I have a theory regarding our current political situation: That perhaps, as he wanders into and out of self-created controversy after self-created controversy, President Donald Trump isn't acting out of malice. Or performing some sort of eleventh-degree jujitsu. Or playing a game of multidimensional chess (and yes, some people do think this). Consider that, maybe, President Trump is simply an incompetent. And what's more, that it's his best defense yet.
When meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister last week, Trump revealed classified information while boasting about the intelligence he receives on a daily basis. When a letter from the deputy attorney general of the United States gave Trump an adequate cover for firing FBI director James Comey, he went on national television and declared that, actually, Comey was fired over "the Russia thing" — implying that Comey lost his job for continuing to investigate the Trump presidential campaign's ties to the Russian government. If "the Russia thing" was the subtext to Comey's firing, Trump went ahead and put "THIS IS THE TEXT" on a billboard. And then tweeted it.
But that wasn’t all. The prior week, Trump told a reporter that he invented an economic term older than himself. Another report revealed that Trump is apparently notorious within the White House for believing everything he reads, including internet hoaxes and puff pieces about himself intended to stop him from rage-tweeting, while yet another stated that Trump is incapable of playing politics. The president purportedly spends the vast majority of his time watching cable news shows he DVRed earlier.
Trump's almost boundless incompetence makes it near impossible for his closest advisers, not to mention his press office, to do their jobs. As the president is often his own worst enemy, defending Trump from a full-throated and angry opposition often requires defending Trump from himself. Take the Comey firing, for example. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the press on Wednesday that Trump’s decision to fire James Comey was based on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s own review of Comey's performance. That same day, Vice-President Mike Pence told interviewers that the president had taken "strong and decisive leadership" by listening to recommendations regarding Comey. And then Trump told NBC's Lester Holt that he had already decided to fire Comey "regardless of recommendation."
As if his actions regarding Comey weren’t enough, just yesterday — literally less than 24 hours ago, as of this writing — the Washington Post reported that Trump gave highly classified information regarding ISIS to visiting Russian diplomats. His national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said the story wasn't true. But this morning Trump tweeted that actually, it was, and in fact, it was totally fine for him to give the information in the first place. In one short week, on two separate occasions, Trump heaved his own advisers and press secretaries under a large and fast-moving train. By the time this article goes up, he will likely have done something even worse.
There is no larger strategy here. This isn't secret genius, or craven manipulation. Trump is not revealing state secrets on a secret phone to Vladimir Putin because Trump probably wouldn't be able to figure out how to turn on the secret phone in the first place. At no time has Trump demonstrated a capacity to understand the severity of the repercussions of his actions, which is a challenge seeing as Trump is the president of the United States of America, a position which holds a wildly disproportionate amount of power compared to the other branches of government. This means that Trump is the most powerful person in America while simultaneously being completely incapable of doing the job he was elected to do — so incapable, in fact, that he doesn't know he's incapable. Trump's mind is not a still pond belying incredible depth. Trump's mind is a still pond because it's a teacup.
We have had deeply incompetent presidents before. Lots of them, in fact. We have had 45 presidents, and not all of them are enshrined in our memories as great and wondrous leaders. People remember Abraham Lincoln. People don't remember Franklin Pierce. But we have never been more reliant as a country on the executive branch of government — from orders from the Oval Office that impact access to health care for millions of people to decisions made regarding our military's actions overseas — and less prepared to deal with an incompetent leader heading the charge than we are now.
The people who voted for Trump will not benefit from his incompetence, though they will continue to defend him. They will defend him even if the wall between the United States and Mexico is never built, even if the Affordable Care Act remains in place, even if nothing ever really changes much at all as a result of his leadership. They defend him because they see a version of Trump whose actions make sense or are, at the very least, based on some sort of overall plan to "Make America Great Again," even if he hasn’t revealed that plan just yet. Or maybe they defend him because to do otherwise would admit to being wrong. Most people can't do that.
Some will even benefit from Trump's ineptitude. It might be the committers of human rights abuses in other countries whose leaders receive phone calls from Trump telling them what a great job they're doing. It might be lobbyists who are making money off telling companies that they can convince Trump of anything they want. But it will mostly be Trump who gets to profit from his own idiocy, as his stupidity provides him an able defense against accusations of wrongdoing.
For example, some liberals are looking toward the possibility of impeachment to save the day. The problem is that impeachment is incredibly difficult — so difficult, in fact, that no president has actually been convicted and removed from office as a result of impeachment (Richard Nixon resigned before the House could vote on impeachment). And Trump's incompetence is actually an effective defense for him from accusations of criminal activity. Even Trump's closest advisers are telling journalists that the president is too dumb to have done anything truly wrong on purpose.
Even if the Democrats were to win back the House of Representatives in 2018 and attempt to draft articles of impeachment, even if the House voted to impeach Trump, there's no indication that any Republican senator (conviction requires a two-thirds vote) would believe that Trump meant to commit a crime. He would be, in their minds, just being himself. (And don't forget, full impeachment would result in President Mike Pence, a social conservative — of the Mesozoic Era — who other Indiana Republicans disliked so much they worked to undo many of the decisions he made as governor almost immediately following the election.) It's completely plausible to his closest advisers that Trump's best protection against impeachment is saying that he was too dumb to know that what he was doing was wrong. It's too bad for his administration that Trump, believing that he is actually very intelligent, would never admit it.
Incompetence is more difficult to stop than malice because malice has a point. Incompetence, on the other hand, is meaningless, the political equivalent of falling up the stairs. There is no plan or goal or map to guide our way. We're not on the road to anything. In fact, there is no road at all. Trump has driven us into a ditch and is currently sitting in the backseat playing with his phone, unwittingly secure in his own ineptitude that will prove his saving grace. This is all we have.