Behind all of the news about Russia-gate (the latest being the revelation that Special Counsel Bob Mueller now has two D.C. grand juries empaneled), the threat that Donald Trump’s presidency represents to the American democracy grows ever more palpable. Yes, the thinking goes, he is unpredictable and uncontrollable, but, as he settles into to the office, he is also being seen as just plain scary. The fear, if that is the right word, that many Democrats (and more than a few Republicans) have is based on a confluence of at least four factors.
Herein, I’ll detail those four factors and then conclude with a description of the possible prognosis that is of great concern.
o Temperament – Whether he is properly diagnosed as a narcissist or is just laden with a heavy ego, Trump continually reinforces the need for everything to be about him in a positive way. He cannot abide attacks or criticisms. Rarely will even 24 hours pass from a critique of something he has done or said before he will respond with an offensive, if not untrue, tweet that attacks either the purveyor of the tweet or someone else entirely.
To call this behavior unpresidential, while that is most certainly a fair characterization, misses the point. Behind the angry tweet, the petulant attacks, and the “am-I-not-great?” claims is a fragile man who also has megalomaniacal tendencies. Such an individual, when under attack, is prone to use power he believes he has. In a president, such an individual is a potential autocrat. And Trump has put his autocratic bent on display throughout the first six months of his presidency, most especially in his attempts to diminish the value of the media that report on his administration’s missteps.
Once a nation’s leader has taken control of the media (or in Trump’s case, has convinced his followers that the media are illegitimate), the road to dictatorship is cleared considerably.
o Ignorance – Every new president faces a learning curve, but as one who had no previous experience in elective office (or public service of any kind, for that matter), Trump’s need to learn a lot and to learn it quickly was a major challenge. Suffice it to say, he has failed that challenge in almost every measurable way, and the result is ignorance: ignorance about the responsibilities of his office, ignorance about the workings of government, ignorance about the protocols of international relations, and ignorance about the policies he claims to support.
The level of Trump’s ignorance is largely the cause of his incompetence and of his administration’s failure to accomplish anything of consequence legislatively or diplomatically (the UN Security Council’s unanimous vote to impose sanctions on North Korea is a notable, and most welcomed, exception). He has been successful in issuing executive orders, but his incompetence at filling sub-cabinet level positions (almost 80% remained unfilled) has adversely affected the impact of those orders.
Trump’s ignorance is caused by his intellectual laziness, which is evidenced by his disinterest in and lack of understanding of the policies he says he supports. Did he ever understand the basic details of the various versions of the healthcare bills his party pushed in the House and the Senate? Nothing in his public remarks suggested he did, and nothing in his tweets (or occasional public statements) on the subject indicated that he cared about the details. At one point, after leading a big celebration when it passed on a narrow vote, he declared that the House bill was “mean,” but he never stated why it was mean, and I doubt that he even knew what he meant by the word.
Ignorance in a president can be scary in and of itself, since his administration will then be subject to the will of non-elected bureaucrats, or will do nothing when circumstances call for action, or will shoot wildly and inaccurately in response to a perceived crisis (or all of the above). (Trump’s inflammatory “fire and fury” warning to North Korea this week is an example of the shoot-wildly alternative.) Intellectual laziness breeds contempt for the law and the system that supports the rule of law. Trump is intellectually vapid. His ignorance is chronic and acute.
o The intensity of support from his base – Trump’s approval ratings are dropping into the mid- to high 30s (even lower in the recent Quinnipiac poll), which suggests he is losing popularity. But his base support is still very strong, as evidenced by the wildly enthusiastic crowds he draws to his oxymoronic post-election campaign rallies. The significance of that continuing support may not be of great consequence in a 2020 re-election effort, but it is still a major factor in the limited amount of push-back he is getting from his party now.
The large majority of Republicans in Congress (House and Senate) still support Trump. Those who even venture to criticize him for specific actions are few and far between. That continuing support is clearly not due to any deeply felt loyalty by those in Congress for the leader of their party. Instead it is the result of the intimidating effect of the virulent support he receives from his base. That support empowers Trump psychologically. But more importantly, it gives him governing strength. Simply stated, Trump has the power to say and do things without fear of revolt by his Congressional party-mates. That power is potentially monumental.
o Control of all three branches of government – With Republican support of the House and Senate, a Republican president should be able to enact his legislative agenda. With majority control of the Supreme Court (in terms of ideological identity and nomination by Republican presidents), a Republican president should get judicial support for his policies. And with a hand-picked cabinet that includes at least three high-ranking former (or current in the case of McMaster) generals, a president should have unfettered ability to transform the operation of the executive branch in carrying out his policies.
Trump has all of the above. Republicans control the House of Representatives by a wide margin and have a two-vote majority in the Senate. And in the Supreme Court, with the addition of Neil Gorsuch, he has five Justices who were appointed by Republican presidents, all of whom are ideological conservatives. (Kennedy, the so-called swing vote, is only slightly more moderate than Roberts, who is only slightly less far-right than Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito.) Such unilateral control of the branches of government presents the opportunity for major accomplishments by a strong-willed, committed president. That Trump has not been such a president to this point in his tenure does not mean that he couldn’t become such a president given the right circumstances.
All of which leads to that prognosis that strikes fear in those who, like me, value greatly the constitutional democratic republic the United States has been for over 200 years. Taken together, Trump’s temperament and ignorance, coupled with the virulent support he continues to have from his base and the control his party has of all three branches of government, suggest the potential for a constitutional crisis that could lead to a form of dictatorship.
Sound irrational? Let me suggest one scenario:
Robert Mueller issues a subpoena for Trump’s tax returns. Trump refuses to comply. Mueller then gets a court order demanding the president provide the tax returns. Trump takes the order to the Supreme Court, which rules, 5 to 4, that he is not required to release the returns. Trump, thus emboldened, then fires Mueller (and perhaps Sessions and Rosenstein as well) and informs Congress that he will not allow a new Special Counsel to be appointed or recognize a newly enacted Special Prosecutor law that Congress might pass. Congress, responding to uprisings in support of Trump by his base, accedes and allows the Russia-gate investigation to die. Trump then imposes martial law throughout the country to quell the mass protests that spring up in opposition to his autocratic rule. Trump then suspends habeas corpus (the Court supports him) and postpones the presidential election until the “rebellion” is defeated. Congress and the Court support him.
Does it still sound irrational? Perhaps, but stay vigilant, anyway.