We’re now past the 100 Days. And it was more or less universally agreed that, in historical terms and against expectations, it was an abysmal failure. President Trump as much as conceded this with his wild mix of angry denunciations of the 100 Days standard combined with press releases touting meaningless metrics like number of executive orders signed, number of foreign leaders talked to and similar nonsense. Set all that aside. That’s really a given. What I’m interested in now is Trump’s reaction. He failed. He gets that. But why did he fail? In the Trumpian psyche, it can’t be Trump’s personal failure or a failure of strategy. So who’s to blame?
In recent days, we’ve gotten the answer, though I have not seen it put together as such. The problem is the constitution or more generally, democracy.
Over the weekend, I noted Rience Priebus saying President Trump was considering moves to amend or even abolish the 1st Amendment to make it easier for him to sue news organizations that make him mad. This wasn’t a discussion of libel laws. What he’s thinking about requires amending the constitution. Priebus said as much. Some people thought I exaggerated the point or that, whatever Priebus technically said, he couldn’t actually have meant that. Well, Sean Spicer doubled down on the point and expanded on it the next day.
Are these two just saying things to humor their boss? After all, amending the Constitution is complicated and the President can’t do it alone. Quite possibly. But the President has vast powers. His intentions in this regard are vastly important, even if he might have a hard time making good on them. The messages from his lackeys and lickspittles, both publicly and publicly meant to be seen by him, matter a great deal.
Then there were two tweets from the President just yesterday.
The reason for the plan negotiated between the Republicans and Democrats is that we need 60 votes in the Senate which are not there! We….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2017
either elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%. Our country needs a good “shutdown” in September to fix mess!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2017
This was a post-100 Days fail – a stop-gap budget resolution to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in which Trump got close to nothing he’d demanded. How did he fail so badly? Because Congress doesn’t work well enough. Trump wouldn’t be the first person to clamor for simple majority rules votes in the Senate. But he would be the first President to threaten what we might term a ‘therapeutic shutdown’ to fix the “mess” of American government.
But the real message from the President, one that’s clearly been a topic of conversation between him and his aides, only came in the flurry of interviews he did in which he had a chance to expand on his remarks. His dour mood reaches well beyond the filibuster.
Listen to these comments from his interview with Fox News …
I understand what has to be done, I get things done I’ve always been a closer. We don’t have a lot of closers in politics and I understand why. It’s a very rough system, it’s an archaic system. You look at the rules of the senate, even the rules of the house, bit the rule of the senate and some of the things you have to go through, it’s really a bad thing for the country in my opinion.
There are archaic rules and maybe at some point, we’re going to have to take those rules on because for the good of the nation things are going to have to be different. You can’t go through a process like this. It’s not fair, it forces you to make bad decisions. I mean, if you’re forced into doing things that you would normally not do except for these archaic rules.
Trump knows what needs to be done. And he gets things done. That’s who he is. But having been revealed as someone who almost literally can’t get anything done, he’s turned against the “rough … archaic system.” The system will need to change “for the good of the nation” because “it’s not fair, it forces you to make bad decisions.”
We’ve had this system for a while. But three months in, Trump’s decided it’s time for a change.
This wasn’t off the cuff. Trump said much the same thing, actually used the same catchwords with CBS’s John Dickerson.
Why wasn’t anything getting done, Dickerson asks?
Just a system. It’s just a very, very bureaucratic system. I think the rules in Congress and in particular the rules in the Senate are unbelievably archaic and slow moving. And in many cases, unfair. In many cases, you’re forced to make deals that are not the deal you’d make. You’d make a much different kind of a deal.
You’re forced into situations that you hate to be forced into. I also learned, and this is very sad, because we have a country that we have to take care of. The Democrats have been totally obstructionist. Chuck Schumer has turned out to be a bad leader. He’s a bad leader for the country. And the Democrats are extremely obstructionist.
It’s pretty clear the President is thinking a lot about this and talking about it a lot with his advisors. I mean no disrespect but “archaic” does not strike me as one of the President’s go-to words.
