Luckily, Trump Is an Unstable Non-Genius

His mental deficiencies may save American democracy.

The surprising thing about the constitutional crisis we’re now facing is that it took so long to happen. It was obvious from early on that the president of the United States is a would-be autocrat who accepts no limits on his power and considers criticism a form of treason, and he is backed by a party that has denied the legitimacy of its opposition for many years. Something like this moment was inevitable.

What still hangs in the balance is the outcome. And if democracy survives — which is by no means certain — it will largely be thanks to one unpredictable piece of good luck: Donald Trump’s mental deficiency.

I don’t mean that Trump is stupid; a stupid man couldn’t have managed to defraud so many people over so many years. Nor do I mean that he’s crazy, although his speeches and tweets (“my great and unmatched wisdom”; the Kurds weren’t there on D-Day) keep sounding loonier.

He is, however, lazy, utterly incurious and too insecure to listen to advice or ever admit to a mistake. And given that he is in fact what he accuses others of being — an enemy of the people — we should be thankful for his flaws.

Never mind the clear demonstration that the G.O.P.’s Obama-era hyperventilating about deficits was completely hypocritical. The more important point is that $300 billion is a lot of money, and it should have been enough to buy Trump a lot of political gain.

After all, other white nationalists trying to do what Trump is trying to do — subvert the rule of law and convert their nations from democracies on paper to one-party autocracies in practice — have solidified their grasp on power by delivering at least a bit on their populist promises. In Poland, for example, the Law and Justice party has increased social spending and is now promising a big rise in the minimum wage.

Trump’s domestic economic policy, however, has been standard Republican top-down class warfare. None of that $300 billion went for social benefits or even his continually promised, never-delivered infrastructure plan. Instead, it went mainly into tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that have done little to boost investment.

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At the same time, Trump has pursued his personal tariff obsession despite mounting evidence that it’s hurting growth. The economy was supposed to be his big political selling point. Instead, polls of his net job approval on economic policy are, on average, barely positive even now — and likely to get worse as tariffs on consumer goods bite and the economy slows.

But Trump’s squandered economic opportunities are, of course, secondary at this point to his de facto self-impeachment.

Just a few weeks ago it seemed that Trump would skate on charges both of colluding with Russia to subvert the 2016 election and of obstruction of justice; the Mueller report was basically a bust, partly because the story was complicated, partly because of Robert Mueller’s diffidence.

But Trump has managed to make things clear enough for everyone to understand. First he demanded that foreign regimes produce dirt on domestic political rivals, not just in phone calls but right there on camera. Now he’s engaged in a crude, obvious effort to stonewall the House impeachment inquiry that is clearly an impeachable offense in itself.

Why did he hand the defenders of democracy so much ammunition? Partly he seems to have gotten high on his own supply — he actually seems to believe the bizarre conspiracy theories his supporters drum up to excuse his actions. Also, he evidently lacks any kind of self-restraint. Even if he considers any effort to hold him accountable a form of treason, he should have known better than to blurt it out in public.

So Trump’s own actions explain why a vote to impeach, which seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago, now looks almost inevitable. Conviction in the Senate is still unlikely, but not as impossible as it once appeared.

The larger point is that if Trump were cannier and more self-controlled, the march to autocracy might well be unstoppable. He has the backing of a party whose elected representatives have shown no sign of democratic scruples. He has de facto state media in the form of Fox News and the rest of the Murdoch empire. He has already managed to corrupt key government agencies, including the Justice Department.

Indeed, these advantages are so large that the assault on democracy may yet prevail. The only reason it might falter is, as I said, Trump’s own deficiencies.

It says a lot about the modern G.O.P. that the party is still solidly behind a man so obviously, grotesquely, not up to the job (although some rank-and-file Republicans now back an impeachment inquiry). But those of us who want America as we know it to survive should be grateful that Trump is so immature and incompetent. His character flaws are the only thing that gives us a fighting chance.

Who Do Jared and Ivanka Think They Are?

According to “Kushner, Inc.,” Gary Cohn, former director of the National Economic Council, has told people that Ivanka Trump thinks she could someday be president. “Her father’s reign in Washington, D.C., is, she believes, the beginning of a great American dynasty,”

.. Kushner, whose pre-White House experience included owning a boutique newspaper and helming a catastrophically ill-timed real estate deal, has arrogated to himself substantial parts of American foreign policy. According to Ward, shortly after Rex Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of state, Kushner told him “to leave Mexico to him because he’d have Nafta wrapped up by October.”

.. As political actors, the couple are living exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a psychological phenomenon which leads incompetent people to overestimate their ability because they can’t grasp how much they don’t know.

Partly, the Jared and Ivanka story is about the “reality distortion field” — a term one of Ward’s sources uses about Kushner — created by great family wealth. She quotes a member of Trump’s legal team saying that the two “have no idea how normal people perceive, understand, intuit.” Privilege, in them, has been raised to the level of near sociopathy.

.. Ward, the author of two previous books about the worlds of high finance and real estate, has known Kushner slightly for a long time; she told me that when he bought The New York Observer newspaper in 2006, he tried to hire her. She knocks down the idea that either he or his wife is a stabilizing force or moral compass in the Trump administration. Multiple White House sources told her they think it was Kushner who ordered the closing of White House visitor logs in April 2017, because he “didn’t want his frenetic networking exposed.” Ward reports that Cohn was stunned by their blasé reaction to Trump’s defense of the white-nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, Va.: “He was upset that they were not sufficiently upset.”

