The Fragile Power of Donald Trump

The weekend showed some weaknesses in Trump's edifice of power.


The best-case scenario for the Trump years has always been that he'll kill the imperial presidency through sheer incompetence. Whether or not we'll get that far, he sure is good at squandering his clout.

Consider. Donald Trump entered office at a time when enormous powers have been concentrated in the presidency, and his party controls not just the White House but both branches of Congress. Yet he enacted his refugee ban so ineptly, not even giving it the normal review that would have caught its most glaring legal problems, that parts of the crackdown were almost immediately stayed. Government lawyers were caught flatfooted, unfamiliar with the situation that had just been dropped into their laps and unable to effectively defend the new rules. ("I don't think the government has really had a chance to think about this," one judge commented as she listened to the attorneys' arguments Saturday night.)

The sheer chaos created by rushing this order into place (and by adding the absurd restrictions on people with green cards) prompted even conservatives who don't necessarily object to the general idea of the policy to denounce how it played out in practice. (At this point at least 21 congressional Republicans, including three leading senators, have criticized elements of the order. A far larger number has avoided saying anything substantive at all, which appears to be an increasingly popular way for elected Republicans to deal with their party's leader.) And if you do oppose the general idea of the policy, you felt the wind at your back as you mobilized to block it. A mix of symbolic mass demonstrations and far-from-symbolic free legal aid materialized at airports around the country, energizing the grassroots opposition and pushing the elected opposition to stiffen their spines. (Democratic officials didn't organize or lead the protests, but several sniffed the air and rushed to stand as close to the front as they could get.) If you were hoping the Trump era would reenergize public protest, congratulations: You're getting your wish.

Meanwhile, a president who was already unusually unpopular when he entered office has now seen his job approval numbers sink to 42 percent in Gallup's ongoing survey on the subject. Public disapproval, meanwhile, has risen to 51 percent. That can only make it easier for legislators, including those in Trump's own party, to break with him when they think it warranted. Throw in the fact that the government is leaking like a colander—a fact that may help explain why the White House rushed its order into place without the usual review process—and you've got an administration with an awful lot of weak spots.

There clearly are countless kinds of damage that even a weakened Trump can do, and there just as obviously are ways the opposition can be drawn into pointless side fights or ineffectual tactics. And it's certainly possible to block a plan's most egregious elements without stopping the broader change it represents. So you shouldn't be complacent, but you shouldn't be a fatalist either. This past weekend showed just how fragile a president's power can be.