For liberals alarmed by Donald Trump’s election, there is something heartening about the revelation that the new president has no idea what he's doing. His rollout of new travel restrictions aimed at offering a constitutionally, economically, and diplomatically viable alternative to his campaign pledge of a total ban on Muslim entry to the country has been shambolic. It has spurred judicial and political mobilization against a sloppy and ill-conceived policy, which will likely end up with Trump accomplishing much less harm than he could have with a more measured approach.
All in all, Trump’s stumbles raise the prospect of what Dylan Matthews calls the “Carter Scenario,” in which a president who is simply bad at presidenting manages to not get very much done and blow the opportunity for a newly empowered legislative majority to enact historic change.
What you make of that will, of course, depend on your prior ideological commitments. What should be viewed differently is the reality that all presidents end up needing to deal with crises of one type or another. So far, Trump has exclusively faced crises of his own creation, and he’s handled them disastrously.
In many ways, it’s reassuring to know that a malevolent administration’s actions will be tempered by incompetence.
But in other ways, it is quite the opposite. Even a president whose ideas you disagree with has incentives aligned to get the basics right. A recession, a bloody war, a natural disaster, or a mishandled environmental catastrophe would be bad for Trump’s popularity and political standing and also objectively bad for the world. Sound crisis management is a win-win.
What we have seen so far from Trump is that he is not much of a crisis manager. He takes a small problem like having a smaller Inauguration Day audience that Barack Obama and turns it into a days-long, credibility-shattering drama about voter fraud. He takes a desire to crack down on refugees for the sake of a little political gain and turns it into a fiasco.
Under the circumstances, it would be nice to think that Trump is capable — at least in principle — of responding in a calm, well-informed, and effective manner. But based on the evidence available in front of us, it’s extremely difficult to be confident that he is. In a bitterly divided country, it’s inevitable that any newly elected president will roll out some big new initiatives that his opponent regards as malign. Trump’s big headline undertakings have been mistakes. As long as he is driving the news cycle, that incompetence is reassuring to his skeptics. As soon as he’s forced to respond to external crisis, it’s going to be anything but.
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