Incompetence did a lot of tempering

Benjamin Wittes looks at Trump’s war on the Deep State so far, and finds it fulfilling dire predictions but also not as bad as it could be if Trump were more competent.

The first few weeks of the Trump administration raised the question of the degree to which Trump’s . In the first year of the Trump presidency, the answer to that question was that incompetence did a lot of tempering. Trump blundered from crisis to crisis. The lawyering around him was comically dreadful—as was the broader executive functioning. Taking on established democratic institutions and wrecking them actually takes a certain amount of focus and energy—and Trump just isn’t very good at it. His heart may be in it, but Vladimir Putin he isn’t. And the United States isn’t a fragile new democracy with weak institutions either.

He’s got the rage but not the talent, the venom but not the discipline, the greed but not the dedication.

Trump has another personality liability for the project at hand, one that fewer people notice: He is ultimately a wuss. He talks about his boldness all the time, and a lot of people—including his enemies—lap up the self-description. He likes to talk in sweeping, grandiose terms about the things he is going to do and the things he has done. In practice, however, he’s actually very cautious most of the time. Think about it this way: Leaving aside Trump’s words and claims about himself, do the actions of his first year in office generally bespeak boldness? Yes, he left the Paris Climate Agreement. And yes, he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And yes, he did the travel ban. But think about all of the bold things Trump has promised and backed away from: scrapping NAFTA and waging a trade war against the Chinese, ditching the Iran deal, walking away from Europe, draining the swamp, and confronting conservative orthodoxy on taxation.

The boldest step Trump has taken, the firing of James Comey, was an accident. Trump actually appears to have believed that this move would be popular, because Comey had angered Democrats during the 2016 campaign. Most of Trump’s supposed boldness is just tweets and bombast and things he says. It’s a big part of his self-image, but the self-image is mostly a game of dress-up. When push comes to shove, he’s pretty paralyzed by circumstances much of the time.

Well, unless there’s some pesky Balkan head of state in his way.

On the other hand, Wittes goes on, he could do a lot of damage just by hollowing out the federal bureaucracy, and that he is in fact doing. (It doesn’t take much boldness.)

All of which is to emphasize that we are emphatically not out of the woods. The situation remains dangerous, because Trump’s personality is so fundamentally incompatible with the nature and demands of the office he holds. His impulsiveness can get us into trouble any day. As his political situation, or his legal situation, continues to degrade, he could lash out and change the equilibrium at any time. Moreover, chipping away at institutions slowly, both by institutional and budgetary evisceration and by leadership attrition—one Chuck Rosenberg a few months ago, one James Baker last month, one Andrew McCabe in March—will take a big toll over time.

But Trump simply cannot look back on the last year and be satisfied with the success of his war on the Deep State. His battle to remake it in his image has been largely unavailing—and has come at far greater cost to his presidency than to the institutions he is trying to undermine.

But the blot on our record is there forever.

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