
The president himself was behind the spasms of abortive policymaking. Obsessed with cable news coverage of his first 100 days, he was desperate for a huge accomplishment of some sort, and indifferent to what it was, or what it did. He wanted to be on stage in a suit with a crowd and a desk and a pen and applause, and then he wanted to board Air Force One and turn on the television and see himself being praised. Trump wants to be president in the way children want to be astronauts: He likes the look of the job, but has no more interest in the actual work of it than 7-year-olds have in astrophysics.
Of Trump’s term so far, the best that can be said is that the president’s incompetence has blunted his danger. “It could be worse,” wrote Ross Douthat, and he’s right. With apologies to Woody Allen, Trump’s presidency has been awful, but at least the portions have been small.
This is a thin reed with which to secure the republic, however. America built the greatest superpower the world has ever known and handed it to a man whose own associates say their job is “to talk him out of doing crazy things.” To be pleased that the Trump presidency has not yet ended in disaster is to set too low a bar for American democracy. Three cheers for electing a leader too easily distracted to be a successful authoritarian!
Trump’s 100th day was much like his 10th day because this is who he is, and who he continues to be. Throughout the campaign and now inside the White House, Trump has proven himself curiously incapable of learning, growing, or changing. He is an excellent showman but an inattentive, impulsive leader. When Trump promised, two Fridays ago, to deliver a tax plan in five days, the promise came as a surprise to Gary Cohn, director of Trump’s National Economics Council, whose job it is to write the plan. The rushed release was a laughable squib — among other things, it did not reveal the income levels the tax brackets would apply to, a central question a harried Cohn dismissed to reporters as “microdetails.”
The president so badly burned by the specifics of health care reform had not learned to care about them on tax reform. And so Trump’s tax plan was greeted with the same confusion and dismay as his health care plan. “We’re kind of in a perpetual campaign, and as a result, there’s no policy,” Alan Cole, an economist at the conservative Tax Foundation, told Vox.
Trump would be an excellent head of state. He enjoys greeting dignitaries and throwing galas and posing for photos. The trappings of the office become him. But he is exactly as unsuited to the job of the presidency as his critics — and, in truth, many of his supporters — feared. “This is more work than my previous life,” Trump said on Friday. “I thought it would be easier." His 100th day week played out as a comedy, but lurking behind it is tragedy.
One hundred days isn’t even 7 percent of Trump’s term. The next 1,350 days will carry crises that need to be solved, opportunities that need to be seized, work that needs to be done. It is a long time to hope that our president will simply fail to do too much damage. In recent conversations with both Democrats and Republicans, I’ve heard cautious optimism that this will be as bad as it gets, and the country will escape this administration embarrassed, but mostly unscathed. Perhaps some other language has a word to describe when hope has been so diminished that it transforms into a kind of despair, but that is where we are.
The irony of Trump is that though he was elected because America truly does face big problems, he is singularly unsuited to solving any of them. There is nothing in his presidency thus far that will lift stagnating wages, revitalize struggling rural communities, cut health care costs, modernize the federal government, curb the opioid crisis, or strengthen American leadership in the face of a rising China and an aggressive Russia. These are hard problems that require patience, study, and steady leadership. Yes, it could be worse, but we needed it to be so much better.