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The Wheels Are Coming Off The Trump Administration

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | January 31, 2017 |

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | January 31, 2017 |

I do not like to fly. I’m better than I used to be, but I find the experience harrowing. My wife, however, is terrified, so when we’re flying together, when the turbulence arrives, I have to pretend not to be scared so that I can help calm the nerves of my wife.

Conversations with my wife every single night and most mornings since Trump was elected mirror those flights. I am scared of what’s going on in the world right now, but my wife? Growing up, the actions of the Nixon administration drove her family off the grid. She grew up in a house her Dad built out in the middle of the woods without electricity or indoor plumbing. From there, she went to Smith College, where she was a Holocaust scholar. Everything that she has witnessed from the Trump Administration, she can align perfectly with the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. She is terrified — and maybe rightfully so — but it’s on me to try and allay those fears as best I can, so we end up in these contentious conversations where she adamantly tries to convince me that we’re heading straight into a fascist state. I have those fears as well, but I need to hold her hand when the turbulence comes, remind her of the resiliency of the American people, and that we won’t let it happen. Look at the marches, I say! The hundreds of thousands of people coming out! And she’ll say, “But there’s nothing on the line yet. Wait until the lives of demonstrators are threatened.” She worries there will be round-ups. She worries dissent will be snuffed out.

When I think about Jeff Sessions or Bannon, it’s hard not to fall into that mindset. That’s when I start to think that this is all part of a well-orchestrated plan to create an autocracy, to strip away our civil rights, to suppress the vote so effectively that liberals — and progress — will be annihilated for years, if not decades.

But then I think of Trump, and somehow, that is mollifying. He doesn’t have a plan. He never thought he’d win. The first ten days is not going like he wanted it to go at all. All he cares about his perception, public opinion, popularity: And he’s getting his ass kicked. He’s being swallowed up by his own incompetence.

A staggeringly incompetent President is terrifying in its own way, but it’s less terrifying than the alternative: A President that plans to round up dissenters, institute martial law, and kill us all. He may yet kill us all, but I still think it will be because of incompetence, and not because of a grand plan.

There was a piece I read yesterday in response to that other more terrifying one about how this weekend was a trial balloon for a coup. This piece suggested that if we look at the outcomes of Trump’s actions, it can begin to look like the rise of fascism.

We have precious little evidence about what is happening within President Trump’s administration. What we observe is its output: executive orders, staffing decisions, and personnel management. What we don’t observe is everything that we need to know to interpret those outputs.

Basically, the author of the piece said, we can interpret the outputs in two different ways: He’s either a strong leader trying to grab power, or he is a weak and incompetent leader trying to give the illusion of power.

One of the many things that studying authoritarian politics has taught me is that from the perspective of the outsider, weak leaders often act like strong leaders, and strong leaders often act like they are indifferent. Weak leaders have every incentive to portray themselves as stronger than they are in order to get their way. They gamble on splashy policies. They escalate crises. This is just as true for democrats as for dictators.

In other words, elevating Bannon to the NSC may have been an attempt to consolidate power, or Trump is “so isolated that he needs someone who he believes he can trust.”

Another example: the swift release of President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration without much advice or feedback from the affected bureaucracies may be evidence that the administration is completely centralizing control within the office of the president. Or it might be because the administration does not understand standard operating procedures in a presidential administration. Or it might be because they worry that they have lost the narrative, need to do something, and a gross Nazi is calling the shots. Again, only the first is a sign of strength. The latter two are signs of weakness. All three of the same observable implications, but have radically different interpretations.

Firing Sally Yates last night is also the exact sort of thing a weak leader would do in order to appear strong. It’s straw grasping. It’s also what an authoritarian leader would do. But there’s a lot more evidence suggesting that Trump is incompetent and evil than there is that he’s an evil genius. He’s being undone by his own mistakes, just as Obama warned:

If he’s a weak leader trying to give the illusion of strength, he can be defeated, and that’s where we can take heart in the resistance. These rallies and marches, they are working. They’re rattling him. But more importantly, they’re rattling those around him. Yesterday, for instance, a Virginia congressman said that he wouldn’t be doing any more town halls until after the first 100 days, because “women are all up in my grill.” Here in Maine, we had a rally to encourage Senator Susan Collins to f**king listen, and she listened: Yesterday, she spoke out against Bannon, and she called the decision not to mention Jews in the Holocaust Remembrance speech a “historical mistake.” Attempts to get rid of Obamacare have stalled, and may have been shelved indefinitely.

Congresspeople of both parties have come out against the Muslim ban. Bill O’Reilly has spoken against the Muslim ban. Democrats are more emboldened than they have been in decades.

Republicans, meanwhile, are pissed. From The Washington Post:

Trump’s ban also significantly deepened fissures in his already fragile relationship with congressional Republicans, with GOP leaders on Capitol Hill angrily complaining Monday that they were not consulted before the order was issued.

