Last week began with one of the ugliest—and potentially most dangerous—spectacles of Donald Trump’s presidency: the nation’s leader, having declared himself “your president of law and order,” striding across a park violently cleared of peaceful protesters by police firing chemical irritants.
Within a week, however, the Trump administration’s response to the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd had devolved into a bleak farce. While the attorney general appeared on CBS insisting that pepper spray is not a chemical (it is), the president was busy tweeting abuse at former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell for endorsing Trump’s Democratic rival for the presidency. Meanwhile, the thousands of National Guard troops who had been dramatically deployed to Washington, D.C., were returning home, and the extensive new fencing around the White House no longer looked quite so foreboding, as D.C. residents decorated the barriers with artwork and protest signs.
The protests had grown. They had become increasingly peaceful. And Trump’s insistence that the authorities should “dominate the streets” had been rendered idle bombast by the crowds that in fact dominated them.
A moment that could have generated authoritarian consolidation instead quickly revealed the would-be autocrat as weak—in more ways than one.
Trump has never been shy about his authoritarian impulses. He regularly voices admiration for dictators and has expressed his belief that Article II of the Constitution allows him to do “whatever I want.” Yet that authoritarianism has not manifested with as much force as some might have feared (or desired). Trump has exerted power aggressively in the realms where he is least restrained, most notably immigration enforcement, but he has not pushed far beyond that: There have been no jackboots deployed against dissidents, no shipping off of presidential enemies to Guantánamo Bay. And in some instances, such as the ongoing pandemic, Trump has largely declined to exert federal power at all—instead shrugging his shoulders and leaving the work of actually governing to the states.
But Trump’s initial response to the protests was like a nightmare version of what he imagines the presidency to be, the first hint of the worst-case scenario of democratic collapse in the United States. Attorney General Bill Barr ordered law enforcement to attack peaceful protesters in front of the White House. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke about the need to “dominate the battle space”—referring to American cities. In D.C., National Guard helicopters hovered low over protesters in a military maneuver more often used in combat.
It was a frightening moment, all the more so because of the confusion. Trump had pushed the country up to the edge of an abyss, and nobody knew how deep it went.
But as the week went on, the sense of crisis seemed to lift: The protests became more peaceful, and the troops and law enforcement in D.C. receded into the background. A lot of the credit for the shift has to go to the protesters themselves. In the first few days of the demonstrations, looting and violence were genuine problems in some cities. But soon protesters imposed order organically, remaining peaceful and working to stop those among them who were trying to provoke trouble. Inappropriate police behavior—some of it violent—also helped turn public opinion decisively to the side of the protesters. And more people turned up. The result was ever-growing protests across the country that clearly required no active law-enforcement intervention. The president could tweet “LAW AND ORDER!” all he wanted, but the protests looked neither lawless nor disorderly—and whatever disorder there was seemed to come from the police themselves. He could mobilize federal forces and law enforcement in D.C. But as the looting stopped and the message in the streets became ever more simply one of political protest, the gesture seemed ever more transparently authoritarian.
And not just authoritarian, to be precise: ineffectively authoritarian. Because Trump’s actions were more and more openly unconnected to what was actually happening in response to his flailing orders. He wanted to put 10,000 active-duty troops on the streets of D.C. It didn’t happen. He wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act. It didn’t happen either. In fact, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, issued a memo to all forces reminding them, “We in uniform … remain committed to our national values and principles embedded in the Constitution” and “will operate consistent with national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.”
Trump wanted to bring down the hammer, but he couldn’t get his people to actually do it. To put it in terms the president would understand: Weak!
The country has seen this feckless command over the executive branch before, in a different context. The Mueller report is stuffed full of examples of Trump ordering aides and officials to take actions that range from corrosive to downright illegal and those people either refusing or simply not bothering to carry out his orders. Trump couldn’t get his people to drum up a baseless investigation of Hillary Clinton, fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, or falsify evidence to cover up Trump’s own wrongdoing. The result was a portrait of a president both menacing in intent and buffoonishly ineffective at accomplishing the menace.
But today another kind of weakness is at work too: An election is coming up, and it’s one that Trump seems more and more fearful he will not win. He’s not wrong to be worried. Trump is running consistently behind Joe Biden in national polls, by anywhere from three points to more than 10. He’s looking decidedly weaker as well in the battleground states. Democrats are running significantly ahead in generic opinion polls about control of Congress. The Senate suddenly seems to be very much in play. And while Trump’s own approval rating remains at the lower end of the narrow range in which it has traditionally fluctuated, it has seen a perceptible decline over the past couple of months.
Much of this poor electoral performance stems from the reality that, as we argued back in March, Trump’s playbook is deeply ill-suited to the current crises: a virus that can’t be intimidated, economic fallout that won’t correct itself in response to Trump’s personality or bullying, and now protesters who don’t go away when he plays the strongman. So in addition to being a weak leader who can’t get his people to break the law or crack down on protesters, and in addition to being electorally weak, Trump now looks ineffectual, even ridiculous, in the face of circumstances that just aren’t cooperating and can’t be ordered around.
All of which makes this past week an important cautionary tale for the election itself if Trump does, in fact, lose. The authoritarian instinct will still be there, of course. So will the flailing weakness, we suspect, and the effort to get his administration to take wildly inappropriate, even illegal steps. His degree of panic will presumably be even higher then than it is now, as will the stakes—which will be nothing less than the peaceful transition of power. We can only hope that, once again, the weakness will overwhelm the authoritarianism, the ineffectuality will triumph over the menace, and the president will emerge as a figure of contempt and ridicule, rather than of fear and consolidated power.
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