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.
I don’t think it’s possible to fully grasp the Ukraine scandal without understanding the dynamic outlined by former homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert last weekend. Recall that he told ABC News and the New York Times that a pernicious cycle had taken hold in the White House — even as aides debunked 2016 conspiracy theories, Trump allies (including Rudy Giuliani) would sell the president once again on wild tales. Here’s the Times report on Bossert:
“It is completely debunked,” Mr. Bossert said of the Ukraine theory on ABC. Speaking with George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Bossert blamed Mr. Giuliani for filling the president’s head with misinformation. “I am deeply frustrated with what he and the legal team is doing and repeating that debunked theory to the president. It sticks in his mind when he hears it over and over again, and for clarity here, George, let me just again repeat that it has no validity.”
Other former aides said separately on Sunday that the president had a particular weakness for conspiracy theories involving Ukraine, which in the past three years has become the focus of far-right media outlets and political figures. Mr. Trump was more willing to listen to outside advisers like Mr. Giuliani than his own national security team.
I’ve heard many of these conspiracy theories, and — like many conspiracies — they can use a base of troubling truth as a launching pad for the most bizarre of claims. For example,
- the origin of the Steele Dossier is troubling and worth investigating.
- The Carter Page FISA applications should also be closely examined. It is not at all uncommon (sadly) for to find examples of overreach or abuse in any far-flung and complex investigation — that’s one reason why defense lawyers often spend so much time on suppression motions before trials.
But the theories floating around online Trumpworld go far, far beyond any discernible connection to logic or evidence.
But here’s the problem — the wildest theories are floated in the quarters that are most fiercely devoted to the president. They’re the ones who constantly to refer to the “real collusion” as the connection between Democrats and the Ukrainian government. They’re the ones who cast doubt on the very idea that Russia interfered in the election at all, much less on Trump’s behalf. They’re the ones constantly using absurd words like “coup” to describe constitutional and legal processes that are adverse to Trump. And, based on the transcript of the call with Volodymyr Zelensky, it seems as if Trump is drinking deeply of their conspiratorial Kool-Aid.
In their click-bait zeal to curry favor with the world’s most powerful man, they are feeding Trump’s worst instincts, and now we know that he’s warped American diplomacy in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods as a result.
In an interview earlier today, I described the scandal as one part corruption, one part fitness. Yes, it’s venal and corrupt to depart from any conventional legal process to urge a dependent foreign government (or a hostile foreign government, like China) to investigate a domestic political rival — especially in the absence of evidence of criminal wrongdoing. But the willingness to believe in conspiracy theories and conduct diplomacy accordingly also speaks less to Trump’s corruption than whether he has the character, knowledge, and temperament to be president. In fact, I’m starting to believe that the fitness aspect of this controversy may well be dominant.
Trump’s most extreme allies have built a large media following, but the most important person in that audience is the current occupant of the Oval Office. They’ve succeeded in convincing the most powerful man in the world that their theories are right. They’re influencing diplomacy at the highest levels. But they just might be planting the seeds of Trump’s political destruction. They’ve helped put their beloved president on the path to impeachment.