December 30, 2018

Say It With Me: Donald Trump is Weak

One evening when I was in high school, a friend’s hard-edged, Republican mother revealed to me her preference for the 1980 Republican candidate to challenge a president, Jimmy Carter, who was struggling with the economy, energy policy, and the hostage-taking in Iran. “I like Connally,” she said, referencing former Texas governor and Nixon Treasury secretary John Connally. Why did she want Connally, who in 1974 had been tried and acquitted on federal bribery and perjury charges, and not Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, or other contenders? “He’s a little bit crooked,” she said. “That’s what we need right now.”

That lady was ahead of her time. In 2016, a good number of voters, clearly, backed Trump because of racial attitudes, because his “Make America Great Again” message was code for enhancing the power and preeminence of white people. But many also were attracted to the idea of not just the seemingly decisive boss of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” but a strongman, a borderline villain, someone with an established record of stretching the rules and breaking the law, of associating with mobsters and other unsavory characters, of insulting people and brawling in public —  a man divorced from moral principles whom they thought would fight, and, if necessary, fight dirty, for them and for America, at a time when they felt they and also their country had been pushed around by powerful forces: big corporations, big government, hordes of immigrants, other countries.

In that regard, Democrats have regularly played into Trump’s hands, from the 2016 campaign to the present, by calling Trump “dangerous.”  That makes Trump sound like James Bond, or Bond’s evil foe Blofeld.  But Trump is not dangerous because he’s some kind of malevolent stable genius. He’s only dangerous in the way that leaving a child home with matches, an oven, and electrical outlets is dangerous. He’s only dangerous because he’s incompetent, narcissistic, petulant, and insecure.

He’s only dangerous because he’s weak.

Trump undeniably has the selling talents to be a premiere con man, but when it comes to being president of the United States, the past two years have demonstrated that he does not remotely possess the skills, the temperament, or the strength to do the job. Trump is perhaps the weakest president in our history.

Trump has proven wholly incapable of managing his own White House and administration. He’s engaged in erratic decision-making that blindsides and alienates allies, domestic constituencies, and his own underlings, who have resigned in droves. Unable to actually manage events, Trump hurls passive-aggressive threats to punish the media, the judiciary, and others — punishments our Constitution would never permit.

Trump has endlessly, grandiosely, and falsely bragged about supposed achievements, and blamed others for any and all setbacks. Hundreds of press reports create a portrait of a president who rarely reads and barely listens, while public appearances show a man often struggling to utter a coherent sentence or even a single word. Trump has been observed yelling uncontrollably at staff, and top administration officials have reportedly called him a moron, an idiot, and a child.

Trump hasn’t had trouble tearing down international structures, cancelling by tweet or proclamation the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, trade agreements, our military presence in Syria. But he has been unable to replace anything with a final deal or state of affairs that makes us safer or more prosperous. And Trump has been manipulated and bested by more effective strongmen like Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and, of course, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Trump’s few domestic achievements — tax cuts and abandonment of health and safety rules — are mostly favors for the big corporations and actual billionaires who finance his campaigns and the Republican Party and have placed their lobbyists inside his administration: unleashing of toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases for the likes of coal men Bob Murray and Joe Craft; dumping net neutrality, a pet cause of big Internet providers; enacting budget-busting tax cuts heavily skewed toward the wealthiest. Trump has served as the personal butler of gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, providing him with his own Israeli embassy in Jerusalem and personally lobbying Japan’s prime minister to license an Adelson casino.

When it comes to concluding a deal on Capitol Hill, whether on taxes, health care, immigration, or breaking a budget impasse, the “Art of the Deal” man is ham-handed and inconsistent for a while, and then passive and absent as grownups in his administration and Congress reach a necessary agreement.

Trump is also in the process of being bested by special counsel Robert Mueller; he’s been unable to mount a serious defense and maintain a stable, effective legal team for the Russia probe.

A successful challenge to Donald Trump in 2020 will require a strong, optimistic, forward-looking agenda. But it also must avoid tagging Trump as “dangerous” and should instead hammer on the fact that he is, above all, not a strongman but a weak man.