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.

Comments 83

  1. Dwayne Woods January 30, 2017

    Douthat in the Nytimes has written a few insightful pieces on this point

    • Cherokee Freedmen February 1, 2017

      The title of this article describes Former President Obama perfectly. Also, the way the author describes the title is a perfect match of Former Presidents Obama and his administration. Obama used Executive Orders like Former President Andrew Jackson. Remember it was President Andrew Jackson who forced the Indians to move West forever enshrining the “Trail of Tears” after losing in the Supreme Court.

      And everyone has forgotten Benjamin Franklin Quote:

      “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
      For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
      For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
      For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
      For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
      And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”

      President Trump is enforcing the Immigration and Nationality Act created by the House of Representatives. This is a congressional law that President Trump is required to enforced under Congressional Rule of Law.

      • Andrew Lazarus February 2, 2017

        “President Trump is enforcing the Immigration and Nationality Act created by the House of Representatives.”

        I can’t imagine where you get this idea. There isn’t any provision for wholesale revocation of Green Cards, and that’s the one component of the ban that is being walked back immediately and that probably wouldn’t have made it past the courts.

  2. Matzo Ball January 30, 2017

    More clear differences of Trump and other authoritarians:

    1. Trump’s sidelineling of bureaucrats in order to “create a new reality” on implementing policy is resulting in a constant flow of leaks identifying who in the White House is responsible and why. There is a reason why Kremlinology is so difficult – Putin’s regime, for example, is very effective in obscuring intent in its inner circle.

    2. Last week has illustrated that the inability of the Trump camp to transition from campaigning to governing also extends to the media environment. As Conway and others have complained, they can no longer control the narrative through outbursts as they once were able to, and therefore have to try unexpected announcements (like the upcoming Supreme Court pick) to deflect from negative coverage of the presidency by a large array of news outlets.

    3. The inability of the Trump administration to demonstrate mass support and/or rationalizations the ban. The lack of counter-protests as well as religious, corporate, military, academic and legal defenders is illuminating. The majority of the GOP has quickly gone back to the “duck and cover” strategy on Trump, as seen before the election. Law enforcement reaction has varied: some CBP officers have defied the stay while police in the cities have been deferential to protestors. Isolation is the opposite of political control.

    • Michael Bruce Rosmer February 2, 2017

      “The inability of the Trump administration to demonstrate mass support and/or rationalizations the ban. The lack of counter-protests as well as religious, corporate, military, academic and legal defenders is illuminating.”

      This is where I think the media throws out a lot of deception through selective reporting. The same argument could have been made leading up the election and was reflected in the polls that Trump didn’t have the support and would lose (I personally even bet money on it), yet he won.

      It reminds me of something I was told years ago. “Liberals go out and protest and shout and scream and they look around and see everyone around them agreeing and think they are winning. What they don’t understand is this isn’t how conservatives do politics. Conservatives sit at home drinking cognac and writing checks.”

      The media is by and large so ridiculously left leaning that you don’t see what’s going on on the right. You don’t hear all the voices of support but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

  3. Benjamin Arthur Schwab January 30, 2017

    Dr. Pepinsky:

    I’m sorry for asking a selfish question but what does it mean for me, as a citizen of the US, whether or not Mr. Trump’s actions are a result of weakness or strength if they’re the same actions? Does it help provide predictive power on what future actions will be? Does it help provide predictive power on length of the government or how it will be replaced and with what? Does it have an impact on what resistance tactics, or even strategies, are most effective? How should I change what I do?

    If you’ve already given your answers then I apologize for asking for them again. I found your blog over the weekend and have read through some of the most recent posts. I really enjoy it. In one post you talked about differences about how to oppose an authoritarian, a bully, and a narcissist. That still doesn’t get at the questions I’ve asked here. I can make my own guesses but I would rather hear expert opinion.


    • NJ January 30, 2017

      I’d like to second Dr. Pepinsky’s questions! Great followups for a great article.

    • Pseudonymous January 30, 2017

      I think part of what he’s getting at is that for most of us, it does not matter. I am not personally going to foil the president, so it does me little good to spent my time developing and marrying The Correct Theory of DT. My job, as a regular person, is to make noise, offer support, pressure political figures, etc.

