A wise psychoanalyst once told me (sort of): look at what Trump does, not what he says

A wise psychoanalyst once told me, “Stop looking at what you’re saying, look at what you’re doing.” I wish journalists applied a similar rule to Trump.

Yesterday, Trump said some whatever about the “archaic” rules of Congress, and this is what Aaron Blake, a journalist at The Washington Post, has to say in response:

Whether this is just him [Trump] blowing off steam or signaling what lies ahead, it’s significant. Because it suggests a president, yet again, who doesn’t agree with his own powers being limited or even questioned. Remember when senior policy adviser Stephen Miller declared “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned?” This is more of that kind of attitude. He wants more power — and he wants it quickly. It’s not difficult to connect this to his past admiration for authoritarian leaders, and these comments are likely to give Democrats (and even some in the GOP establishment) plenty of heartburn. This is a demonstrated pattern for him, for all the reasons listed at the top of this post.

Oy. I know journalists (and academics like Timothy Snyder) love this narrative of Trump as authoritarian, but again, look at what he does, not what he says.

If Trump were serious about consolidating his power, he might start by, oh, I don’t know, consolidating his power. Because while Trump talks, this is what he’s doing, or not doing:

The Senate has confirmed 26 of Trump’s picks for his Cabinet and other top posts. But for 530 other vacant senior-level jobs requiring Senate confirmation, the president has advanced just 37 nominees….

That was according to a piece the other day in The Washington Post, the very newspaper Aaron Blake writes for. And this failure to consolidate executive power isn’t just in the agencies and departments Trump wants to gut. This is also in agencies and departments Trump wants to expand and empower. (I won’t even get into all the legislative battles Trump has lost. Some of which Blake has reported on.)

Whatever fantasies Trump may have about the presidency unbound, this man has almost no agenda for consolidating the power of the presidency. It’s a slogan, a rhetoric, a performance, but that’s it.

So for the last time: Look at what Trump does, not what he says.


  1. Howard Berman April 29, 2017 at 5:29 pm | #

    So the man is on a joy ride running the casino

  2. Howard B April 29, 2017 at 5:51 pm | #

    And… you could blame his failure on the friction of the system clogging his wheels. Why don’t you credit the system for blocking Trump, as it was intended to confound potential tyrants.
    Do you think, to expand on my joyride theme, he’s just a character actor playing the role of a lifetime (as an acquaintance suggested). It’s not like he has no beliefs if not quite core beliefs for the man lacks a core as far as I can tell. He believes in use of force, he believes in enriching the plutocrats, he believes in some kind of TV drama based nationalism. If you say look at his actions, well he does have beliefs, it’s not for lack of trying is it?
    He’s a (expletive) puzzle and man of the year- you just say what he’s not- doing- but what’s going on in that black box beneath his tupe?
    Perhaps we need an FBI profiler for the man

    • Deadl E Cheese April 29, 2017 at 8:35 pm | #

      It’s not the system blocking Trump. It’s the fact that Trump is extremely dissonant with the Reagan regime and has no institutional support.

      The basic structure of US liberal democracy is not at all stopping or even slowing him down. What’s slowing him down is the fact that he’s a Carter-style disjunctive President faced with the impossible task of marshaling support between the Randroids, the theocrats, the warhawks, and the herrenvolk authoritarians. Much like Carter had the impossible task of marshaling support between the Atari Democrats, the New Left, the New Deal Democrats, and the Dixiecrats.

      • Howard Berman May 1, 2017 at 5:09 pm | #

        Yes, but can we tease apart the institutional balances from the party and agenda of the occupants of power of the various branches? The fact is the Congress is Republican in a way you delineate.
        Not according to the intention of the founders, but it works

  3. Joeff April 29, 2017 at 5:52 pm | #

    Pretty rich considering that “archaic rules” are what got him the presidency.
    As far as irreparable harm goes, list is pretty short: courts, time lost on global climate, impact of wars.

  4. bystander April 29, 2017 at 8:30 pm | #

    It was a wise old psychiatric social worker to said to me, “Listen to what people say, but then watch what they do.” Must be one of those touchstones of the discipline. Personally, I’ve always found it useful. No one should underestimate this administration for their ability to do grave damage, on the one hand, but it’s not in our best interests to confer on them a power they do not have, and maybe cannot acquire; either by not really wanting it, or by being unable to amass it. Either way, if they don’t have it, let’s not gift it to them.

  5. Cassiodorus April 30, 2017 at 9:23 am | #

    Wouldn’t part of the concern of Snyder et al. be that the lack of resistance to authoritarian whims sets the stage for a more competent would-be dictator to push for more. Trump is too lazy to be Franco, but Pence is not.

