An essay by Yonatan Zunger entitled “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” is making the rounds. Such essays are frightening to many. And yet they must be read critically. I am equally taken by the argument that everything that Zunger identifies is evidence not of a deliberate planning by an aspiring authoritarian, but of the exact opposite: the weakness and incoherence of administration by a narcissist.
One of the many things that studying authoritarian politics has taught me is that from the perspective of the outsider, weak leaders often act like strong leaders, and strong leaders often act like they are indifferent. Weak leaders have every incentive to portray themselves as stronger than they are in order to get their way. They gamble on splashy policies. They escalate crises. This is just as true for democrats as for dictators. (Note the parallels with Jessica Weeks on constraints on authoritarian rulers and their foreign policy behavior.)
The consummate strong ruler is one who does not issue any command or instruction at all because she does not have to—her will is implemented already. Indonesia’s strongman leader Soeharto was sometimes portrayed as The Smiling General, an almost aloof Javanese sultan. How incongruous this is: When Soeharto came to power, at least 500,000 people were killed! That is strength. More precisely, it is power.
How to square my perspective on President Trump’s new administration with the more frightening alternatives? The problem is what a social scientist would call “observational equivalence” of two diametrically opposing arguments. We have two theories of why something is happening, and yet we cannot tell which is the “correct” theory based on the data that we observe. We have precious little evidence about what is happening within President Trump’s administration. What we observe is its output: executive orders, staffing decisions, and personnel management. What we don’t observe is everything that we need to know to interpret those outputs.
Observational equivalence is a big problem when studying political power, as political scientists have known for decades (PDF, PDF). We cannot infer what someone wants, or whether power is being exerted effectively, based on outcomes alone. It is probably for this reason that there is a genre of political science writing comprised of carefully revisiting an administration’s history and reinterpreting it to show either (1) the surprisingly effective use of power behind the scenes or (2) administrative incoherence or division. The best example of the former is probably Fred Greenstein’s reinterpretation of Eisehower, entitled The Hidden-Hand Presidency. Bush at War gives a moderate view of the latter.
Let me explain how observational equivalence works with an example. President Trump may have brought Steve Bannon into the NSC because he is consolidating power and intends to sideline all regular establishment players in the formulation of American foreign policy. Or he might have brought Bannon into the NSC because he is so isolated that he needs someone who he believes he can trust, and everyone in the foreign policy establishment is dragging feet and dissembling. The former is a sign of strength. The latter is a sign of weakness. Both have the same observable implication.
Another example: the swift release of President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration without much advice or feedback from the affected bureaucracies may be evidence that the administration is completely centralizing control within the office of the president. Or it might be because the administration does not understand standard operating procedures in a presidential administration. Or it might be because they worry that they have lost the narrative, need to do something, and a gross Nazi is calling the shots. Again, only the first is a sign of strength. The latter two are signs of weakness. All three of the same observable implications, but have radically different interpretations.
When reading commentary on contemporary U.S. politics, it is best to recognize any attempt to establish a Coherent Theory of the Trump Presidency based on public outputs for the Kremlinology that it is. The hot takes of “I have a theory that makes sense of all of this!” are the qualitative equivalent of curve-fitting. Don’t ignore these hot takes; one of them is probably right, after all. But understand what is missing. From my view, the conclusion to draw from the past ten days is just how little power this president is able to exert over national politics.