Trump’s weakness is bad for democracy

Trump’s weakness is bad for democracy

Jonathan Bernstein

Weak presidents are not safe for democracy.

Bright Line Watch, a project of political scientists worried about the erosion of democratic institutions, has found increasing concern by experts about the state of US democracy since 2017. That’s despite the well-documented case that Donald Trump has been an unusually weak president. He often defers to Republican Party regulars on policy questions; when he doesn’t, he’s usually rolled by members of Congress, the executive branch, governors and business leaders. He often appears more interested in announcing policy wins than in actually doing the work to make those victories real.

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist who understands Trump’s weakness, made the case on Tuesday that if the president was really a threat to democracy, he would have taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to seize more power. Douthat argued that Trump isn’t interested in that kind of authority but rather craves only attention, rendering him helpless to effectively subvert democratic rule.

Douthat misses, however, a big part of what Trump does appear to care about. Beyond the compulsion to be in the spotlight, Trump also seems to care a lot about squashing negative attention. He has astonishingly thin skin, and a shockingly broad interpretation of what counts as personal criticism.

Douthat wrongly asserts that Trump’s “only impulse that related to real power and its uses” has been to duck responsibility for the coronavirus response by sending authority back to the states, missing the bullying of executive branch experts, governors, the media, and anyone else who dared suggest that Trump’s leadership was anything less than perfect. Indeed, Trump’s aversion to criticism is so strong that he tends to take even basic factual information as personal attacks, as when he claims that studies of potential coronavirus cures that don’t conform to his own hopes must have been the work of his enemies.

Presidential weakness isn’t insurance against harm. The real nature of presidential power, as the political scientist Richard Neustadt explained long ago, is a function of bargaining skill, mastery at gathering and processing information, understanding of the political and other incentives of those a president deals with, and thorough knowledge of the political system.

Trump has none of those things. Indeed, that makes his influence minimal. But presidents who can’t manipulate the system to realize their visions of what the country needs try instead to work around the system, even if that means bending or breaking the rules. It usually doesn’t work, but along the way they can do all sorts of damage.

Take Trump’s tweets Wednesday morning falsely accusing Michigan and Nevada of voter fraud and threatening to withhold federal funds if they proceeded with legitimate absentee-voter plans. It was a classic display of Trump weakness — he got his facts wrong, and he almost certainly can’t follow through on his threat. As with most Trump orders and proposals, legitimate and illicit, it will probably be ignored.

And yet that’s not the whole story. Each time a president advocates something illegal, it harms the rule of law in small ways, even without efforts to follow up. Most party actors from the president’s party are reluctant to contradict their own president because weakening him weakens the party overall. Some will just ignore such things, but some will try to jump on the bandwagon, further harming the republic. And it doesn’t just stop with rhetoric. White House staff and political appointees within the bureaucracy at least partially take their lead from the president. They might undermine constitutional government in their effort to fulfill his wishes even if he’s too inept to know how to get things done. They also may just follow his example and ignore legal and ethical restraints for their own self-interest. A lawless president encourages lawlessness.

And the damage isn’t limited to the president’s party. Once the out-of-power party comes to believe that a president and his party are not constrained by law, they may feel pressure to do likewise to compete.

Douthat worries about what he used to call Caesarism when Barack Obama was president. But Neustadt understood that the presidential quest for power isn’t a problem, because the kinds of things that produce true presidential influence require the proper use of the political system. The successful ambition for power paradoxically constrains presidents, because they have to avoid doing the things that alienate political actors and voters.

To take one example, properly ambitious presidents cultivate a reputation for honesty because it helps them bargain successfully with political actors to get what they want. But that means they actually have to do the things that make their word mean something. Trump doesn’t have that constraint, but also doesn’t get the benefits that go with it.

Democracy and the rule of law are a continuum. One violation doesn’t destroy the republic. But Trump’s constant lawlessness has already taken a toll on the strength of US democracy, and continues to do so — in large part because he isn’t interested in real power and doesn’t understand what it is.


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