When it comes to President Trump, the “incompetence vs. malevolence” debate about his administration has always been something of a false dichotomy. Trump is both incompetent and malevolent. The important question is which flaw in Trump’s character dominates.

For the past four years, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat has been consistently advocating the incompetence argument. In the wake of rising fears that Trump intends to launch a soft coup if he loses the election, Douthat made a strong case this past Sunday that Trump was simply incapable of the machinations required to pull anything like this off. As Douthat writes, “Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks.”

This is a notion that the hard-working staff who wrote “The Toddler in Chief” can get behind. Tim O’Brien, one of Trump’s biographers, once observed that Trump “doesn’t regulate his own emotions, he’s not a disciplined thinker.” He further warned, “Donald lacks any kind of sophisticated strategic planning.” Halfway through his presidency, one of Trump’s advisers told Axios’s Jonathan Swan: “He gets frustrated when there is a plan. He’s not a guy who likes a plan. … There’s an animosity towards planning, and there’s a desire to pick fights that have nothing to do with us.”

Here’s another way to think about it: Over the past few years, Trump has successfully alienated every bureaucracy — the FBI, the military, the intelligence agencies — that he would need to pull off any kind of organized extralegal action. Consider the reaction from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, when national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien announced intended troop cuts in Afghanistan. Milley went on NPR to respond with: “Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. … I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions … and conversations with the president.” Milley is the one guy in the administration who will be staying on after Jan. 20, regardless of who wins. He sure does not sound like he is ingratiating himself to Team Trump.

The best supporting evidence is watching the president’s shambolic campaign in recent months. Trump is also intent on forcing the federal government into generating policy victories for himself and scandals for his Democratic rivals — and it looks like he will flounder at delivering either. His entire reelection effort has the whiff of an undergraduate deciding to plagiarize to get a good grade and choosing a bad paper to crib from.

The president’s position on a fiscal stimulus does not seem that of a calculating schemer. Trump was disinterested in a stimulus deal over the summer, flat-out rejected it last week and then performed a complete 180 upon realizing that this was an unpopular move. Trump’s problem is that he is so far behind at this point that he can no longer bend the will of GOP senators. A mastermind this is not.

The Trump White House tried in August to get pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices, but that foundered because the president wanted $100 “Trump cards” issued and the drug companies were understandably wary of the election stunt. Frustrated in that attempt, Trump announced that the government would issue cards on its own. According to Politico’s Dan Diamond, however, “health officials are scrambling to get the nearly $8 billion plan done by Election Day.” Although letters announcing them are being sent out, “many seniors would not receive the actual cards until after the election.”

Trump also wants to announce an arms-control deal with Russia, but according to Axios’s Dave Lawler, “the Russians have not yet sounded such an optimistic note, or signaled they’re prepared to engage in such expedited negotiations.” Given the hard-line position of Trump’s own arms-control negotiators that any nuclear deal must include China, it seems unlikely this will get done as well.

Trump has also attempted to use the executive branch to gin up scandal and retribution against his political opponents. The Times’s David Sanger does not pull any punches in his description of Trump’s efforts:

President Trump’s order to his secretary of state to declassify thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails, along with his insistence that his attorney general issue indictments against Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., takes his presidency into new territory — until now, occupied by leaders with names like Putin, Xi and Erdogan.
Mr. Trump has long demanded — quite publicly, often on Twitter — that his most senior cabinet members use the power of their office to pursue political enemies. But his appeals this week, as he trailed badly in the polls and was desperate to turn the national conversation away from the coronavirus, were so blatant that one had to look to authoritarian nations to make comparisons.
He took a step even Richard M. Nixon avoided in his most desperate days: openly ordering direct, immediate government action against specific opponents, timed to serve his re-election campaign.

This is pretty malevolent! Except, as it turns out, Trump will not get what he wants. According to Axios’s Alayna Treene, Attorney General William P. Barr “has begun telling top Republicans that the Justice Department’s sweeping review into the origins of the Russia investigation will not be released before the election.” As for Clinton’s emails — to put it bluntly, that is not the game-changer Trump wants, and even the president knows this to be true. Releasing more Clinton emails will not change anything except to make Mike Pompeo even more isolated within the State Department.

Trying to use the power of the state to punish one’s political rivals is malevolent. Trying and failing is incompetent.

The truth is, as my Post colleague Greg Sargent has observed, all of Trump’s efforts during his presidency to use the powers of his office to bolster his reelection chances have been abysmal failures: “One after another, a whole string of deeply corrupt schemes that President Trump has hatched to smooth his reelection hopes have crashed and burned. In all these cases, Trump has either blown up the schemes himself or compounded the damage they did to him when they self-destructed. In some cases he did both.”

If Trump himself is incompetent, his underlings are little better, as Politico’s John Harris and Daniel Lippman recently observed:

Recent days, in the wake of Trump being stricken with coronavirus, have highlighted just how the lurching improvisation that is a familiar phenomenon around Trump has entered a different phase. The professionals around the president aren’t merely laboring to contain and channel the disruptive politician they work for. Very often they are amplifying the chaos.
That’s in part because, as his first term comes to a close, the professionals around Trump are not all that professional. It is now the exception in key staff and Cabinet posts to have people whose experience would be commensurate with that of people who have typically held those jobs in previous administrations of both parties. This major weakness has been revealing itself in a barrage of minor errors that summon Casey Stengel’s incredulous question about the 1962 New York Mets: Can’t anybody here play this game?

This is an administration that cannot stop the White House from being a hot spot for the coronavirus. Even if Trump and his underlings wanted to attempt something nefarious, Douthat is right: This is the laziest, most incompetent bunch of wannabe authoritarians ever to work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. They are incapable of the planning required to scuttle next month’s election.