While promoting an excellent article by Weekly Standard editor Jonathan Last about President Donald Trump’s tendency to be the vaporware president, New York Times columnist David Brooks offers an unfortunate false dichotomy, saying that Americans should fear Trump’s incompetence rather than his authoritarianism.
It’s the incompetence, not the authoritarianism we should be worried about. https://t.co/F3JtyqHp87— David Brooks (@nytdavidbrooks) November 14, 2018
This is a frequent theme among intelligent conservative commentators who find themselves trapped between the bombast of the MAGA-maniacs and the ideological betrayals of the hardcore Never Trumpers. Ross Douthat wrote in January in the New York Times, for example, that “Trump so far is more farce than tragedy.”
That’s an allusion to Karl Marx’s celebrated essay “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” about the coup that brought the famous Emperor Napoleon’s less accomplished nephew to power as Emperor Napoleon III of the French.
Louis Napoleon’s rise was farcical; this may ring a bell, but with no achievements in life beyond inherited wealth, he was going to be a populist tribune of the people while simultaneously leading the party of order that would defend traditional morality and private property from the depredations of socialism. But the fact remains that he did manage to consolidate an authoritarian regime that stayed in power for nearly two decades.
But the fact that he was a successful autocrat didn’t mean he was competent; his reign ended when he blundered France into catastrophic military defeat at the hands of the rising Prussians.
This is probably more about 19th-century France than the average American needs to know, but the bottom line is important: Trump’s authoritarian instincts and his lack of governing skills are both real and both problems, and trying to turn one into a mitigating factor for the other is itself very dangerous.
Autocrats are often incompetent
There are undoubtedly real examples of autocratic rulers who are also savvy, highly skilled technocrats who excel at devising and implementing public policy.
Singapore’s former leader Lee Kwan Yoo is the example one hears most commonly, but the likes of Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Deng Xiaoping in China, and Park Chung-hee in South Korea are also often said to fit the bill.
But a much more common situation is for authoritarians to appoint people to positions of authority based on considerations of loyalty and regime stability rather than competence.
It’s also typical that shutting down mechanisms of dissent and outside scrutiny lead to burgeoning corruption and lingering problems. Failure to adhere to the rule of law undermines the basic orderly functioning of government and makes it hard to know whose orders should be followed or by whom.
You don’t need to ask whether Italians should have been worried about Mussolini’s authoritarianism or his tendency to blunder into unwinnable wars. They were both worth worrying about, and they were connected to each other.
Trump is not invading Ethiopia or falling for Bismarck’s plot to consolidate a German Empire under Prussian leadership (yet), but he is basically following this dual-track template of governing in a style that is both autocratic and inept for basically the same reason.
Trump is promoting loyalty over competence
As Last argues in the Weekly Standard, Trump has a tendency to loudly announce things and then forget about them, a comical quality that can distract us from the fact that sometimes he then later turns around and actually does those things.
This is incompetent in the sense that there’s no reason to believe Whitaker is actually up to doing this job. But it’s also authoritarian in the sense that the problem with Sessions was his reluctance to compromise the rule of law in order to advance Trump’s personal interests.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen may be next to go, with Trump reportedly angry at her since she has taken a hardline approach to enforcing the actual immigration laws on the books rather than implementing Trump’s desire to simply violate them.
According to Politico, he is strongly considering Thomas Homan, who rose to the rank of executive associate director of ICE before Trump temporarily installed him as acting chief of ICE, for the next homeland security secretary. And here’s why:
Tapping Homan to run the Department of Homeland Security would almost certainly energize Trump’s base. The tough-talking lawman once recommended charging so-called sanctuary city politicians “with crimes” and has pugnaciously defended even Trump’s most controversial immigration moves, including separating children from their parents at the border.
“Trump wants John Wayne on the border, and Tom Homan is John Wayne,” said a former Homeland Security official, who cited Homan’s frequent and often fiery appearances on cable news as a part of his résumé that Trump would especially like.
This is both stupid and authoritarian at the same time and for the same reason.
Trump’s primary interest is in putting people in place who will aggressively support Trump rather than people who know what they are doing. Consequently, he’d rather have a DHS head who suggests arresting local politicians for disagreeing with Trump than a DHS head who advises Trump to avoid doing illegal stuff.
This is simultaneously a recipe for vaporware and for autocracy. Homan, at the end of the day, probably won’t actually go around arresting liberal mayors — it’s just something that sounded good to say. But when you fill your Cabinet with people who make these kinds of suggestions and make it clear that’s what you want to hear from your top lieutenants, sooner or later, someone goes and does it.
It doesn’t do much good for liberals to be Chicken Littles about this kind of thing. Everyone knows that fundamentally, liberals don’t like the policy trajectory of “normal” Trump officials like Sessions and Nielsen either. But it’s positively dangerous for conservatives to simply dismiss the concerns as mere Trumpian bluster.
Things are bad and could get worse
The good news about America in the Trump years is that, unlike what we saw under the Bush and Obama administrations, we so far haven’t had a major economic crisis or terrorist attack that seriously strains the system.
We have seen the consequences of Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric in things like the mail pipe bombing campaign and a conspiracy-minded shooter attacking the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
If we’re lucky, nothing worse than this will happen. But if we’re unlucky, we’re going to find out what Trump’s mixture of a poor grasp of policy and strong authoritarian instincts means during a crisis period. We know that Trump responded to a fake crisis at the border with a large military deployment, and that as a candidate, he responded to a terrorist attack by proposing to bar Muslims from entering the United States.
Would he, in a crisis moment, respect the limits the law and the Constitution place on his authority? Will he, by the time a crisis arrives, have a team in place that even has the backbone to inform him of what those limits are, or will he have successfully staffed the administration with a solid bloc of sycophants and yes men? And is his inclination to prefer sycophants and yes men to competent officials making a crisis more or less likely?