The President’s fondness for foreign dictators is no secret. It won’t surprise you that I think that fondness and envy is tightly connected to the attitudes I’ve noted above. But many of us console ourselves with the notion that Trump is just demonstrably too inept and incompetent to be a strongman or push towards some kind of Americanized authoritarian rule.
This is a misunderstanding.
Incompetence and authoritarianism aren’t incompatible or even in tension. Historically they tend to go together. Incompetence and failure borne of ineptitude tend to show up both as a cause and outcome of democratic breakdown and collapse. Small-d democratic government is hard, by design. It’s meant to be. It should be. But it’s not just hard. It relies on a particular package of skills: persuasion, inspiration, patience, canny use of patronage, threats, carrots and sticks, both consensus building and fight. Look at a Lincoln, an FDR, a Reagan – whatever you think of the different men’s politics, successful presidents are almost quite good at using this toolkit.
Just running down the list, virtually none of these are Trumpian traits. So in addition to the other obstacles he faces, it’s hardly surprising that he’s been such a flop as a chief executive. As any political scientist will tell you, the formal powers of the Presidency, outside of war-fighting, are quite limited. The lack of patience, focus and skills appeared immediately with Trump as he gravitated toward the easy and mostly meaningless sugar high of executive orders over the hard work of legislating. It’s no mystery why he’s failed so miserably. It’s no mystery why he’s now so focused on how … basically democracy, the machinery of democratic government is the problem, how it’s not “fair”.
Not fair to who exactly? Trump, of course.
Even Trump’s rants against the secondary enemy of the ‘obstructionist Democrats’, who don’t control anything, tells a similar story. It’s true that the legislative filibuster is a significant tool for the Democrats right now. It is their only tool. But the real story is that they haven’t gotten really any chance to use it. Trump has failed before that even came into play. The on-going Trumpcare debacle is the best illustration of this. Trump keeps ranting at the Democrats about the failure of Obamacare repeal. But the Democrats have literally not done anything legislatively. I’m sure they would force Republicans to get 60 votes to repeal Obamacare. And they should. But that hasn’t happened.
What’s held Trump back are the invisible hands of public opinion. He can’t get his bill or Ryan’s bill or whomever is claiming it at this point out of the House because Republicans are afraid of the electoral consequences of voting for it. They are afraid they will lose their seats if they vote for it. That’s democracy in its most immediate form. It has nothing to do with the Democrats – unless we’re talking about the Democrats’ relative success at public persuasion about the awfulness of the President’s bill.
We’re talking about this failure in the House right now but the same pattern is ready to play out in the Senate. I think any reporter covering Capitol Hill would back me up when I say that there’s virtually no way Trump could get 50 votes for this bill, let alone 60 in the Senate.
He probably wouldn’t even get close to 50.
In other words, Democrats are ready and eager to obstruct using their one tool. But they’re not getting the chance because Trump is failing within his own party. Trump is ranting at the Democrats but what he’s talking about is public opinion. Democrats are responsible for making people not like him and not like his bill.
Democracy, of course, isn’t simply responding to the whims of public opinion. Sometimes it’s the height of democratic self-government for legislators to make decisions they know are unpopular for the public good. Needless to say, I think think Trumpcare is a moral as well as policy disaster. But for those who disagree, again, that’s part of democratic leadership: persuading legislators to take tough votes. And again, it’s one at which Trump has completely failed.
I am an optimist on American institutions. Adam Smith wrote that there’s “a lot of ruin in a nation”, by which he meant that countries and by analogy governments and institutions are more resilient than you’d think. I think America is stronger than Trump. I don’t think he’s going to be able to tamper with the 1st Amendment because it’s hard and he’s clown. But he is President. A President has vast powers, in many ways far more for destruction than construction. So the fact that he wants to matters a lot. The fact that three months in he’s already decided that the basic mechanisms of American government are ‘archaic’ and ‘unfair’ matters a huge amount too.