It’s terrifying to think that the Trump era has only been going on for two weeks and two days. It feels like it’s been months already. A huge part of this has been due to the breakneck speed that Trump has launched himself into office. Almost every week day has brought a major new executive order or foreign policy action that shakes the country with its severity and radicalism. From a Muslim ban, to reauthorizing Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, to pulling out of TPP, to pulling back environmental regulations, every day we are regularly seeing transformational actions emerging from the Trump White House.
And that’s just the things that are definitively happening – the rumors of what could come next, from a national right-to-work (without job security) push to gutting federal LGBT protections, are pouring out just as fast. Other intended massive initiatives, like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act or building a wall on our border with Mexico, have been announced but only seen limited concrete progress.
The press isn’t prepared for the pace of action. The Democrats aren’t prepared for it. And civil society groups responding to Trump are finding themselves pulled in every direction at once by the pace of Trump’s actions.
Of course what we’re seeing Trump and his team actually do is actually exactly what he said he’d do as a candidate. He is rapidly checking off as many boxes as possible when it comes to keeping his promises from the campaign. We are just historically unprepared for this sort of directness. Obama and Bush both moved primarily through legislative actions in their early days. Their executive orders tended towards less transformational actions.
I see two potential explanations for Trump’s governing behavior, which has largely avoided anything requiring congressional action.
The first and potentially more reassuring explanation is that Trump, Bannon, and the rest of his political team are going with a realpolitik political strategy. They want to be able to say to their base and to the country on whole: We were elected. We kept all of our promises. And when these executive orders and actions inevitably get rolled back or reduced by either legal proceedings or congressional action, they’ll be able to point a finger and say, “See, it was the corrupt judges. It was the crooked establishment. It was just like I said when I was a candidate. I kept my word and they are to blame for where we stand now.”
This explanation makes sense if the Trump team is comfortable spending a lot of time litigating their actions. They maybe don’t care about their policies being fully realized, as much as being able to tell a story that helps them win re-election. It is a cynical, yet arguably sharp, political plan.
The second explanation for the Trump executive action blitz is significantly more scary. Instead of being based on a political-electoral analysis, Trump and co. are actually governing in the manner that they see the presidency functioning. They want to act quickly because they think they are the sole decider of American policies and laws. They act without consulting Congress or even cabinet officials and staff at agencies like DOJ, DHS, DOD or State. They don’t think they need bureaucrats and experts to craft legal orders. They don’t need to consult people with deeper knowledge than that possessed by a TV entrepreneur, an editor of Breitbart, and an small-time publisher. They are in charge and they aren’t interested in waiting for others to weigh in.
The scary part of this is that it speaks towards an authoritarian orientation towards governance, one that is incurious and insulated. We saw inklings of what may happen when border patrol officers refused to honor judges’ decisions to suspend the Muslim ban last week. We saw it again this weekend as Trump took to twitter to blast a “so-called judge” who happened to issue a ruling against him. When this administration and their staff refuse to follow the orders of a co-equal branch of government, we enter a real constitutional crisis.
The actions of Trump, Bannon, Miller and others are truly terrifying. They have not displayed any competence in a traditional sense. However their pace of action and its extreme nature not only make up for the general incompetence of implementation, but ensure that many of the bad things they are trying to rush through will become realities in the end.
Either Trump is politically astute and positioning himself for four years of war against the establishment or he’s a genuine authoritarian who will govern through constitutional crisis. In either regard, he is and will continue to implement terribly destructive policies that cause real human suffering.
I’m not sure if Trump’s strategy is particularly relevant to how Democrats or the Left respond to him right now, at least not on a case-by-case basis. But as we get greater clarity on the direction of travel he’s moving down, the more relevant it becomes. A politically expedient desire to keep campaign promises quickly then spend four years pointing fingers at the establishment stopping them from being fully realized would suggest we just have to weather the storm now. In contrast, a strong turn towards authoritarian, ignorant rule from the White House would suggest a real risk for the 2020 election being something Trump would accept if he lost. And that should be enough to make one’s blood run cold.