      There are tiers and types of resistance that need this information, but even they only need it now and then.

      Most of us put forward or believe theories that comfort us. We can logic it to death, but we’re just people. So, people who fear that someone less competent than them has power over them call him an evil genius. People who want to feel rational will choose the theories that paint him as dangerously unhinged, etc.

      The point, to me, is that we have to understand that whatever story we tell is probably more about us, our emotional state and the primary concerns of our lives, than some truth that leads us to something meaningful about DT.

      The answer, in my scenario, is not worry about what he is, his motivations, etc., but to *acknowledge what he does, then *focus on what I can do.

      If he is weak, he will fall quickly and then we all have the answer. If he operates from strength, then that is even more reason to ignore Theories of DT and focus on what contributions I can make, so that I can make them for as long as possible rather than tangle myself in the morass of understanding his strength.

      • Benjamin Arthur Schwab January 31, 2017

        I thank you for your reply, Pseudonymous. I think I might end up agreeing with you but I need to give it more thought. I wonder what it says about me that I’m comforted by the fact that DT, the populist, I so un-popular.

      • Pseudonymous February 1, 2017

        Well, it’s never entirely simple and I don’t mean it’s bad that we care about things in particular ways. I think it only matters when we become obsessive about it, because then we can drive ourselves batty or externalize it and become combative or defensive of our theory about why the house is on fire. In the latter instance, we not only don’t try to escape or put the fire out, we actively PREVENT others from escaping or putting out the fire by forcing them to remain “in negotiation” with us about why.

        So, it’s possible you are somewhere in a category of a unhealthily obsessed with whether or not you are liked and it’s an obsession that is damaging your well-being. Or, you could be in the broad category of recognizing that he has a dangerous agenda, and you focus on the hopeful reality that his policies are largely unwanted and he is disliked.Only you know the truth;-)

  4. TS January 30, 2017

    I’m afraid you have fallen into just the kind of black-and-white thinking that Trump thrives upon. The possibilities of a country’s leadership being either a weak narcissist or powerful authoritarian are not diametrically opposed – particularly in the U.S. Remember, the Office of the Presidency involves not just one, but multiple actors in power. What I see happening is that Trump is indeed a weak narcissist prone to semi-calculated outbursts. He even had an inkling of this when his campaign was faltering and he brought Bannon on. Bannon is the master of both propaganda and power-consolidation. Each realized they needed the other. Bannon can only operate with Trump moving the public, and Trump needs Bannon to conceptualize the propaganda and consolidate power. So, you have both situations occurring at once. Trump realizes his weakness, pulls Bannon into his official circle, and Bannon uses this as a great opportunity to centralize control.

    • RW January 30, 2017

      I can’t think of any way to support TS’s suggestion that Bannon is a master of power consolidation. That seems like a case of giving Bannon too much credit. What is Brannon’s history of successful power consolidation?

      • GPerry January 31, 2017

        Jump down thread and read Bannon’s own words. His goal is to destroy the state.

      • Joseph Brant January 31, 2017

        I’m well aware of his intentions, but what has he actually achieved? So far actions can be explained by him being an incompetent narcissist.

    • Taters January 30, 2017

      This. I think Mister Pepinsky’s parsing diverts from the fact that it doesn’t really matter upon which side of the evil v. incompetent Mobius Strip Trump’s administration resides. It’s not a binary of weak/ strong. The author of this post reads too much into Trump himself while not addressing the Robespierre angle ( not even including foreign interests and actors.)Trump has a degree of agency but it not running the show. If you trace Bannon’s career arc and read his own words about his intentions, Zunger’s read comes into focus.

  5. oregonism (@oreganism) January 30, 2017

    Couldn’t a weak and incompetent leader still be an authoritarian if the institutional bulwarks against him fail? The republican Congress marches almost in lockstep with him because they either agree with his aims or they are scared of his supporters. Trump has already made noises about simply ignoring the courts, and customs agents did exactly that on Friday and Saturday.

