He Doesn’t Know the Job
Donald Trump has tried to bend the presidency toward his will instead of letting it shape him.
Dear Reader (Including those of you who had your last shreds of hope snatched from you when you discovered the staging of the Leeroy Jenkins meme),
President Trump isn’t plotting a coup, but that is not the defense of the man you might think it is. More on that in a moment.
First, let’s say you took the job of basketball coach for your kid’s rec team.
You like basketball, but you aren’t a master of the rules and it’s not like you know how to design plays, motivate kids, or do anything that’s generally considered basketball-y. So why did you take the job in the first place? It doesn’t matter—at least, not for these purposes. Maybe the school or your church asked you to do it when no one else would. Let’s just say you did it for good reasons. There was a need and you stepped up.
What would you do? You might buy a book on coaching, or on the fundamentals of basketball. You might seek advice from people who’ve coached before or who know more about the game than you do. In short, you’d do some homework, because you don’t want to let the kids and the community down and—reasonably enough—you don’t want to embarrass yourself.
This is a very short and admittedly partial example of what Yuval Levin is getting at when he notes how, traditionally, institutions were things that “shaped character.” To do the job right as a basketball coach, you have to bend yourself to the task. You’ve gotta carve out huge amounts of time, and muster scads of emotional energy, learn a whole bunch things you didn’t know or even necessarily want to know, all to serve other people.
Now imagine you took the coaching job, but all you did was spend every practice talking about how great you are and how biased the refs are. At every game you barely paid attention to the action on the court, and spent most of your time posturing for the fans in the stands.
This is what Yuval says has happened to too many of our institutions. We want to bend them to us rather than bend ourselves to them. We use them to preen and perform on.
Now, honestly, which one of these two scenarios does Donald Trump represent?
I ask, because if he took the job seriously—as seriously as a conscientious basketball coach might—he’d know how to answer this question: “Win, lose, or draw … will you commit here today for a peaceful transferral of power after the election?”
This isn’t complicated. This isn’t ideological. This isn’t next-level anything. Trump doesn’t know the job because he doesn’t want to know it.
If you’re a basketball coach and you don’t know what a layup is or what someone means when they say “set a pick,” you don’t know the job. If you don’t know how to answer a question about whether you will commit to a peaceful transfer of power—and you’re the frick’n president of the United States of America—you don’t know the job. And if you’re coming up on your fourth year on the job, it means you never cared enough to learn it.
Now, I don’t think he was saying he will deploy or demand state violence if the returns don’t go his way (though that is not to say that he won’t welcome it or encourage it). My point here is he just didn’t recognize the terms. I think he thought “commit to a peaceful transfer of power” was just a quirky way of asking whether he will contest the election results—a question he’s been asked many times and his answer Wednesday didn’t break much new ground.
There’s just one problem: They aren’t the same question. Going to court to fight over ballots does not represent a lack of commitment to the peaceful transfer of power. The Florida recount fight might have been ugly, but it did not lead to an unpeaceful transfer of power.
If Donald Trump had the slightest patriotic inclination to let the institution of the presidency shape him, he’d know this. He’d know that he was being asked to disavow using violence to cling to power. But he doesn’t know the job. He didn’t know the history of “America First” or “the Silent Majority” when reporters first introduced him to the phrases, either. He didn’t—and doesn’t—know what the Trans-Pacific Partnership does or how tariffs work. He doesn’t know the job.
If his superfans weren’t so eager to cling to the idea that this man always knows what he’s doing, they’d loosen their grip enough to acknowledge he screwed this up because he doesn’t know the job.
I admit that loosening the grip must be hard when you’re so deeply invested in the notion that Trump is the Great Defender of Our Eternal Principles.™ I mean Sy Sperling wasn’t just the president of the Hair Club for Men, he was also a client. So you’d expect the President of the United States and Defender of the Constitutional Faith to familiarize himself with the product line in the Prager U course catalog too. But his thumbless grasp of the roles and responsibilities he volunteered to take on is just fine in a world where institutions are solely self-serving.
So much for what he didn’t say. What he did say was still very bad. “Get rid of the ballots and … we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer. Frankly, there’ll be a continuation [of power].”
There are legitimate problems and challenges with mail-in ballots. But Trump has made it very, very clear that he doesn’t care about grappling with the legitimate issues. (Heck, he’s all but begging seniors in Florida to send in their ballots.) He doesn’t care about the legitimacy of ballots or the election, he just cares passionately that—should he lose—his loss will be seen as illegitimate. If he cared about the job, he’d mobilize resources to make sure the election was free and fair. He ain’t doing that.
On August 17, he said: “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that.”
Again, imagine what you would think about a basketball coach who talked this way before every game. Is that how you want your kid to think about sports? Or life? If not, why are you holding the president to a lower standard?
One last crucial point: It’s fine to argue that Trump wasn’t calling for violence. Again, I don’t think he was. But this kind of talk can still lead to violence. My “defense” of Trump here is that he was too ignorant to understand what he was being asked. But such ignorance can have consequences. There’s a reason presidents are supposed to shut down any talk of violence in elections: Because there are a few thousand years of history supporting the worry that political passion leads to violence.
Right now, parts of the right are celebrating vigilantism at least as much as parts of the left are celebrating street violence. A president who understood that question about the peaceful transfer of power, and who understood the demands of the presidency, would have leapt at the opportunity to give a forceful answer to that question given the state of the country. But he doesn’t know the job. And sometimes, not knowing the job has consequences.
Various & Sundry
It’s a little after 8 a.m. here in Los Angeles. I’m about to wake up the kid so we can check out some empty college campuses. We’re gonna take a gander at USC, UCLA, and maybe Occidental this morning and then Claremont-McKenna this afternoon.
Canine update: There was no treat video this morning because A) I’m in California, and B) The Fair Jessica says there was some problem with the crane camera or something. She says maybe tomorrow. But here’s yesterday’s to tide you over.
Earlier this week, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of Zoë in a full-on nightmare. She was lying down but all four legs were running. She made a lot of little yips and even a couple of loud yipes. I’m always fascinated by dog dreams. What are they dreaming about? I mean, we know what Pippa dreams about. But what could be so scary to Zoë? A giant squirrel looking for payback? I dunno.
Anyway, the report from home is that they’re all good and that they miss me, which is nice.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.