DONALD TRUMP: THE RISE AND THE REPEATED FALLS OF ABSOLUTE AUTHORITY
The president, finally facing a viral enemy he can’t talk away, seems to be flailing. Each clearly unconstitutional proposed action is eagerly covered by figures in the media only to be replaced by another new rhetorical sensation the next day. Most of these one-day sensations involve Donald Trump announcing that he has “absolute authority” to do something which is clearly the responsibility of others.
Some examples: The president, just a few days ago, announced that he had absolute authority to “open up the economy”. As he did that he failed to mention that legally the power to open the economy resided elsewhere. The governors in a number of states and the mayors of large cities had ordered businesses to close and people to shelter in place (stay home). The president had nothing to do with it. The cable news channels, awash in new ad revenue because of the president’s nightly briefings, breathlessly reported Donald Trump’s every word.
Then, all that absolute authority began to melt away. It disappeared from the briefings, crept away, to be poetic, on little cat feet. In the meantime, a new sensation: The president was using his absolute authority to cut off all funding to the World Health Organization because that huge international health organization had become too “Chinacentric”.
That organization’s leadership had, in January, praised the Chinese effort to control the virus just as Donald Trump had done, and at the same time. Recognizing irony is not the president’s long suit. The talking heads left his absolute authority to open the economy and moved into debilitating shock over his treatment of the World Health Organization (WHO, the organization that sounds like a rock band).
Then, it turned out that he had really ordered a review of our contributions to the World Health Organization which, of course, made it possible to beat a hasty retreat and to continue the funding. When the pandemic really reaches South and Central America and Africa, the WHO with boots on the ground is going to need the funding that Trump had the absolute authority to cut off.
The day of the Great Health Cutoff having passed, the president announced that he had the absolute authority to punish the House and the Senate by ending their session and sending them home. He could do that because they were refusing to approve some of his presidential appointments. If Donald Trump could cause the House and Senate to adjourn, then he could make interim appointments without their approval. That would allow the president to finally get in several appointees who would have no way to pass muster in a regular Senate hearing.
That lasted about a day until sufficient people read Article II Section III of the Constitution and discovered that the president can dismiss congress only if they, between the two houses, cannot agree on an adjournment date. They are effectively if not officially adjourned already, with no apparent disagreement. Almost no members are even in town (Nancy Pelosi is doing news interviews from her home in California.).
So, let us think about what is going on: Donald Trump has had an absolutely unique career. His businesses have often failed but his ability to keep saying provocative things, to market himself as a brand, has (along with his father’s money in the early years and that of investors and lenders later) managed to help him escape economic ruin time after time. Those investors lost millions. Trump never apologized, never looked back, went on to the next big thing.
So, what he is doing, boldly claiming authority, quietly retreating, and then moving on to the next sensation is what he has always done. It has almost always worked before. It is working far less well when the opposition is an invisible but relentless virus. So, viewers can expect new attention-getting sensations. Donald Trump will find others to blame. It will be the fault of the Chinese, of governors back in the states keeping their citizens from working. Anything is better than admitting that his lack of a concerned response allowed huge numbers of people to die.
The right response is to understand the sensational claims for what they are. They are diversions. They are part of a strategy to keep viewers from paying attention to what is actually happening. The presidency involves real high pressure work. It involves harnessing the talents of more than two million people. Donald Trump’s real flaw is that he is simply incapable of settling down and doing that work. The presidency has, too often, been something he has done between golf week-ends. He hasn’t done what he was paid to do. And it shows.
It shows particularly in this crisis. The very complex struggle to control the spread of the coronavirus needs to be won before the economy, now in a medically induced coma, can be brought back to life. The reviving of the economy is itself complex. Neither of those two things can be successfully done quickly enough to aid Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
So, Donald Trump, as he has so many times before, needs to escape the consequences of his actions. He has been a masterful escape artist, the energized Houdini of the business world. Winning this presidential election would be one final grand escape. To do that, he has to win the presidential election in November. Whether he does that in November will be up to the voters, and the virus.