    The republican party failed to stop him. The majority in congress has decided not to stop him. The opposition party is too weak/outnumbered to stop him. The courts are being ignored, or at least the groundwork is being laid for the courts to be ignored. Then what? What is the recourse? “Calling our senators and holding them accountable” is meaningless if the constitutional system built to prevent a dictator has failed.

  6. Empressey January 30, 2017

    I agree with what I’m interpreting as the basic sentiment in the previous replies. Namely, that whether Trump is making these moves as a weak narcissist or powerful authoritarian are irrelevant to the consequences of those moves on ordinary citizens. What is the appropriate response in either case? How do we effectively oppose these moves without reliable courts, or effective political opposition?

  7. Nicholas Higgins January 30, 2017

    We assume that Trump is ‘The Leader’ in these discussions. If you take Trump as ‘The Puppet’, then a) who IS the leader and b) how does that realign all the pieces?

    • GPerry January 31, 2017

      Watch Bannon’s revealing talk on Buzzfeed a while back. He’s not alone but if there’s a mastermind I bet it’s him. He’s the one pulling the strings.

  8. MStewart January 30, 2017

    Mr. Pepinsky:
    My brother-in-law forwarded your article. It is a good and cogent read. Thank you.

    Yes, it could all be smoke with no fire. The result of a narcissist in over his head. However, it could also be that while Trump is not capable of the mechanical thinking of implementing evil, someone behind him is. I have never thought that Trump was brilliant, quite the opposite, I think he is half-literate with an ego that makes him think he is the biggest fish in the pond. People who are so self-engrossed are very easy to manipulate as long as their ego is not attacked or their abilities impugned. Their weakness is that they cannot recognize the manipulation or admit it. It may be that Putin is pulling Trump’s strings, or maybe it is Bannon. I do think that Bannon is capable of the point by point plotting to bring this nation to a tyranny. Trump is the front man, charismatic though unstable, but who is the person directing him?

    This line is the crux: 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. You are absolutely right.

    As you state:
    – 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. –

    This is where I am. I am a Kremlinologist, by training and degrees. The Trump Presidency has opened the flood gates for conspiratorial thinking, and wild political thought, unlike anything we have seen in the past 8 years. I will admit. between my own anxiety and that of friends and family asking for my thoughts, I have indulged in some speculation. Some of it is quite wild. Some of my early thoughts are being validated already in the first week. It is possible that one of my theories is right. I’m totally happy to be wrong though. I would like to be wrong.

    What I don’t want to see is that we, as a nation, are complacent. If it is weakness, then we will all be able to heave a sigh of relief at the end and look at each other and say “Well, weren’t we silly.” If it is strength, then we need to consider that now, because the fights will only get harder, and more personal. And if it is strength, we need to mobilize before his policies divide us and make it that much harder.

    Thank you your article.

  9. Ray Lawton January 30, 2017

    The problem with him being “just” weak and incompetent is that he has some very strong voices around him. So if he ISN’T grabbing for power then he is acting as a proxy for others to do so. The connection to Putin is already worrisome, but this post about Bannon and his opinions (cited from his own comments and actions) paints a picture of someone leaning into a great war: https://www.reddit.com/r/TrueReddit/comments/5qw1gy/is_donald_trump_just_a_pawn_in_steve_bannons_game/dd30r3x/

    Considering he is in on all the security meetings now and military personnel are not is beyond incompetent, it is extremely dangerous.

  10. katz January 30, 2017

    Isn’t “weak and incompetent” a misnomer if he nevertheless stays in power and gets what he wants? Eg, we’d normally consider not understanding SOP to be a sign of weakness because it would leave you unable to accomplish your goals. If it doesn’t, in what way is it weak?

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  13. sjh260 January 30, 2017

    I find little comfort in the possibilty that DT could be as incoherent and divided as Bush at War. We are still suffering greatly from the damage of that incoherent leadership.

  14. Exaybachay (@austingmackell) January 31, 2017

    Well I think there’s a bit of a false dichotomy there. The difference between “deliberate planning by an aspiring authoritarian” and “weakness and incoherence of administration by a narcissist” is mostly a matter of whether or not he succeeds. You have a bunch of far right assholes grabbing as much power as they can. If that blows up in their face, they were idiots, if it works, they were evil geniuses. Part of that depends on us, obviously.

