The Irony of Incompetence

On election night 2016, as Donald Trump was over-performing his polls in every state touching Appalachia and a Trump victory looked likely, my initial reaction was that Donald Trump cannot be president. Not that he cannot be elected president, but that if elected he would lack the discipline, depth, knowledge, skills and interest necessary to engage in the hard work and difficult decision-making that define the non-symbolic aspects of the job. It would be left to the permanent bureaucracy to run the country, or else functions and services we took for granted would be damaged or ignored.

To his supporters, Trump’s shallowness and sloth were a feature of his candidacy. Dating back to the Tea Party revolution ten years ago, and in a milder sense to the Reagan revolution thirty years before that, Republican voters have expressed an increasingly hostile antipathy toward the federal government and those elites who are invested in using it for progressive ends. The Trump coalition has been staging a reaction against liberal government as part of a broader rebellion against the rapidly changing demography that is threatening to turn the country into a larger version of California. Their angry cry in 2016 was make it stop. Break the welfare state. Ignore science. Shut down anything aligned with a secular, diverse agenda.

No one promised to do the job better than Trump, a creature of reality television who became the only person to hold the job without prior political or military leadership experience. Critics — even Republican critics — would yell that he was unfit for the office but it would never dent his support, because if destruction is the purpose of reactionary politics then fitness in the traditional sense is counterproductive.  Trump as president would watch Fox News, tweet, play golf and hold rallies while neglecting the hard work of governing. That is how he views the job. Although costly, we had managed to find a way to absorb the damage and neglect and get by as a nation. Until now. 

Addressing the public health and economic threats caused by the coronavirus pandemic requires the kind of skillful leadership and knowledge-based decision-making that the Trump revolt disdains and that Trump promised not to deliver. It requires discipline, depth, knowhow and skill. It requires knowing how to work the levers of government to deliver resources where and when they are needed. It requires projecting resolve and strength and consistency. It requires competence. There’s a reason why there is near unanimous support in New York state for how Andrew Cuomo is managing the epicenter of the crisis. By stepping into a leadership vacuum he appears more presidential than the president.

In the contrast between Cuomo and Trump, we are learning that there are some situations where people actually look for competence in their leaders — like during a global pandemic and a frightening economic free fall. It may turn out that even Trump’s core supporters will want a competent government response if their health or livelihoods are affected by the virus. Now, that doesn’t mean they will turn on Trump when government fails them. Those who feel that winning the fight against the future is more important than anything will not blame Trump even in the most extreme circumstances, because they know that fight is lost without him. But more people live outside the Trump bubble than not, and they’re just trying to make it through this, desperately looking for leadership wherever they can find it. 

The longer this crisis extends and the more people come to see it as mismanaged, the more it undermines the anti-intellectual premise of Trumpism and indicts the core anti-government assumptions of the present moment and everything it’s built on, dating back past the Tea Party and Newt Gingrich to Reaganism itself. Whether this means the destruction caused by the pandemic will result in a new burst of government activism remains to be seen. But it does mean that the fate of the Trump presidency will rest on how well he is perceived to manage the government. Ironically, a president who was elected for his ability to tear things down will now be judged by how well he hold things together. We have already seen enough to know how that is likely to turn out.