Since this came up in class, I thought it might be of use to provide some basic thoughts about some of Trump’s recent executive orders and actions (for instance, the fact that he has placed is political advisor, Steve Bannon, on the National Security Council). My goal here is not to provide a critique of Trump’s policies and moves, but rather to provide a critique of certain kinds of criticisms of the administration.
Specifically, I have in mind this piece by Yonotan Zunger (Zunger’s piece is but one example. Similar analyses can be found elsewhere). It became somewhat viral yesterday, at least among my lefty friends on Facebook. Zunger argues that all of Trump’s recent moves can be understood as (a) efforts to consolidate power, and (b) to test potentially opposing institutions in order to lay the groundwork for a coup that establishes Trump as an authoritarian leader capable of eliminating all opposition.
It is a frightening thought, no doubt. It is also quite possible to interpret Trump’s moves in Zunger’s terms. Possible, but not necessary. I want to raise two basic objections to Zunger’s analysis.
The first objection is an empirical-theoretical one. (By empirical-theoretical, I mean that this objection challenges Zunger’s analysis on factual grounds and on basic theoretical grounds; I’m saying his analysis is false and that it engages in a kind of confirmation bias). To my mind, the bulk of the evidence that we currently have tells against Zunger’s key thesis. I have seen no good reason to think, for example, that Trump always intended to retreat on the Green Card issue (as Zunger argues). I also see little reason to think that Trump’s moves reveal some sort of grand strategy. If it is a grand strategy, I’m not sure how it is supposed to work. Over the last week, Trump’s activities have caused a significant drop in his approval ratings, has mobilized mass protests the likes of which I have never seen in my lifetime, unified the Democratic party, created significant opposition among state and local governments, generated resistance in the judicial branch and among federal officials (in the State Department especially, but also throughout the government), and has even led several Republican legislators and governors to oppose him. All of this, and almost no one has come out in support of him, particularly on his order on immigration. If his moves represent an overall strategy leading to a coup, I see no reason at all to think that it’s working.
I can sum up this point through a thought experiment. Imagine how a competent fascist would have done this. Before issuing any executive orders about immigration, they coordinate with security forces to close off airports and public protest areas.The protesters who do show up are promptly arrested, and any public officials who protest are targeted by Trump supporters with rallies, intimidation, and so on. Such a display would have been much clearer in establishing just how strong and in control Trump actually is. The fact that it didn’t happen says to me that either they didn’t have the power to do it, or didn’t think about it. The events of the past weekend, in other words, are for me more consistent with the hypothesis that Trump is weak (and/or incompetent) than with the opposite.
There is a broader theoretical problem here, as Tom Pepinsky suggests. Pepinsky helpfully demonstrates that there are many possible interpretations of Trump’s actions. It might be that he has moved Bannon onto the NSC in order to consolidate power and prepare for a coup. But it might also be that he has no support among the governmental agencies and cannot trust any of the other NSC members. Put differently, Trump might be engaging in these actions because he is strong. But the reverse is equally true; his actions might actually reveal that he is weak, that he has no real base of support, and so he has to engage in highly elaborate bluffs and displays of power in the hopes that others capitulate to him. At this stage, we lack access to the evidence necessary to determine which interpretation is correct; to assume, as Zunger does, that the evidence points to a powerful Trump who is plotting a coup is simply to engage in confirmation bias. One just starts with the assumption that Trump is a powerful, evil, super-genius and then fits the facts into that narrative.
And this leads to my second objection. Here I am going to write from the perspective of someone who opposes Trump. From this point of view, the analysis I’m looking for is motivated by a desire not just understand Trump in general, but in a way that can help understand how to go about engaging in effective opposition. Using this perspective, I would argue that Zunger’s argument is unhelpful. I ultimately find it counter-productive–even paralyzing–to become preoccupied about what Trump/Bannon might do next or what their “real” strategic goals/calculations are. In my view, the basic story Zunger is telling ultimately produces fear: they are malevolent geniuses who are manipulating everyone and predicting all of the responses in advance, and this leads us to doubt that any effective opposition is possible. For similar reasons, I see no good that comes from trying to argue that Trump is a fascist. Such analysis puffs up the power the power of one’s enemies into uncanny proportions . This is not to say that Trump’s actions aren’t threatening, nor is it to say that there should be no resistance to it. But I don’t think analyses (or narratives) that encourage us to see them as terrifying threats help in that direction.
As a sort of conclusion, let me say that part of my objection here is aesthetic. Zunger’s analysis takes the form of a kind of melodrama, with mysterious, malevolent, and super-intelligent forces manipulating a populace that is falling for its tricks. I don’t like melodrama, with all its sensational appeals and operatic emotions. I don’t much care for watching them, and I certainly don’t want to live in one.