Every day, the Trump administration is landing another dropkick on our political institutions. Other executive-level scam artists like Tricky Dick Nixon or George “Compassionate Conservative” W. Bush attempted to hide their chicanery; however, the White House isn’t even trying to hide their nefarious deeds. Instead, they embrace it. Take last week’s whirligig of a news cycle: Devin Nunes, California House Representative and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, attempted to corroborate Trump’s frothing-at-the-mouth claim that former President Obama ordered wire-taps at Trump Tower; Nunes held press conferences in which he claimed clandestine meetings with a supposed source who could verify that Trump and his associates had been “incidentally” wiretapped. Just pause for a moment and let that sink in: Devin Nunes, the man currently in charge of the Congressional probe into Trump’s Russia ties, is basically telling the voting public that he’s a third-tier James Bond, scrambling out of Uber in the dead of night and holding court on CNN just to validate Trump’s madcap conspiracies. If the Hindenburg of the American Health Care Act hadn’t imploded under the spark of the Republicans’ intra-party obstructionism, Nunes’s Keystone Kops spy show would have dominated even more headlines—and this was the Trump administration’s attempt to distract the electorate from the real-life episode of The Americans than played out over the campaign. These constant hijinks put the media, and the general public, on a kind of steeple chase for scandal—so it’s been easy enough to suggest, as so many on the Left have, that Trump & co. are a cabal of evil geniuses. Yet the hemorrhage of leaks, the barrage of bad press, and the very public stumbles would suggest that they are just a posse of stooges. The truth is that they fall somewhere in between—and the proof of this resides in the Trump administration’s most tried-and-true political tactic: distraction by chaos.
By mounting an all-out assault on multiple marginalized groups and institutional norms at once, he fragments his political opponents by forcing them to constantly play defense. Distraction by chaos is page one in the authoritarian’s playbook, and Trump’s pal Putin has kept steps ahead of his enemies by breaking institutional norms and consolidating power. Take his re-election to the Russian presidency in 2012. Putin broke institutional norms—the Russian Constitution states that one person may not hold the presidency for more than two consecutive terms. Putin had already served two terms as president by 2008, so he handed the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev and was promptly appointed prime minister. After serving as prime minister for four years, Putin ran for president again in 2012, and has effectively run the country for nearly two decades, constitutional law and the will of the people be damned. Trump lacks Putin’s cunning (to put it mildly), but he also thrives on breaking institutional norms in the U.S.—like attacking the judiciary branch; refusing to divest from his foreign business interests; calling unfavorable news reports fake; supporting violence against political protesters; and openly imploring the Russian government to hack his opponent’s emails during the campaign. Since Democrats lack a majority in the House or the Senate, it is difficult to effectively oppose Trump on multiple legislative fronts—though it can be done. The next Democratic president can repeal legislation and reverse executive orders. That is, of course, if our institutions are even still standing. The standards and practices of a normal democracy—which we’ve all taken for granted for decades—might not survive a Trump presidency. That is the point of distraction by chaos: The headline of the day (or, even the hour) takes our attention away from the long game.
Trump’s zeal for lying and his weaponizing conspiracy theories have become a hallmark of his political strategy. Take one of his most recent, and infamous Twitter tirades. Besieged with bi-partisan calls to investigate his team’s ties to Russia, Trump decided to flip the script and call for an investigation into former President Obama for supposedly wire-tapping Trump Tower, thus compelling his White House to defend the kind of crackpot theory that one might expect from a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving, not the leader of the free world. James Clapper, former director of national intelligence under Obama, denied the charge publicly, and James Comey, the FBI director who has served under Presidents Obama and Trump, privately asked the Justice Department to deny the charge. But for Trump, simply getting the major media outlets to cover his bizarre claims is a win. On CNN, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Trump the “deflector-in-chief.” The fact that the news cycle now spun on his allegations, and not the actual evidence supporting collusion with Russia, proves her right.
But the media still covers Trump’s drunk-uncle act seriously, and that gives credibility to his lies and wild tales. Even major outlets like CNN, which have, as of late, tried to seem “tough on Trump,” are giving airtime to Trump shills like Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany. When Trump tweeted his accusation against Obama, the media didn’t dismiss it out of hand—until virtually all of the major players in the Intelligence community said that there was no evidence. In the meantime, Trump calls the media who don’t toe the line fake news, even though he is the one pushing a conspiracy theory. Everything is upended, and nothing makes sense—and in the distraction, Trump can wage war on the environment, curtail LGBTQ rights, and commit war crimes with aplomb.
