The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As the Trump disaster gets worse, a new political theory helps explain it

President Trump speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The spiraling disaster of President Trump’s handling of coronavirus — which is helping produce a new surge of cases and a forecast of worsening economic misery this fall — should prompt a rethink of some core assumptions about Trump’s pathologies, both personal and political.

The Trump presidency is often described as whipsawed by competing impulses. In this telling, Trump’s reactionary, illiberal, anti-democratic tendencies periodically flare up and do targeted damage, but they often run aground against competing forces — his incompetence and the distraction of narcissism.

The shorthand version of this: Imagine the damage a competent and effective Trump could do!

But a new paper that develops a theory of leadership amid pandemics — combined with an alarming report on our looming economic catastrophe — point toward a more coherent narrative of Trumpian failure, one that undermines the shallow understanding of those impulses and traits as necessarily in conflict.

The paper offers a theory of “executive underreach,” and applies it to leaders like Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Both have failed on coronavirus through indifference to mass suffering and abdication of leadership in the face of it.

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Law professors David Pozen and Kim Lane Scheppele present “executive underreach” as a species of leadership failure that’s as destructive as executive overreach, defining it as:

a national executive branch’s willful failure to address a significant public problem that the executive is legally and functionally equipped (though not necessarily legally required) to address.

But crucially, the paper links this phenomenon to fundamentally illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies: Hostility to science and expertise; and the leader’s abiding faith in his ability to confuse the public with disinformation as a substitute for acting in the national interest, all typical of “demagogic populists” like Trump and Bolsonaro.

The wreckage is piling up

The mounting wreckage is now forcing us to come to terms with what this portends. An extraordinary New York Times report predicts that the “economy is headed for a tumultuous autumn” of “closed schools” and “renewed government lockdowns,” which is “clouding hopes for a rapid rebound.”

The too-rapid reopenings of many states — which were urged by Trump and reflected a denial of expert warnings — are now helping fuel a resurgence of cases that is forcing reversals.

The Times notes that all this is “threatening to choke the recovery and push the country back into a recessionary spiral,” potentially inflicting untold “long-term damage” on workers and businesses alike.

Worse, supplemental unemployment benefits are set to expire. While Trump has made noises about a deal with Democrats, there’s no telling whether they’ll be renewed — or whether Congress will offer other economic assistance — at any speed commensurate with the urgency of the moment.

All this traces back in part to Trump’s original inaction — the refusal to act for crucial lost weeks, the failure to mobilize private-sector manufacturing of needed equipment — and now to his insistence that the economy is roaring back to greatness (on his reelection schedule).

Trump continues urging speedy reopenings — downplaying social distancing and mask-wearing, and even insisting we herd as many children back into schools as possible — to bolster that narrative, which itself undercuts the likelihood of a sufficient economic package.

The devotion to that story line is surely complicating local responses in numerous ways. And as the new “executive underreach” paper points out, all this can be understood as a manifestation of illiberal, anti-democratic impulses.

Executive overreach vs. executive underreach

We typically associate such impulses with executive overreach, the paper notes. This is especially true amid emergency or crisis conditions, such as a pandemic, which prompts fears that a leader will seize on them to consolidate power, as Viktor Orban did in Hungary.

But, the paper argues, that association risks blinding us to deliberate executive underreach in the face of public emergencies as its own form of “illiberal,” “antidemocratic,” and “reactionary” governance:

Both President Trump and President Bolsonaro have defended their underreach by appealing to populist themes and attacking the legitimacy of domestic and international public-health institutions. Both have tried to compensate for or distract from their failures by manipulating the truth, denouncing the media, and threatening to overreach on other margins, as by compelling states to reopen.

Defining executive underreach isn’t easy, since the executive is endowed with the discretion to opt for inaction. So the paper suggests this:

Underreach occurs when domestic and international legal sources are widely seen to authorize, if not also encourage or oblige, an executive to tackle a particular sort of problem with particular sorts of tools and yet the executive declines to do so.

Executive underreach does not describe inaction rooted in good-faith considerations or the lack of resources or powers. But the paper notes that it occurs when the rationale for inaction is offered in naked and destructive bad faith, as Trump has been doing for months.

The incompetent authoritarian?

All this bears on a related debate, over the oft-heard claim that Trump’s incompetence and self-absorption have ensured that his authoritarian and autocratic impulses have proved toothless. Bret Stephens recently put it this way:

The president may be an instinctual fascist, a wannabe autocrat. But, after nearly four years in power, he’s been unmasked as an incompetent one.

As Brian Beutler has demonstrated, this is substantively false. Trump has boasted many authoritarian and autocratic successes (shielding untold personal corruption from public view; disabling multiple oversight mechanisms; using law enforcement to protect cronies while installing others in positions to corrupt the coming election).

But in addition to this, the whole framing suffers from a deeper malady.

Authoritarian and autocratic impulses perhaps belong in a separate category from illiberal and anti-democratic ones. But there’s plenty of overlap: Wielding disinformation to supplant solutions in the public interest and prodding friendly governors into putting untold constituents at risk — all to serve the leader’s cultish political needs — surely partake from both.

In the leadership context, when incompetence and the distraction of narcissism do appear, they don’t necessarily hamper the realization of illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies. They are rooted in the same tangle of impulses, and mutually reinforce each other in a uniquely toxic way that compounds the wreckage.

Even as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases passes 3 million, President Trump has repeatedly played down covid-19’s toll on the country. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton / Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Read more:

David Von Drehle: Trump has killed satire

The Post’s View: It’s important for schools to reopen. But what Trump proposes is the opposite of helpful.

Michael Gerson: Fauci has been an example of conscience and courage. Trump has been nothing but weak.

Dana Milbank: The one constant in Trump’s presidency: Tomorrow will be worse