Actions versus Inactions: Trump Is Better Off When He Does Nothing (and so are we)

by Neil H. Buchanan
The latest avalanche of news includes the release of excerpts from Bob Woodward's new book, supported by tapes of a series of his interviews with Donald Trump.  The most grimly amusing aspect of the fallout from the book's bombshells is Trump's attempt (parroted, of course, by the White House disinformation office and the right-wing mediaverse) to say that he was wise to decide to "play down" (his words) the coronavirus, even though he knew that it was a uniquely dangerous threat.

On that tape, and in his own followup comments since the release of the audio, Trump says that he did not want to create a "panic," and he and others are now saying that the public would have been in a "frenzy" if he had not been so rock solid in making calm decisions.  By contrast, many non-Trump sources have noted that stoking fear and panic is in fact what Trump is more than happy to do all the time -- Antifa thugs are moving into your neighborhood!  Cities have become anarchies!  Mexico is sending rapists and murderers to the U.S.!! -- which is absolutely true.  I am, however, interested in a different aspect of Trump's defense.

The best case that one can make that a person should not stoke panic is the classic "shouting 'FIRE!' in a crowded theater" scenario.  There, it of course makes sense to maintain calm, because people’s panicked reactions can themselves make matters much, much worse.  So far, so good.  But it is what one does next, after saying "better not to stoke panic," that truly counts.  A responsible person -- but especially a responsible leader -- would: (a) immediately try to get people to leave the theater in a safe, rapid fashion, and just as importantly (b) try to put out the damned fire.

Trump, by contrast, is saying in essence, "So rather than doing anything, I just walked away.  Wasn't I great for not stoking panic?  Vote for me!"

This is especially odd, because Trump's default in a lot of situations is to do something when he should have done nothing.  As suggested by the title of this column, I think that Trump generally makes things worse when he decides to do something.  And indeed, even in this case, he might be right that his version of taking action in January and February would have resulted in even more death and devastation than the country currently faces.  After all, in the ensuing months he did actively undermine Anthony Fauci and made it harder for states to respond to the pandemic, and he actively discouraged mask-wearing in public.

Saying that it would have been better if Trump had done the right thing (or even a small fraction of the options that might have had positive marginal outcomes), therefore, is different from saying that anything that he might do is worse than nothing.  When he acts, he makes things worse, which we can see in almost every aspect of his time in office.
As Professor Dorf discussed earlier this week, Trump has created a category of inaction that can reasonably be called "presidential vaporware": "The term 'vaporware' refers to software or occasionally hardware that a company advertises before it exists, often long before it exists, if ever. Here I want to borrow the concept. Many of Donald Trump's policies are Presidential vaporware."
Indeed, in my recent column discussing Trump's ridiculous executive order allowing people to defer payroll taxes for four months, I noted that the order includes what we can now call vaporware: "Sec4.  Tax Forgiveness.  The Secretary of the Treasury shall explore avenues, including legislation, to eliminate the obligation to pay the taxes deferred pursuant to the implementation of this memorandum."  Thus, Trump can say that he has issued an order that is "about a tax cut" without doing anything of the kind.
Unfortunately, there was some non-vaporous substance to that executive order, because Trump truly did give employers permission to stop withholding some payroll taxes for the rest of 2020 (paying double the usual amounts in early 2021 instead).  It seems that many companies are choosing not to do this, but at the very least, some people will do it, and it is causing needless confusion for many more.  This is, then, a particularly good example of Trump making things worse by doing something rather than nothing.  The whole thing should have been vaporware.

Similarly, I had been thinking about this concept a few weeks ago when the scandal du jour was Trump's attack on the United States Postal Service.  There, Trump chose to do something, which in that case was to put a corrupt crony in charge of the post office and watch while he threw a wrench in the gears of an important public utility.  Trump could have gotten what he wants -- sowing doubt in the public's mind about the validity of mail-in voting -- simply by talking about messing with the post office but not doing it.  This is all a public disinformation campaign, after all.
And even if he wanted to take action to make it impossible for ballots to be mailed to boards of elections, Trump should have waited to do what he did.  By moving too early, he allowed the story to dominate the news for a few weeks, which gave Democrats the opportunity to hold hearings in the House, to say nothing of the drip, drip, drip of damning revelations that emerged from enterprising news reporters.

