On Jan. 20, 2017, President Trump delivered a bleak inauguration address that warned of “American carnage.” He has spent the past two years turning those words into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So much has happened that it’s hard to keep it all straight. Every week, the Trump administration produces more news than previous administrations did in an entire year. It’s not all bad: We haven’t seen a new war or a recession. Conservatives can be happy about judges and tax cuts. But at what cost? A few stark themes have emerged from the past 730 days—the days of whine and poses. Trump’s presidency so far can be summed up with four bleak words: Racism. Authoritarianism. Incompetence. Megalomania.
Racism: Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, equating neo-Nazis with their opponents. He insulted the intelligence of African Americans such as LeBron James and Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Calif.). He referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.) as “Pocahantas,” because she claims Native American heritage. He said he wants immigrants from snow-white Norway, not from “shithole countries” in Africa. He whipped up hysteria about Central American “caravans” of refugees. He pilloried African American National Football League players who kneeled to protest police brutality during the national anthem. He echoed the alt-right in expressing concern about the plight of white farmers in South Africa. He approvingly quoted Pat Buchanan, whom he once denounced as a “Hitler lover.” His views are, in fact, almost indistinguishable from those of Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa), who was stripped of his committee assignments for his advocacy of white supremacy. Trump backed his rhetoric with action, issuing an executive order to block the entry of people from five Muslim-majority nations, attempting to end protections for 700,000 people brought to this country as children, locking up the children of undocumented immigrants in cages and now fighting for a border wall.
Authoritarianism: Trump fawned over foreign dictators. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin is “very much of a leader,” Chinese President Xi Jinping is “a highly respected and powerful representative of his people,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is doing an “unbelievable job,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is “getting very high marks,” and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “very open and terrific.” These are five of the worst human rights violators on the planet.
Trump also tried, with mercifully limited success, to emulate their illiberal example. He claimed the “absolute right” to declare a national emergency to build a border wall that Congress won’t fund. He deployed troops to the border in a political stunt. He revoked the security clearance of a former CIA director who criticized him. He created a climate of rhetorical violence that has been associated with mail bombs and a synagogue shooting. He copied Viktor Orban by promulgating conspiracy theories about George Soros. He called the press the “enemy of the people,” borrowing a term from Josef Stalin. He barred CNN correspondent Jim Acosta from the White House and asked the postmaster general to raise shipping rates for Amazon to punish Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos (“Jeff Bozo”). A large part of the reason Trump dislikes the “fake news media” is that they call him out on his lies. In 2018, he averaged 15 falsehoods a day. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” Trump told his followers, echoing George Orwell’s “1984”: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Trump is at war not only with the truth but also with the law. He fired the FBI director and attorney general to stop an investigation of his campaign, and he attempted to obstruct justice with his invective against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the FBI and his encouragement of witnesses not to “rat.”
Incompetence: If Trump has a saving grace, it is that he is so incompetent: A more cunning populist would be far more dangerous. His tweets are riddled with spelling, grammar and factual mistakes. (Remember the “smocking gun”?) More significantly, he couldn’t get a Republican-controlled Congress to approve a border wall or repeal Obamacare. His attempt to implement his Muslim ban led to chaos in airports and a lengthy court battle. He has record-setting turnover and numerous vacancies among his staff. (There is still no nominee for 37 percent of key administration jobs.) He impetuously announced a ban on transgender soldiers, the suspension of military exercises with South Korea and the withdrawal from Syria, catching the Pentagon by surprise. His administration leaked so badly that one anonymous official boasted in a New York Times op-ed of obstructing Trump’s agenda. He launched a trade war with China and a government shutdown with no exit strategy. His midterm campaign backfired, leading the Democrats to pick up 40 House seats. He can’t consistently break 40 percent approval despite a booming economy. And he’s not learning from his mistakes. From the vantage point of 2019, in the midst of a record-setting government shutdown, the chaos of 2017 looks like the good ole days.
Megalomania: If measured by conventional metrics, the first two years of the Trump presidency have been a dismal failure. But if Trump’s chief goal is to make himself the center of the world’s attention, a president who is obsessed with TV ratings has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Even those who hate Trump can’t stop talking about him. May our next president be extremely boring.