One month into the Trump administration, I’m looking for any reason to be optimistic. One that’s occurred to me is that I have to wonder whether I’m not falling into the trap of present bias – exaggerating how bad things are now, just because I wasn’t around in past eras when things were far worse, so I don’t have the proper baseline for comparison.
After all, we’ve been through bad times before. The U.S. has had awful presidents and Congresses, wars and depressions and all kinds of catastrophes, yet the nation endured, bounced back and continued to prosper.
We’ve had presidents who were deeply racist and viciously sexist, who were beset with scandal, who committed acts of genocide against native people. FDR, hailed as a progressive hero in so many other ways, presided over the internment of Japanese-Americans. Richard Nixon schemed to use the power of the government as a weapon against his political opponents. George W. Bush blundered us into a ruinous war of choice and disgraced the country by reintroducing torture. We’ve had eras of slavery, segregation, racial exclusion acts, brutal imperialism, civil war.
The American experiment survived all these disasters, some of which are worse than anything Trump is doing or has even talked about doing. Do we really have a right to claim that we’re living in an unprecedentedly bad time? Doesn’t a little history put this into its proper perspective?
I hope this reasoning holds up, but I’m not confident of that. One reason I think this time could truly be different is that, while most bad presidents were bad in one way, this is a president who combines so many different kinds of badness into one. He’s violently racist and extravagantly corrupt and erratic with authoritarian tendencies and petty and vindictive and an out-of-control egomaniac… plus a couple other things I’m sure I forgot to mention.
More to the point, I think Trump brings a kind of badness to the job that’s genuinely new and unprecedented, and that’s his utter incompetence. We’ve never had a president who suffered such a fundamental lack of understanding of the powers and duties of the job, on both the big picture of policy and the micro-level of day-to-day decisionmaking. (His ignorance of the fact that he had to bring his own White House staff is a perfect example.)
Even with George W. Bush, as often as I despised his policies, I never doubted that he knew what the presidency actually entailed. With Trump, I believe he truly doesn’t know what the president can and can’t do.
In a perverse way, perhaps I should take heart from this. Trump’s incompetence and penchant for chaos may limit the damage his administration can do. It will be a constant obstacle to the worst parts of the conservative agenda. He’s likely to issue illegal orders that will readily be struck down by the courts; fail to fill key posts with people who could carry out his ideas; ignore or disregard the wishes of key stakeholders and interest groups who’ll obstruct and bring down his plans.
On the other hand, it also gives him the potential to do far worse harm than any officeholder before him, because he may provoke a constitutional crisis out of pure bull-headed ignorance. He seems to believe the president is an omnipotent CEO, and I can only imagine the tantrum he’ll throw the first time he’s handed a major defeat.
What would happen if he ordered a military strike on a country that snubbed him, or a judge or opposition candidate who displeased him to be arrested? The future of the republic could depend on the willingness of a few brave underlings to refuse to obey orders. It’s a dark scenario we’ve never had to contemplate as Americans, but those are the times we live in now.