It’s the conceit of essentially every embattled administration that it is troubled primarily by problems of communications and messaging, so it’s hard to begrudge Donald Trump the somewhat absurd premise that what he really needed to do to set things straight was to fire communications director Michael Dubke. The standard reply is that the real problem isn’t communications, but reality.
Bill Clinton seemed like a fool with unemployment above 7 percent — and an untouchable god when it fell below 3 percent. Barack Obama’s calm, cool demeanor was broadly appealing in good times but aggravating and out of touch in the midst of economic calamity or mass alarm over ISIS beheadings. Everyone loved George W. Bush’s folksy manner until Hurricane Katrina, mounting casualties in Iraq, a slowing economy, and a financial crisis left him utterly discredited.
Which reminds us that the truly odd thing about Trump is not that he’s extraordinarily unpopular in absolute terms, but that he’s almost freakishly unpopular for a president who is overseeing a national situation that is basically okay.
The unemployment rate is low and falling. Job growth continues at a steady pace. America and its allies are making steady gains against ISIS. The stock market is up. Wages are up. Unauthorized border crossings are down.
Yet rather than Trump taking a victory lap while congressional Republicans quietly sigh in relief that a swing of 80,000 votes in the Midwest would have let Hillary Clinton claim credit for all this, Trump is perennially mired in crisis — crisis that is overwhelmingly of his own making. Short of his own resignation in favor of someone better suited to the job, a staff shake-up is actually a decent idea. But to accomplish anything useful, Trump would have to do more than switch players in and out. He’d have to admit that he’s in over his head and needs to hire people whom he empowers to check him and his own bad impulses.
Trump’s self-inflicted disaster zone
It’s now little-remembered, but a signature moment of the Trump era came back on January 11 when, shortly before Inauguration Day, Trump tweeted that in his opinion, the American intelligence services were engaged in conduct similar to the Nazi Gestapo.
Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to "leak" into the public. One last shot at me.Are we living in Nazi Germany?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
This is the kind of thing where, if you’d run it by a halfway competent person, you’d have gotten the advice not to say it. For one thing, the comparison is deeply stupid. It’s also incredibly offensive to Holocaust victims. From a pragmatic standpoint, the even worse thing is that it’s incredibly offensive to the professional staff of the American intelligence community, a group that you normally don’t alienate for no reason whatsoever.
It’s also a bit of a Streisand effect situation, where the president-elect’s decision to go nuclear over the story draws more attention to it.
This has been Trump time after time, day after day since taking office. Whether it’s churlish refusing to reiterate America’s commitment to Article 5 of NATO after Trump’s own staff briefed American media that he would do so, or firing FBI Director James Comey on a thin pretext that he contradicted days later in an interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt, Trump has been impulsive and self-destructive.
Trump’s existing team is fully competent to warn him off this behavior. The problem is Trump doesn’t want to listen. Consequently, over time even Trump’s best staffers, like H.R. McMaster, are learning that the path to influence is to indulge Trump rather than check him.
Trump’s all-downside proposition
As of last winter, one could see Trump’s impulsiveness and inexperience as actually a mixed bag. On the one hand, it often landed him in situations of political peril for himself and the Republican Party. But on the other hand, it offered him a refreshing freedom from ideological orthodoxy.
During the campaign, in particular, Trump seemed at times to be gesturing toward a new basis for the Republican Party — one that would greatly downplay welfare state rollback as an issue, spending $1 trillion on infrastructure and giving everyone “terrific” health insurance while fighting things out with Democrats on environmental and cultural issues.
It’s become clear, however, that Trump has no interest in actually doing the work to craft any such agenda. His basic “enemy of my enemy is my friend” instincts led him to view members of the far-right Freedom Caucus as his natural allies in Washington. His Cabinet is packed with hardcore ideologues like Betsy DeVos, Mick Mulvaney, and Tom Price, who are, if anything, even more committed to harsh spending cuts than your average establishmentarian Republican. Respecting no expertise other than personal wealth accumulation, Trump has crafted an almost comically plutocratic economic policy team, where service with an investment bank that’s not Goldman Sachs counts as diversity.
Winter is coming
For all that Trump’s tenure in office has been chaotic and controversial, the fundamental reality remains that we are in the springtime of his administration, and winter could arrive much more quickly than he seems to realize.
Normally when a new president of a new party takes office, it’s because the previous administration left the country mired in economic crisis. Trump, by contrast, took over during a broadly okay time and replaces a predecessor whose approval ratings were sky-high. There was no immediate crisis on his plate to resolve, and he has not yet weathered one.
This is unlikely to keep up, to put it mildly. Over the next three and a half years, there will probably be a recession or a bank panic or a terrorist attack or a war or a massive natural disaster or a scary epidemic, or any of the dozens of other terrifying events that challenge an administration. It’s only when that happens that we will have a full view of the mettle of Trump and his team. Based on what we’ve seen so far, that’s a scary prospect. And replacing the communications director barely scratches the surface of the problems.