The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A man who is too weak occupies an office that is too strong

The central paradox of the Trump presidency, and how it might play out

President Trump arrives at Joint Base Andrews on Feb. 18 to board Marine One for a short trip to the White House after returning from a holiday weekend at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has always been of two minds when observing the Trump presidency. At some point, one of these views is going to have to win out. No big whoop, it just determines the fate of the country.

The first way to look at President Trump is as the toddler in chief, a president inept at exercising power. This is a man who knows nothing about policy and barely more than that about politics. He appointed a cadre of toadies and incompetents who have beclowned the executive branch from Day One. Despite having GOP control over both houses of Congress, he was able to ram through only one significant piece of legislation in two years. He failed to repeal Obamacare and failed to get wall funding, and it is far from clear whether he will be able to get “NAFTA II: The NAFTAing” through Congress. He has lost the fight for clean coal, and lost badly. After two years, Trump made himself the focus of the midterms, leading to the biggest Democratic Party gains in the House since Watergate. His shutdown strategy was an unmitigated disaster, leading to less funding than was initially on offer in December. The man’s command of the English language is so bad that it’s impossible to read what he says without cringing. He’s a weak leader.

The second way to look at Trump is as a president who has not met a civilized norm that he will not shatter. His administration imposed an abhorrent travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries, an action that did not advance U.S. interest or U.S. values — and yet the Supreme Court wound up affirming his power to do so. He also announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military, and last month the Supreme Court allowed a partial ban to take effect while litigation continues. His administration instituted a cruel separation policy to handle migrant families seeking asylum in the United States. In his rhetoric, the president is rude, crude, bigoted, narrow-minded and abusive. He has insulted career civil servants and threatened members of the press. On foreign policy, he has withdrawn the United States from a panoply of agreements and badly weakened America’s standing in the world. He is the president of the United States, and that role has only agglomerated more power in recent decades.

This is the paradox of the age of Trump: A very weak man is occupying a very strong office. It remains unclear which will win out in the end.

Take Trump’s decision on Friday to declare a state of emergency to fund more wall construction. The press coverage strongly suggests that Trump was flailing, trying to turn a political loss into an apparent victory. Here at PostEverything, Josh Chafetz and Douglas Kriner argue that “Trump’s unilateral gambit is more a sign of his political weakness than strength. ... We need to distinguish between Trump’s motivating impulses — which do seem authoritarian — and the actual effects of his behavior.” Similarly, Ross Douthat argues in the New York Times that Trump’s weak caudillo act will actually undercut the imperial presidency: “Precisely because his contempt for constitutional limits is so naked and his incompetence so stark, Trump has (modestly, modestly) weakened the imperial presidency by generating somewhat more pushback than his predecessors.”

But when you break down exactly how these authors think that Trump is weak, their arguments become less convincing. They all point out that Trump’s policies are unpopular and will meet opposition from Congress and the courts. Chafetz and Kriner bring up the “stinging and public rebuke” that will happen if he has to veto a resolution disapproving of the state of emergency. But for a president who doesn’t care about any norms, there’s nothing stinging about it. He will still get his way.

As for the courts, I see far too many sharp analyses of the law concurring with Trump’s singsong analysis of how the courts will rule. Even if the lower courts rule against the president, the Supreme Court continues to show deference to the executive branch on these kinds of matters; see, again, the travel and transgender bans. I see no reason that will not be the case in this instance as well. Even if Trump is weak, the presidency is strong. And pushback does not mean that Trump might not prevail.

The only real check on Trump’s power will come if he is punished in 2020 for these kind of illegitimate power grabs. Douthat seems to expect this. Chafetz and Kriner do as well. And it is true that if the wall is unpopular, declaring a state of emergency to do so is even more unpopular. If Trump loses reelection, then the weak man wins, and Trump becomes an object lesson in what not to do as president.

The thing is, he has a decent chance of winning. The economy is still strong, and this time he is running as the incumbent. Democrats will have plenty of opportunities to shoot themselves in the foot over the next 18 months, and if they don’t, Howard Schultz might shoot them instead. The 2016 election should have taught observers that it is possible for a man with low approval ratings to win. And if Trump is reelected, then all of this talk of weakness needs to be discarded.

Yes, Trump is a weak, disorganized president. But the office he occupies is so strong that even a weak-minded fool can leave lasting scars.