Why Has It Taken Us So Long to See Trump’s Weakness?

President Donald Trump arrives to speak about a state of emergency from the Rose Garden of the White House on February 15. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, pundits and scholars have been sounding the alarm over the authoritarian or fascist turn of American politics, preparing us for that moment when the president would throw off the shackles of his office and seize power. Now, in a move more brazen than any we’ve seen, Trump has declared a state of emergency, setting off a crisis about whether he or the Constitution is supreme. And the response from the media has been: meh.

In the Daily Beast, Sally Kohn called the declaration of emergency “a desperate act of a desperate man who is becoming increasingly irrelevant in Washington.” Trump’s announcement, claimed The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, shows that “he is a fundamentally weak and isolated President.” That was also the verdict of two scholars in the Washington Post, David Frum in The Atlantic, and the New York Times, which said, “This move will come back to bite [Trump] and his party.” On Facebook, the declaration was the stuff of snarky memes; even senators on Twitter got in on the fun.

How did we get here? Fourteen months ago, Vox’s Matt Yglesias was making ominous comparisons to Hitler, warning that Trump was “organizing an authoritarian regime.” Now he thinks Trump’s “flailing” and can’t “get anything done.” Where did all the tyranny go?

Maybe we’ve grown so used to Trump’s authoritarianism that we can’t see it anymore. From the beginning, scholars have warned that democracies don’t die overnight; they slip away with the drip-drip of a slow leak. It’s hard to stay vigilant against death on the installment plan. Perhaps the complacency of the commentariat means that the much-dreaded normalization we’ve heard so much about has finally claimed its last victims.

Or maybe the pundits have changed their minds because the facts have changed. Trump’s recent antics on the campaign trail yielded the biggest midterm gain for the Democrats since Watergate. Fresh off that defeat, Trump launched the longest government shutdown in American history — only to come out of it with less money for his wall than he had going in. Perhaps the reason the media’s now declaring him weak is that he’s finally shown himself to be weak.

Yet that weakness has been evident from the beginning, as skeptics of the authoritarianism thesis, myself included, have argued. For last the two years, it hasn’t been a Democratic House but a GOP Congress that refused to give Trump money for his wall. Even with total control of the federal government, Trump never got an inch of that wall built. Nor was he able to get any legislation to restrict immigration.

Far from consolidating control over the GOP, much less the polity, Trump and his positions have been consistently rebuffed by the electorate, the Democrats, officials in the Executive branch and other parts of the government, members of his administration — as well as his own party. Indeed, Trump delivered budgets that were rejected not once but twice by a GOP-led Congress, yielding a spending package in 2018, in the words of The Atlantic, that would “make Barack Obama proud.”

The declaration of emergency is the revelation of a secret that’s been hiding in plain sight for two years. Why has it taken pundits so long to see it?

Perhaps the answer lies in a new genre of journalism that forgoes the pedestrian task of reporting the news in favor of explaining it through the lens of academic research. Ensconced at Vox, FiveThirtyEight, dedicated pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, and across Twitter, the explainers place great stock in the authority of scholarship — and in journalists who know how to wield the authority of scholars. This genre first arose under the roseate glow of Obama, reflecting the White House’s warm embrace of science and smarts. Now, in the age of Trump, it’s less a happy affirmation of wonks and geeks than an anxious cry of the Resistance. Being smart, honoring research, favoring truth: These are the emblems of the world Trump wants to destroy and that the explainers wish to preserve.

There’s one thing that’s missing from the world of the explainers, though: facts. Less interested in budget negotiations on Capitol Hill or the stalling of legislation — empirics of power that might tell us whether Trump is an ascendant authoritarian or a flailing conservative — the explainers like to invoke academic research that sees Trump as an American instance of the democratic backsliding across the globe. Brooding on the bloodlands of Europe, meditating on the dark night of the populist soul, anxious media professionals find academic confirmation for their sense that they are exiles in their own land.

