Thank God Trump’s so incompetent
Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s then-chief of staff and later Mayor of Chicago, said in 2008, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. It provides the opportunity to do things that were not possible to do before.”
At the time, Emanuel was referring to the financial crisis, until now the biggest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. He was arguing that the crisis was an opportunity to pass important financial reform legislation that had been blocked for years by the banking lobby.
This truism, however, can apply to more insidious motives. Consider the case of Hungary. There, Viktor Orban has taken advantage of the current crisis to further erode Hungary’s democracy. For all intents and purposes, there is no longer a free press, an independent legislative check on his powers, or a viable opposition. Hungary, the country for which there were such high hopes in the late 1980s, has devolved into a true fascist dictatorship.
We need not go so far afield to see how unchecked power, especially during a crisis, can lead to diminished democracy. In Wisconsin, dubbed “Hungary on the Great Lakes” by Paul Krugman, the efforts of former Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) and his followers have hobbled organized opposition to Republican rule.
The results from this campaign are clear. The Supreme Court, once an objective arbiter of the law, has become an arm of the Republican party, as shown by its ruling that the primary must be held as scheduled despite the risks of coronavirus. In 2018, Wisconsin voted Democratic with a 53 percent majority. Yet, due to gerrymandering, Democrats only ended up with 36 percent of the legislative seats. And of course there is the action of the out-going Republican administration to reduce the powers of the new Democratic governor Tony Evers. It makes one wonder is Wisconsin still meets the requirements in our Constitution of a “republican form of government.”
Trump could have used the coronavirus crisis to similarly take control of the reins of the federal government. Indeed, his support of Mitch McConnell’s assault on our judiciary and his attack on federal Inspectors General show how much power he could marshall. But yet, he hasn’t taken full advantage of what he could do.
A key example of this failure involves the military. In countries with dictatorships, support of the military is critical. After all, they are the ones with guns. I once believed that the United States was different. American institutions are strong, so I thought, and U.S. service members take their oath to the Constitution seriously. The success of Trump and Barr at undermining the non-political nature of the Department of Justice has shaken that faith.
So imagine my surprise when I read that Trump is as unpopular among the military than he is with the general public. In a poll taken last November, entirely before Trump displayed such incompetence in handling the coronavirus crisis, the Military Times found Trump’s approval among the military at only 42 percent, and his disapproval rating at 50 percent.
In countries where a dictatorship has failed to take hold, that result is largely due to the loyalty of the military to the democratic government. It appears that we still can rely upon that loyalty from the U.S. military.
If Trump really wanted to take control of our government, rather than simply ensuring positive attention for his needy ego, he would have taken the reigns of the military more firmly. He would have put actual limitations upon media coverage, especially in light of the coronavirus crisis. He has done neither, however, and his failure to take those steps could be his undoing.
We cannot be sanguine about the attacks Trump has already made upon our constitutional order. But more importantly, this administration should serve as a warning sign to us. If this administration had been led by a competent politician and administrator, he could have done so much more to undermine our democracy. Fortunately, he just doesn’t have the capability to do so.
In 2017, David Brooks predicted in the New York Times a “coming incompetence crisis.” His predictions could not have been validated more than they have been through the current crisis. At the same time as we bemoan the absence of leadership from the White House, however, we should be thankful that this administration has not been more effective in pursuing its goals. Had Trump and his cronies actually been competent, our democracy might already be over.