David Krugman and Paul Brooks…
Can you guess which columnist wrote which parts?
“I just read that the Trump administration has filled only 22 of the 553 key positions that require Senate confirmation. This makes me worry that the administration will not have enough manpower to produce the same volume and standard of incompetence that we’ve come to expect so far. Granted, in its first few months the administration has produced an impressive amount of ineptitude with very few people.
But still, I worry that at the current pace the Trump administration is going to run out of failure. So far, we’ve lived in a golden age of malfunction. Every major Trump initiative has been blocked or has collapsed, relationships with Congress are disastrous, and the president’s approval ratings are at cataclysmic lows.
This week’s New York Times interview with Donald Trump was horrifying, yet curiously unsurprising. Yes, the world’s most powerful man is lazy, ignorant, dishonest and vindictive. But we knew that already.
In fact, the most revealing thing in the interview may be Mr. Trump’s defense of Bill O’Reilly, accused of sexual predation and abuse of power: “He’s a good person.” This, I’d argue, tells us more about both the man from Mar-a-Lago and the motivations of his base than his ramblings about infrastructure and trade.
First, however, here’s a question: How much difference has it made, really, that Donald Trump rather than a conventional Republican sits in the White House?
The Trump administration is, by all accounts, a mess. The vast majority of key presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation are unfilled; whatever people are in place are preoccupied with factional infighting. Decision-making sounds more like palace intrigues in a sultan’s seraglio than policy formulation in a republic. And then there are those tweets.
Now I’m not underestimating the president’s own capacity for carrying on in an incompetent manner almost indefinitely. I don’t think we’ve reached peak Trump.
The normal incompetent person flails and stammers and is embarrassed about it. But the true genius at incompetence like our president flails and founders and is too incompetent to recognize his own incompetence. He mistakes his catastrophes for successes and so accelerates his pace toward oblivion. Those who ignore history are condemned to retweet it.
Yet Mr. Trump’s first great policy and political debacle — the ignominious collapse of the effort to kill Obamacare — owed almost nothing to executive dysfunction. Repeal-and-replace didn’t face-plant because of poor tactics; it failed because Republicans have been lying about health care for eight years. So when the time came to propose something real, all they could offer were various ways to package mass loss of coverage.
Similar considerations apply on other fronts. Tax reform looks like a bust, not because the Trump administration has no idea what it’s doing (although it doesn’t), but because nobody in the G.O.P. ever put in the hard work of figuring out what should change and how to sell those changes.
Trump’s greatest achievements are in the field of ignorance. Up until this period I had always thought of ignorance as a void, as an absence of knowledge. But Trump’s ignorance is not just an absence; it is a rich, intricate and entirely separate universe of negative information, a sort of fertile intellectual antimatter with its own gravitational pull.
It’s not so much that he isn’t well informed; it’s that he is prodigiously learned in the sort of knowledge that doesn’t accord with the facts of our current dimension. But even Trump will eventually hit the limits of human endurance.
The incompetent Trump administration has to live in that stupor shroud every day. I hope his team continues to take advantage of the fact that it takes only one inexperienced stooge to undo the accomplishments of 100 normal workers.
Hence the affinity for Mr. O’Reilly, and Mr. Trump’s apparent sense that news reports about the TV host’s actions are an indirect attack on him. One way to think about Fox News in general, and Mr. O’Reilly in particular, is that they provide a safe space for people who want an affirmation that their uglier impulses are, in fact, justified and perfectly O.K. And one way to think about the Trump White House is that it’s attempting to expand that safe space to include the nation as a whole.
And I hope it continues to negatively surpass all expectations. I remain a full-fledged member in the community of the agog.
What about areas where Mr. Trump sometimes sounds very different from ordinary Republicans, like infrastructure?
A push for a genuine trillion-dollar construction plan, which would need Democratic support given the predictable opposition from conservatives, would be a departure. But given what we heard in the interview — basically incoherent word salad mixed with random remarks about transportation in Queens — it’s clear that the administration has no actual infrastructure plan, and probably never will.
True, there are some places where Mr. Trump does seem likely to have a big impact — most notably, in crippling environmental policy. But that’s what any Republican would have done; climate change denial and the belief that our air and water are too clean are mainstream positions in the modern G.O.P.
So Trumpist governance in practice so far is turning out to be just Republican governance with (much) worse management. Which brings me back to the original question: Does the appalling character of the man on top matter?
I think it does. The substance of Trump policy may not be that distinctive in practice. But style matters, too, because it shapes the broader political climate. And what Trumpism has brought is a new sense of empowerment to the ugliest aspects of American politics.
By now there’s a whole genre of media portraits of working-class Trump supporters .You know what I mean: interviews with down-on-their-luck rural whites who are troubled to learn that all those liberals who warned them that they would be hurt by Trump policies were right, but still support Mr. Trump, because they believe that liberal elites look down on them and think they’re stupid. Hmm.
Anyway, one thing the interviewees often say is that Mr. Trump is honest, that he tells it like is, which may seem odd given how much he lies about almost everything, policy and personal. In other words, Mr. Trump isn’t an honest man or a stand-up guy, but he is, arguably, less hypocritical about the darker motives underlying his worldview than conventional politicians are.
And the big question about Trumpism — bigger, arguably, than the legislative agenda — is whether unapologetic ugliness is a winning political strategy.
One of the things I’ve learned about incompetence over the past few months is that it is radically nonlinear. Competent people go in one of a few directions. But incompetence is infinite.”