This has been billed as the week that the Trump Presidency hit a new low. The hiring of Anthony Scaramucci, the ‘leaking’ of Scaramucci’s disclosure form, the disclosure that the disclosure form was actually public record, Scaramucci’s criticism of White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus as a “paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” and the subsequent firing of Scaramucci in record time was merely a sideshow to Trump’s campaign against his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sessions, if you recall, is on the block for recusing himself from the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties, with Sessions recusal providing the foil for Trump to appoint someone who won’t so much recuse themselves from the inquiry as squash it entirely. A familiar pattern is becoming evident in the way the Trump administration goes about its business: a pro-wrestling President governing by a mixture of chaos, confusion and cheap shots at the opposition.
All of this has heightened the debate on the left about how to respond to Trump’s antics. Was the Scaramucci appointment a smokescreen, designed to distract attention from the Russia investigation? Was Trump’s sudden incursion into the topic of trans rights in the military a calculated divide-and-rule ploy intended to set the left against each other at a time when the left needed to unite to win over blue-collar Democrats? If so, how is the left meant to respond? Is Trump an authoritarian by accident or by design?
These questions are academic when Trump keeps on bumbling towards his end goals, and while Supreme Court justices continue to apply positivist interpretations of the Constitution. Take Trump’s travel ban, for instance, which bars citizens of six majority-Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days.
Two different federal courts ruled that the ban should be put on hold while judges decide whether it’s constitutional, but the Supreme Court decided that Trump should be allowed to enforce the ban starting on Thursday, June 29. Jurists weren’t willing to a “moral” interpretation of the Constitution and instead went with legal precedent, which supports the constitutionality of the order. Judges applied a “letter of the law” rather than a “spirit of the law” interpretation of the Constitution, and Trump’s advisers found an analysis within the letter of the law which passed the constitutional test.
We saw a similar pattern emerge with the repeal and replace of Obamacare, and we still can’t be sure that attempts to repeal Obamacare are dead for good. Mitch McConnell worked through a panoply of options, from repeal-and-replace to straight repeal, to “skinny repeal” (likely a foil to force a Congressional conference), with the Democrats defeating all by a whisker. Even now Trump has threatened to let Obamacare wither on the vine.
In some ways, there’s nothing new about this. Presidents use many different tactics to achieve their goals — LBJ and FDR were noted for their trickery, cajoling, bullying and lying if the situation called for it. Johnson’s work, although he seldom gets the credit for it, won black Americans the right to vote. Trump’s work, bumbling or not, threatens to pick apart the fabric of the Constitution.
And so the Presidency that promised to target “the swamp” of Washington lobbyists and vested interests has now turned against the checks of balances of the state. Trump asked the director of the FBI to pledge his loyalty to him, called upon cops to rough up suspects, exhorted doctors to allow Obamacare to “die” through inaction.
The real risk is that while Democrats and the commentariat wait for the day that Trump definitively oversteps the mark (if that has not already happened), democracy suffers death by a thousand cuts. While the media waits for the “smoking gun” of Russian collusion in the election that would trigger impeachment, Trump is reshaping the government to suit his ends. In May, Ann Coulter called for Trump to replace his Cabinet with a band of loyalists — this week he took steps to do just that.
Some commentators argue that Trump is too incompetent to adequately pursue those goals: that Trump has failed to fill many positions in the executive branch with loyalists, even in areas that he theoretically wishes to expand, such as the military. But this is a straw man argument that rests on a misreading of Trump’s true intentions. Trump isn’t aiming at an authoritarianism where power is consolidated in the executive branch, where the free press is closed down, and people are prevented from voting. That would be an “executive” power-grab, of the type that separation of powers is designed to hedge against.
So while commentators look for a Reichstag fire moment, or something that they recognize from Western history, Trump is setting about plundering the state for his ends, putting friends in positions of power, and buy off groups who might pose a threat. That’s why, as the firing of Anthony Scaramucci shows, the only person safe in a Trump administration is Trump’s immediate family and close friends. Trump is governing like an absolute monarch, treating the government as his fiefdom in the manner of dictators in former Soviet Republics.
This pattern of power-gathering may look chaotic. It may look bumbling. It may look incompetent. At times, it may look singularly effective. But we may come out of the Trump Presidency with an American democracy that looks very different: where top White House posts are staffed by children and patsies, where corporations are rewarded for favors to the Trump administration, and where conflicts of interest are commonplace. Make no mistake: Trump may be bumbling, but he’s still dangerous.