Trump is far more dangerous than many believe

Some people believe that a DeSantis presidency would be a bigger threat to democracy than a second Trump presidency.  The thought is that DeSantis is just as authoritarian as Trump, but more competent. 

I agree that DeSantis appears to be a dangerous authoritarian and he might well be more effective than Trump at undermining democratic control.  However, there are reasons to think that a second Trump presidency would be more dangerous than a DeSantis presidency, for reasons having to do with character traits other than authoritarianism.

Trump is impulsive, self-involved, corrupt and dishonest, undisciplined, and intellectually lazy.  He surrounds himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear.  These traits will make it more difficult for him to undermine democracy.  They also will impair his ability to competently navigate a high stakes international crisis or economic crisis.  It is easy to see him deciding whether to go to war, or which side to back in a war, based on whether a leader has flattered or offended him, or seems likely to be a better business partner, or whether Trump just likes the cut of one leader’s jib.  (I can’t believe I have to write that, but here we are.)  It is easy to see him destroying alliances or treaties on a whim, the same way he undermined the Iran nuclear deal and tried to undermine NATO.  It is easy to see him leading us into a severe economic crisis by refusing to defuse an international financial crisis (“it’s a shithole country, not our problem”), or by focusing on his own financial interests.

During his first term we were shielded from the worst in two ways.  First, we got lucky.  There were no existential crises on his watch.  NATO held together, Russia did not invade Ukraine, the situation in Iran did not completely fall apart (though it may still), and the economy grew at a steady clip until COVID.  COVID was indeed a very serious problem, arguably a crisis, and there is no doubt that Trump handled it badly in many ways.  However, it is important to distinguish between the disruption caused by COVID, and the disruption caused by Trump’s policy choices and public statements.  Most of the disruption caused by COVID would very likely have occurred under any President.  Trump’s incompetence made things marginally worse than they could have been, and it was tragic for those who might have been spared an early death, but at the end of the day his bad handling of COVID was not a threat to world peace or democratic order.  His bumbling and chaotic mishandling of COVID arguably did less damage than Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  (To be clear, handling a pandemic poorly could indeed lead to an existential crisis, but COVID was not that pandemic.)

A related point is that Trump was restrained during his presidency, to some extent, by career military and civil servants.  This will be less true if he is restored to office.  He knows how to play the game now.  He also has an established network of compromised loyalists to draw on.  How effective he will be in getting his loyalists appointed to key positions in the military and at the DOJ and other agencies is unclear, but we have very good reasons not to want to find out.  He would also have a much friendlier judiciary in a second term than he did during most of his first term.

The upshot is that Trump is not just dangerous because he is an authoritarian.  Whether this makes him a bigger threat than DeSantis is certainly debatable, in part because there is so much we do not know about DeSantis – how lawless he will be, how he will govern, etc.  The solution is not to elect either of them.

So will Trump be restored to office?  It’s far from clear.  He is unpopular with voters, and there is no reason to think that will change.  But whoever wins the Republican nomination has a real shot at winning the election.  Even an unpopular Trump could beat Biden for many reasons – recession, a prolonged war in Ukraine, a health event. 

So what about the nomination?  It’s really hard to say.

Trump’s campaign roll out was dreadful – sour, resentful, overwhelmingly negative in tone.  He’s given bad teleprompter speeches before, but he lacked his old charisma and confidence.  He should be brash, putting down Biden not harshly but in a “things-were-so-much-better-when-I-was-president-and-everything-could-be-great-again” kind of way.  Unless Trump can pull himself together and project a less vindictive, divisive message there is a decent chance Republican voters will wonder about his electability and look for an alternative.  The West / Fuentes debacle and Trump’s tweet about suspending the constitution suggest he is incapable of rising above his grievances and appealing to the center.  We will see.  Republican elites clearly worry about his electability (but not his fitness for office, naturally).  They are trying to telegraph these concerns to voters.  Whether the message will get through to voters is unclear.  We also do not know if Trump will be indicted.  An indictment may rally his loyalists and repel other voters and lead to a drawn out and damaging primary fight, or it could lead to a decisive defeat.

The fact that Trump has not started campaigning in any serious way suggests that his main motivation for announcing early was to avoid prosecution, though perhaps he also feels threatened and wanted to clear the field.  Either way, I suspect he will keep DeSantis out for a while.  DeSantis will want to avoid financing restrictions, and it is far better for DeSantis to let Trump self-destruct or get sick or withdraw or fight with someone else than to challenge him directly.  If Trump loses to DeSantis, Trump may try to take DeSantis down.  (Jonathan Chait disputes this.)  DeSantis may not run at all if Trump doesn’t implode.  My guess is that regardless of what DeSantis does Trump will have challengers.  The future is unclear.