President Donald Trump’s opponents have spent his administration’s first month engaged in an unusual but important debate: Is Trump a problem because he is incompetent or because he harbors autocratic designs that threaten American democracy itself?
At the end of his first 100 days, the debate was tilting toward ineptitude. Trump didn’t know or care much about policy, shifted from one issue position to another, shunned eloquence in favor of often-deranged tweeting, and didn’t even bother filling hundreds of government jobs.
The wealthy, especially Wall Street types, rejoiced when Trump backed away from many of his populist-sounding economic promises, particularly on trade, and moved toward a conventional, if rather radical, conservatism: steep tax cuts for the rich, deregulation on a grand scale. For the privileged, happy days were here again.
Those who fear Trump’s authoritarian side acknowledged that his potential for excess had been at least partly contained by our system of rights. The freedom to organize and express opposition, the power that free elections confer on every citizen, the independence of the courts, and the liberty of the media – all are very much alive.
Nonetheless, members of this anti-Trump wing insisted on vigilance against Trump’s alarming indifference to the basic norms of self-government, his affection for thuggish leaders and his vicious attitude toward opponents.
Last week, the argument took a sharp, decisive and chilling turn. Trump proved that we can never be lulled into losing focus on the ways he could undermine the rules and principles of our democratic republic.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., appeared Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and spoke the essential truth: “I think we ought to get to the bottom line here. President Trump is dangerous.”
Yes, he is.
The firing of James Comey as FBI director and the administration’s fog of lies aimed at clouding the real reason for Trump’s decision are the most important signs that we have a leader who will do whatever it takes to resist accountability.
He will fire anyone who gets in his way. Trump’s dismissal of Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, and Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in New York, can now be seen in a more sinister light. Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general on whom the Trump apparat initially tried to pin responsibility for Comey’s firing, may be next – if he is the person of integrity his friends describe.
Of course, Trump can be fairly regarded as both incompetent and authoritarian. We may be saved by the fact that the feckless Trump is often the authoritarian Trump’s worst enemy. If we’re lucky, Trump’s astonishing indiscipline will be his undoing.
At first, his pathetically deceitful spokespeople tried to pretend that the president’s firing decision arose from a deep if newfound concern for how Comey had treated Hillary Clinton. Then Trump blew up his own spin. He told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had long planned to get rid of Comey, and that it had something to do with “this Russia thing.” Here’s betting that spin will have changed again by the time you read this, since hinting that you’re hindering an investigation of yourself is not a good idea.
Not one word out of Trump’s White House is believable on its face, and sowing convenient untruth is another mark of autocracy. So is Trump’s effort to rig future elections, which is what his commission on “election integrity” is really all about. It will seek to justify making it as hard as possible for Trump’s opponents, particularly in the minority community, to vote.
And like authoritarians everywhere, he aims not simply to defeat his enemies but to humiliate them. Thus his assault on Comey in the Holt interview as a “showboat” and “a grandstander” – talk about a lack of self-awareness – and his Twitter threat Friday: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversation before he starts leaking to the press!” Presidential obsessions with “tapes” are perilous.
Trump clearly realized that reports of his demanding Comey’s loyalty made him sound like a mafia don or a two-bit despot.
It was fitting that Trump’s jolliness with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister was photographically captured last week by Tass, Vladimir Putin’s government news agency. The pesky American media were excluded from this happy meeting of minds. It can no longer be seen as outlandish to suspect that Trump’s role model is Putin, a man he has praised for having “very strong control over a country.” This should scare us all to death.
E.J. Dionne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.