Liberals have an unbecoming habit of dismissing Republican presidents as too dim-witted and disengaged to occupy the Oval Office. Democratic voters like to believe their politicians are brighter, more truthful, simply more prepared to lead—and Donald Trump is hardly the first right-winger to snatch power while defining himself against this smarter-than-thou liberalism.
George W. Bush was mocked as a frat boy who basically inherited the White House thanks to his family connections—and then his administration invented the permanent war and gave away so many hundreds of billions of dollars in tax revenue that the federal government couldn’t function. Ronald Reagan came off as a dopey B-movie actor merely playing the role of commander in chief—and then he set the terms of political debate for a generation. No one should presume that Trump’s cartoonish ignorance will continue to constrain his presidency.
Of course, an important difference here is basic competence. Trump has surrounded himself with people who are as plainly unqualified for their jobs as he is. The disregard for expertise was too much even for Sean Spicer, who reportedly quit after Trump asked him to work for Anthony Scaramucci, a Wall Street financier with zero experience running a communications operation of any size. Important roles in several agencies remain unfilled, and the Trump team’s increasing legal troubles will only make this staffing problem more acute. Ideology aside, people qualified to hold the most crucial positions in government are smart enough to turn them down at this moment. Nobody wants an audience with Robert Mueller’s investigators.
And yet none of this dooms Trump’s agenda, which is fundamentally one of destruction. It is disturbingly easy to break stuff, and incompetence is a powerful tool. That’s especially true now, when so many of the systems that govern our lives—schools, infrastructure, housing, immigration—are already collapsing from neglect. It’s hard to imagine they’ll survive the Trump era intact; some came into it broken.
So the progressive imperative is not only resistance, but creation in the face of destruction. Not everything Trump wants to destroy needs saving: The free-trade deals and neocon foreign policy he once decried have made the world poorer and less safe. We’d do well to end both. But on just about everything else, we’ll need to rebuild.
Health care is as good an example as any. Thus far, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have failed in their efforts to get rid of Medicaid (primarily because they can’t find a fig leaf of “reform” big enough to cover up their true intent). But Trump has vowed to simply break the Affordable Care Act and leave it at that. He has a really good chance of succeeding. In fact, he’s already doing it.