Donald Trump Is A Clueless Mastermind Who Knows Exactly What He’s Not Doing
During the Obama administration, the right portrayed President Obama as both an inept apologist for America’s prowess whose grip on power was non-existent, and as a mastermind whose every move was planned by some foreign cabal plugged into his drone and surveillance network which controlled the internet, the media, and killer robots. According to how the talk show pundits and Fox News best felt to disagree with him, Obama was the political version of Forrest Gump one day and Hitler the next, and his policies were either half-baked, out of touch political theater, or edicts of a president who architected elaborate conspiracies to change the world. This whiplash-inducing coverage was named Obama Derangement Syndrome by liberals, and its sufferers essentially blamed every development or decision they didn’t like — and in Obama’s time in office that was everything, by the way — on Obama the Fool or Obama the Tyrant, whatever was convenient at the moment to support the point they were trying to advance.
Now, with President Trump, many liberals seem to have developed a very analogous condition. In one op-ed, Trump is a blithering twit who hasn’t the faintest clue about his new job, elected by ignoramuses who know even less than he does. In another, he’s a fascist who teamed up with neo-Nazis to do the exact same things as Hitler in the 1930s, and every move he makes, even if it seems like a failure of a blatantly inept group afflicted by a clinical case of Dunning-Krueger, is a carefully orchestrated distraction from a grand plan to disassemble the American government and way of life. Though in a twist, there’s a third scenario; that he’s a puppet for Putin who’s the real malicious mastermind behind everything we see in the news but went into this with a desire to cash in as Russia dismantles its Cold War enemy from the inside. Just like with Obama Derangement Syndrome, all three can’t be right. The choices we’re given to explain what’s happening are mutually exclusive.
And with the specter of entanglements with dubious Russian figures that’s not going away, it’s important to figure out which scenario is most likely to be true because that’s what should drive how we view this administration and its actions. That’s easier said than done because in the two and a half months that felt like seven and a half years, the Trump administration has exhibited all the strategic planning expected from a Whack-a-Mole player, and getting all of its members to stay on message has gone about as well as herding cats. Just two months in, chief strategist Bannon’s future with the administration is in dire straits and the finger pointing has began as Trump is only able to show the crackdown on immigrants, sabotaging tourism, and a new Supreme Court justice rammed through on the flimsiest of pretenses of following proper procedure, as his accomplishments. Aside from what were sure bets, it’s been all sizzle and no well done, ketchup-smothered steak in sight, and the GOP keeps slamming itself into brick walls with their wildly unpopular legislative and regulatory agenda. None of this signals what we could even remotely call competence or long term strategy.
You could tell there was some attempt at strategy at first. Cast the media as malevolent liars, lock down the borders, and gut the government to make oversight and regulation almost impossible, intimidating judges into going along with the agenda. With total control over migration, the media, and all branches of government, they’d be free to fulfill whatever struck their fancy, be it a trade war with China, or bullying allies, or shady dealing for a boost to their bottom line. But no one in Trump’s circle knew how to pull off such a coup in a nation that prides itself on its anti-establishment bent. Despite being written off as doomed, useless, would-be lapdogs played by Bannon, Conway, and Spicer, the media snapped and didn’t pull its punches. Satirists, armed with ready gaffes, both unforced and elicited by reporters, saw their ratings soar and went after Trump’s surrogates and advisers who seemed to labor under the delusion that they were masterful manipulators. And most of the legal system refused to be impressed by the government’s arguments that it’s allowed to do whatever it wants because the president said so and someone on Fox News and/or Breitbart totally has his back.
It sort of makes sense why things played out this way. Trump’s entourage is composed of family members and right wing pundits who exist in their own echo chambers, preaching to the faithful who come to be outraged and told that the only problem with this world is “radical leftists” rather than poorly planned wars in distant lands, or insisting that we have world class schools, colleges, highways, and a military second to none, but that it should be paid for by mathematically impossible cuts to programs that are just a rounding error in the federal budget. The angry right is convinced the country is in its death throes because their way of life is changing, are told that change is an inherently bad thing and that America is perfect just the way it was, and is given a wide array of scapegoats at which to direct its hate. Today, it makes up the core of the GOP which bows at the altar of the same cable news, and talk show and internet invective as Trump does, and devoutly believes that at its heart, the country is deeply, almost religiously conservative.
Yet in the real world, those who are now so dismissively called conservative elites, or “cuckservatives” depending on who you ask, are extremely aware that almost every major piece of the Republican agenda is opposed not by a mere plurality of Americans, but a majority, frequently by a 2 to 1 margin at that. Their culprit in convincing the GOP otherwise? The conservative echo chamber of course! Amazingly, despite the right gloating that liberals don’t understand America and need to read more than “the liberal media” gives them, a study of the social media lifecycle of 1.25 million political articles by researchers at Columbia showed that the right primarily clusters around its handful of trusted sources much more so than the left. In fact, the majority of social media activity on the right was driven by one source: Breitbart. In the last year and a half, the extreme right wing outlets have taken moderate self-aware conservatism out behind a woodshed and continue to plug away at its cadaver with near pathological glee pretty much every day.
Trump and his administration are the product of this out of touch clickbait-pushing, self-aggravating ecosystem, believing themselves to be, by far, the smartest and most informed people in the room without even bothering to consult the polls or with the slightest interest in even the most well meaning criticism, blithely dismissing anything that doesn’t fit their mental narrative as “fake news” in an instant. What masterminds fail to consult with an army of lawyers on their beck and call on crafting a proper executive order? And what sinister puppet masters don’t expect pushback to obvious lies that fall flat on their face? Likewise, when was the last time a would-be tyrant with extensive grasps on all levers of power and masterful control of how to craft compelling media narratives not of the watch-this-train-wreck variety, has temper tantrums on Twitter when something doesn’t go his way and throw out rabid allegations that make the rest of the government shrug?
It should be pretty clear that far from leading a grand conspiracy to change America into an Orwellian ethno-fascist state, Trump is an easily influenced old man who binges on news that affirm his worldview and has very little to no control over his impulses. He had it at one point, but it seems that over time, it deteriorated to turn him into a grotesque caricature of a cartoonish Republican villain straight out of a democratic socialist parable. His advisers seem to be happy to take advantage of him and readily engage in backroom dealing with shady characters all over the world to make a quick buck, and he doesn’t seem to understand that it would look good if he even pretended that he cared and wanted to stop them. But just like it would be a mistake to, in the words of Napoleon, attribute to conspiracy that which can be best explained by incompetence, and weave secret plots against America from an obvious misstep or failure, it would be equally bad to discount the power of malevolent ineptitude. You can do even more damage out of spite and with little care for the outcome than you can with a careful conspiracy.
When plotting and scheming, you’re limited by the need not to raise alarms and let people know what you’re really up to. You need smokescreens and a careful touch behind the scenes. When you’re just out to destroy anything in your way, consequences be damned, anything is far game, any target is more or less justifiable, and good advisers who can inject some rationality and ask the right questions can be tossed out as easily as power-hungry lunatics who spew bile and threaten even the most constructive of critics while wearing a smirk that’s more indicative of a pathology than an emotional state. With an autocrat who at least plays the part of a statesman you know what to expect and can try to minimize the damage while buying time for challenges to his powers. With someone like Trump, you’re often left guessing. If you realize that this is a bug, not a feature, it doesn’t make it any less scary, but it does change your messaging and strategies. And it also means that building one elaborate conspiracy theory after another to cast flailing and incompetence as masterful political theater is a massive waste of everyone’s time.