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Donald Trump is dangerous when he’s losing

Donald Trump
Carlo Allegri | Reuters
Donald Trump

A few weeks back, I wrote a piece about Donald Trump titled "How to stop an autocracy."The essay began with the premise that Trump has a will to power and a contempt for the basic norms and institutions of American democracy, and then explored how to limit the damage. The answer, basically, was that Congress needs to do its damn job.

But after I wrote it, smart people argued the piece was built atop a mistake. Trump might have the will to power, but he doesn't have the discipline for it. Grim scenarios suggesting his presidency would grow too strong missed the likelier scenario that it would be extremely weak.

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Yuval Levin, editor of the journal National Affairs and a leading conservative intellectual, made the case to me over email:

I think the more plausible cause for worry is that he will be a dysfunctional president. He seems to have come in without a clear sense of the nature and character of the presidency in our system, and he's not playing that role but rather using the presidency as a platform for playing the role he has always played. And for now the White House team seems to be reinforcing that rather than counteracting it. The result of that seems more likely to be dysfunction than autocracy.

Levin's argument is convincing. Trump's White House is the picture of dysfunction. He isn't focused or effective in his application of executive power. His staff is riven with infighting, inexperienced with the mechanics of government, and unable to corral their boss's worst impulses. Trump's slipshod executive orders are being easily batted back by courts, and his agenda hasn't even made it to Congress yet. How is he going to go from here to strongman?

I felt better. And then I talked to Ron Klain.

Klain served as chief of staff to both Vice President Al Gore and Vice President Joe Biden. He led Hillary Clinton's debate prep — which is to say, he was deeply involved in their effort to understand Trump's psychology — and he was widely rumored to be the frontrunner for chief of staff in Clinton's White House. He understands how government works, and I've always found him unusually sober in his view of it.

"Trump's response has been to blame the institutions recording his incompetence rather than to fix the underlying problem."

Klain had a theory that combined Trump's authoritarian impulses and troubled White House management in a way I found hard to dismiss. In Klain's view, it's Trump's dysfunctional relationship with the government that catalyzes his illiberal tendencies — the more he is frustrated by the system, the more he will turn on the system.

"If Trump became a full-fledged autocrat, it will not be because he succeeds in running the state," Klain said. "It's not going to be like Julius Caesar, where we thank him and here's a crown. It'll be that he fails, and he has to find a narrative for that failure. And it will not be a narrative of self-criticism. It will not be that he let you down. He will figure out who the villains are, and he will focus the public's anger at them."

We've seen it already. When Trump is frustrated, he turns on the system.

As we spoke, examples of this tendency of Trump's were already in abundance. There was the campaign, of course, where Trump responded to polls showing him behind by tweeting that if he lost, it would be evidence that the election was rigged.

The pattern has only intensified since Trump took the oath of office. After US District Judge James Robart ruled against Trump's travel ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries, Trump tweeted:

The background to Robart's rejection of Trump's ban was a festival of unforced errors on the Trump administration's part. His team had drafted the executive order sloppily and without running it through the agencies that would typically refine this type of policy. The administration was unprepared to answer even basic questions the court posed and, within a matter of days, would flip-flop on the crucial question of whether the directive applied to green card holders. Trump was reportedly shaken enough by the outcome that he centralized the process of releasing executive orders through Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

But Trump's public response was to turn voter anger toward the court. After branding Robart — a George W. Bush appointee described by colleagues as a mainstream Republican — a "so-called judge," he told his followers that "if something happens blame him and court system."

A few days later, Trump held a press conference to lash the media for its coverage of his presidency. It is worth, before digging into what Trump said, to establish a basic fact about the Trump presidency so far: He has received mostly negative media coverage because he is running a chaotic, leaky, and ineffective administration. The press corps would breathe a great sigh of relief if they felt able to cover Trump more normally — an impulse you can see in the overwhelmingly positive coverage that Trump gets when he reads a clear speech off a teleprompter or names a qualified candidate like Gen. Jim Mattis to his Cabinet.

