WASHINGTON – Here is a question at the crossroads of psychology and political philosophy: How can a leader so enamored by authoritarianism be so allergic to order?
Donald Trump rose to prominence on the promise of a firm hand. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square,” he once said, “the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.” At another point: “I think 1 / 8Vladimir 3 / 8 Putin’s been a very strong leader for Russia, he’s been a lot stronger than our leader [President Obama], that I can tell you.” And recently about China’s Xi Jinping: “He’s now president for life. … Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
But for all this, Trump seems utterly incapable of ruling even the 18-acre kingdom of the White House. Recent reports describe “chaos,” “tumult,” “disarray” and “pure madness.” With the policy process completely broken, staffers seem to occupy their time with blood feuds, leaking and legal consultations. Trump himself – “brooding,” “isolated and angry,” “mad as hell” – takes it out on Jeff Sessions and Alec Baldwin.
The president’s self-generated governing crisis is disturbing. But when paired with authoritarian envy, it is pathetic. An exercise in autocratic jock-sniffing. Other would-be strongmen have turned to Karl Marx for inspiration; for Trump, it is more like the Marx Brothers. Absurdly stereotyped characters – Anthony Scaramucci, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Bannon – pop randomly in and out of well-appointed rooms, while the main character feeds chaos all around him. It is the Duck Soup dictatorship.
Don’t get me wrong. Trump’s attempts to delegitimize institutions that check his power – the FBI, the mainstream media – are doing lasting damage. His constant lies have unleashed the irrational in American public life. His reliance on conspiracy theories and Fox News (but I repeat myself) to solidify a core of unthinking allegiance is dangerous. It is sobering to see how a revolt against authority has been channeled into a movement of docility and submission. If Trump did not have blind support, he would have no support at all.
But this is something different from authoritarianism. Trump approaches governing like a spectator, often acting as if someone else is really in charge. He seems most comfortable commenting from the sidelines, like an old Fox viewer yelling at the television. Trump doesn’t know how to do the actual job of president, and doesn’t seem aware that he doesn’t know. And few people around him know any better.
Sometimes the simplest explanations are best. As Groucho Marx said: “He may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot. But don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
Being president, it turns out, actually requires certain skills. Presidents gain influence through rhetorical leadership – with the tools of inspiration. They gain influence through policy innovation and legislative leadership. They gain influence through motivating the permanent bureaucracy to accept and pursue their agenda.
As a matter of rhetoric, Trump will be remembered for an endless string of demeaning and incoherent tweets that force us to question his stability. As a matter of policy, he has either deferred to congressional priorities or acted through executive orders that can be easily undone. Rather than leading the bureaucracy he has alienated it, depopulated it and sent some of it into resistance.
And it is worse than this. From his first executive order on migration from Muslim-majority countries to his recent action on tariffs, Trump and his administration have not displayed even minimal proficiency in making and explaining presidential decisions. On issues from immigration to gun control, the president has made seemingly random and contradictory interventions that reveal his ignorance about the basics of important policy debates. The man who believes in “the power of strength” exhibits a level of competence that would be embarrassing in high school student government.
Trump’s governing approach (at least so far) is less authoritarian than transgressive. He views the presidency as a performance. And he has shown a remarkable knack for dominating the national conversation with the outrageous and trivial. But we are seeing that the skill set of a reality TV star – the cultivation of melodrama and feuds – has almost no overlap with the skill set of a successful president. We might as well imagine Franklin D. Roosevelt on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Trump’s particular talents are better suited to Page Six of The New York Post than to the history books.
The problem is this: Though weakness and incompetence are preferable to authoritarianism, they are unequal to the real challenges of the nation.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.