There’s a bad synergy at work in the Historovox — as I call this complex of scholars and journalists — between the short-termism of the news cycle and the longue durée-ism of the academy. Short-term interests and partisan concerns still drive reporting and commentary. But where the day’s news once would have been narrated as a series of events, the Historovox brings together those events in a pseudo-academic frame that treats them as symptoms of deeper patterns and long-term developments. Unconstrained by the protocols of academe or journalism, but drawing on the authority of the first for the sake of the second, the Historovox skims histories of the New Deal or rifles through abstracts of meta-analysis found in JSTOR to push whatever the latest line happens to be.

When academic knowledge is on tap for the media, the result is not a fusion of the best of academia and the best of journalism but the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, we get the whiplash of superficial commentary: For two years, America was on the verge of authoritarianism; now it’s not. On the other hand, we get the determinism that haunts so much academic knowledge. When the contingencies of a day’s news cycle are overlaid with the laws of social science or whatever ancient formation is trending in the precincts of academic historiography, the political world can come to seem more static than it is. Toss in the partisan agendas of the media and academia, and the effects are as dizzying as they are deadening: a news cycle that’s said to reflect the universal laws of the political universe where the laws of the political universe change with every news cycle.

Under Obama, there was a fashionable theory, derived from political science, that the presidency is a weak institution. Where once upon a time journalists would talk of the “bully pulpit” or agenda-setting power of the Oval Office, academically informed commentators like Ezra Klein pooh-poohed the notion that a president’s words had much effect. Congress, not the president, had power in the American system. Those who argued otherwise were dismissed as Green Lanternists, credulous folk who thought the president had all the powers of a comic-book superhero. Obama’s defenders in the media often used this theory to parry the claims of Obama’s critics, particularly on the left, who thought Obama should push harder on health care, taxes, and the like.

Since Trump’s election, we’ve not heard much about the weakness of the presidency. All the things presidents were supposed to be unable to do — reshape the public, their parties, and the polity — journalists and pundits now believe a president can do. Through words alone. Everyone’s a Green Lanternist now. The institution of the presidency hasn’t changed. But its occupant has, and with that, the needs of the commentariat. Instead of defending a beleaguered and beloved president against his critics on the left, the task at hand is to oppose a president who’s almost universally reviled, at least by the media.

But now, with the Democrats in control of the House, and maybe readying to win the White House in 2020, there’s less talk of tyranny, even in the face of Trump’s declaration of an emergency. Maybe, it’s even been suggested, a Democratic president might make positive use of such a declaration in the future, on climate change or gun violence. New tasks call for new theories: Instead of Green Lanternism, which was helpful in absolving Obama from accusations on the left, or authoritarianism, which was temporarily useful in opposing Trump and defending norms, perhaps we’ll revert to more heroic conceptions of the liberal presidency, drawn from the heady days of FDR.

As a political scientist, I have my opinions about each of these theories, but those opinions may not be the most important contribution I or other scholars have to make in the public sphere. The job of the scholar is not to offer her expertise to fit the needs of the pundit class. It’s to call those needs into question, not to provide different answers to the same questions but to raise the questions that aren’t being asked.

Everyone knows and cites Orwell’s famous adage: “To see what is front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Less cited is what follows: “One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.” To see what’s right in front of one’s nose doesn’t mean seeing without ideology. It means keeping track of how we think and have thought about things, being mindful of what was once on the table and what has disappeared from view. It means avoiding the gods of the present.

The job of the scholar, in other words, is to resist the tyranny of the now. That requires something different than knowledge of the past; indeed, historians have proven all too useful to the Historovox, which is constantly looking for academic warrants to say what its denizens always and already believe. No, the job of the scholar is to recall and retrieve what the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin described as “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present.” The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past — for the sake of an as-yet-to-be imagined future.

Why Has It Taken Us So Long to See Trump’s Weakness?