In-competence We Trust

by Tom Edelson

Links: Tom Edelson's home page; Tom Edelson's Dreamwidth journal

I wrote something called "Suddenly, everything is impeachy".  It dealt with the recently-launched, "formal" impeachment inquiry into President Trump.  Looking back, I see that it nowhere mentions the event which (when disclosed) triggered that inquiry: the infamous phone call with the president of Ukraine.

What Trump said and did in that phone call has been characterized many ways: notably, as grounds for impeachment.  I agree with that assessment.  But I want to concentrate on another property which may also reasonably be ascribed to his actions that day.  That property is incompetence.

How incompetently Trump conducted that phone call didn't become publicly apparent right away.  There's more than one reason for that, and one of them is simple: almost nothing about that phone call was made public, at first.  Some lawyers at the White House made very sure about that.

It's been reported, and/or speculated, in the press that there is, in turn, a specific reason why the lawyers were so diligent about hiding what was said: to wit, that they recognized right away that Trump had done something improper.  (Or, alternatively, "merely" something that would be widely perceived as improper.)

In the accounts of this initial "cover-up" (scare quotes optional), one thing notable is something that isn't there.  Namely, there was no mention of Trump himself being actively involved in that game of hide-the-transcript.  If he wasn't involved, one possible explanation why not is: perhaps he did not realize that he had done anything improper … or even anything that would be perceived as such.  This is what occasions my use of the word "incompetence."

To put it less contentiously, for now, I will just say that he was ignorant.  Ignorant of something specific: of how his conduct — specifically, his request that Ukrainian officials investigate allegations of corrupt actions by Joe Biden — would be perceived, and judged, by many others.

Call this the ignorance theory.  It gains some further support from how he acted after the whistleblower complaint became known.  He stoutly denied that he had done anything wrong, and he rather quickly agreed to the release of the transcript, saying that it would prove his innocence.

I think that he believed that it would.  But he turned out to be wrong.  In the eyes of quite a lot of people, it did nothing of the kind; a number of those people referred to the transcript as a "smoking gun."

If he had known in advance how many people would see it that way, then it would have been much more characteristic of Trump to wage a fierce battle to keep the transcript under seal.  He didn't do that, and the fact that he didn't is the crux of my reason for believing that he truly didn't know.

Why have I put all this effort into raising, and arguing for, this claim?  Is it because I think that it tends, even partially, to exonerate him?  Hell, no!  I dont't think that it does.  More to the point, though: for present purposes, I don't care whether it does or not.  I am, right now, truly focused on his (lack of) competence, in a narrow sense: on whether he has the ability to discern what will, and won't, serve his purposes.  Whether those purposes are good ones is, at present, simply not at issue.

But perhaps this leads you to ask again: why do I care so much about convincing you that he is incompetent … and that this trait is manifested anew by his recent actions vis-a-vis Ukraine?  Here's a piece of the answer to that: I want to give some hope and encouragement to those of us who devoutly wish for the end of Trump's presidency, but who are prone to falling into doubt as to whether that can be achieved in a timely fashion.

When that doubt arises, what is its basis?  A fear that some crucial constituency will coninue to support him.  Sometimes this is said about the Republican majority in the Senate; sometimes it is said about the people who voted for Trump in 2016.

And why is it feared (and sometimes alleged to be certain) that these groups will continue to support Trump?  Largely, I think, because they have not clearly ceased to support him yet.

Or at least, they had not, before the recent "whistleblower story" broke.  Such shifts take time to happen, and more time to become apparent, so it's too early to say, with confidence, whether that bloody phone call will turn out to have been the tipping point or not.

Suppose it doesn't.  Well then, maybe the things Trump has done since the story broke will be enough to do the job.  My hunch is that the threat to arrest a Congressman for treason, over how he paraphrased the transcript, is a good bet.  For the Senators, especially: I think at least some of them will now realilze that they themselves are not safe from Trump so long as he remains in office.

Of course, I could be wrong about that, too.  But in essence, my [fair] degree of confidence is not based on anything that Trump has done yet.  It is based on a perception that Trump is not just incompetent at a static level; rather, at least recently, a pattern has been established in which he has been getting progressively less and less competent … particularly at assessing what he can, and can't, get away with.

In other words, his filters are deteriorating [even more], thus leading to increasing frequency of behavior which will be found offensive, or worse.  Here's a guess as to how that process works: he tells himself that he doesn't have to worry about turning his supporters against him.  He seems to think that nothing that he could do would have that effect.

Like most delusions, this one has a grain of truth underlying it.  This idea — that nothing he could do would turn his supporters against him — may be quite true … where some of his supporters are concerned.

The particular type of incompetence that is at play here, then, is the tendency to overgeneralize.  (This is something we all do, to an extent, but Trump far more than most, and it is precisely this that seems to be getting worse under pressure.)  He is incapable of understanding that the true believers, who attend his rallies and scream themselves hoarse for him, are not representative of everyone who has ever done anything to support him.

So have faith.  If nothing else happens to push Trump out of office by January 2021 at the latest, then his own ever-increasing incompetence surely will.

This page created: 2019-10-02

This page last modified: 2019-10-03

© Copyright 2019 by Tom Edelson.