But the Trump White House has made little progress on its top legislative priorities, leading to constant complaints from members of Congress. It has kept reporters busy with warring factions badmouthing one another to various media outlets. It has both named fewer candidates to key roles and gotten fewer candidates confirmed than other administrations at this point in their terms. Trump himself keeps running over his administration's message and strategy with early morning tweets and strange behavior, like when he responded to provocations from North Korea in full view of guests at Mar-a-Lago.

"In a world where [institutions] don't let [Trump] do what he wants, he thinks these institutions are unpatriotic and need to be destroyed." -Yascha Mounk, Harvard University lecturer on political theory

But here, too, Trump's response has been to blame the institutions recording his incompetence rather than to fix the underlying problem. At his Thursday press conference, he went to war with the media.

"The press has become so dishonest that if we don't talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people, tremendous disservice," he said. "We have to talk about it, to find out what's going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control."

A day later, Trump turned up the heat, branding the press "the enemy of the American people" — a startlingly authoritarian comment for an American president to make.

At a rally in Florida on Saturday, Trump punched the message home before 9,000 screaming supporters. The media, he said, has "become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out oftentimes on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can. They don't get away with it."

Why failure makes Trump more dangerous

I'm sitting in my office with Yascha Mounk having the kind of conversation that would have sounded insane two years ago, but has become commonplace now. Mounk studies the way liberal democracies tip back toward authoritarianism — a phenomenon we've seen most recently in Hungary and Turkey, and I am asking him whether the media has tipped into hysteria. Whether I have tipped into hysteria. Isn't all this talk of authoritarianism, of autocracy, crazy? This is America, after all.

But sitting in my office, Mounk doesn't laugh it off. His concern is palpable. And his argument is persuasive.

The distinction you need to make with Trump, Mounk argues, is that he's not an ideological authoritarian but a contextual one. He is not entering office with a program to weaken the judiciary and bulldoze legislative roadblocks, as Viktor Orbán did in Hungary. His dangerous tendencies, rather, are reactive to the situations in which he finds himself.

"In a world where institutions let him do what he wants, he doesn't have a problem with institutions," Mounk says. Think of Trump's friendly relationship with the media back when he felt the media was friendlier to him — a comparison the president himself made at his press conference. "Remember, I used to give you a news conference every time I made a speech, which was like every day," Trump said, almost wistfully.

"But," Mounk continues, "in a world where they don't let him do what he wants, he thinks these institutions are unpatriotic and need to be destroyed." That would have sounded hyperbolic to me if, later that day, Trump hadn't tweeted that the New York Times, NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN were "the enemy of the American people."

This is a strange facet of Trump's persona, but it's an important one. His illiberal instincts come out when he's losing, not when he's winning. Think back to the presidential debates. When they began, Trump had pulled nearly even with Clinton, and he entered the first debate with a calm, presidential strategy. It was only once he was losing that he threatened to throw Hillary Clinton in jail.

Of course, losing makes you weaker, not stronger. Trump's anger at the press or at the courts or at Congress poses little threat if his approval ratings linger in the 40s or 30s. But imagine Trump spends years being stymied by the system and marinating in fury toward the institutions he feels have foiled him. He spends years telling his supporters that the courts are making them less safe, that the press is their enemy, that the congress is corrupt. And then, all at once, Trump gains the power and popularity to do something about it.

"The dangerous scenario is where things have been going badly for a while," Mounk says. "Trump is angry at the media, angry at the courts. And then there's an external event that gives him a moment of opportunity to push through those changes."

Illiberalism, not autocracy

Before entertaining hypotheticals, it is worth being clear about which dangers are plausible and which are not. An autocrat is "a ruler who has absolute power," and Trump will not become that. "Authoritarian," which is the other word that gets tossed around, is a leader "not constitutionally responsible to the people." Trump isn't headed there, either. His instincts may echo those of authoritarians in other countries, but his powers and institutional context do not.

The threat Trump poses is of illiberal policies and, potentially, an illiberal political movement, not autocracy.

He isn't going to push through a constitutional amendment allowing him to pack the courts with sympathetic judges, as Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did — indeed, Mounk and others I spoke to were comforted by Trump's Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, who is a principled conservative, not an administration crony.

