What is the essence of Donald Trump? Is he an aspiring strongman? Or is he just a plain old bumbler?
These two schools of thought have been in competition ever since we started to take Trump seriously. Of course he’s narcissistic, duplicitous, misogynistic, bigoted and so forth. But what is at the heart of Donald Trump? Does he intend to emulate Mussolini? Or is he primarily an uncurious incompetent?
The answer: He’s both. And after the firing of FBI director James Comey on Tuesday evening, this has been made astoundingly clear.
A hundred days of bumbling
For those fearing creeping fascism, Trump’s first hundred days were somewhat of a relief. After a flurry of terrifying executive orders and nominations, Trump soon settled into a routine of golf and big-boy photo-ops.
As a result, his first hundred days have been largely bereft of accomplishment. His ineptitude on everything from a twice-failed Muslim ban to staffing basic executive positions has indicated an ignorance of governance as well as an inability to learn the ropes.
At every chance to demonstrate basic proficiency, Trump fails so comprehensively that the average student council president could be swapped in for a better showing.
Leaders work on behalf of the public — they don’t bathe for days in the humiliation of litigating inauguration crowd sizes.
Leaders don’t hold outdoor situation rooms with foreign leaders in full view of club guests at their own hotels.
Leaders know how absurd it would be to say things like “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
Too low-energy to be a despot?
For these reasons (and so many more), the theory of Trump as a dunce has been ascendant — at the expense of the autocrat paradigm.
Beyond temporarily putting Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, stacking his cabinet with a few too many generals and staffing federal agencies with Republican Party apparatchiks, Trump has been far too low-energy to do the work required to become a dictator.
Much of the worst has come in his broadsides against peaceful protesters, the free press and the independent judiciary, his praise of adversaries like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and Bashar al-Assad (before bombing him, at least) and his affection for authoritarian “partners” like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Egypt’s Abdul Fatah Sisi and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
And who knows what Trump was talking about when he baselessly accused President Barack Obama of an illegal wiretapping campaign against him? But accusing your predecessor of high crimes is standard strongman practice.
Time to reconsider
However, these have largely been comic acts of a comic president. In the face of a tough job, Trump has preferred idle hours tweeting and watching cable news over the toil of the presidency. How can democracy possibly be under threat from such a dilettante?
The termination of James Comey changes this assumption and in dramatic fashion.
As of Tuesday morning, Comey was in the process of investigating the Trump circle for colluding with Russia during the presidential campaign, which means firing him is effectively saying “I am guilty, but I don’t care because I’m in charge.”
In addition to the investigation, the sudden dismissal also upends the entire fool-versus-fascist paradigm. That’s okay, it wasn’t accurate anyway. In reality, Trump is a strongman because he’s a bumbler and he’s a bumbler because he’s a strongman.
Trump’s motivations aren’t rooted in 1930s-era fascism. Rather, Trump doesn’t respect political norms because he doesn’t know about them. He wants to be CEO of America, not one of three coequal constitutional branches. His primary concern is himself and his businesses, not the broader course of the nation; if he has to weaken the American system to provide for his family, then so be it.
In other words, his authoritarianism exists because he doesn’t know any better.
A closer examination into Comey’s dismissal underscores this synthesis.
There is no doubt Trump was feeling the heat from the Russia investigation. CNN reports that Russia-related subpoenas were recently issued to associates of former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Comey was even scheduled to testify in front of Congress on Thursday (he still may).
How this played out on Tuesday demonstrates how authoritarian impulse and good old Trump bumbling came together:
- Politico reports that Trump “would sometimes scream at television clips about the [Russia] probe” and wondered why it wouldn’t go away. This ignorance of the judicial process set the tone for aides to find a way to get rid of the man leading the investigation: Comey.
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions was tasked with devising reasons for the firing. The preposterous explanation that landed was his public handling of the Hillary Clinton email case — which closed half a year ago, for which Sessions and Trump had lauded Comey and which arguably elected Trump.
- The memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was only dated today, indicating at best that Trump made a hasty decision to fire Comey. But we know from previous reporting that isn’t the case — Trump set the expectation and deputies generated the justification.
- The White House expected bipartisan support. It didn’t anticipate much blowback. No communications strategy had been prepared. No talking points were ready for surrogates.
So far, Trump’s only had to sweat things like inauguration numbers and legislative sausage-making on issues he doesn’t really care about. If this is how he reacts under pressure, it’s a terrifying precedent: Firing the FBI director in a rage because he’s hot on your trail is dictatorial enough. But to ape the Saturday Night Massacre indicates you know literally nothing about American political history or you’re unable to gauge the consequences of your actions.
Such behavior is unacceptable from the president of the United States. The fact that it is borne out of authoritarian hubris makes it dangerous. The sad lesson: We can’t hope for incompetence to win out over Trump’s autocratic tendencies. Rather, we must pray that American political institutions can contain Trump until Congress has the spine to impeach him.