But waiting to act would have been a bad idea, too, because it would look so nakedly political (and desperate) and would have had a bigger negative news impact as the election approached.  Again, there truly are positive actions that one could take regarding the postal service -- change the accounting rules for pensions, upgrade facilities, increase workers' pay, and so on -- but since Trump will never do the right thing, his choices are reduced to doing nothing or doing what he feels like doing.  Doing nothing is not just better for everyone else.  It is better for him.

Back in March of 2017, not yet two months into Trump's term, I wrote a column asking why Trump continued to commit unforced errors: "Trump is making himself look like a fool.  More importantly, he is doing this when it is absolutely unnecessary to do so."  There, I discussed a number of matters, but my primary focus was his decision to become involved in pushing the Republicans' half-baked (at best) plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Trump had been engaging in nothing but vaporware about health care for months, saying that he had a "tremendous" plan that would be revealed soon, at which point everyone would enjoy a better, cheaper system that no one but Trump could have created.  No one believed him, but so what?  Actually trying to "put up" ended up forcing him to shut up (about health care, anyway).

Similarly, I argued that Trump did not need to try to build his stupid border wall.  He could have said that the inaction was caused by pesky environmental rules, private property rights, Nancy Pelosi (who at that point was the Minority Leader, but that would not stop her from being a good scapegoat), or even Republicans themselves.  He could have left it alone.

What did he do instead?  He declared a national security crisis and then diverted funds that had been appropriated by Congress for military spending.  What could go wrong with that?  At first, he might have thought that getting away with the misappropriation was a victory in the sense of showing his strength and Congress's weakness, but now he is stuck with the bad optics of having taken money away from projects that would have directed help to service members and their families (not the big-ticket weapons systems that Trump now absurdly claims to disparage so that he can supposedly take care of the non-generals).
Trump is a bigot, so he could not resist issuing a Muslim ban (and defending it to the end) and pursuing inhumane policies that included putting children in cages.  But especially after the chaos that the first version of the immigration ban caused, why do anything substantive on that front?  It is still possible to issue vaporware without risking actually being blamed for bad outcomes.

It continues to be true that Trump's Republican and business supporters care only about regressive tax cuts and canceling regulations, both of which required actions that have made Trump's political life harder.  And his entire base cares about packing the judiciary, which also created political headaches.  So it is not true that Trump could literally have done nothing and then blamed everyone else.  But keeping his supporters happy is actually a pretty minimalist job.

That is especially true because a big part of Trumpism is "owning the libs," that is, saying things that make liberals' heads explode and then gloating about it.  Trump does that as well as anyone, and he could have done it even while complaining that all of his great vapory ideas were being stymied by the courts, the deep state, or whatever.

Trump does have hateful ideas and prefers to do things that harm people.  Even more than that, however, he prefers to be president.  He likes it.  Importantly, he does not want to lose criminal immunity.  So why not go all in on not losing?

One cynical explanation -- fully consistent with much of what I have written over the past five years -- is that Trump simply plans never to leave office.  In the end, he does not care about doing things that lose votes, because he will declare that any loss was rigged.  But that fails to address the question of why Trump is trying so hard to win in a way that at least looks legitimate.  He is not (yet) shutting down boards of elections.  He is raising campaign money and spending it on lurid and dishonest attack ads.  He all but writes the script for Joe Biden's argument that the election is about character and "who we are."

Some anti-Trump pundits have spent years marveling at Trump's imagined political genius.  To any of us who point out that Trump is making error after error, the response is: But he's still there, and he might win.  That, however, is not proof of political genius.  He could have done virtually nothing for the last four years and been in a much better position than he is now in, coronavirus and all.  He could have simply done what the experts told him about the pandemic and then played the victim of circumstance.  Doing what he wanted to do, however, was the opposite of genius.