Neil Buchanan: Is Trump an Evil Genius or Simply Mad?

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Michael Myers as Dr. Evil in the New Line Cinema movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). Neil Buchanan writes that there is one issue that we need to confront, and that is whether Trump is an evil genius like Dr. No or instead is more like Dr. Evil, a hapless doofus who only thinks he is a genius. New Line Cinema

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

Anyone who was paying attention should have known that Donald Trump's presidency would be a disaster. Only the particulars of that disaster remained to be determined.

Having predicted that bad things would happen, however, even pessimists like me are astonished by how quickly matters are spinning out of control.

Just a few days into his reign, Trump has managed to incite a petty (but revealing) spat with the press about his own popularity, which was embarrassing but mostly harmless. (I say "mostly" because Trump's obsession with the popular vote will dovetail all too well with longstanding Republican efforts to suppress voting by minorities and young people.) It was worrisome, but there was nothing especially scary about it.

Now, however, we are confronted with a nascent constitutional battle that has begun with a fight over immigration policy but will soon spread to more and more areas of governance.

When an incident on the second weekend of his presidency can reasonably be likened to Richard Nixon's infamous Saturday Night Massacre, we can say with great confidence that Trump is truly on track to do real damage.

The good news is that there is now meaningful and growing dissent against Trump's shameless actions. Only a few days ago, it appeared that citizens and politicians were at a loss as to how to react to the chaotic embarrassment that was unfolding, unsure whether to bother fighting with Team Trump over, for example, "alternative facts" regarding the size of the inaugural crowd.

Related: Poor Little Rich Kid Trump, the Ultimate Entitled Brat

For my part, I suggested last week that continually reminding Trump about his non-majority accidental election was a way to keep him occupied. The more time he spent insisting that he could have won the popular vote, the less time he would have to do real damage. Even so, I allowed that reasonable minds might disagree about whether to kick that hornets' nest.

Sooner or later, we might return to a relatively stable situation in which such strategic questions will become relevant again. As of this writing, however, the stakes have moved far beyond Trump's injured pride (although his ego is always at the center of everything he does, of course), and we may soon witness a test of how strong the rule of law really is in this country.

Either way, there is one issue that we need to confront, and that is whether Trump is an evil genius like Dr. No or instead is more like Dr. Evil, a hapless doofus who only thinks he is a genius. The answer matters a great deal to how the opposition to the Trump administration should respond to his dangerous actions.

People have a tendency to believe that things happen because of some grand scheme, which means that we often reject the possibility of mere happenstance. When a tornado rips through a town, the houses that are left standing are spared only by the luck of the draw, with the path of the storm being no more explicable than a random event.

Even so, survivors often insist on believing that they were spared because they did something right and the victims did something wrong. Starting from the result, we work backward to look for the story that puts together cause and effect, to try to make sense of the happy and unhappy outcomes.

We also frequently see this in the financial markets. Every event, from a market crash to a bull market and every twist and turn in between, makes someone rich, which leads them and others to believe that they knew something that others did not know. The level of self-delusion can be amusing, to say the least.

Years ago, for example, an investment adviser appeared on PBS's Wall Street Week, claiming to have developed a method to assess his financial predictions, based on golf scoring. He explained that, under his method, he had the equivalent of an 18-hole golf score of 56, which he quickly pointed out would be a record-setting score among professional golfers. Unfazed, the host Louis Rukeyser noted dryly that anyone can invent a scoring system that makes himself look good.

But had this man not gotten rich? If so, he must have done something right, based on some special insight. Actually, no. In any random draw, some outcomes will be better than others under any given set of rules. Moreover, when many wealthy people try to explain their wealth by appealing to their own genius, they conveniently forget that they began the game with a huge advantage.

Sports is also filled with examples of people who get lucky and are temporarily deemed to be geniuses or physical phenomena, sometimes rewarded with preposterous contracts that never have a chance of panning out. In sports, however, we have the advantage of repeated tests to expose the guy who wins one playoff game but quickly flames out, whereas the Joe Montanas and Peyton Mannings of the world prove their greatness repeatedly over time.

Politics is certainly not immune to this cognitive error. Surprise winners and their campaign directors are frequently thought to possess some brilliance that others lack.

For example, Jimmy Carter and his campaign pollster, Patrick Caddell, were briefly the boy wonders of American politics. Carter then lost to one of the most beatable Republican candidates that we had seen up to that time, and Caddell never had another big success, eventually winding up as a talking head at Fox News. (Because he took a contrarian position on Trump's chances in 2016, he is claiming validation that he saw it coming all along.)

If Obama's key people, especially David Axelrod and David Plouffe, are truly the visionaries that many people thought they were in 2008, they have not shown it recently. And I have no doubt that the people who managed Tea Party candidates' wins in 2010 have managed to parlay being in the right place at the right time into unearned reputations for political savvy. Karl Rove's reputation for genius has certainly taken a beating, especially in 2012.

All of which brings us back to Donald Trump. It is no surprise that he and his handlers would try to anoint him the new genius of American politics. What is surprising is that so many other people are willing to say, "Well, he won, so that must mean something."

Interestingly, no one is claiming (as far as I know) that Trump or his people put together a strategy that was specifically designed to eke out wins in a few Midwestern states and thus win the Electoral College. The claim is that Trump is a political genius because he alone came up with a way to tap into voter anger. And that supposed genius is usually attributed to his rhetoric, playing to white working-class alienation by coming up with the right set of villains.

The problem with this theory is that there was no mystery about the alienation of white working-class voters. People like me have been saying ever since the beginning of the Great Recession that this is exactly the kind of economic atmosphere in which hateful demagogues flourish. This was not news. The signs were flashing red for years.