But Trump is already telling supporters the media is part of "the corrupt system" he was sent to destroy. He has already mused about legislation making it easier to sue journalism organizations for libel. He has suggested using the antitrust powers of the Justice Department to retaliate against Amazon for the Washington Post's coverage of his campaign. Trump's son-in-law and consigliere, Jared Kushner, is already pressuring CNN's parent company, Time Warner, to soften the cable network's coverage of the president.

Trump wants the president to have vastly more power than he currently does to detain and reject travelers, immigrants, and refugees — and he would obviously like it to be possible to do so based on a religious test the courts would currently reject. His team, however, has grander designs yet than that. When Trump adviser Stephen Miller said that "our opponents, the media, and the world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned," he was wrong. They will be questioned. But if given the opportunity, it is not hard to imagine Miller and his colleagues trying to jam increased presidential powers through Congress so the questions cease.

Similarly, Trump is furious about the leaks emerging out of his own bureaucracy. He wants the leakers prosecuted — a stance he shares with his predecessor, Barack Obama — but it isn't difficult to imagine him making a jump toward broader surveillance powers to catch, or at least quell, government leakers.

Then there is the scariest aspect of the Trump campaign: his flirtations with encouraging violence among his supporters. At a St. Louis rally, he lamented that "nobody wants to hurt each other anymore." This, he argued, was empowering the protesters organizing at his events. "Protesters, they realize there are no consequences to protesting anymore. There used to be consequences. There are none anymore."

In another case, Trump made a promise to his crowd. You protect me, he said, and I'll protect you. "If you see someone getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Knock the hell out of them. I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise."

At a subsequent rally, a Trump supporter sucker-punched a protester in full view of cameras, and was charged by police with assault. On Meet the Press that Sunday, Trump said he was "looking into" paying the man's legal fees, as promised (he didn't ultimately do so, as far as we know).

An incident from August 2015 is also worth noting. Two young Trump supporters, Scott and Steve Leader, were charged in the beating of a homeless Mexican man. They found him sleeping outside a subway station and began hitting him with a metal pole. According to police, Scott Leader justified the assault by telling them, "Donald Trump was right — all these illegals need to be deported."

Asked to react to the beating, Trump said he had no knowledge of it, which would have been fine. But he didn't stop there. "I will say that people who are following me are very passionate," Trump replied. "They love this country, and they want this country to be great again."

So, back to Mounk's "dangerous scenario."

What would Donald Trump's Patriot Act look like?

Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama faced domestic terrorist attacks that could have, and sometimes did, drive the country into hysteria. For Bush, of course, it was 9/11 — the deadliest attack on the homeland in history. But 9/11-level attacks are difficult to pull off.

The attacks on Obama's watch were smaller — they featured radicalized individuals firing guns, or setting off homemade bombs, in crowds. These attacks aren't as deadly as a 9/11-like strike, but they are hard to prevent in a big country that offers easy access to firearms and combustible materials.

The Obama administration struggled to maintain calm in the aftermath of those events. The gunmen could kill, the bombmakers could murder, but neither could threaten the United States of America in any serious way. The threat to America, Obama believed, was the terror itself — the way we could be provoked into overreaction, into blunder, into panic. The war in Iraq did us far more damage than 9/11, and intelligence analysts believe that both al-Qaeda and ISIS think it helps their recruiting to lure America into attacking Muslim countries.

The Trump administration would face no such dilemma. Rather than managing post-attack hysteria, Trump would amplify it, feed off it. His reaction after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, offers a sense of his instincts:

Now imagine if Trump had been president on the day of the nightclub shooting and, with Steve Bannon's help, had managed to give a tightly honed speech presenting his warnings as prescient, focusing the country's rage on Muslims, and channeling the backlash toward his policy ends.

"My great fear," says Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist who studies democracies, "is that if we have a major terrorist attack on the United States, that the psychology of fear that sets in in these circumstances naturally gives a leader like Trump enormous scope to abridge civil liberties, amend constitutional guarantees, and move in a more authoritarian direction."

