Netflix dropped its fifth season of “House of Cards” last week — don’t worry, no spoilers here — inviting America to yet another binge-watching tour through a fictional version of our federal government.
There are plenty of ways the show asks viewers to suspend their disbelief (seriously, no one saw that journalist get casually murdered in a busy Metro station?), but the biggest one is its insistence that politicians and other Washington players are devious, competent masterminds manipulating their way to power.
Devious, sure. But masterminds? Please.
In 2017, “the grand conspiracy theory of government has seen better days,” writes the Acton Institute’s Dylan Pahman in a thought-provoking piece at Public Discourse. “What is at work here,” he argues, is rather “profound incompetence.”
Incompetence, Pahman explains, is not the same as stupidity: “It is not uncommon for people to complain about how stupid Trump or Obama (or whoever they don’t like) is.” This might be a guilty pleasure of politics, but real incompetence in politics, Pahman argues, is actually “a failure of the division of labor”:
Rather than choosing the most competent persons for any given public position, [voters] often elect people who reflect their passions and prejudices, and those people appoint others who will further their political careers. I think Mark Twain understood this when he wrote, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.” This is not exactly a formula for competence.
It is precisely this dynamic that makes it so difficult for partisans to see incompetence in government when it happens on their own team. But perhaps in this era of Trump — when all the drama and absurdity of politicking seems be perpetually turned up to 11 — incompetence is easier to notice.
This week, for example, President Trump started his Monday with a spree of early morning tweets about his stalled executive order to halt refugee admissions and immigration from six Muslim-majority countries.
“People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” he wrote, ranting about the “watered down, politically correct version” of the ban in his second executive order, plus the existence constitutional checks and balances.
The ban is currently awaiting Supreme Court review, and the tweets were noticed by Neal Katyal, one of the attorneys arguing against Trump’s Justice Department. “It’s kinda odd to have the defendant in [Hawaii v. Trump] acting as our co-counsel,” he tweeted. “We don’t need the help but will take it!”
Katyal’s happy because his goal is to demonstrate Trump’s order is functionally the “Muslim ban” the president advocated as a candidate, while DOJ lawyers argue it’s a temporary, religion-neutral pause giving Homeland Security time to improve vetting procedures. If Katyal can convince SCOTUS Trump’s order is “rooted in religious animus and intended to bar Muslims from this country,” as lower courts have found, he likely wins.
You know what helps him prove that? The president going on Twitter to contradict his own DOJ, insist on using the word “ban” and propose a revival of the original, harsher executive order.
You don’t have to be a Trump critic to realize this. George Conway, husband of spinmeister Kellyanne Conway, broke a years-long Twitter silence to note as much. “These tweets may make some people feel better, but they certainly won’t help [the DOJ] get 5 votes in SCOTUS,” he wrote. “Every sensible lawyer […] would agree with me (as some have already told me),” he added. “The point cannot be stressed enough that tweets on legal matters seriously undermine” Trump’s agenda.
Now, I confess I’m not exactly sad to see Trump undermining what I believe to be an onerous and unfair policy that puts innocent refugees in danger while offering no real improvement to U.S. security. But more important for my immediate point is the president’s demonstration of persistent incompetence in these tweets.
Despite advice to shut up from friend and foe alike, he refuses to stop tweeting. This is because he was elected not for his competence in the Oval Office but for his reflection of his voters’ “passions and prejudices.”
This problem, of course, is by no means limited to Trump or to any one politician, party or country. It’s pretty universal. That’s why, as Pahman suggests, the “solution is to support limited government.”
This is not an easy suggestion, sure, but limiting government limits the damage incompetence can do. Limiting the office of the presidency is particularly overdue, and it is still my best — if increasingly tenuous — hope for the next four to eight years of politics.