That is why, after all, the Republican primaries in 2016 ended up being so ugly. Ted Cruz was attacking Marco Rubio for being too immigrant-friendly, and Rubio was frantically trying to run away from his earlier efforts to pass a bipartisan immigration bill. That would have happened even if Trump had flamed out. The entire campaign season became a fight for what only now is being called Trump's base.

The argument for Trump's genius then doubles back to the observation that he won, while Cruz and Rubio and fourteen others lost. Yes, someone was going to win the nomination out of that entirely undistinguished group, but the guy who won might not have done anything especially savvy. Again, however, after the fact we always seem to want to look for the story that explains what just happened as something other than random chance.

But why, in the end, is the explanation for 2016's outcome not simply this? "Trump was the loudest, angriest guy in the room. He was the person who could call himself an outsider at a time when some voters would be drawn to outsiders. His very absurdity made him catnip to cable news, and they gave him free air time. Meanwhile, the media held Clinton to completely different standards in the general election."

In this view, Trump became president in spite of himself. Indeed, if there were truly an underlying genius at work during the long campaign, there should have been some evidence of it, especially during the periods when it looked like he would lose in a blowout. The closest thing we saw to that, however, was when his family briefly blocked him from tweeting before Election Day.

But maybe the genius was Trump's knowing that he had to continue to be Trump? Perhaps, but how would we distinguish that from the alternative explanation, which is that Trump simply does not have the self-control to change anything that he does, that he was probably going to fail because he could not adjust and that his unexpected win was not due to his doing anything other than what he would be doing if he were stuck in a room staring into a mirror?

Even so, there are plenty of people who now ascribe nearly mythical powers to Trump. In The Washington Post, for example, an author recently warned (based on his experience in opposition to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela) that it is a mistake to think that Trump is not a genius.

He wrote: "Getting to the highest office in the world requires not only sheer force of will but also great, calculated rhetorical precision. The kind only a few political geniuses are born with and one he flamboyantly brandishes."

Fortunately, that is simply not an obvious truth. "Great, calculated rhetorical precision" is hardly how anyone would describe Trump's speaking (or tweeting) style—unless, of course, one is deep into the reverse-engineering mindset that starts with, "He won," and ends with, "So his unique rhetoric must have been the reason."

Again, it is possible that there was something unique to Trump (and to Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama) that is proved by their having won their elections—in two cases without winning a majority of the popular vote and in two others with whisker-thin victories in both the popular vote and Electoral College. Color me skeptical. Sometimes, a win is just a win because it was a win.

In less extreme versions of this phenomenon, writers recast Trump's obvious weaknesses as strengths, such as a reporter for The New York Times who recently described Trump's "... deft conversion of demonstrably false claims into a semantic mush of unverifiable 'beliefs'" in his testimony in multiple lawsuits.

Deft? Trump's favorite phrase is "Trust me," and he robotically repeats everything that he says. He did well in his business career by starting with a lot of money and then being willing to fight lawsuits simply because he knew that he had the money to wear down his opponents. Being impossible to pin down on the stand is not necessarily deftness. It can also be the result of being a reality-challenged fabulist.

Consider two outstanding counterexamples, former Reagan chief of staff Alexander Haig and former Ford and Bush Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Both were masters at emitting clouds of words that deliberately left their questioners fumbling.

Errol Morris's documentary The Unknown Known shows how Rumsfeld was able to turn every question into a different question. (This also distinguishes him from Kellyanne Conway, who merely refuses to answer questions and endlessly repeats talking points. She is Condoleeza Rice, not Donald Rumsfeld.)

How do we know that people like Haig and Rumsfeld were different from Trump? We saw them adjust as needed when their situations changed. By contrast, Trump has one mode, and it never changes.

When he becomes angry, he does the same thing that he always does, only louder. Trump's verbiage leaves people agape, but not because they cannot follow what is happening. What he says is just so stupid that people shake their heads and eventually give up.

But does any of this matter? After all, maybe this is all a question of how generous one wishes to be with Trump. People who like him are willing to excuse all of his weaknesses, and they now have convinced themselves that because he happens to be the one who ran against their hated nemesis and somehow won, he can do no wrong. People like me, meanwhile, might merely be holding a grudge.

If that were the story, however, I would have every reason to accept reality and move on. After all, I do not want Trump to succeed politically because I do not like his policy agenda —which is turning out to be even worse than we thought it would be. If he really has a particular political skill that needs to be understood and confronted, then we in the opposition have every reason to acknowledge it in order to confront him most effectively.

Again, if Trump is truly an evil genius, he should be able to figure out ways to adapt to new circumstances and adjust his rhetoric and actions. Are we seeing any evidence of this? Not at all. He is simply retreating into his neuroses and increasing the intensity of what has gotten him (and us) into this mess. And things are getting worse, for him and for us.

There is a danger in underestimating one's opponent, but there is also a danger in elevating him into a mythic beast. If, for example, we say that Trump has a unique pipeline into the souls of his supporters, we run the risk of believing that all of them will stand with him no matter what, which is true only of a core group of true believers (who would have been just as steadfast in supporting any Republican).

In reality, many of the people who have given Trump the benefit of the doubt thus far will have every reason to become disillusioned and walk away.

Perhaps most importantly, those of us who must summon the strength to fight this emerging tyrant need to stop psyching ourselves out. Imagining that his utterly improbable path to the White House somehow shows that Trump is politically unbeatable risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We can be sure that Trump's inability to adapt will itself present untold dangers in the days ahead, but his lack of discipline and personal demons can be used against him. They are his weaknesses, not his strengths.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.