On Sunday, Donald Trump backed down from his previous threat to veto a measure that secured $900 billion in pandemic relief while also funding the federal government until next September. With his delayed signing of the measure, Trump once again showed himself to be a blowhard who is quick to make loud claims but seldom acts on them. In a statement, Trump said, “I will sign the omnibus and Covid package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed.” But this “strong message” is nothing more than hot air, since Congress has 25 days to consider his request, by which time Joe Biden will be president. The only thing Trump has achieved is delaying the additional unemployment payments that the package secured. This will make the lives of countless Americans more anxious and miserable, but hardly amounts to a win for the president.
Trump’s pathetic performance supports the theory held by some critics that he has been a singularly weak president, with a thin legislative legacy and a record of failed negotiations and retreats. Surveying the wreckage, Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, noted that “Trump’s veto bargaining strategy on the Omnibus/COVID bill is both a masterclass in how not to use the powers of the POTUS to influence public policy [and] exemplary of his entire debacle of a legislative presidency.” According to Glassman, Trump followed the following steps:
Step 1: refuse to engage publicly for months.
Step 2: watch a supermajority pass a bill.
Step 3: forcefully threaten to veto it unless demands met.
Step 4: back down and sign it; look weak.
This description of Trump as “weak” is accurate but is jarring, considering how often Trump has been denounced as an authoritarian, an aspiring fascist who is plotting a coup. On the left, there has been a small but significant group of dissenters who have used evidence of Trump’s weakness as grounds to challenge the idea that Trump is an authoritarian threat.
Corey Robin, a political scientist who teaches at the City University of New York Graduate Center, has been the most cogent and forceful critic of the idea that Trump should be seen as an authoritarian menace. In an interview that ran in Jewish Currents in early December, Robin observed that the power Trump and the GOP have in current American politics is almost entirely dependent on the undemocratic but legal features of the constitutional order: the Electoral College, the Senate and the courts. “In that regard, it’s almost the complete opposite of fascism,” Robin argues.
Robin goes on to stack up Trump’s threadbare legacy with the successes of his predecessors:
Compared to the Republican presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush, Trump’s was significantly less transformational, and its legacy is far less assured. Next to “law and order” and “the silent majority” (which Nixon made part of our political grammar), next to “the era of big government is over” (which Reagan bequeathed to Clinton as the ruling doctrine of the age), next to Bush’s war on terror and the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, none of Trump’s attempts to permanently transform the political climate—not of the Republican Party but of the whole political culture—seems even remotely comparable. With the exception of the tax cuts, Trump was hardly able to get much legislation through Congress; many of his executive orders will be undone by Biden; the only custodian of his legacy, ironically, will be the courts, which many had seen as the antidote to Trumpism and caretaker of the rule of law.
Robin’s analysis is bracing. It’s a necessary corrective to flabby liberal and leftist chatter about incipient fascism. On its own terms, it is correct. But it is also incomplete. With his focus on legislative achievement, Robin gives short shrift to the rhetorical side of the presidency.
An American president is both head of government (like a prime minister in other regimes) and head of state (like a monarch). In his capacity as quasi-monarch, Trump has acted in deeply unsettling ways. He’s denounced the press as “the enemy of the people” and incited violence against reporters and political foes. He’s mainstreamed racism and given his stamp of approval to violent groups like the Proud Boys. He’s nurtured the QAnon conspiracy theory. He’s refused to accept the legitimacy of his clear electoral defeat and has egged on outlandish moves to overturn the results.
Trump’s legislative weakness and his unhinged demagoguery are connected. It’s precisely because Trump can’t win victories on the field of legislative battle that he’s welcomed the creation of a fictional alternative reality where he is constantly victorious. And to judge by polls, he’s dragged millions of Republicans into this alternative reality.
One reasonable response to these facts would be “What does it matter if Trump and his followers can’t accept reality?” The proper rejoinder is that Trumpian demagoguery deepens the crisis of American democracy that long predates Trump: political paralysis due to polarization.
Robin himself is astute on this problem. “What we’ve learned over the last decade—and what Trump’s bombast allowed many liberals and the left to avoid—is how much our political institutions constrain action,” Robin points out in the Jewish Currents interview. “Assuming the Democrats don’t win the Senate seats in Georgia, we are going to reach the end of 2022 having endured 12 years of political immobility. That is, from Obama’s time in office after the midterms of 2010 to Biden’s time after the midterms of 2022, we’ll have had virtually no legislation dealing with any of the challenges of the day and a lot of executive orders that temporarily change things and then get undone by the next president.”
But Trump’s demagoguery is itself both a product of this gridlock and a contributor to even more paralysis. Trump rose to power partly on the claim that as an outsider he could shake up Washington and make deals across party lines. He failed to do that and quickly retreated to paranoia and scapegoating (which already characterized his style of politics). By poisoning political discourse with his racism and conspiracy theories, he’s making it impossible for his successor to escape the trap of immobility. It’s going to be very hard for any Republican lawmaker to work with Biden if a large number of Republican voters think he stole the election.
The longer paralysis persists, the shakier American democracy will become. A nation unable to deal with even basic issues like infrastructure and stimulus is likely to turn to a Trump-style demagogue again and again. Even without a fascist coup, American democracy is in bad shape. Trump’s supposed weakness has only made things worse.