Donald Trump Has Seriously Always Mattered
I was one of those people who was consistently “poo-pooed” during the last election cycle for taking Donald Trump too seriously when he said things that were legitimately scary. But I never once felt that I was hyperbolic about the risk he posed. Trump has passed through phases where he has been fairly quiet and the news media has been lulled into a comfortable stupor during which he scores “big wins” or occasionally acts “presidential.” But those lulls are repeatedly followed but utter mania, at which point we generally over correct and the same news media reports that the world is descending into an irreversible apocalypse.
These reactions are both ill-conceived. The appropriate outlook is to be skeptical of his seriousness and competence often, and gravely concerned for lasting damage that he can visit upon democratic institutions always.
During the presidential campaign he repeatedly waxed authoritarian about the FBI’s perceived inability to jail his rival and his desire to direct law enforcement to his whims. In the spring following his inauguration, he fired an FBI director publicly known to be resistant to his persuasion and heading a high-profile investigation into his campaign. He publicly spouted off about Russia hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails. Only months later did it become public knowledge that his son and senior campaign officials were fully aware at the time that Russia had hacked the DNC and Clinton’s advisors. These, however, are instances when Trump was dismissed and ended up following through. They do lasting damage but damage that is, perhaps, localized to Trump’s time in office (future FBI directors will be wary of Trump but, likely, will feel as though business has returned to usual under a potentially more conventional successor).
The most truly damaging aspects of Trump’s authoritarian inclination lie in the gray areas between legitimate function of government and vindictive overreach. For example ...
Donald Trump repeatedly lambasted CNN for its coverage of his campaign and administration. When the opportunity came for his administration to weigh in on a particular merger between CNN’s parent corporation and another large telecommunications company, the Justice Department elected to sue and block it.
Donald Trump repeatedly accused political enemies of producing a “dossier” that contained damaging information about his travel in Russia prior to the election (they did). Today, after a year of investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election, two Senate Republicans recommended charges not against anyone accused of colluding with foreign powers, but the man who assembled that dossier.
Donald Trump, in his second presidential debate, stated that if he were president Hillary Clinton “would be in jail.” After weeks of pressure from the President on Twitter, the FBI reopened their inquiry into the Clinton Foundation’s international dealings.
The problem with these three instances is their thin veil of legitimacy. It’s entirely possible that the Justice Department’s move to block that particular merger is perfectly reasonable, but Trump’s threats hang over it like a fog of bad faith. It’s also entirely possible that Christopher Steele lied to investigators or conducted himself in otherwise shady ways, but Trump’s threats and the Senate investigators’ eagerness to dismiss concerns about the Trump campaign’s own misdeeds make taking this move at face value impossible.
Worst of all though is the investigation into the Clinton Foundation. The Clinton Foundation has been the subject of inquiries in the past and the FBI under its usual leadership found nothing worth charging. Moreover, investigations need not result in charges to be damaging both to reputation and to financial stability. They can be enormously time-consuming and catastrophically expensive. Democrats who want to oppose Trump now have reason to worry that the Justice Department will carry his water when he makes enough noise on Twitter. Republicans who would like in the future to see a sincere investigation of wrongdoing by those who happen to be their ideological opponents have had public perception of their ability to conduct such investigations irreparably damaged.
There are potentially normal explanations for any of these moves but Donald Trump has utterly destroyed the reputation of agencies under his supervision. Any assumption of the good faith on which these agencies rely to conduct politically sensitive investigations is destroyed more completely with every tweet.
Donald Trump’s seriousness is irrelevant. His competence is irrelevant. He has power to influence the massive workings of the federal government independent of either. His words are enough and his temperament, pettiness, and anger matter. His tweets matter. Donald Trump has always mattered and we should be ashamed that we ever acted as though he could be consigned to a reality television sideshow while occupying the most powerful single office in the world.