Monday, January 30, 2017

Assessing Donald Trump's First Week: Some Thoughts about Autocracy and "Alternative Facts"

Based on the first week of his presidency, Donald J. Trump appears to think he can use his office to do and say anything he wants, constitutional limits and norms be damned. The motivation for much of what he's doing and saying appears to be his own ego and need for power, and he's dragging our country with him into the alternative version of reality he uses to sustain his ego. This is worse than I imagined, but I fear it will have to become even worse before he will be meaningfully restrained.

The Deeds -- "Governing" by Fiat and Publicity Stunt 

Some of the more notable actions of Mr. Trump's first week include-
Collectively, this autocratic modus operandi flies in the face of our constitutional system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and deliberative government.

Executive Action

Executive orders and memoranda have been used by presidents of both parties and are neither new nor necessarily troubling. In Mr Trump's case, however, the content of his actions and the manner in which he promulgates them raise serious concerns.

Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump appears not to have vetted the substance, legality, or likely consequences of his actions with anyone except his closest White House advisors before proceeding. The immigration ban on people from Muslim countries and preference given to Christian immigrants appear unconstitutional on their face. The Department of Homeland Security's initial implementation of the ban, which prevented people with valid green cards from re-entering the country, has sparked worldwide confusion and already is being litigated. Some of Mr. Trump's orders also purport to make major changes regarding complex issues that are governed primarily by statute -- e.g., health care and immigration -- which makes one question what they truly accomplish and whether he is within the scope of his authority.

Mr. Trump appears to either not realize any of this or not care. His hasty issuance of unvetted actions on myriad topics looks more like a publicity stunt intended to allow him to say he fulfilled campaign promises than a serious attempt to govern. This unfortunately is not surprising coming from someone who claimed "I alone can fix it."

Governing by Bribe and Threat

During the transition, Mr. Trump used the carrot of tax relief to convince Carrier to keep 800 jobs in the United States. As president, Mr. Trump is using the stick of threatening to impose steep border taxes on some of America's prominent companies if they outsource jobs.

Micromanaging business decisions of individual companies, either by threatening them or promising them a reward, tends not to go over well in a democracy and is not a particularly effective way to implement economic policy.  As Paul Krugman explained in response to the Carrier situation, trying to stop jobs from going to foreign countries one company at a time will not have any meaningful impact in a $19 trillion economy that employs 145 million people. This, too, looks like a publicity stunt that allows Mr. Trump to appear to be doing something meaningful when in fact he is not.

Mr. Trump's attempts to intervene here also are glaringly inconsistent with his own decision to outsource the manufacturing of a significant amount of the merchandise bearing his name. It's unclear if Mr. Trump doesn't see this inconsistency or has somehow found a way to rationalize it. Either way, it is troubling to have a president who sees himself and his business interests as apart from the law he seeks to impose.

Muzzling Agencies that Disagree

Mr. Trump's administration has instituted polices at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Interior that prohibit various parts of those agencies from communicating with the press, and in one case also with lawmakers, without pre-clearing their remarks at the highest level.

We, the taxpayers, fund these agencies and deserve full and transparent access to their research and proceedings. We now instead will have ready access to only those portions of their work Mr. Trump chooses to share. In the case of climate change, one of the most pressing issues of the day, it is possible that Mr. Trump will try to bar the release of any information at all.

This is something one would expect from Vladimir Putin, not the President of the United States. It is, however, something we'd expect from someone with an incredibly large but fragile ego, who cannot abide to be challenged let alone contradicted.

An Inconsistent Stance on Election Fraud

Mr. Trump has vowed to launch a "major investigation" to look into his unsupported claim that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally. In so doing, he is ignoring state election officials of both parties, mostly his own, who say that ballot box fraud is exceedingly rare. Mr. Trump also apparently has forgotten that, when seeking to block vote recounts, his campaign asserted there was no credible evidence of voter fraud. 

Mr. Trump is poised to investigate a claim about ballot box fraud for which he sets forth no credible evidence yet continues to ignore well-supported claims of our intelligence community that Russia interfered in other aspects of our election. This wastes tax dollars by focusing on the wrong issue and undermines the integrity of an election process that is essential to our system of government. The end result likely will be to suppress legitimate voters. The public should be outraged by this.

The public also should be outraged by Mr. Trump's inconsistent and ego-driven response to this whole issue. He dismisses allegations of election tampering when they call his electoral vote win into question, but simultaneously argues that election tampering is the sole reason he lost the popular vote. It is impossible to have it both ways here because a single election produced the divergent electoral and popular vote outcomes, but Donald Trump's ego blinds him to that reality.

As a friend recently said, "Mr. Trump's ego blinds him to most of reality," which brings me to what Mr. Trump and his closest advisers, namely counselor Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sean Spicer, have been saying lately.

The Statements -- "Alternative Facts" and an Assault on the Truth

In his first week, Mr. Trump consistently has offered the American people "alternative facts." As "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd pointed out to Ms. Conway when she coined this phrase, "'alternative facts' are not facts, they're falsehoods."

