by Neil H. Buchanan
Does Donald Trump matter at all? He is plainly most interested in ego gratification, and the bad substantive things that are happening during his presidency are clearly the results of other people's efforts -- although he is evidently enthusiastic about the evil that he brings to the world. He does not read and is proudly ignorant of policy issues, and he thinks that he could run his businesses at the same time that he serves as president (though he magnanimously declines to do so, at least publicly).
Trump infamously offered his vice-presidential slot to Ohio governor John Kasich last summer by promising that Kasich would be in charge of both domestic and foreign policy. Maybe Trump's presence in the White House now is entirely an ego trip coupled with the benefit of exacting vengeance on his many perceived enemies, while letting other people do the awful things that popped into his head at various points while campaigning.
I began to think seriously about this possibility recently, after I published a column arguing that Trump is not a political genius. My point there was that winning a presidential election, especially via Trump's utterly improbable (and unplannable) non-majority Electoral College path, does not make him a political savant. He is a product of historical happenstance, a shameless fear-monger being propped up by a credulous press (and the FBI Director and Vladimir Putin) in an angry political environment, and his political instincts if anything make matters worse for him.
A reader of that column asked an important follow-up question: If Trump is not an evil political genius, is his advisor Steve Bannon the real genius here? More generally, even in light of the plain fact that Trump is no genius on any level, we should ask what are the effects of having him in office. Even non-geniuses can have important impacts on the world, after all. (See, e.g., Bush, George W.)
The easy part of the answer to these questions is that Bannon is even luckier than Trump. In a life that appeared to be permanently stuck on the racist, nativist fringes that were too ugly even for congressional Republicans to openly embrace, Bannon sidled up to Trump and managed to fill the vacuum during one of the campaign's many meltdowns. He is clearly an opportunist, but he has shown no political skill at all. He is no genius, though he certainly is evil.
Like Trump, Bannon is already acting as though they have overthrown the Constitution. Even if that ultimately happens, there would be much savvier ways to act in the meantime, for example, by not (yet) telling the press to shut up, or by issuing executive orders that are not so sloppy that they galvanize what had been a dispirited and listless opposition.
There is no reason to think that Bannon can cleverly adapt to new circumstances, any more than Trump can. They both let their ugly ids run free, and it happens that they have gotten away with it so far. What will they do when things turn against them? I do not foresee deft political maneuvering on their parts.
This discussion, however, runs the risk of devolving into a battle of definitions. Even if Trump and Bannon do not show any signs of being politically savvy in a sense that makes them stand out above other extremists, language is pliable enough to include phrases like "a genius for showmanship," or being "born with the genius of self-confidence." My argument is not a semantic one, so there is no need to dwell further on how we label Trump and Bannon. Instead, it is useful to ask how Trump and Bannon have changed the Republican Party, if at all.
If Republican voters are now Trump voters and are no longer what we used to know as Republicans, then it matters to Republicans that Trump is in office. If indeed Trumpism has superseded movement conservatism, Trump's continued presence in the Oval Office would be a necessary condition for Republicans to maintain any hold on power. They would be bending to him and giving up what had defined them over the years. Bannon would be dancing on their graves.
But I think that the premise of this argument is false, that is, that most Republican voters are still Republican voters. They liked Trump because he was not Hillary Clinton, and they like him more now because he is doing things that excite them. But the press's fascination with Trump supporters misses the fact that these are people who were conservative true believers all along.
Perhaps a better way to think about this question is to ask what would happen if, for any reason, Trump were no longer president tomorrow, next month, or next year. Although some aspects of the situation would depend on whether this was due to death in office, resignation, impeachment, or incapacity, my analysis here need not be specific about the reason for Trump's hypothetical departure.
If Trump were suddenly gone, would anything substantive change? The answer to that question is now even more emphatically "no" than it was two weeks ago. Back in those innocent days, liberals who pined for Trump to take early retirement were quickly reminded, "What, you want Pence as President? We might as well have elected Ted Cruz!"
Reasonable people were quite right to be stopped short by that prospect, because Pence is perhaps the most extreme version of the most extreme type of conservatives who took over the Republican Party as it metastasized in the Bush and Obama years. On both social and economic issues, Pence supports a far-right vision that is fortunately still very much a minority view in the country. Why would we want to put him in charge?
