He misunderstands power, but that misunderstanding could still work for us.
There are two kinds of power — let’s call them hard and soft. Hard power has to do with authority, while soft power is the capacity to reach beyond one’s domain and influence others. It is the power to shape events, to change minds, even to redirect history. Donald Trump is fixated on hard power to the exclusion of the other.
At a minimum, a president’s soft power usually includes the ability to set an agenda, but Trump is fumbling this away. The more he tries to grasp power, the less power he projects. The more he resorts to his limited powers (I’ll fire you!), the less power is drawn to him.
For most of his life, he’s had the power to define his surroundings. Whatever the objective truth, this man lives deep inside his subjectivity, surrounded by men and women who tip-toe around him. His payroll is his domain. Do what he says, or he’ll fire you. That’s hard power. That’s power he knows well.
His very nature requires him to test his limits, and he does find that courts from time to time will circumscribe his caprice, will tell him no. But even that circumscription is a manifestation of the power his money buys him; he wins, unless you’ve got the resources to make a court contradict him. That’s hard power.
Trump is the chief executive of the federal government. He clearly has the direct authority to fire Robert Mueller, the Department of Justice’s special counsel on the Russia/election affair. That’s hard power. But the fact that he’d even contemplate such a measure demonstrates how little he understands soft power.
Soft power is the capacity to persuade, to summon and direct momentum, to lead. It’s the ability to rally lawmakers to an agenda. Trump did that when he got the House to pass a repeal of Obamacare, and now he’s turned around and called the House Republicans “mean” for their efforts. Will they follow his lead next time? How much of a hit to their loyalty was that? Wait till the attack ads use the president’s words against them and we’ll see.
The presidency is ultimately an exercise in soft power, thanks to the possibility of impeachment. Trump, like all presidents, is serving at the pleasure of the people and their representatives. If he does something egregious with his hard power, something like firing Mueller, his presidency will collapse in an instant.
These days, there is in the background a simple calculus: do the Republicans rip off the Band-Aid and try their luck with President Pence? Nobody wants to talk about that, to move the agenda in that direction — just talking about it saps team GOP’s soft power — but neither do they want to be part of a criminal enterprise or to lose their jobs. Congress does hold the ultimate veto power, and if lawmakers feel their own seats are in jeopardy over a scandal, the issue will quicken overnight. They will be loyal to Trump right up until the moment they’re not.
Trump should be using his influence to move the agenda on reforming that bundle of job-killers known as Dodd-Frank, and especially to take down the evil and extortionate Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. That little fiefdom is a blight on our system of governance. One can only imagine how its abuses will metastasize if it’s not dealt with now.
The CFPB is a bunch of left-wing Democrats, accountable to nobody, granted the authority to define “unfair” and “abusive” practices in financial services, and to seize vast sums of money on its own say-so. Its director, Richard Cordray, is the “single most powerful official in the entire U.S. Government, other than the president,” according to a federal appeals court that found its structure unconstitutional.
Now is the time to take it down. The House has passed its bill, Treasury has come out with its recommendations, the Senate is taking up the issue, but where’s Trump? Off muttering darkly about Mueller. Who is going to pay any attention to policy when there is always a new soap opera coming out of the White House? What are click-hungry journalists going to write about? That’s how your soft power dissipates. People stop caring about whatever it was you were trying to do.
The distractions make it difficult for Republicans to move an agenda forward, although both Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have done everything possible to create an avenue for their legislative priorities. They’re like spouses trying to make a bad marriage work, staying positive, knowing the next offense could lead to divorce.
The one upside to the constant sideshow is that Republicans can risk taking up sensitive issues — anything prone to demagoguery — as policy is simply not going to dominate the agenda. The next two years will be all about Trump. The 2018 election will be all about Trump. If the voters tire of his act and Democrats sweep into the House, then we’ll surely have impeachment at the top of the agenda for the second two years of his term. I’m assuming the Republicans retain their slim majority in the Senate, simply because most of the Senate seats up for election in 2018 belong to Democrats already.
What we know for sure is that there is a small window of opportunity here, another year, maybe, where Republicans have enough soft and hard power in the aggregate to get a few things done. The 52-48 split in the Senate means there isn’t going to be any radical reform, any draining of the swamp. But this might be the time for McConnell to exert some of his own hard power, to test the Dems’ resolve to filibuster. It’s worth the fight to kneecap the CFPB.
After all, a federal appeals court has ruled that the CFPB’s independent structure is unconstitutional, that agencies must be headed either by a commission or an official who reports to the executive branch. Congress hasn’t passed a law to remedy this yet, but in theory, Trump could go ahead and fire Cordray now.
Now there’s a win-win. Trump gets to fire someone, he gets to test the limits of his power, he gets to make his enemies holler, and it’s all for a good cause.