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The Uncertain Presidency

Some thoughts about the weakening presidency under Donald Trump.

Is Donald Trump really the President-Elect, or is it fake news, or is it a bald-faced lie from a serial maker-upper, or is it the Russians?

As 2016 starts to close, there is massive uncertainty ahead on all fronts. Will the US continue to ignore climate change? Will millions lose their access to healthcare? Millions of others face deportation? Is the presidency headed toward autocracy? Kleptocracy?

And why isn’t Donald Trump doing anything to reassure the public? Why is he doing the opposite, spreading lies and increasing the uncertainty? Is he dumb? Mean? Uncaring? Insulated?

ProPublica is currently running a story about Agent Orange (rumored to be Trump’s Secret Service name) (ProPublica: 16 December 2016: “The Children of Agent Orange”). The piece reports, with the caveat that the finding is based on self-reporting data to the Department of Veterans Affairs, that higher levels of birth defects occurred in children of soldiers who were in contact with the carcinogenic herbicide.

One wonders what the effects of informational Agent Orange (i.e., the destruction of news credibility at the hands of fake news and other sources of informational mutilation) will have on the ability for democracy to function. To be sure, weaponized information is not as potent in its current form as Agent Orange was. Given the broad levels of propaganda, the amount of direct harm remains relatively low.

But is there a sort of informational equivalent of bioaccumulation? Does bad information build up in the minds of the gullible, leading to broader dysfunction over time? And what do we make of the fact that the President-Elect himself seems to be a victim and vector of the hoax news trend?

Early lessons seem to be:

  1. The bully pulpit just got a lot less useful. An oversized bloc of people will not be taking cues from a President Trump.
  2. In that vacuum, one assumes that a combination of civic leaders outside government and legislators will take his place.
  3. If such weakness continues throughout his term, there will be a primary challenge to Trump (something not seen since 1980 when Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter).
  4. If such weakness continues, the best-positioned state legislators will try more than usual to move up in 2018 to spring-board for 2020, even if it means a primary challenge to the party’s incumbent.

(The latter two depend on a number of factors, and it’s too early to say anything definitively, but 2018 and 2020 look to be every bit as bad as 2016 has been.)

When (and where) the legislature is weak, the presidency grows stronger. And vice versa. Power is not monolithic, so Trump will probably have some strength, somewhere. But one expects the Republicans to try to show their strength in Congress wherever they can. If they can manage to forestall infighting among their ranks, it will be despite Trump, who seems to sow dissension without even trying.

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