The Competent Trump
Writing about American politics in 2022 is like being the hundredth car to stop and rubberneck at a terrible roadside crash.
Sure, there’s a 26-vehicle pileup in flames across three lanes of the highway, but is there really any benefit to having yet another person slow down their car, point, and gawk? The past half-decade’s deluge of Trump-inspired thinkpieces has been almost as bad as the Trump presidency itself. And so I almost never write about politics here, because I almost never feel like I have anything original to add to the conversation.
But following the twists and turns of last week’s congressional hearings—most of which I would have dismissed as too preposterous to be believable if I’d encountered them in fiction—something occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve heard articulated anywhere else, and so against my better judgment, I have decided to break my own rule and write about politics.
Throughout Trump’s term—or what may later come to be known as Trump’s first term—a common liberal refrain was something along the lines of “At least he’s incompetent.” Just imagine, the idea went, the damage a competent, sane Trump could do: someone with the same authoritarian tendencies, but without the obvious emotional damage and tenuous connection to reality that make Trump so uniquely… himself.
I heard variations on this idea constantly, and it never quite sat right with me, but I could never fully articulate why—until it all clicked into place for me last week. There could never be such a thing as the competent, sane Trump, because only insane people are willing to burn down the whole system if they can’t get what they want. Sane people will stop when their quest for power reaches a dead end, because it isn’t rational to destroy the thing you want.
This is why the final images of the Trump presidency—ketchup smeared on the wall, lunging for the steering wheel—are so darkly comic. There was no grand plan by this point, no endgame, no conceivable world in which these actions could get Trump what he wanted. They were just a tantrum, conducted on a grand scale, like that of a child who would rather kick down his sandcastle than let another kid play in the sandbox—or of a spurned lover who would rather kill himself and his ex than let either of them move on. We were witnessing, essentially, an attempted murder-suicide pact with the country.
Or perhaps another way to put it is that Trump actually is competent—it’s just that what he’s competent at is destroying things. The necessary skill for a tyrant is not the ability to effectively administer a government—after all, tyrants rarely run their countries well. Tyranny is less a set of skills than it is a state of being: the instinctive drive to lash out, to destroy, to cause chaos for its own sake. The almost laughable number of times Trump shot himself in the foot by doing something impulsive and self-destructive brings to mind that study about how some people would rather give themselves painful electric shocks than simply sit in a room and do nothing.
If this unconscious instinct can be conceived of as a “skill” at all, it is one that can’t be intentionally developed. It can only emerge organically from a damaged psyche, one with two almost paradoxical components: a hair-trigger sensitivity for perceived slights and a capacity for looking foolish on a grand scale far beyond what any normal person could endure. This is why tyrants throughout history have always been kind of insane: think Caligula’s orgies, the Marcos’ sartorial excesses, Oliver Cromwell banning Christmas celebrations. They are ridiculous and almost always impossible to take seriously—until they’re not.
The danger with Trump was never that he would competently seize the levers of administrative power. It was that he would burn the entire American democratic experiment to the ground when he couldn’t get what he wanted, and to do that he didn’t need any competence. In fact, competence might have actually been a hindrance. As Masayoshi Son—the venture capitalist who lost $17bn investing in WeWork in the run-up to its failed IPO—reportedly said to its founder Adam Neumann: in a fight between a smart guy and a crazy guy, always bet on the crazy guy.
Happy July 4th, everyone.