Trump, Warlords and Failed States

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Today is a really bad day for the country. But it also reminds me – it should remind you – that authoritarianism is most often born of incompetence and mismanagement. It seems like a paradox or a disconnect. But it’s not. They generally go together, as they do here.

Early in his administration Democrats were willing to vote to okay tens of billions of dollars for Trump’s vanity project wall. The price of that was little more than confirming in law what was already the case in practice, DACA protections. Trump rejected that, negotiated his way down to about one billion dollars for the kinds of border barriers the US was building before Trump ever proposed his wall. Now he’s trying to seize about a 10th of those funds – the original $50 billion offer – to build his signature wall.

For all the other more important criticisms of President Trump, what’s striking is just how bad he is at being President. The Wall is a stupid waste. But he could have had billions to build it if he wanted to. Now he’s going to seize – or rather attempt to seize – a few billions of dollars in ways that are likely to be at least slowed down for years in litigation.

Many times over the last two years I’ve recalled this tag line from Slate’s Will Saletan: “The GOP is a failed state and Trump is its warlord.” Now this half applies to the country at large. It was a remarkably prescient line. It explains and illuminates so much.

Warlords rule by force rather than by law or consent. But what makes them warlords rather than state builders – steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king – is that their power does not just originate in state failure. Its perpetuation depends on it.

These are all analogies of course. The failed state model applies more to the GOP than the US at large. But again, this is a powerful analogy because it captures the essence of Trump’s place in US politics and the early 21st century GOP. Trump is unable to govern as a normal President because his policies are unpopular and he’s completely unable – in policy terms or characterologically – to at least attempt to build governing coalitions as almost every President in US history has at least attempted to do. His hold on power depends on keeping his minority faction in a state of maximal aggrievement, activation and confrontation. That’s what this wall battle is, of course, about.

In this sense he has made the US not a failed state but a failed politics. And thus, here we are.

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