The Trump administration isn’t the only administration that operates through obfuscation—George W. Bush and Darth Cheney used the maelstrom of emotions post 9-11 to instigate two wars, which, in turn, cracked the country in half (and provided a star-spangled cover for lucrative oil deals). However, throughout his campaigns, Bush positioned himself to look compassionate, going so far as to publicly denounce Islamophobia after the towers fell (even though his policies decimated the Middle East), and to push patriotism, not ethno-nationalism. As a result, Bush’s approval ratings rose enough for him to win re-election in 2004, and even today he is still remembered by many as a “good man” and a mighty fine painter—despite being one of the most destructive presidents in recent memory. Trump doesn’t pretend to be a “compassionate conservative” as Bush did. On the campaign trail, Trump channeled the nativist anger of the Republican base. While Bush wanted to seem compassionate toward all Americans regardless of race or class, Trump explicitly targets Mexicans as “rapists and criminals” and Muslims as terrorists. As president, Bush once gave a weekly address from the Oval Office in Spanish. As the country becomes more diverse, Trump’s base becomes angrier and more resentful of the perceived gains of minority groups. So Trump’s strategy of distraction by chaos and the erosion of institutional norms will absolutely play well with the fan base that would still vote for him, even if he did shoot a man in the middle Fifth Avenue. But the constant conspiracy theories and open lies are eventually going to blow up in his face with the rest of us. Each time he gets disproven on the public stage, like he did with the Obama wiretapping claim, he loses credibility with the kind of moderate, college-educated white voters that the Republican party has traditionally tried to court. And Trump’s attacks on minority groups are already unifying the Left. With the resistance movement growing, a potential Democratic wave election in 2018 could paralyze his administration.
Last week alone, Trump’s brand of distraction by chaos seems like a watered-down version of far more skillful campaigns run by the Bush administration. Trump is trying to project the image of absolute power, since campaigning is easier than actually governing. But, unfortunately for him, actually governing is at the top of the president’s job description.
Many of us are terrified that Trump will adopt Bush’s preferred diversion tactic of starting an actual boots-on-the-ground war. And there are plenty of likely candidates for a new enemy—just look at the countries he’s already antagonized: North Korea, China, Iran, or even Mexico. That said, crying—or tweeting—“wolf” has its consequences. Fewer and fewer Americans are believing Trump’s conspiracy theories and the intelligence community is currently at odds with him, so it is unlikely that he could convince anyone other than his base that war would be necessary or good. A Wall Street Journal piece openly considered how Trump has shaken the credibility of the presidency, suggesting that if Trump should claim that North Korea had launched missiles toward Hawaii, most Americans might not believe him. Trump’s conspiracy theories don’t only damage his credibility, they also erode the credibility of the presidency as an institution. That damage lasts much longer than Trump does.
Sure, George W. Bush’s distractions actually made him and his actions more popular, even if they were disastrous in the long run. However, in the first month of his presidency, Trump’s team and his actions have actually made him less popular. Bush’s misinformation campaign was wrong, but it took political skill and savvy to carry out. Trump’s strategy is more brute strength than finesse. While both Bush and Trump are trying to frame the argument (Bush famously once said that he was the decider) Trump’s inability to persuade a majority of the public, as Bush did, will yield him fewer results. And for all his talk about locking up opponents and knocking around journalists and protestors, Trump is still not a dictator—if only because the foundations of our institutions are, so far, holding up the resistance (though one worries how long they can last).
Thus far, Trump’s strategy has produced executive orders that further his agenda, but his grating political style, extremist views, and lack of interest in compromise has led to an inability to produce legislation in the critical first 100 days. His strategy is likely to continue to drag down his approval rating and give Democrats an excellent shot of taking back the House in 2018. With a Democratic House virtually certain to pursue congressional investigations on Russia and corruption, Trump could be the one playing defense as soon as next year.
But Trump is creating lasting damage to institutional norms even if Democrats can win back the House. A Fox News poll found that Americans trusted Trump to be truthful more than the media. There’s no doubt that the poll skews conservative, but it still indicates a troubling trend of American institutions being undermined. The danger presented by Trump is that his actions further erode institutions that hold American democracy together. Without a strong press, a trusted voting process, and an independent judiciary, a future crisis could emerge that American institutions wouldn’t be trusted to solve. Or worse, another autocrat could come to power and take advantage of an American political system too weak to hold him or her accountable. The immediate problems presented by Trump, like ethnonationalism, can be fought by Democrats. But the long-term problems—the damage to American institutions, not the least of it—may prove impossible to undo.