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Bauer writes: "We are constantly confronted with the question of how seriously to take the president's words. By one interpretation, not so much: His verbal excesses and outrages should not be confused with action."

Donald Trump. (photo: AP)
Donald Trump. (photo: AP)

The Demagogue as President: Speech, Action and the Big Parade

By Bob Bauer, Lawfare

10 February 18


e are constantly confronted with the question of how seriously to take the president’s words. By one interpretation, not so much: His verbal excesses and outrages should not be confused with action. This is the variant of the old counsel “watch what we do, not what we say.” President Trump said he would revisit the libel laws but didn’t; he did not file the threatened lawsuit to stop publication of “Fire and Fury.” He has attacked the courts, but his administration has complied with their orders. In a sober-minded warning against overreaction, Eric Posner suggests that  to distinguish “bark” from “bite.” Likewise, in their recently published book, “,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warn strongly about the dangers of Donald Trump’s style of leadership but also fall back on the distinction between words and actions, and between impulse and deed, in concluding that he has not yet “crossed the line” into authoritarianism. 

These and other commentators agree that the president’s words could be intended to prepare the way for bad actions to follow. He weakens norms and undermines institutions and, over time, he may take action made by possible by the damage he caused with his words. But until then, he has only barked, and the occasion to respond will arise only when he has bitten. This is the basis for that Trump, as demagogue, has been “contained” by a Republican Party—at least in the Senate—unwilling to help execute on his demagogic claims. Worries about the president’s words, Douthat writes, are “based on things that haven’t happened yet.” 

This word/action distinction holds up to a point, but it is overstated and may serve to confuse rather clarify the deep problems with the Trump presidency. Recent events have brought a key example: The New York Times that the president’s lawyers are advising him to decline an interview with the special counsel, while Trump keeps up his attacks on the Russia “hoax” and “witch hunt.” The president’s words on this subject have accumulated a force that transcends mere bluster; they constitute the first of a series of actions potentially leading to the denial of a president’s testimony in a major law-enforcement investigation. Separating word from action in this context is difficult—in part because what Trump is saying and what he is doing are not easily distinguishable.

The reason Trump and his lawyers would truthfully give for refusing an interview is one that he will not rely on: his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. He has resorted to this protection in private legal battles . In public matters, he has taken a sharply different position. Commenting on witnesses who invoked this right in the Clinton email investigation, “The mob takes the Fifth.” He then took the next rhetorical step in asking: “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?” He is now securely in a trap partly of his own making. It is not uncommon, if unfair, that witnesses who take the Fifth invariably face suspicion that it is a virtual admission of guilt. Trump’s emphatic remarks on the subject leave him especially defenseless on this score.

Trump seems to have been previewing for months an alternative explanation for denying an interview.  He would have the public understand that the Department of Justice and the FBI are corrupt and, politicized to the core, plotting against him. He intimates in this fashion thatthe Mueller investigation is illegitimate. Why then, he would ask, should a president agree to cooperate with, much dignify, an illegitimate inquiry? Senior aides appear to be , chiming in with references to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “conflicts.”

These are not merely words. They are the official position that this president has developed systematically over a year to preserve the option of limiting his cooperation with law enforcement. , White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stood firmly behind this story line. The memo prepared by House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, she told the press corps, vindicated the president’s judgment that the Mueller investigation was a politically motivated “witch hunt.” This is not a case of the president speaking off the cuff. It is the position of the White House.

Professor Posner that, while troubling, this kind of verbal posturing is not action, only preparing the way for it:

Trump is trying to lay the groundwork for an attack on our institutions at a politically opportune moment. He might think that if he damages the prestige of the courts, he can defy the Supreme Court if it ultimately rules against the travel ban. Or that if he gets everyone to hate the media, he will be able to prosecute journalists.

But in “laying the groundwork for an attack on our institutions at a politically opportune moment,” Trump is doing something more than simply tossing words into thin air. He is actively fashioning that “moment” and making it possible. Whether purposely or by instinct,he is acting now to reap the benefits later.

Trump has somewhat varied this message about the special counsel investigation, sometimes seeming to with Mueller while, at other times, it would be necessary and leaving his intent to cooperate in question. But his public comments and tweets have been most consistently marked by hostility toward what as the “.”

Granted, a president is entitled to make his case about the Russia investigation, or the unfairness of the media, or the leftward tilt he sees in the courts. There is indeed a difference between attacking a court and defying it. Faced with an investigation into his conduct, a typical president might reasonably resort to standard constitutional or legal arguments and seek to persuade the public that, in refusing cooperation, he is responsibly protecting the constitutional prerogatives of his office. He might well add his complaints about his opposition’s political motives—without the demagogic resort to gross exaggerations or lies. In the end, however, he would be directing the conflict into the normal channels for resolution. For example, courts would eventually decide whatever claim of Article II authority Trump may rely on to defend his firing of James Comey.

