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The Brummagem President
I went down a Wikipedia black hole, found a new word, and now you all must suffer.
Since we are getting closer to the election, I feel compelled to do an update on the State of the Race™ and tell you folks who is currently “winning.” But I would actually just be repeating myself. Instead, I’m going to post pictures of the three big polling forecasters:
If anything changes drastically, we can update this but let’s just assume this is the where the race will stand until the debates. kthxbye.
I keep looking back at the week we just had and can’t help but think that there is a larger point to be made amidst all the BREAKING news. A lot of those stories are centered around Bob Woodward’s book: How Trump wanted to downplay the severity of the Coronavirus or how he saved Mohammed bin Salman after he ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi or how he apparently told Woodward about a new nuclear weapon we developed. The book is filled with goodies.
There were goodies in Woodward’s last book too. A fun excerpt from Fear, which came out 407 years ago in September of 2018:
It was not just the distraction of a wide-ranging Mueller investigation hanging over his head, but the constant media coverage that Trump had colluded with the Russians and/or obstructed justice, a real feeding frenzy - vicious, uncivil. The result, Porter said, “In some moments it was almost incapacity of the president to be president.” McMaster noticed it. Trump normally wouldn’t listen long or very carefully to his national security adviser, but it had gotten much worse, McMaster told Porter. “It’s like I can’t even get his attention.” “Don’t take it personally,” Porter advised. “He’s clearly distracted. He’s been like that all day. Because he’s focused on this news about Russia.” Gary Cohn told Porter, “It’s pointless to even talk to him today.”
I pulled that from my own copy of Fear, which I read not long after it was released. To be honest, if you put a gun to my head I could not tell you what 90% of Woodward’s book was about, but this quote has stuck with me after a few years: “[I]n some moments it was almost incapacity of the president to be president.” How much of Woodward’s new book is really just stretching out the above passage and applying it to everything Trump touches? Excerpts from Fear in 2018 talked about a “nervous breakdown of Trump’s Presidency” and how his aides were worried about his mental state. There is a frustrating amount of undemanding emptiness to this point: He is simply unfit for the job. We know it; he knows it; and Bob Woodward knows it.
There is something to be said, however, of Trump’s reduction of the Presidency and him folding it into his own personal brand. We are not really following the actions (or inactions) of the president of the United States when we read his tweets; we are watching Donald Trump’s rehash of what he is watching on cable news (this week, Trump admitted to watching seven hours of cable news in a span of 24 hours. I doubt most of you have watched seven hours of cable news this month). There has been a longstanding argument from would-be Trump sympathizers that him being distracted is actually good for us as a country. That way, we can leave the real governing to the adults and let Trump stay in his bedroom and tweet about Chris Cuomo. The problem with that argument has always been that Donald Trump very much is the president, and he is chipping away at the Office he currently occupies with every tweet.
We have a unitary executive for a reason: The Founders, specifically Alexander Hamilton, envisioned a president who could move swiftly and address the specific issues that were within his purview. In Federalist 70, Hamilton writes:
Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy. […] A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government (my emphasis).
It feels like we have a very feeble execution of government right now. When you have a president who has admitted - on tape to a reporter - that he was aware of the severity of a disease he consistently sought to downplay; when you have his intelligence officials attempting to hide another attack on our democracy by the Russians; and when you have his Attorney General seemingly pressuring his own Department of Justice to produce some political fodder for Trump to use against the “Deep State” before the election, we have - in practice - a bad, bad government.
I don’t want to take too long of a detour into Bill Barr’s actions, but it is wild that Barr has me pining for the old days of Jeff Sessions, who has very few redeeming qualities, but does at least know when to recuse himself and when to protect an institution like the Department of Justice. Weirdly enough, whenever I think about Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr, I tend to think about Don McGahn, Trump’s former White House counsel (there are also goodies about him in Woodward’s new book). We all know that Trump actually tried to fire Robert Mueller multiple times. The reason he failed was because McGahn just straight-up didn’t listen to Trump. So much of the obstruction side of Mueller’s report focused on multiple subordinates openly defying the President’s orders. The most powerful person on the planet has become so feeble that he cannot overcome the resistance of Donald Francis McGahn, who would be a toilet salesman in a just world.
This is why the people who now occupy all the deserted roles, like Barr, DeJoy, Wolf, Cuccinelli, etc., all matter: The Don McGahns are gone, having beat out the feebleness of Trump’s Executive. What we currently have is the B Team, who are more than willing to badly execute the wishes of Trump the person, not Trump the President. And it’s that separation that is key: There was an assumption (from President Obama himself) that the Presidency would bend Donald Trump to its will and force him to rise to the moment. He obviously hasn’t. He’s instead become a brummagem President, who does not have real power over the people in his own White House, but can direct sycophants in government to do the bidding of Donald J. Trump the person. He is simultaneously weak and alarmingly strong, because he has lowered our expectations of what the President can and should be.
I’ll admit it is hard for me to explain this to family and friends who support Trump. Most normal people are not interested in The Federalist Papers. But I think the crucial point is this: Trump is currently teaching all of us what the Presidency can do. It should matter to our aunts and uncles that Trump is morphing the office of the President - clothed in immense power - into his own personal plaything: Someone, somewhere, maybe in government or maybe sitting on the board of a tech company, is learning what the limits are. And there is a good chance those people will not be as feeble as Trump.
Our relatives feel a tight grip of fear when they see ANTIFA running through city streets because they think that might be an America they have to live in one day and they are afraid of what a Leftist rule would do to them. They see the danger in that moment because they understand a fundamental truth: Democracy and “good” government are extremely fragile, and we do not pass it on through our bloodstreams.
The truth is that we are watching the outline for what they fear being drawn right now, and unless it is corrected with a cure, someone will eventually start filling it in.
It is always fun to link to an old classmate: Anthony Randazzo - from Reason and Equable Institute - had a great piece on the myths of “Trump’s” economy.
Adam Serwer’s piece on the potential for a new Reconstruction will probably stick with me for a long time.
This piece from David French is so eloquent and wonderful.
Enjoy the week my beautiful babies.