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.
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.
In recent decades, the label “progressive” has been resurrected to replace “liberal,” a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use. Both etymologically and ideologically, the switch to “progressive” carries historical freight that augurs poorly for Democrats and for the nation’s polarized politics.
.. Historical progressivism is an ideology whose American avatars, like Woodrow Wilson, saw progress as the inevitable outcome of human affairs.
.. The basic premise of liberal politics, by contrast, is the capacity of government to do good, especially in ameliorating economic ills. Nothing structurally impedes compromise between conservatives, who hold that the accumulated wisdom of tradition is a better guide than the hypercharged rationality of the present, and liberals, because both philosophies exist on a spectrum.
.. A liberal can believe that government can do more good or less, and one can debate how much to conserve. But progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it. Like conservative fundamentalism, progressivism contributes to the polarization and paralysis of government because it makes compromise, which entails accepting less progress, not merely inadvisable but irrational.
Hillary Clinton, for example, called herself “a progressive who likes to get things done” — the implication is that progress is the fundamental goal and that its opponents are atavists.
.. Unlike liberalism, progressivism is intrinsically opposed to conservation. It renders adhering to tradition unreasonable rather than seeing it, as the liberal can, as a source of wisdom.
The British philosopher Roger Scruton calls this a “culture of repudiation” of home and history alike.
The critic of progress is not merely wrong but a fool. Progressivism’s critics have long experienced this as a passive-aggressive form of re-education.
.. Because progress is an unadulterated good, it supersedes the rights of its opponents. This is evident in progressive indifference to the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.
.. The ideology of progress tends to regard the traditions that have customarily bound communities and which mattered to Trump voters alarmed by the rapid transformation of society, as a fatuous rejection of progress.
.. Trump supporters’ denunciation of “political correctness” is just as often a reaction to progressive condescension as it is to identity politics.
.. Where liberalism seeks to ameliorate economic ills, progressivism’s goal is to eradicate them.
.. Moynihan recognized this difference between Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which he always supported — as exemplified by his opposition to Clinton-era welfare reform — and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which he sympathetically criticized.
.. The Great Society partook more of a progressive effort to remake society by eradicating poverty’s causes. The result, Moynihan wrote, was the diversion of resources from welfare and jobs to “community action” programs that financed political activism.
.. Conservatism holds that accumulated tradition is a likelier source of wisdom than the cleverest individual at any one moment. It fears the tyranny of theory that cannot tolerate dissent.
.. Liberalism defends constitutionalism. One of the finest traditions of 20th-century liberalism was the Cold War liberal
.. progressivism, by its very definition, makes progress into an ideology. The appropriate label for those who do not believe in the ideology of progress but who do believe in government’s capacity to do good is “liberal.”
Trump, he writes, “would more accurately be described as a ‘radical anti-progressive’” who is “at war with the progressives who have co-opted American civil society.” Moreover, Trump “is willing to go further than any other previous conservative to defeat them.”
.. “Radical anti-progressives” recognize that many institutions—the academy, media, entertainment, and the courts—have been co-opted and corrupted by the left. And as these institutions are not what they once were, they no longer deserve the respect they once had.
.. Trump sees many institutions as fortresses lately captured by radical progressives that must be attacked and besieged if they are to be recaptured and liberated. Cannon deals with three such politicized institutions: the media, the NFL, and the courts.
.. Trump does not attack freedom of the press but rather the moral authority and legitimacy of co-opted media institutions. It is what CNN has become, not what CNN was, that Trump disrespects.
.. These people are political enemies posturing as journalists who create “fake news” to destroy me
.. Before 2016, the NFL was an untouchable. When
- the league demanded that North Carolina accept the radical transgender agenda or face NFL sanctions, the Tar Heel State capitulated. When
- Arizona declined to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday in 1990, the NFL took away the Super Bowl. The Sun State caved
.. Trump delivered a full-throated defense of the flag and called for kicking the kneelers off the field, out of the game, and off the team.
“Fire them!” Trump bellowed.
.. Before Trump, the FBI was sacrosanct. But Trump savaged an insiders’ cabal at the top of the FBI that he saw as having plotted to defeat him.
.. Trump has not attacked an independent judiciary, but courts like the Ninth Circuit, controlled by progressives and abusing their offices to advance progressive goals
.. it let the Supreme Court seize its power over social policy and convert itself into a judicial dictatorship.
.. Trump instead seeks to fight and delegitimize any institution the Left has captured, and rebuild it from the ground up.”
.. Trump supporters who most relish the wars he is waging are the “Middle American Radicals,”
.. After World War II, as it became clear that our long-ruling liberal elites had blundered horribly in trusting Stalin, patriots arose to cleanse our institutions of treason and its fellow travelers.
.. The Hollywood Ten were exposed and went to jail. Nixon nailed Alger Hiss. Truman used the Smith Act to shut down Stalin’s subsidiary, the Communist Party USA. Spies in the atom bomb program were run down. The Rosenbergs went to the electric chair.
.. Liberals call it the “Red Scare.” They are right to do so.
For when the patriots of the Greatest Generation like Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy came home from the war and went after them, the nation’s Reds had never been so scared in their entire lives.
four warning signs to determine if a political leader is a dangerous authoritarian:
- The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules.
- He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents.
- He or she tolerates violence.
- He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.
.. “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century,” they say, which sounds reassuring. Unfortunately, they have one update: “Donald Trump met them all.”
.. democracies are more likely to wither at the hands of insiders who gain power initially through elections. That’s what happened, to one degree or another, in
- Russia, the
- Sri Lanka,
- Poland and
.. Venezuela was a relatively prosperous democracy, for example, when the populist demagogue Hugo Chávez tapped the frustrations of ordinary citizens to be elected president in 1998.
.. the Venezuelan public overwhelmingly believed that “democracy is always the best form of government,” with only one-quarter saying that authoritarianism is sometimes preferable. Yet against their will, Venezuelans slid into autocracy.
“This is how democracies now die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write. “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”.. he has tried to undermine institutions and referees of our political system: judges, the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., the intelligence community, the news media, the opposition party and Congress. But to his great frustration, American institutions have mostly passed the stress test with flying colors... Levitsky and Ziblatt warn of the unraveling of democratic norms — norms such as treating the other side as rivals rather than as enemies, condemning violence and bigotry, and so on. This unraveling was underway long before Trump (Newt Gingrich nudged it along in the 1990s), but Trump accelerated it... It matters when Trump
- denounces the “deep state Justice Department,”
- calls Hillary Clinton a “criminal” and
- urges “jail” for Huma Abedin,
- denounces journalists as the “enemy of the American people” and
- promises to pay the legal fees of supporters who “beat the crap” out of protesters... The answer, they said, is not for Trump opponents to demonize the other side or to adopt scorched-earth tactics, for this can result in “a death spiral in which rule-breaking becomes pandemic.” It’s also not terribly effective, as we’ve seen in Venezuela... they suggested protesting vigorously — but above all, in defense of rights and institutions, not just against the ruler... build coalitions, even if that means making painful compromises, so that protests are very broadly based.