The surprising thing about the constitutional crisis we’re now facing is that it took so long to happen. It was obvious from early on that the president of the United States is a would-be autocrat who accepts no limits on his power and considers criticism a form of treason, and he is backed by a party that has denied the legitimacy of its opposition for many years. Something like this moment was inevitable.
What still hangs in the balance is the outcome. And if democracy survives — which is by no means certain — it will largely be thanks to one unpredictable piece of good luck: Donald Trump’s mental deficiency.
I don’t mean that Trump is stupid; a stupid man couldn’t have managed to defraud so many people over so many years. Nor do I mean that he’s crazy, although his speeches and tweets (“my great and unmatched wisdom”; the Kurds weren’t there on D-Day) keep sounding loonier.
He is, however, lazy, utterly incurious and too insecure to listen to advice or ever admit to a mistake. And given that he is in fact what he accuses others of being — an enemy of the people — we should be thankful for his flaws.
The news item that got me thinking along these lines was, oddly, the latest budget review from the Congressional Budget Office, projecting a fiscal 2019 deficit of almost $1 trillion — up by more than $300 billion from the deficit Trump inherited.
Never mind the clear demonstration that Republicans’ Obama-era hyperventilating about deficits was completely hypocritical. The more important point is that $300 billion is a lot of money, and it should have been enough to buy Trump a lot of political gain.
After all, other white nationalists trying to do what Trump is trying to do — subvert the rule of law and convert their nations from democracies on paper to one-party autocracies in practice — have solidified their grasp on power by delivering at least a bit on their populist promises. In Poland, for example, the Law and Justice party has increased social spending and is now promising a big rise in the minimum wage.
Trump’s domestic economic policy, however, has been standard Republican top-down class warfare. None of that $300 billion went for social benefits or even his continually promised, never-delivered infrastructure plan. Instead, it went mainly into tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that have done little to boost investment.
At the same time, Trump has pursued his personal tariff obsession despite mounting evidence that it’s hurting growth. The economy was supposed to be his big political selling point. Instead, polls of his net job approval on economic policy are, on average, barely positive even now — and likely to get worse as tariffs on consumer goods bite and the economy slows.
But Trump’s squandered economic opportunities are, of course, secondary at this point to his de facto self-impeachment.
Just a few weeks ago it seemed that Trump would skate on charges both of colluding with Russia to subvert the 2016 election and of obstruction of justice; the Mueller report was basically a bust, partly because the story was complicated, partly because of Robert Mueller’s diffidence.
But Trump has managed to make things clear enough for everyone to understand. First he demanded that foreign regimes produce dirt on domestic political rivals, not just in phone calls but right there on camera. Now he’s engaged in a crude, obvious effort to stonewall the House impeachment inquiry that is clearly an impeachable offense in itself.
Why did he hand the defenders of democracy so much ammunition? Partly he seems to have gotten high on his own supply — he actually seems to believe the bizarre conspiracy theories his supporters drum up to excuse his actions. Also, he evidently lacks any kind of self-restraint. Even if he considers any effort to hold him accountable a form of treason, he should have known better than to blurt it out in public.
So Trump’s own actions explain why a vote to impeach, which seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago, now looks almost inevitable. Conviction in the Senate is still unlikely, but not as impossible as it once appeared.
The larger point is that if Trump were cannier and more self-controlled, the march to autocracy might well be unstoppable. He has the backing of a party whose elected representatives have shown no sign of democratic scruples. He has de facto state media in the form of Fox News and the rest of the Murdoch empire. He has already managed to corrupt key government agencies, including the Justice Department.
Indeed, these advantages are so large that the assault on democracy may yet prevail. The only reason it might falter is, as I said, Trump’s own deficiencies.
It says a lot about the modern GOP that the party is still solidly behind a man so obviously, grotesquely, not up to the job (although some rank-and-file Republicans now back an impeachment inquiry). But those of us who want America as we know it to survive should be grateful that Trump is so immature and incompetent. His character flaws are the only thing that gives us a fighting chance.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., 2008 winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, in an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.