(Tom Toles)
Editorial cartoonist

Arguing about whether President Trump is, in fact, a moron, or some kind of evil genius, is a waste of time. It doesn’t matter. People are wasting precious time trying to understand Trump’s actions in all the wrong ways.

The danger of Trump is authoritarianism and, as I’ve tried to make the case since his election, authoritarianism is not a complicated hand to play. But take the freighted word “authoritarianism” out of it. It might be simpler to just describe what he does. That isn’t complicated, either.

The mistake people are making is to try to understand Trump in the context of other presidents. Is he getting legislation passed? How is he working with Congress and the other party? How does he comport himself? Is he departing from this or that norm? Who are the key players around him? These questions miss the point.

Trump operates with two levers. They are “reward” and “punish.” All the rest is distraction, and Trump is certainly a master of that. Whom does Trump reward? Anyone who does what he wants right now with no questions and offers him nonstop effusions of exaltation on top of it. And who gets punished? Anyone or anything that crimps his prerogatives. That includes any aspects of government he doesn’t directly control and any features of democratic government that hedge in his power.

Take health care, as an example from just yesterday. Does Trump hate people getting good health care? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. This was a program designed to deliver health-care insurance to Americans with some government involvement, that didn’t operate at Trump’s whim. That had to go. When Congress wouldn’t deliver, he acted to destroy the program through orders. The probable result to the health care plans of millions of Americans? This.

Take climate policy. Does Trump really hate the climate? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. He has decided that government involvement in climate in a way that doesn’t operate at his whim is unacceptable. It had to go. And just this week, what did his lackey Scott Pruitt do to climate regulations? This.

How about democratic government itself? Russian involvement possibly changing the election outcome? It helped Trump, so it doesn’t bother him. An attorney general who doesn’t operate at his whim? Fire him. A State Department that doesn’t operate at his whim? Emasculate it. Trade rules that operate independently of his whim? Eliminate them. Treaties that constrain his whims? Abrogate them. The result to governing institutions? This.

How about an independent press? You know, the one enshrined in the very beginning of the Bill of Rights? Reward the media when they flatter him, and when they don’t, threaten them. With what? This.

Get the picture? You can be a moron and still manage this pattern. All you need is a complete lack of scruple. Voila.

And what does Trump replace these checks and balances with? You get Trump contemplating a dictator-style military display of the weaponry at his command on Pennsylvania Avenue. You get weird petty royalist administration behaviors such as this.

Trump doesn’t have to win all these battles right away. All he needs to do is win a little more and a little more. What he can’t do today he will do when he is able, when we enable him, by letting him erode our standards and capacities to resist. Trump triumphs if people who know better think the consequences of taking him on now are too high. If the threat of his retaliation is too intimidating.

A lot of these people used to lecture everyone on the dangers of appeasement.