Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders

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.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics
83 comments on “Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders
  1. […] Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders […]

  2. Ann Figaro says:

    From the looks of it, we do not have the time to decide which stand President Trump stands on. I believe we must take him at his word, that he is trying to give the democracy back to the people. But he hasn’t seen yet that the people are not the those whom originally supported him – it is the 325 million of us that have our homes here.

    Trump has revealed many of the weaknesses of our government which incredible speed. Our Senate leaders are not representing our beliefs, and it has become quite clear that the only way to reach them is by physically showing up, calling them, and messaging them on social media outlets.

    Our Senate must be held accountable to the people. They need extreme vetting before we let them vote on anything further.

    https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/compare/1/trump-nominations

  3. […] Source: Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders | Tom Pepinsky […]

  4. hvkhvhb says:

    what utter bollocks.

  5. Aaron says:

    What of the possibility that weak leaders can, through their incompetence, stumble into authoritarianism?

    In this case, maybe putting Bannon on the NSC was due to Trump’s personal isolation among the political and military elite, but it could nonetheless have the effect of consolidating power (which Trump could later exploit).

  6. Firefly says:

    check this video

  7. […] Covering Trump the Reuters Way Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable by Tom Pepinsky Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders by Tom Pepinsky House Republicans push forward anti-union ‘right-to-work’ bill The Elected Coup […]

  8. […] Is the White House testing the waters for a coup, or are we seeing the flailing of a weak and incompetent administration? […]

  9. […] each had compelling counter-point articles explaining problems with the analysis in each: “Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders” and “Will the Real Psychometric Targeters Please Stand […]

  10. […] It’s Too Late to Stop Fascism, According to Stefan Zweig, George Prochnik, The New Yorker; Weak and Incompetent Leaders Act Like Strong Leaders, writes Cornell University professor of government Tom Pepinsky; Trump’s Not Hitler, […]

  11. […] writes Tom Pepinsky , citing this as an example of “observational […]

  12. […] second essay is by political scientist Tom Pepinsky, in response. It’s called “Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders,” and it makes a simple point: The very same actions Zunger interprets as a devious, coordinated […]

  13. […] Weak and Incompetent Leaders Act Like Strong Leaders (Tom Pepinsky, Associate Professor of Government, Cornell University) Even though the argument here is that Trump is not truly authoritarian, I posit that it makes no difference because his actions are what influence Americans and the rest of the world. […]

  14. […] but of the exact opposite: the weakness and incoherence of administration by a narcissist.“ Trump is simly weak ruler. See also this Post of his blog on the use of Media by narcissts and […]

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