The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks struck an unprepared America mere months into President George W. Bush’s first term. Nothing in his tenure to that point was particularly memorable. Nothing he had ever faced in life was remotely comparable. And the United States was forever shaped by the strengths and weaknesses exhibited by the Bush administration as its officials decided how to respond.
For the couple of weeks preceding the anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been fretting about what would happen if Donald Trump, who has reached the same point in his first term, is still president if and when this country next faces a challenge as significant. As a staunch, longtime critic of both Presidents Bush and Obama, I am under no illusion about the costly consequences of their warmaking in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, the dangers posed by their civil-liberties abrogations, or the abuses they perpetrated and courted with mass domestic surveillance.
Even so, I do not think that the United States has ever elected anyone less suited than Trump to lead it through a major terrorist attack, a war, or a challenge of similar scale.
I don’t merely mean that President Trump has no governing experience, though he does not; or that his past bankruptcies make one wonder what Taj Mahal Casino-like ruins are in his future; or that I think poorly of his moral compass and his ability to master himself, though I find him unfit to lead in a nuclear age based on those traits alone.
No, one needn’t share my low opinion of his competence or character to recognize various shortcomings that will surely diminish America’s resilience in a trying moment.
- The White House is in constant disarray as key personnel are hired and fired at an unprecedented rate. One cost is that most basic measure of experience: days on the job. Another is an inability to forge sustained working relationships as colleagues are summarily dispatched in the manner of a reality-TV show. And how can those who remain do their best work when the boss at the top exhibits a management style that is as volatile and erratic as it is petty? Many dignified people have simply refused to consider working for him.
- Huge numbers of important State Department positions are still unfilled, including key undersecretary positions; and the ability of the United States to conduct diplomacy or to draw on country-specific expertise seems to have atrophied.
- The United States is as divided as it has been at any time in my life. And according to a recent Fox News poll, it isn’t just that a majority of Americans disapprove of the job Trump is doing—56 percent say that he is “tearing the country apart.”
- The Trump Organization’s murky asset portfolio, with heavy investments in numerous foreign countries, and the Trump family’s refusal to divest from it, makes it impossible for congressional overseers or the public to adequately discern when the Trump family’s business interests diverge from America’s interests.
Those are just a few of the factors that have rendered Trump’s America less prepared to meet major challenges than it was during the administration of any other president in the postwar era—and there is a lot to lament about the performance of some of those presidents. Some performed so badly that there are voters today who could not imagine that anyone would do worse. That caused them to roll the dice on a sleazy entertainer.
Such voters haven’t reflected enough on history. Things could get much, much worse—and quickly. That is one of the lessons many in my generation absorbed most fully on September 11, 2001. So in a world that has neither certitude nor peace, my pain at the unpreparedness of my country and the needlessly weak position it occupies seems likely to persist until Trump, who stokes that weakness, is no longer president.