  6. John Maher April 30, 2017 at 10:23 am | #

    It was the wise old Latina on the Supreme Court Jedi whisperer zen warrior monk intuitive dog trainer moschiach from the Himalayas Bruno Latour who said to me that each actor in the assembly will apply structural brakes if its interests are derogated by the state. Collectively the friction will impede Leviathan. Don’t look at what Trump does, look at what those he counts on to accomplish his agenda refuse to go along with. After all, we live in the Republic of Citizen’s United.

  7. LFC April 30, 2017 at 11:00 am | #

    When it comes to whether or not Trump is consolidating the power of the presidency, it’s true that he’s not moving v. quickly to staff the agencies w his people at the nitty-gritty policy level, and that is an important pt on which I agree w the post.

    On the other hand, he has been making extensive use of executive orders (almost entirely, from what I can tell, in substantively retrograde ways) and even if only a fraction or proportion of what is in them begins to move toward being implemented, it’s a significant and aggressive exercise of executive power.

    [Comment continued in next box]

  8. LFC April 30, 2017 at 11:02 am | #

    A piece (in the current For. Affairs) by three political scientists suggests that the pertinent question is not “is Trump governing as an authoritarian?” but rather “is the U.S. political system now well-positioned to resist whatever moves Trump has made or might make in future in the direction of a ‘mild’, comparatively speaking, authoritarianism?” And their answer is, basically: “considerably less well-positioned to resist than it might be or than is desirable.” I wdn’t nec. have written the article in the way these authors did and some of their pts are fairly well-worn in the sense of being pretty widely accepted, but I think some of their pts are quite well taken. (Will add the link in another box later.)

  9. stephenkmacksd April 30, 2017 at 11:41 am | #

    What would lead you to attribute, even in a jocular way, the musings of a ‘wise psychoanalyst’ ? Was your desperation for a rhetorical frame for your own musings so great? Frederick Crews is expected to put another stake through what is left of the credibility of Freud’s Vampire in the fall of 2017.

    • John Maher April 30, 2017 at 4:37 pm | #

      The StephenKMackSD comment was a bit impolite and dismissive. CR is employing an analogy for sharp focus on the movement of the image as opposed to the atmospherics. In doing so he may be revivifying Lacan but is surely not resurrecting Freud.

      Perhaps Trump will prove more resilient than one might hope.

      Synthetic Zero blog excerpts ‘Leviathan Rots’ by Vincent Garton which concerns not only Leviathan (Trump as L incarnate) but the proliferation on mini-Leviathans “It is obsessed with the state: creating new states, cutting up states, states on top of states… To truly move beyond Leviathan in all its universalising terror requires not the multiplication of Leviathans, at which point we are already within the Hobbesian trap, encouraging the monster in its sectarianism, provoking the pathologies that have led to imperium. It requires a radical ambivalence to the state as such—an uncompromising identification with those processes today of mass production and mass flows of politics that overwhelm and obsolesce the state itself. States, of course, decay. It is something altogether more radical to posit that the state form itself will decay. We must turn from a patchwork of states to the infectious patchwork within the state, a recursive dissolution that leaves not a network of states, but an endless flux in which the state itself disintegrates into the very war that sustains it.”

      • stephenkmacksd April 30, 2017 at 5:12 pm | #

        Your first comment was an inspired and mischievous send up,the second sort of passed me by.

  10. LFC April 30, 2017 at 8:14 pm | #

    Of course not everyone agrees w Frederick Crews’ apparently complete dismissal of everything Freud ever wrote.

    Freud’s influence on modern culture (cf. Auden’s “climate of opinion” line in the well-known poem) is a fact, whatever one might think of Freud’s views and theories. I happen not to think much of some of Freud’s work, e.g. Civ. and Its Discontents and similar speculative social theory, but a good deal of the rest, i.e. the writings rooted in his clinical practice, is worth reading, whatever one’s ultimate verdict.

    • stephenkmacksd May 1, 2017 at 7:37 pm | #

      Here are some other critics of Freud: Gellner, Sulloway, Macmillan,E.M. Thornton, Farrell and for the influence of Nietzsche’s thought on Freud see Ronald Lehrer.

  11. Dean C. Rowan April 30, 2017 at 11:22 pm | #

    In other words, talk is cheap. Which isn’t to say that speaking truth to power, for example, isn’t expensive.

