What if Jimmy Carter had been a dimwitted madman?
No other alternate history would better illuminate what the next 1,404 days of President Donald Trump’s term have in store for us. But Carter was an intelligent, if politically bumbling (mis)manager, which is why comparisons between Trump and Carter, though compelling, don’t quite compute.
The chief popularizer of Trump-as-Carter analysis is leftist political scientist Corey Robin. In a fascinating essay earlier this year, he argued that Trump, like Carter, became president and will likely fail as president because the current order within his party is unwinding. Where Carter came to power before Democrats were prepared to make the transition from Ted Kennedy liberalism to Clintonian centrism, Trump is the avatar of ascendant, unabashed white nationalism, overtaking a sclerotic party still dominated by movement conservatives.
But differences mount from there, chief among them the fact that Trump is at bottom an unwitting agent of anyone who flatters him, until such time as they betray him. Where Carter’s bumbling technocracy fizzled out in a somewhat orderly way, Trump’s autocracy of dunces won’t necessarily conform to historical prologue.
There is an argument underway on the right over whether Trump is being led astray by his courtiers or is working in sync with them on an agenda that they lack the skill and public support to pass. We have no clear sense of what an erratic man like Trump will do if the agenda fails; and if he is by and large a poorly served dupe, we don’t know how he’ll react when he finally realizes it.
If Trump were an intelligent, curious fellow, he would have a great deal more power than he does. He can intimidate most Republican members of Congress (and particularly the right-wing stalwarts) because he’s overwhelmingly popular in their districts. Had he good command of his own agenda, and were he to channel that popularity on behalf of it, he could shake significant legislation out of the Capitol.
Trump has instead delegated legislating to movement conservative legislators, and administrative tasks to movement conservative cabinet members, and the results thus far have been disastrous. Lacking substantive or strategic consensus, the party has descended into infighting and may emerge with nothing to show for it.
On Thursday, the Trump White House published its first budget, proposing massive cuts to domestic spending, with the goal of zeroing out everything from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to Meals on Wheels to the Appalachian Regional Commission, and pretty much everything the U.S. government does to combat climate change.
The political blowback was so immediate and intense that Republicans on Capitol Hill may have temporarily forgotten the bargain they signed up for with Trump, where they accept Trump’s unconcealed racism and he enacts their governing agenda.
This is an amusing comment from the ranks of Republican congressional leaders, who for many years, have forced their members to vote for a budget that envisions even greater cuts to domestic discretionary spending. All Trump did was lend specificity to the vision House Speaker Paul Ryan has been hawking since early in President Barack Obama’s first term.
Trump presumably has no idea what this budget would entail, or that it would harm his own constituents as much as the non-white poor in the Democratic Party’s base. It bears his name only because someone convinced him to appoint Mick Mulvaney—a former congressman allied with Paul Ryan—to run his Office of Management and Budget.
The GOP’s basic plan to reshape the government (boost defense and security spending at the expense of diplomacy, the environment, and aid to the poor) is now more imperiled than Trumpcare, but in both cases all roads lead to political minefields.
Trump has proffered the spending plan that conservatives have claimed to want for years, only to be rebuffed by them—and he did so perhaps without realizing that Congress sets spending levels and that his will never become law. Annual government spending is always subject to filibuster, and thus, typically requires buy-in from both parties. When it comes time for Congress to pass appropriations, Republicans can do so on a bipartisan basis, dealing Trump total defeat, or they can insist upon this austere and unpopular vision so uncompromisingly that they fail to pass funding by the deadline, and shut down their own government.
Where Ryan’s Congress is trying to distance itself from Trump’s budget (which is a Ryan brainchild), Trump’s White House is trying to distance itself from Ryan’s health care bill (which has become known as Trumpcare).
Here, again, Trump is largely a victim of his own ignorance. Trump appears to have no idea what’s in the American Health Care Act or care about it one way or another, except perhaps as a potential point on the board.
Trump routinely describes repealing Obamacare as a priority foisted upon him by the strictures of the law. “[I]t has to come statutorily and for other reasons, various complex reasons, having to do with politics, and also Congress—it has to come first,” he told Tucker Carlson on Fox News this week.
In fact, Trumpcare is the first item on the agenda because Ryan wanted it that way and convinced Trump to go along. Trump is now the namesake of a health care proposal that, if it passes, would unleash political and humanitarian catastrophe and impose severe punishment on his core voters. If it fails to pass, it will reveal his government’s ineptness, and that his promise to deploy superhuman dealmaking skill on behalf of his voters was a top-to-bottom scam.
This haplessness should come as some relief to liberals, just as Carter’s failed presidency did to conservatives. Liberals feared that a unified GOP government under Trump’s authoritarian thumb would be relentless and cruel in implementing its agenda; it may turn out to be too incompetent to accomplish much of anything.
But Trump is too different from every other recent president for us to comfort ourselves with the thought that he’ll sputter along for four years and leave office humiliated. If Trump’s agenda collapses, particularly in the first few months of his presidency, he will cast about for scapegoats.
We can hope that he lays failure at the feed of the conservatives driving the agenda, and that the GOP descends further into civil war. There remains, perhaps, a faint and receding possibility that he will try to revive his presidency by pursuing the kinds of economic-nationalist, great-man-of-history legacy projects (universal health care, infrastructure spending) that figured heavily in his campaign.
But this is most likely wishful thinking, when there is a path-of-least-resistance that would satisfy Trump’s lust to impose his will, win, and be feared. Faced with roadblocks in every direction, and loath to become another Carter, it is unnervingly plausible to imagine him turning to the military levers of power over which he exerts singular control, and unleashing hell.