Every once in awhile the gods give you a gift you never dreamed you could get on your own. We’ve discussed the concept of the self-own here a few times. However, no one could have dreamed the Trump team would have given us a symbol that would encapsulate his entire presidency on their own. It was what tennis experts call the “unforced error.”
At this point, the particulars are anyone’s best guess. I could poke fun at him too, but I will take a moment to speculate on how we ended up with this particular image. There are really two possibilities and neither of them are really any good.
Possibility One: Sheer Incompetence
I’m usually amazed when things like this happen because the decision has to go through so many people. Anything as important as a public appearance by the president gets funnelled through the eyes and ears of so many important people. None of them thought that sitting the president at that tiny desk looked ridiculous. That’s astounding when you think about it.
When these five years began, he told us he would hire only the best people and yet he has gone through nearly a half dozen chiefs of staff, numerous cabinet level secretaries at nearly every post, and each hire seemed to be a who’s who of the D list.
In fact, appointments seemed so haphazard as to think they must have been done purposely. You have to try to be this incompetent. Many of us on the left have long maintained that conservative ideology dictated that government does not work and in order to prove that you purposely put incompetent people in positions of authority to prove that government doesn’t work. We call that the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos (ironically the only two cabinet picks to keep their posts) are probably the poster children for this thought process. Carson is a brain surgeon. I used to think that brain surgery must be the most technical and difficult thing any person could do. Then along came Carson. Carson is an unimpressive person, but that’s how he comes off to an unapologetic liberal. Maybe my ideology is clouding my judgment.
However, no one can ignore how a neurosurgeon comes to be in charge of Housing and Urban Development. What does one have to do with the other? DeVos is a similar. Maybe in some other universe she could be qualified to do something. Yet, putting her in the education department is hilarious on some level. It’s almost as if you were attempting to find what she knew the least about and put her in charge of that.
While those two are the most glaring examples, the entire cabinet seemed to be constructed on that theme. If the goal was to make a mockery of the whole affair then Trump succeeded in ways many thought impossible. If the goal was to actually govern then it is hard to imagine anyone doing worse if they tried. In such a universe is it that difficult to imagine someone putting Trump in this position on the level?
Possibility Two: They did it on purpose
If you could list two main themes of the past four years, incompetence would be one and leaks would be the second. Every administration has leaks. I’ve visited Washington several times, but it’s a not a town I know intimately. What I do know is that government likely works the same way as any other industry. People talk to people and stuff gets around. Most of it is innocent enough, but occasionally sensitive information gets out.
What I also know is that the rate of information exchange increases when people are unhappy. People feel loyal to those they like. If you feel loyal to your boss then you don’t talk about them behind their back. When you do talk about them you say good things. The reverse happens when you don’t like them.
The Trump administration has been rife with leaks. It has been rife with unnamed people saying horrible things about the president. You had a book and column written by an anonymous source (who has since been revealed). You’ve had whistle blowers from multiple different areas of government all blow the whistle on the president.
So, you have any number of people working for the president who have either publically or privately disagreed with the president. You have any number of them who may secretly hate the president. Few still working for the president will say anything to the effect publically, so it oozes out in other ways. There are offhand comments that are made that might hint at their feelings. There are cryptic statements that others interpret. Then, there are decisions that are made that end up blowing up in the president’s face.
When you know someone well, it isn’t hard to get them in a compromising situation. You know their strengths and weaknesses. A decision can seem innocent enough, but if you put someone in a purposefully designed stressful situation it can backfire spectacularly depending on their particular weakness. This president is likely more susceptible to manipulation than any other in our lifetimes.
The End Result
So, which one was it? Was it incompetence or sabotage? It could easily be both. Sometimes when we want something done and we want it to be done poorly we put a useful idiot in charge. We don’t tell them to put the president at the children’s table, but we also don’t intervene when that’s the decision they come up with. We don’t know how they will screw it up, but we know they will screw up just the same.
What we do know is that the president came away looking small. He came away looking like a child playing president. It ended up being the perfect metaphor the past four years and for the past several weeks of temper tantrums. The other irony is that analyzing how this came about also serves as a microcosm of the past four years. Was it incompetence or was it sabotage? Was it both? At the end of the day does it even matter? It’s an epic failure and that if there is one word that describes this presidency then failure is about as good as any I can come up with.