The reason do-you-really-prefer-Pence was a rhetorical question for non-conservatives is that there was some sense that Trump is not really a Republican. Even through the transition period, including the daily announcements of lunatic conservative appointments to Trump's cabinet (choose your least favorite among Sessions, DeVos, Puzder, Price, Pruitt and on and on), it was possible to imagine that there was something that would differentiate Trump from someone like Pence or Cruz.
We now can see, however, what Trump and Bannon are doing with the power that they so nastily bumbled into. Trump rewards his friends and punishes his non-admirers, so he has decided to embrace the full right wing agenda with gusto.
In a recent Verdict column, I echoed a point that Mike Dorf made regarding the voters who make up Trump's base. Those Republican voters are not irrational, because the vast majority of them were going to vote for any Republican "precisely because they are anti-environmentalist, anti-abortion,
anti-minimum wage, anti-tax, anti-government, anti-diversity,
As I said above, the most vocal Trump supporters are therefore most likely not converts to Trumpism (whatever they thought that was before Trump took office) but extreme conservatives who are obsessed with ramming through their agenda.
None of us expected this, but Trump is giving hard-line Republicans everything that they have dreamed about. Their excitement is understandable, but it is
obviously not Trump-specific. They would have cheered President Fiorina or Jindal just as lustily. Their excitement about Trump is entirely situational, and if he becomes a liability, they will bail out quickly.
Does this mean that it does not matter that Trump is the president? Would Pence be just as bad, and in the same ways? Based on what I argued above, it might be surprising when I say that I think that Trump is truly the worst of all the possibilities. Even though he has morphed into a movement conservative on policy, he truly does present some dangers that are unique to him.
Trump's particular style of bluster and cluelessness has disarmed the press and his opposition in ways that would never work for more standard would-be conservative messiahs of the past or present. Most obviously, he somehow manages to be openly bigoted without anyone being able to get him to back down. He just keeps talking until everyone gives up. There is something good about a world in which Republicans felt the need to use dog-whistles to signal their bigotry, and Trump is weirdly able to break that social norm in ways that the rest of them cannot.
Again, we can call this "genius" if we want to abuse the language, but the essential point is that Trump's bizarre personality mesmerizes people in a way that has allowed him to be truly and uniquely damaging. He obviously does not care what he said in the past, and he truly believes his lies in the moments that he issues them (before contradicting himself later, when he completely believes a new set of words flowing from his lips).
This is not to say that Trump is a bigger liar than every other national Republican, or for that matter a bigger hypocrite. In response to Democrats refusing to be steamrolled through the cabinet confirmation process, for example, Senator Pat Toomey actually said: "I think this is a completely unprecedented level of obstruction." Supreme Court Justice Garland would beg to differ.
So it is not that the Republicans are different from Trump in the gall department, and we have seen that their policy differences have melted away. The difference is that, even though some of them are probably as cluelessly self-satisfied as Trump is, and even though they are just as willing to lie through their teeth, Trump's particular kind of ugly bullying is so jaw-dropping that it actually causes people to sit dumbfounded. He is more of an effortless thug than they are.
This might perversely be a reason to argue that Trump is better than the alternatives. Pence or Cruz or Paul Ryan or anyone else could probably reduce the likelihood of being driven from office by offering a bit of a velvet glove, which might give them more staying power than Trump. If you take the radical view of change over the incrementalist view, you might think that there will have to be a reckoning and that it might arrive sooner under Trump than otherwise.
This, however, is where Trump (along with Bannon and his other enablers) make their mark for being uniquely dangerous. Imagine that President Pence, after taking office upon Trump's resignation in February 2017, loses in a close but clear election in 2020. What would he do? Now imagine that Trump does not resign and loses by a landslide in 2020. What would he do?
As obsessed with power as the non-Trump Republicans have been, I find it nearly impossible to imagine them simply refusing to accept the results of an election. (Yes, Bush v. Gore and all that. But that was at least fought through the courts and had legal legitimacy, as ridiculous as the Supreme Court's decision itself was.) With Trump, it is far easier to imagine him hunkering down in his office, surrounded by loyalists who tell him that he really won, and staging a coup to remain in office.
The Trump-versus-everyone-else choice used to look like a difficult trade-off, where Trump offered the possibility of occasional moderation but also a clear and present danger to constitutional democracy. Now, we are getting all of the bad with none of the good. He is not a genius of any kind, but he is unique in ways that make him more dangerous than anyone else.