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  18. Frank Romero January 31, 2017

    I would argue that some of the observational equivalences mentioned in the article fail to account for the speed at which all of the events are unfolding, and therefore do not have the same observable implications. For example, these actions taking place over several months would signify a weak leader, but those identical policy and administrative actions occurring within the first 2 weeks of the presidency show a strong leader trying to overwhelm the general public with a dizzying amount of activity.

    In short, observable implications need to include time as a variable to truly be equal with another.

  19. Themon the Bard January 31, 2017

    Just out of curiosity, does ANYONE see a sensible narrative where Trump is a good man trying to do good? This is the refrain of the people who elected him, and frankly, I don’t think there’s even a weak case to be made for that.

    • SDK February 2, 2017

      If you believe that immigration is dangerous and/or bad for the united states, that schools are failing and would be better off privatized, that we should stop sending our manufacturing overseas, and that the supreme court has overstepped its bounds in declaring abortion, gay right and (whisper it: miscegenation) legal — then Trump IS a good man trying to do good. Many people hold those starting assumptions and so they are going to interpret these first few weeks of news differently from those of us who hold diametrically opposed assumptions.

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  21. Barbara Grant-Yopko January 31, 2017

    He is manipulating the liberal media, and the liberal protestors, for the fools that they are. The overwhelming majority of the American public look at all these violent, incoherent protests and say “Thank God THESE people are not in charge anymore!!” Smart man.

    • SDK February 2, 2017

      Given that your candidate did not even win the popular vote (meaning that in any other country in the world he would not currently be President), you might want to edit the words “overwhelming majority” into something like “a really good number of people in America”.

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  24. herme January 31, 2017

    I don’t find any of the arguments saying it doesn’t matter whether he is isolated and incompetent or is consolidating dictatorial rule even slightly convincing.

    Sure it might not matter if you go out an protest tomorrow, but is anybody only thinking about that sign they will be holding in the crowd? Of course not, and what “it doesn’t matter” means in effect is that the truth of the situation doesn’t matter. And that, I must say, is disingenuous at best. Of course it matters.

  25. RW January 31, 2017

    People keep saying in the comments that it gives them no consolation if DT is best thought of as weak, but the article didn’t promise consolation. The article is advancing a different reading of DT and cautioning us not to be too sure about our analyses. Whether it’s a distinction without a difference depends on how you use the article. For Joe Citizen the difference might not matter but for people seek ways to oppose and constrain DT, it might matter.

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  29. caseyhinds February 1, 2017

    Whether it’s weakness & incoherence of administration by a narcissist (or dementia from early stages of Alzheimers or Lewy body disease – my theory) vs. deliberate planning by an aspiring authoritarian (Bannon), the potential for catastrophe is high for both. I think it will turn out to be a little of both. In any case, our response should be the same for both: Loud, vocal opposition to violations of democratic norms.

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  34. themiracle February 1, 2017

    I find this interpretation to be wildly hopeful, given the personalities involved and the history of bold narcissism.

  35. Jan Gabe February 1, 2017

    It’s the speed he is moving at via Executive Orders bypassing Congress that frightens me. It will be and is difficult for them to keep up With all the Executive Orders at the speed he is signing them and they are being implemented. Very hard to undo and regain a more reasonable and fair policy/law once it is in process and there is no changing the Supreme Court and their rulings once they are appointed and approved – their decisions shape our world

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  37. Ferdinand van Dieten February 2, 2017

    But keep in mind: Authoritarianism is not about a coup d’etat. it is not an totalitarian take over like Leninist revolutions. Fascism was and is a chaotic fragmented state, weak in its institutions, only strong in its aggression to “enemies”

  38. Paul Loop February 2, 2017

    All due respect: It’s not as likely that Trump chose Bannon to be the No. 1 voice — which you didn’t point out — on the NSC as it is that Bannon told Trump what to do. You have to focus not on the incompetent rantings and ramblings of the fool Trump, but the vision of the avowed wannabe Lenin, Stephen Bannon. You need to refocus.

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