But this is the crucial point: How Donald Trump constructs his attacks makes all the difference. The , which defines the president’s leadership style, changes the rules of the democratic game. It savages any and all constitutional, institutional and as necessary legal limits the leader deems inconsistent with the pursuit of personal interests and self-aggrandizement. It works to make the abandonment of these limits plausible now to the audience he is trying to reach. In the service of its goals, demagoguery features extreme appeals and—critically—a reckless indifference to the facts, even outright lies.

The “moment” Trump seems to be striving for cannot arrive and serve his purposes unless he builds toward it with his speech. He is creating conditions now to support further action later; but the creation of those conditions, though by words, is itself an activity. If later Trump refuses Mueller an interview, supported by the groundwork previously laid, it will be correct to say that the move depended on what he did to set the stage. In other words, Trump is seeking to accomplish something with his demagoguery.

The Founders understood that demagoguery was not an idle matter of mere words. As the political scientist Jeffrey Tulis , their concern with demagoguery was one of the “core issues behind the practical structural decisions for the national government and the place of the presidency in it.” Those structures have, of course, undergone radical change and the safeguards originally erected against the demagogue have withered. But it does not follow that because the protections have begun to fail, we should be less troubled by the pathology they were intended to defend against. The word/action distinction operates to make it less likely that we will take the pathology seriously—until “things have happened.”

Demagoguery as the defining feature of political leadership is very much happening. As Tulis has stressed, “rhetorical power is a very special case of executive power … it is a power itself.” So it is a mistake to dismiss demagogic practice on the grounds that it is pure speech that, even if regrettable, can be otherwise disregarded until the occurrence of some related “action.”

Demagoguery’s dangers include the routine conflation of what best serves the public with what personally suits the leader. This can be seen in Trump’s efforts to stymie the Mueller investigation. If Trump were to simply deny an interview to Mueller on a Fifth Amendment claim, it would be clear that he was acting in his own best interests. But he is not admitting to that. Instead he is preparing to contend that he is taking the actions necessary to uphold constitutional limits and refuse to  play the patsy for a “deep state” that is out to take him down. He is defending the legitimacy of his election and the rights of his voters against a “hoax” fabricated by his political opponents. He has set himself up to claim that he is not saving himself; he is saving the Republic.

Trump has not only turned his words against Mueller and law enforcement. At the same Tuesday press conference, Sarah Huckabee Sanders stood squarely behind another of the president’s demagogic attacks—the “treason” exhibited by Democrats who did not applaud the accomplishments touted in the president’s State of the Union address. In an apparently prepared bit, she challenged Democrats to decide whether they “hated the president more than they love their country.” Far from being mere words, these are efforts to rob the president’s critics of legitimacy, but, this time, his target is the opposition party, not the special counsel. Is Trump looking ahead to a fight over the firing of Mueller and fortifying his defense by attempting to disqualify dissident congressional Democrats as traitors? Perhaps, too, he is building those same defenses against an impeachment inquiry in a House that the Democrats may control next year.

It is hard, then, in this demagogic presidency, to distinguish words from actions, somehow making allowances for the former and worrying only about the latter. It will also happen that the demagogue who, in , is an “opportunistic showman” will vary his forms of expression. Consider the president’s reported desire to arrange for a of tanks and troops through downtown Washington. The president would not be ordering military action. He would be putting on a show.  The troops file by and salute him; he returns the salute. Is this spectacle a presidential action, or a mode of communication, or both?

In the immediate future, responsible institutions and individuals must make decisions about taking a stand. If the president cites corrupt law enforcement in declining an interview or in firing Mueller outright, Congress and the individuals in senior executive-branch positions will have to decide whether and how to respond—to enable and support the president, or to speak out or act in opposition. For political appointees within government, resignation is an option. For Congress, the choices include the initiation of impeachment inquiries. The time will also have come to hear from organized bar and other civil society institutions.

It would be wrong to think that elected and other officials, and civil society leadership, have plenty of time to think about their choices, until the time when Trump is not “just talking” but finally “does something.” He is already in the middle of doing something.

Bob Bauer served as White House Counsel to President Obama, and returned to private practice as a partner at Perkins Coie in June 2011. In 2013, the President named Bob to be Co-Chair of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. He is a Professor of Practice and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at New York University School of Law, as well as the Co-Director of the university's Legislative and Regulatory Process Clinic. your social media marketing partner


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+44 # librarian1984 2018-02-10 11:44
Douthat is full of sh!te. The GOP has become Trump's prime enabler. The Never-Trumpers are quiet, the doubters have coalesced to protect him, and his base is mostly thrilled. A couple of senators stand against Trump's most egregious words and deeds but they're not embraced by the leadership, which is pretty far up Trump's a$$. And does anyone doubt the administration is littered with moles ready to establish Pres. Koch Bros if we don't nip in the bud the billionaire POTUS trend?

Trump is the latest in a line of corrupt/incompe tent Republican executives: Nixon, Reagan, the wannabee Bush dynasty, Cheney and now Trump, the most obnoxious. Who's next? Their bench is f^king deep.

What do we do with a party that doesn't believe in science, serves 1% of US, thinks ends justify the means, and whose stated purpose is the deconstruction of the body they supposedly serve?