The "alternative facts" given to date seem so ridiculous it's tempting to laugh them off. On deeper examination, however, the repeated reliance on "alternative facts" may be the single most insidious aspect of Mr. Trump's first week in office.

The "alternative facts" offered thus far are easily refuted with objective evidence. See NPR's fact checker and this New York Times video clip for a more comprehensive accounting, but some of the most striking examples are these--

Why would the President of the United States deal in such obvious falsehoods?

One theory is that Mr. Trump will say anything to protect his ego and actually believes what he's saying. Because he believes his own greatness, his crowd must've been the biggest ever and it could not possibly have rained while he spoke. His rocky relationship with the CIA must be someone else's fault. No one could possibly care about tax returns that might reveal he's not as rich or generous as he claims, or irrefutably show his conflicts of interest. He must have won the electoral vote fair and square, but Hillary Clinton can't possibly have won the popular vote fair and square. It's all about him, and the only "facts" he recognizes are those that affirm his greatness.

Another theory is that Mr. Trump and company understand that what they're saying is false yet choose to deploy falsehoods strategically to inject confusion into the public discourse, deflect attention from some of what they're doing, or avoid accountability and protect their power (or some combination).  Ultimately this theory also relates back to Mr. Trump's ego, particularly his need to win and maintain power.

By prioritizing the protection of his own ego and power over truth and responsible governance, Mr. Trump betrays the public trust. This betrayal is made worse because the "alternative facts" on which he relies range from the ridiculously petty to the critically important. This require us to devote a similar level of energy to matters large and small and fosters the impression that they are all equally important, when in fact they are not. Over time, it could prove challenging to hold Mr. Trump accountable for all his obvious falsehoods while keeping their relative importance in perspective.

When the media calls Mr. Trump out on his "alternative facts," he responds by saying, again with no evidence, that the media is lying and trying to demean and undermine his presidency. On the merits, the media clearly has the better of the "who is lying" and the "who is demeaning whom" arguments. Nonetheless, the administration's repeated berating of journalists and journalism has the effect of undermining the media's credibility at a time when Mr. Trump's propensity to disregard the truth makes the media's work more important than ever.

Perhaps most troubling is that a core minority of people has shown a willingness to believe Mr. Trump instead of their own eyes. If people continually prove willing to believe up is down and the midday sky is green simply because Donald Trump says so, then the media's job will go from difficult to nearly impossible. As the article referenced above states, "If a significant portion of Trump supporters are willing to champion obvious fabrications, challenging fabrications with facts will be difficult." Indeed. 

Don't laugh at or underestimate "alternative facts." They are potentially as powerful as they are untrue, they "frame" messages in a perverse and unproductive way, and the Trump Administration can use them toward all sorts of ends. "Alternative facts" do us a disservice at best and threaten our basic freedoms at worst.


We should continue to assess whether Mr. Trump and his advisors recognize that their "alternative facts" are false or instead believe they are true. Perhaps the answer depends on the specific issue, and either way is bad, but there's a difference between being cunningly manipulative and outright delusional. Determining which, on balance, they are will help inform how those of us who prefer to live in reality might seek to respond to them. Based on what I've seen thus far, my money says Trump is delusional and the others manipulative, but time will tell.

Speaking of responding to Mr. Trump, while I was drafting this post, some Republican members of Congress, including Mitch McConnell and John McCain, began speaking out against his immigration ban.  So far they have not taken concrete action to reject or reshape it, but it is early yet.

Defying a major policy action by a president of one's own party is very rare and comes with numerous political risks, particularly if Mr. Trump remains popular with the party base. It will be interesting to see if, and at what point, a conscientious core of Republicans will conclude that the risks of not defying Mr. Trump outweigh the risks of defying him and choose to seriously challenge him. I think there will need to be a clear and persistent track record of irresponsibility before enough Republicans will get to that point. However, Mr. Trump's early attempts to wield his power without regard for its limits, norms, and implications, along with his adherence to to a set of "alternative facts" wholly of his own making, are laying solid groundwork for opposition from Democrats and Republicans alike. And that, all things considered, is a very sad state of affairs for our country.

* This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.


  1. All of this is troubling, and once again an insightful analysis of the situation. However if I have to rate one of the above elements as MOST troubling it would be "Muzzling Agencies that Disagree" - Trump has not yet found a way to muzzle the press, but muzzling a wide range of important agencies is a huge step in controlling the flow of vital information...

    1. Thank you for commenting! Today I awoke to news that he has fired the acting AG and threatened State Dept officials who disagree with him, so the problem you highlight is getting bigger. I keep waiting for him to order the IRS to stop investigating his taxes. Or to try to mess with Janet Yellen. . . .

  2. Indeed, extremely troubling.

  3. Today's unemployment report serves as another indicator that President Obama bequeathed a quite robust economy! Thus, a bitter irony is that Trump could do NOTHING (go and play golf every day (please; I'm begging you!)), and we would probably be better off at the end of his term than we were at the beginning.

  4. All signs are that this Friday's employment report is going to be a blowout. Donald Trump has stumbled into a field of buttercups and bluebonnets, and his reaction is to take a lawnmower to it.