The words ‘weak’ and ‘dictator’ are hardly presidential. Donald Trump as President of the United States commands America’s unrivalled military, diplomatic and fiscal resources. Furthermore, he is widely recognised as the leader of the free world.
Yet lately the word ‘weak’ has been used to describe someone other than the President’s ineffectual son in law Jared Kushner. Trump was largely absent from congressional negotiations during both of the recent government shutdowns, leaving Republican lawmakers to thrash out the budget on their own. Some periodicals took this as evidence for the extent to which the President’s own control over the House of Representatives is increasingly constrained.
The President’s recent political absence has also coincided with his increasing seclusion for the media. Gone are the incautious days of the early administration when the doors of the Oval office were thrown open for TIME journalists, with press briefings now sidelined and all audio recordings suppressed.
In fact much of Trump’s first year in office was spent in exile from the city which voted 91% in favour of the Democrats in the 2016 election and whose media remains almost universally hostile to him. Instead the President retreats to his Floridan residence at Mar-a-Lago where, at ease within the setting of what is effectively a royal court, pleasure rather than politics can govern the tedium of a presidential term. NBC has gone so far as to create a tracker measuring the number of days Trump has spent on golf resorts since his inauguration. At the time of writing it was 96, suggesting a president more comfortable on the golf course than the floors of congress.
Donald Trump is evidently not an absentee autocrat nor is America an authoritarian state, despite historical analogues to the contrary. The American press is free to criticise the President thanks to generous libel laws. Civic institutions also remain strong, as demonstrated by judicial blocks on the proposed Muslim travel ban or the ongoing Russia inquiry conducted by various intelligence agencies.
Nonetheless, comparisons between Trump and Hitler continue to flourish because the Nazi regime constitutes one of the few historical arenas for which there remains a sustained interest among the general public and because the Third Reich’s abhorrence is almost universally agreed upon across the political spectrum.
It is surprising then that amidst the recent plethora of crude comparisons between Trump and the Nazi regime no one has yet mentioned the late Hans Mommsen’s description of Hitler as a ‘weak dictator’.
Hans Mommsen is famous for having challenged the popular perception of the Third Reich as a totalitarian police state. He highlighted the fact that the Fuhrer’s day tended to begin at about noon, included a lengthy stroll (downhill), before a film was screened in the evening. It follows that all this ambling left barely any time for personal governance.
This revelation led Mommsen to instead theorise a dictatorship where power was balkanized and authority divided between a series of competing government institutions. Amidst this organisational chaos Hitler appeared an almost peripheral figure who Mommsen described as “unwilling to take decisions, frequently uncertain, exclusively concerned with upholding his prestige and personal authority, influenced in the strongest fashion by his current entourage, in some aspects a weak dictator”.
That quotation could easily have come from an opinion editorial in the American press. In essence Hans Mommsen’s description of a ‘weak dictator’ conforms entirely to the current perception of Trump as an ineffective autocrat, whose grand ambitions are left largely unrealised owing to his lack of either political aptitude or ability. Twitter tirades, afterall, are no surrogate for actual political engagement. Through this prism of thought all of the recent jockeying between the Republican establishment, presidential advisers and intelligence agencies can be interpreted as the direct results of a power vacuum at the top of goverment.
Yet the image of Trump as a ‘weak dictator’, whose fickle policies are shaped by whoever was last to whisper in his ear, fails to appreciate the true dynamic of power within the administration. It seems that the American press have made the same mistake about Trump that Mommsen did concerning Hitler, with neither realising that malleability can exist alongside dominance.
By contrast the Apprentice offers a more nuanced perspective on Donald Trump’s nascent presidential leadership. The programme’s format saw the magnate give an identical task to two rival teams of contestants, who must then rely upon their own initiative to achieve a specific solution. Trump would only return at the show’s end once the assorted teams of sycophants had fought it out for his favour. Boardroom scenes then became little more than a corporate Jurassic Park with strength, rather than reasoning, serving as the main means by which Trump measured success. Consequently the most aggressive or convincing contestants tended to triumph in a Darwinian fashion which Trump himself would actively encourage.
Washington today is the brainchild of Trump’s understanding of television as a form of politics and therefore the logic that politics can be reduced to little more than a television show. Like the Apprentice Trump focuses upon broad political tasks, whose nature is sufficiently unclear that the wider administration can interpret the president’s general objectives as it sees fit.
In an administration where political favour is tied to results it is no surprise that individual initiative is encouraged and that competition flourishes. Staffers struggle for influence while careers rise and fall in accordance with their ability to fulfil Trump’s legislative agendas. Hence the departures of; Michael Flynn, Reince Preibus, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci whose presence was as fleeting as their attainments.
Amidst all of this boardroom infighting the White House’s primary resident enjoys the luxury of relative inactivity. Trump can afford to sit in the Oval office or at Mar-a-Lago and wait until a clear winner emerges. Remember that if the president only ever fires losers then he can only ever be on the winning side. Chaos should not be confused with weakness. Afterall, the House always wins.