The GOP is increasingly radical, bordering on anarchism. Why do we pay them to destroy our federal government?

They have made huge strides since Reagan, and the Democrats, not immediately able to form a counterargument , fell in line with the Clintons' push into neoliberalism, giving us 25 years of increasing militarism and corporate coddling.

I truly believe the US was headed toward this crisis in slow motion; Trump accelerates the process, forcing us to stand up or shut up, curl up and die.

The hysteria has to end. Reasonable people, united, can defeat demagoguery.
+5 # futhark 2018-02-10 12:31
Funny you should mention anarchism as a charge against the GOP. Anarchism is a system of managing society in which NO ONE exercises intimidation or violence as a means to achieve the goals of a perfectly harmonious society. Anarchy relies of having people whose highest priority is the welfare of their fellows.

The Republican plan seems to me to be the antithesis of anarchy, that is, a society in which every individual is pitted against everyone else in a mad and vicious scramble for wealth and power, in which each person is acts as a tyrant to impose his will on everyone else.

Our constitutional republic was, I believe, founded on the idea that we could have many of the benefits of anarchy through the democratic process and the guarantee of certain inalienable rights, while avoiding the chaos and potential viciousness consequent to unfettered greed.

The Republican Party seems to have forsaken such a vision of harmony and general welfare to advance a program of dog-eat-dog struggle for existence and control that would be the undoing of perhaps the longest enduring social experiment in democracy in human history. They are traitors to the vision of the founders and are the most dangerous threat to our constitutional republic since the end of the Civil War.
+5 # jazzman633 2018-02-10 12:38
I keep asking: WHEN will Congress have the guts to begin the Constitutional removal process? What does Trump have to do? And when he does it, will it be too late?
+4 # Elroys 2018-02-10 12:50
These extraordinary times call on every American to take a bit of quiet time, alone, then with a friend, mate, kids. Think deeply about who Trump has already shown himself to be - uncurious, does not read, lies daily and cares only about himself and his wealthy cronies. His "policies" and that of his Repub enablers in Congress are generally awful and are to benefit the 1%, not the 99%. No matter what these people say, it pays to believe they are simply lying to you.
We are at a critical, historic and existential crossroads unparalleled in human history. Two very simple example - to espouse the lies that climate change is a hoax, that Russian interference in the 2016 election is a hoax are extremely dangerous lies, because there are enough people who choose ignorance over facts, personal beliefs instead of peer reviewed and overwhelming scientific agreement on climate science; unanimous agreement by our 17 national security agencies that the Russians did indeed interfere and still are.

The world is in dire need of competent, intelligent, truthful and wise leaders. What we have in Trump and his cabinet and "advisors" is the exact opposite. Some have brains, but are dishonest and corrupt, only out for the wealthy elite.
The choice is going to our to make in 2018. Are the Dems the party and people of our dreams? Definitely not. Compared to trump and the Rs, however, they lightyears ahead. Let's get them elected and hold their feet, hands, actions to account.
+3 # angelfish 2018-02-10 13:31
I'm curious to know just WHAT it takes to REMOVE this Moron and his Conniving, EVIL Cabal of ReTHUGlicans who have Usurped his Presidential Power and are using him like a Loose Cannon to DESTROY whatever semblance of Honor, Decency and Justice this country EVER had? Having attained my "Three Score and Ten" last year, I'd like to think that my voice makes a difference, NOT for me but for My Friends and Family who STILL have their lifetimes to live apres le donnie. In the Movie "1776", John Adams asks, "Is ANYBODY There? Does ANYBODY Care? Does ANYBODY SEE what I see?" Flouting the Rule of Law, Releasing Rewritten and Fallacious "Memos" written by a Moron (Nunes) on the "Intelligence" Commottee, no less! DAMNED Little intelligence is revealed in it, Especially when their Puppet decides NOT to release the Opposition's rebuttal! WHERE has Justice Fled? WHY are they allowed, NAY, Facillitated in their Treachery? IMPEACH Them ALL, NOW and relieve this country of Criminal Malfeasance and Treason! Rebel! Resist! RePudiate them until Mueller's Hammer falls on them ALL!
+8 # Krackonis 2018-02-10 18:46
Reminds me of the way democracies have died all over the world.

I would not be surprised if he appointed a horse to the Supreme court.
+1 # relegn 2018-02-11 07:23
Much of the public has already made a decision on their "stand" as regards our Supreme Leader. They wait now for Congress to act or submit to the loss of its' power to act.
0 # krazykwiltkatt 2018-02-12 18:36
The Clenched Fist Salute says it all. I suggest Americans read some history on what people did to survive the Fascists, Falangists, Nazis, Gulags,Beirut, Ruwanda, Sudan,Venezuela ,floods,famines ,etc. What is happening in Puerto Rico is also coming to the mainland.
0 # DickC 2018-02-13 23:38
The United States of America got what it voted for: an ignorant, bigoted racist who cares not for his fellow man. He cares only for himself, nobody else.

The United States of America deserves being Trumped to death.

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