Some analysts even suggest Trump wants this kind of attack and is laying the rhetorical groundwork for it. Jack Goldsmith, a top Justice Department official under Bush, has arguedthat Trump wants his travel ban overturned, because he is "setting the scene to blame judges after an attack that has any conceivable connection to immigration." In a chilling New Yorker article, Ryan Lizza quotes Todd Breasseale, a former Department of Homeland Security official, saying, "I am fully confident that an attack is exactly what he wants and needs."

Imagine Trump spends the next year furious at the media and the courts and the leaks within his own bureaucracy — warning that they are making us less safe and that they are the people's enemies — and then there is a terrorist attack that pushes the country to rally around its leader.

What does Trump's rhetoric sound like in the aftermath? How likely would he be to offer tacit, indirect support to violence against mosques — particularly given how resistant he's been to condemning the rise in anti-Semitic threats in recent weeks?

What does Trump's version of the Patriot Act look like? How would he expand the government's powers of surveillance after a terror attack — and would he use them against the media and recalcitrant elements of his own bureaucracy? How much would he expand his travel ban in the aftermath of an event that he thought could be used to justify it?

Nor would it end there. "As for other options in a post-attack scenario, just look back to 9/11," Matt Olsen, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the New Yorker. "C.I.A. black sites, enhanced interrogations, Gitmo, and warrantless surveillance will all be on the table. In addition, regardless of nationality, there will be changes to immigration and refugee policies."

And would would stop Trump? Congressional Republicans? They are falling in line behind him now, when he is unpopular. It is difficult to believe they would try to constrain him when he is popular when the country is scared, and when an election is nearing.

None of this is inevitable, or even probable. I'd put the chances against a scenario like this at 70 or 80 percent, at least. But those were roughly Clinton's chances of winning the presidential election. If there's been a lesson of the past year, it's that outcomes with a mere 20 to 30 percent probability really can happen.

Trump's doom loop: incompetence breeds failure breeds illiberalism 

In the aftermath of Trump's election, I spoke to top liberals terrified that Trump would outflank them, and quickly. If he had given a conciliatory inaugural address, named some compromise candidates to key posts, filled his administration with competent veterans of government, and began his term by working on an infrastructure bill that Chuck Schumer could support, he would be at or above 60 percent in the polls, the media would be covering him positively, and the Democratic Party would be split between those who wanted to work with Trump and those who wanted to resist everything he did. In that world, Trump might be a big fan of America's political institutions right now.

Liberals aren't afraid Trump will outflank them anymore. He launched his presidency with a series of speeches, appointments, and executive orders that have made him radioactive among congressional Democrats. He's running an understaffed, inexperienced government even as he provokes our enemies and alienates our friends. Trump is burning both political capital and time. It is significantly less likely now than it was a month ago that he will be able to replace Obamacare or pass a tax reform bill.

This is the hard part about failure in American politics: It feeds on itself, perpetuates itself. Trump's low poll numbers make it harder for him to win Democratic support on, well, anything. The inability to get anything done feeds his low poll numbers. The same goes for how Trump runs his White House. The Trump administration is a chaotic, leaky place, and that leads to negative press coverage of the Trump White House, which leads to more chaos and leaks as scared aides try to push blame for the disaster onto their rivals.

It is easy to imagine Trump, in a year, cornered in his own White House, furious at the manifold enemies he blames for his failures, and cocooned within an ever-smaller and more radical group of staffers and media outlets that tell him what he wants to hear and feed his grievances and resentments.

The likeliest outcome of that is Republicans lose the midterm elections and Trump loses yet more power. But that's not the only possible outcome. And this is an age in which it is worth considering unlikely outcomes.

Toward the end of our discussion, Mounk said something I found chilling. "The argument that government competence is necessary for Trump to do damage is made by people who have tried do things in government well and without destroying institutions. So they are deeply impressed by how difficult it is to improve the world through government. But they haven't had the experience of just trying to destroy things or ratchet up tension. Their lived experience may not apply to the things Trump will want to do."

Commentary by Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox. Follow him/her on Twitter @ezraklein.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.