Still, even if you assume that the couple are amoral climbers, their behavior still doesn’t quite make sense. Ward writes that Ivanka’s chief concern is her personal brand, but that brand has been trashed. The book cites an October 2017 survey measuring consumer approval of more than 1,600 brands. Ivanka’s fashion line was in the bottom 10. A leading real estate developer tells Ward that Kushner, now caught up in multiple state and federal investigations, has become radioactive: “No one will want to do business with him.” (Kushner resigned as C.E.O. of Kushner Companies in 2017, but has kept most of his stake in the business.)

To truly make sense of their motivations, Ward told me, you have to understand the gravitational pull of their fathers. Husband and wife are both “really extraordinarily orientated and identified through their respective fathers in a way that most fully formed adults are not,” she said.

“You’ll notice that the U.S. position toward Qatar changes when the Qataris bail out 666 Fifth Avenue,” said Ward, adding, “We look like a banana republic.” Maybe that’s why Jared and Ivanka appear so blithely confident. As public servants, they’re obviously way out of their depth. But as self-dealing scions of a gaudy autocracy? They’re naturals.

 

Information Attacks against Democracies

democracies draw upon the disagreements within their population to solve problems. Different political groups have different ideas of how to govern, and those groups vie for political influence by persuading voters. There is also long-term uncertainty about who will be in charge and able to set policy goals. Ideally, this is the mechanism through which a polity can harness the diversity of perspectives of its members to better solve complex policy problems. When no-one knows who is going to be in charge after the next election, different parties and candidates will vie to persuade voters of the benefits of different policy proposals.

Contrast this with an autocracy. There, common political knowledge about who is in charge over the long term and what their policy goals are is a basic condition of stability. Autocracies do not require common political knowledge about the efficacy and fairness of elections, and strive to maintain a monopoly on other forms of common political knowledge. They actively suppress common political knowledge about potential groupings within their society, their levels of popular support, and how they might form coalitions with each other. On the other hand, they benefit from contested political knowledge about nongovernmental groups and actors in society. If no one really knows which other political parties might form, what they might stand for, and what support they might get, that itself is a significant barrier to those parties ever forming.

This difference has important consequences for security. Authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to information attacks that challenge their monopoly on common political knowledge. They are vulnerable to outside information that demonstrates that the government is manipulating common political knowledge to their own benefit. And they are vulnerable to attacks that turn contested political knowledge­ — uncertainty about potential adversaries of the ruling regime, their popular levels of support and their ability to form coalitions­ — into common political knowledge. As such, they are vulnerable to tools that allow people to communicate and organize more easily, as well as tools that provide citizens with outside information and perspectives.

.. For example, before the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government had extensive control over common knowledge. It required everyone to publicly support the regime, making it hard for citizens to know how many other people hated it, and it prevented potential anti-regime coalitions from organizing. However, it didn’t pay attention in time to Facebook, which allowed citizens to talk more easily about how much they detested their rulers, and, when an initial incident sparked a protest, to rapidly organize mass demonstrations against the regime. The Arab Spring faltered in many countries, but it is no surprise that countries like Russia see the Internet openness agenda as a knife at their throats.

.. Democracies, in contrast, are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge. If people disagree on the results of an election, or whether a census process is accurate, then democracy suffers. Similarly, if people lose any sense of what the other perspectives in society are, who is real and who is not real, then the debate and argument that democracy thrives on will be degraded. This is what seems to be Russia’s aims in their information campaigns against the US: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together. This is also the situation that writers like Adrien Chen and Peter Pomerantsev describe in today’s Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair.

.. In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society.

  1. .. First, we need to better defend the common political knowledge that democracies need to function. That is, we need to bolster public confidence in the institutions and systems that maintain a democracy.
  2. Second, we need to make it harder for outside political groups to cooperate with inside political groups and organize disinformation attacks, through measures like transparency in political funding and spending. And finally,
  3. we need to treat attacks on common political knowledge by insiders as being just as threatening as the same attacks by foreigners.

Last Exit Off the Road to Autocracy

Taxes and health care aren’t the only things on the ballot.

It’s a near-certainty that Democrats will receive more votes than Republicans, with polling suggesting a margin in votes cast for the House of Representatives of seven or more percentage points — which would make it the biggest landslide of modern times. However, gerrymandering and other factors have severely tilted the playing field, so that even this might not be enough to bring control of the chamber.

.. In fact, it’s not hyperbole to say that if the G.O.P. holds the line on Tuesday, it may be the last even halfway fair elections we’ll ever have.

.. Look at what’s happening in Georgia, where Brian Kemp — the Republican secretary of state, who oversees elections — is running for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams. In any other democracy, letting a man supervise his own election would be inconceivable. But that’s how it is in Georgia, and Kemp is abusing his power to the max.

.. In recent years Kemp has purged millions of names from Georgia’s voting rolls, on dubious grounds. Finding himself in a close race despite these efforts, he tried to purge even more based on criteria so spurious that the courts have — for now — blocked his efforts. So over the weekend Kemp’s office issued a warning, with no evidence or specifics, that Democrats may have tried to hack the voter registration site.

A political party with any kind of commitment to democracy and fair play would treat Kemp as a pariah. Instead, he has the full support of the national G.O.P.

.. And Georgia is far from unique. There have been similar if less spectacular attempts to rig the vote in Kansas and North Dakota, where would-be absentee voters were told that they had to use the right color ink— and were given conflicting information about what color was acceptable.

.. The lesson we learn from all these abuses of power is that today’s Republicans are just like their fellow white nationalists in Hungary and Poland, who have maintained a democratic facade but have in reality established one-party authoritarian regimes.

.. Oh, and in case you’re tempted to bothsides this: No, both sides don’t do it. Voting restrictions are almost entirely a Republican thing. As always, Democrats aren’t saints, but they appear to believe in democracy, while their opponents don’t.

.. the media said it anyway), while tending to dismiss talk about Republican abuse of power as hysterical.