More often than not, I write about Donald Trump as if he were a normal president. It effectively explains why Trump has been such a weak president, and it shows the dangers of that weakness. However, he is not at all a normal president, and it’s worth stopping and pointing it out at the start of a new year.
Trump remains an autocrat in style, and most likely — by his own account — in deeds, if he were able to do what he liked. See a good evaluation from Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes on how all this played out in 2017. U.S. presidents up to this point have, whatever their temptations or even their actions, attested to the democratic values embedded in the Constitution and the practices of the republic.
Trump rarely does that. Instead, he frequently attacks the system of separated institutions that share powers on which U.S. democracy rests. His nasty personal attacks on other politicians tend to corrode the political system. So do his claims of omnipotence within the system. So does his disregard for norms, whether it’s his refusal to disclose his tax returns, his refusal to divest himself of his businesses, or his use of the office to advertise those businesses.
It’s also a significant problem how, and how often, Trump strays from the truth. Trump doesn’t lie like a politician; he lies like the proverbial used-car dealer.
Most politicians don’t flat-out lie very often. The good ones spin — that is, they present their case in as favorable a way as possible, perhaps doing acrobatics around the truth or leaving impressions far from the truth, but without straying to saying something that’s outright false. Trump dispenses with all that and simply makes up his own facts. Constantly. Blatantly. He did it from Day 1, where he insisted despite all evidence that the crowd for his inauguration was larger than that of Barack Obama. And he’s gone on from there.
A small example that effectively demonstrates Trump’s habits is his consistent claim that Republicans won every House special election in 2017 — despite the clear, obvious, uncontested fact that a Democrat won the House special election in California’s 34th District in April. Whatever Trump’s intentions, this kind of frequent outright lie is, as many have noted, exactly what totalitarian regimes do in creating situations in which truth itself is meaningless.
And it’s also not normal, at least in recent decades, for a president to eschew the role of head of state and instead to speak so often and so explicitly as president of only his strongest supporters. Trump’s explicit tolerance for bigots, his frequent personal attacks on private citizens seemingly based on ethnicity, and other rhetoric not only divides the nation, but also threatens the full citizenship of everyone.
Of course, all presidents are partisan at times; all presidents, certainly including Obama, pay special attention to their strongest supporters. Trump is way off the scale, however, both in frequency and in extending this kind of talk into inappropriate contexts where other presidents would be careful to avoid any hint of electoral politics.
It’s hard to tell how much all of this matters in day-to-day politics. The truth is that a lot of it backfires on Trump; over-the-top rhetoric, for example, almost certainly has contributed to his dismal approval ratings, and therefore to his weakness in office. Defying political norms and stating constant falsehoods have harmed his professional reputation, further weakening his presidency. But that kind of analysis may miss larger, deeper damage to the political system.
It’s hard to evaluate exactly what effect it all has; that’s probably why I mostly ignore it and focus on immediate, relatively more tangible effects. Still, it’s worth at least pausing to note that it could be very damaging indeed. And at any rate, it’s worth calling him out on, whether it has measurable effects or not.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.