One of the peculiar ongoing arguments of our time is whether Donald Trump is bright or dim. It’s important to get this right because it’s really a question of capability. Does the president have the mental acumen and strategic wherewithal to do the things he sometimes threatens to do?
This is especially pressing in the context of Trump’s clearly announced intention to deploy the might of the state to disqualify mail-in ballots–which he impugns as fraudulent at every opportunity–and his refusal to say that he will concede the election and willingly transfer power should the vote count cut against him. If we were to take him both literally and seriously, he’s clearly running a strategy to stay in office no matter what American voters have to say about it. But is it even remotely in his power to pull it off?
Ross Douthat thinks that Trump is merely indulging in self-defeating bluster.
Mark Hemingway, for his part, is exasperated by hand-wringing about the possibility that Trump will mount some sort of electoral coup.
I agree that Trump isn’t planning to dissolve the legislature and restructure the courts. But that’s no reason to “take it down a notch.” The president has been straightforwardly telling us that he’s planning to raise a dust cloud of manufactured uncertainty, seek to invalidate perfectly valid votes, and try to get the result decided by courts that he and Mitch McConnell have stacked with loyalists.
But Douthat’s point is that it doesn’t matter if Trump were planning a coup because he couldn’t pull it off if he wanted to. And if it comes down to Bush v. Gore-style judicial arbitration, Trump’s undeniably autocratic rhetoric is only going to hurt him.
I wish I could agree with this, but I can’t. Trump is plenty capable. Indeed, I think he may be among the greatest criminal escape artists in history. Not only does Donald Trump belong in the White Collar Crime Hall of Fame, he may in fact be the GOAT.
There’s no denying that the man is, in some sense, a complete moron. He is ignorant and incurious, yet styles himself a genius. This makes him look like he’s too stupid to realize he’s stupid. But he’s not stupid–not even a little. He’s been stealing and beating the rap his entire life, and with constantly mounting stakes. He beat the rap all the way into the Oval Office, which is why he’s not about to leave; the immunity of the office is his only way to remain beyond the reach of John Q. Law.
Donald Trump is an abysmal businessman and serial bankrupt worth less than the interest his inherited fortune would have earned had he socked it away in an index fund. Yet he successfully manipulated the media, over decades, into repeating and amplifying a myth that he’s some kind of money-minting savant. The myth of Trump as the self-made, deal-making tycoon was based in the first instance on his own self-glorifying narcissism. But he was able to give it a sort of independent life by leveraging his mastery of self-promotion, media virtuosity, and legal (and financial and physical) intimidation into massive lines of credit that he used to finance a legendarily lavish lifestyle.
When bills come due, Trump simply doesn’t pay, pays off one loan with another he’s somehow managed to bullshit his way into, and/or fills the gaps with a cut of laundered second-world oligarch cash. And he gets away with it, time and again. He managed to parlay his phony business reputation into a popular TV show, which raised his public profile to near-ubiquity and infused his illusory reputation with massive weekly doses of televisual “reality.”
We all know what happened next. He used this artfully cultivated illusion, and his charismatic power to thrill crowds with heaping helpings of populist red meat, to wallop the GOP’s best in the 2016 primary. Then, with a boost from Vladimir Putin, he rode it all the way to the White House, where he could insulate himself from legal accountability for his decades-long crime spree.
It took Trump all of a year to use his sway over the besotted Republican base to bring the entire Republican Party to heel. He succeeded brilliantly at obstructing the Mueller investigation. He weathered impeachment by the House with only a single GOP defection in his senate trial. He has undermined Congress’ constitutional investigatory and oversight powers at every turn by stonewalling committees and ignoring subpoenas. For these high crimes against the Constitution, he has suffered no ill consequences whatsoever, aside from the toothless impeachment, which he easily persuaded Republicans to write off as a baseless partisan “witch hunt.”
More than 200,000 Americans are dead, in no small measure due to Trump’s vain denialism about the pandemic. Yes, it’s hurting him some in the polls. But he remains well within striking distance, because he’s persuaded enough of us that it’s not that serious, it’s not his fault, and that elected officials who are behaving responsibly are hurting the economy in a deranged bid to undermine his re-election. As a consequence, life in many Republican-heavy places does seem more socially and economically normal than it would be otherwise. Plenty of Republicans see this as a sign of Trump’s victory over both the virus and health-Nazi Democrats, and they are happy to shrug off all the sickness and death this has caused as normal risk–the price of admission to a non-cowering life. This is all to say, Trump is directly responsible for a six-figure death toll, and it has barely hurt him at all.
Trump’s record in the courts is admittedly checkered, but it has been incredibly impressive when it counts. He has successfully kept his tax returns, financial records held by third parties, and all the evidence of crimes therein, under lock and key. Early on, he whined a lot about the absence of a “Roy Cohn” in the Department of Justice to bully, intimidate, and falsely accuse anyone in his way. But he finally got his wish with Bill Barr, who he has used to pervert the United States Department of Justice into his personal law firm. The Attorney General stands ready to litigate on the president’s behalf to sow confusion, run out the clock, and delegitimize Joe Biden’s probable electoral victory.
Say what you will about this litany of infamy, but it is emphatically not the record of an incapable man. What makes this record of competent wickedness truly impressive is the fact that it is, indeed, all Donald Trump. There’s “no brains of the operation” behind the scenes. There’s no Steve Bannon or Stephen Miller or Jared Kushner holding it all together. The president’s got plenty of henchmen to do his bidding, but he runs through personnel like he runs through wives.
Trump himself is the only constant. He’s driving the bus. He may motor along like an intoxicated maniac with a death-wish, yet he somehow never crashes. At a certain point, you can’t just chalk it up to luck. At a certain point, you have to admit that Donald Trump manages to weave through landslides, jump barns, and never, ever get caught by the fuzz because he’s a freaking incredible driver.
It is naive and dangerous to underestimate this man. And I think it’s naive and dangerous to think that his blustering frankness about crimes he intends to commit undermines his chances of getting the courts to hand him a victory. McConnell has spent nearly every waking hour populating the judiciary with GOP loyalists, and we are on the cusp of a 6-3 Republican-majority Supreme Court. If these judges weren’t avidly partisan, they would not have been appointed by avid partisans. Moreover, the courts have been exceedingly generous about Trump’s rhetoric. For example, they graciously ignored Trump’s overtly discriminatory language around the Muslim travel ban, as if he must not have really meant it.
I certainly don’t know that judges will extend this sort of charity to Trump in an election dispute. Will they pretend not to know what he’s actually up to when Trump’s lawyers attempt to justify tossing Democratic votes with less obviously made-up and outrageously inadmissible arguments? Maybe not. But it’s dangerous and naive to pretend that we know that they won’t.