At least a dozen key GOP lawmakers and aides said Trump’s order took them by surprise, even as the White House insisted that it collaborated with Congress. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s political team sought to reassure donors and other supporters that the temporary ban does not amount to a “religious test.” And a steady stream of Republican lawmakers released carefully tailored statements expressing concerns about the order.

According to insider reports, the state of things inside the White House are not good, either. They’re sh*tting on Reince Preibus:

“A little bit of under-competence and a slight amount of insecurity can breed some paranoia and backstabbing,” one White House official, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, said of Priebus. “We have to get Reince to relax into the job and become more competent, because he’s seeing shadows where there are no shadows.”

They’re also sh*tting on Stephen Miller. There’s infighting among the principals:

Inside the West Wing, tensions flared as differences in management style emerged between two factions: one led by chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, who wrote the immigration order, and the other composed of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and his deputies, who are accustomed to operating with a more traditional chain of command.

According to Vanity Fair, the clumsiness and dysfunction inside the White House has even gotten to Jared Kushner, who has reportedly lost seven pounds during the first 10 days, and was furious because Trump had obliterated all the work he’d done to arrange a meeting with the Mexican President.

Yesterday, Sean Spicer bragged about a military raid Trump had OK’d.

There are reports that Trump feels increasingly isolated in the White House. The State Department stood up to him yesterday, and Sean Spicer told them they should leave, which is against the law. Sally Yates’ decision to stand up to the Muslim ban has rallied the left even more, and probably given second thoughts to those on the right. Pressure is so intense that Trump bailed on a planned executive order that would have taken away rights for lesbian, gay and transgender federal employees.

Meanwhile, there’s intense pressure in the UK to distance the country from Trump. Cities like San Francisco, New York, Boston, and even Cincinnati are defying Trump and calling themselves sanctuary cities, even if it means losing federal funds. California is threatened to secede. Companies and CEO’s across the nation have come out against Trump’s policies. Trump is threatening something even more powerful than the Presidency: American capitalism.

We have even been listed as an external threat to security.

Some of the “outputs” look like the work of a rising autocratic. Most of the outputs, however, look like the work of a weak, ineffectual leader, one who can’t even control the leaks inside of his office, because everyone is terrified of his incompetence.

My wife will often say: You know Germany was the most progressive, technologically advanced country in Europe when Hitler took over. Why is it different this time? Well, for one, we know the history, and as Anthony Breznican pointed out yesterday, none of Trump’s actions are going unnoticed. We’re watching.

But also, because of American idealism. Because we will risk our lives for others. Because while social media may have gotten us into this mess, it may help us out by keeping us vigilant, aware, and impassioned.

While my wife says that so far the rallies have been mostly symbolic gestures against Trump policies, I think we’ll begin to show up in even bigger numbers when it really starts to matter, as Eric Zorn at the Chicago Tribune points out:

In other words, most of the anti-Trump protests so far have been over symbolism and omens.

So just imagine what’s going to happen if or when the largely hypothetical becomes real and the abstract becomes personal.

•If or when the numbers of people turned away from our borders, detained or deported grows from the hundreds into the tens of thousands.

•If or when millions of people lose their health insurance policies after Obamacare is repealed.

•If or when Roe v. Wade is overturned and states begin outlawing abortion.

•If or when we begin to go backward on LGBTQ rights and anti-gay discrimination is enshrined as a religious right.

•If or when prices or taxes rise to pay for an unnecessary border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and for Trump’s misbegotten trade wars.

•If or when public education begins to disappear in major urban centers.

•If or when strict voter-ID laws, with their racially discriminatory effects, sweep the red states.

If any of the above hypotheticals become reality, these recent protests will seem quaint in comparison.

In other words, I don’t think what’s going on inside the White House is part of a well-orchestrated plan. I think it’s a sign that the wheels are coming off. It’s only been 11 days, and the Democrats have not been this fired up since Vietnam, the Republicans are angry and increasingly disillusioned with Trump, and insiders are ratting out their boss. If Trump can’t control the people around him, how is he going to control the National Guard? And we haven’t even gotten to the showdowns between Congressional Republicans and Trump yet, and there’s no suggestion that Trump has any idea how to maneuver that without alienating everyone.

Trump is weak. He is down. It’s been 11 days. We’re going to beat this motherfucker by never letting up on the pressure, on the accountability. Every false move will be criticized. He may never have another good news cycle again. That’s going to wear on him. He’s going to make more mistakes. He’s going to withdraw even further. And before long, he’ll be the same kind of leader we have here in Maine: A crazy loon that no one listens to, that has zero political capital, a Governor whose vetoes are frequently overriden, and a guy who refuses to talk to the media and seems to be basically waiting it out until his term is over. Take heart in our experience: Paul LePage is an embarrassment to the state of Maine, as Trump is to our nation, but he’s also completely ineffective, largely ignored the lawmakers.

As the author of the above piece notes, this is not a man who is in control. “From my view, the conclusion to draw from the past ten days is just how little power this president is able to exert over national politics.”

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.