  12. MJ Goldman May 1, 2017 at 12:23 am | #

    Corey – I’ve learned a lot from reading your columns and think you make a thoughtful point. However- I worry that much of what you see as Trump’s not-doing is actually his not-competence. And he seems to be learning from SOME of his mistakes, so I am not comfortable that he won’t ever figure out how to consolidate power. I hope that you’re right, and that his words can be safely dismissed, but too many veterans of authoritarianism have warned us: “Believe what they say; they mean it.”

    The problem with not reacting to what someone says, but only reacting to what someone does, is that once something has actually BEEN done, it’s too late to prevent it.

    • Mr Pancks May 1, 2017 at 10:46 am | #

      Yes, and as Corey noted the other day, “events, dear boy, events” –big ones, bad ones, Reichstag fires–seem pretty likely at this point, and could offer Trump opportunities that he’ll gladly take. Power he hasn’t exactly grabbed for yet could fall into his lap. I’d like to feel comforted by Corey’s advice, and calm down a bit, but so far I haven’t been able to.

      • MJ Goldman May 1, 2017 at 4:55 pm | #

        Exactly. A Reichstag fire would be our biggest challenge.

    • MJ Goldman May 1, 2017 at 5:54 pm | #

      Well NOW I feel silly. With today’s babbling about “I don’t stand by anything” and Andrew Jackson was angry about the civil war and people don’t ask why was there a civil war and being “proven very strongly” . . . . Well maybe I SHOULDN’T sweat about the random words waterfalling out of his mouth. I wouldn’t know how to take them seriously if I wanted to.

      I’ll just take a couple of headache relievers and move on. You win, Corey; my bad. [“People don’t ask that question . . , ,” Wha???]

    • Billikin May 1, 2017 at 8:10 pm | #

      “too many veterans of authoritarianism have warned us: “Believe what they say; they mean it.”

      I don’t know how wise this is, but one of the lessons I have learned in my life has been, when you think, “They can’t really mean that,” they usually do.

  13. Doyle May 1, 2017 at 11:06 am | #

    Snyder just wants to pretend to be Vaclav Havel. Pretending to be Vaclav Havel may in fact be the only reason he gets up in the morning.

  14. Billikin May 1, 2017 at 8:06 pm | #

    It is true that actions speak louder than words. My grade school teachers taught that. And Trump’s promises cannot be relied upon. Scott Adams, one of Trump’s major supporters, pointed that out, although with different, more flattering language. Trump plays it loose. He himself said that.

    But Trump both acts and speaks like an authoritarian. One advantage of playing it loose is that people discount what you say and drop their guard, or get confused. As Adams said, Trump is a Master Manipulator — he called him a Master Persuader, but in Trump’s case it comes to the same thing.

  15. mark May 2, 2017 at 5:14 am | #

    And on the reverse principle, I have now heard Gorka (not Gorky, spellcheck, Gorka) speak in a live BBC interview.

    He clearly can’t turn off that string of genteelisms delivered in PSP that impresses some Americans.

    Speaking like that makes him look like the upper class English ringer he will be taken as by the English upper class. Imagine one of them saying, as Gorka did, ‘en clair’!

    • LFC May 2, 2017 at 10:28 am | #

      “delivered in PSP”

      PSP standing for…?

  16. stevenjohnson May 2, 2017 at 9:36 am | #

    Since Trump is not really a Republican Party man, it is mystifying to me why anyone would expect him to consolidate his power by using the Republican Party majority in Congress to confirm the official heads of departments.

    It seems to me that Trump consolidating his power given his lack of partisan support would require an end run around confirmation. Leaving as many offices as possible vacant, relying on executive orders, special non-confirmed assistants and presidential aides dropping into offices and other such methods would be used.

    • Mr Pancks May 3, 2017 at 9:45 am | #

      Your point about “special unconfirmed assistants” jibes very well with the current Editor’s Note on the Monthly Review website. The editors give details about some of these “transitional” appointees, including a Breitbart “white genocide” writer, a gaggle of Heritage foundation guys, and and in one case a recent high school graduate. The appointments are supposedly limited to eight months, but as Trump likes to say, we’ll see. Gleichshaltung?

  17. louisproyect May 4, 2017 at 8:46 am | #

    I cited Corey’s article in the conclusion to my commentary on John Bellamy Foster’s “Neofascism in the White House”. https://louisproyect.org/2017/05/03/neofascism-in-the-white-house/

  18. Tim Connor May 4, 2017 at 4:12 pm | #

    I don’t think there’s any question that Trump is an authoritarian by inclination. But he doesn’t really understand how large organizations work, and he’s too lazy too figure it out (and maybe not bright enough, though I’m less sure of that–it doesn’t necessarily take a high IQ). I’m pretty sure he’s avoided filling positions because the Trump organization has always had a fairly flat hierarchy–just him and a small corps of loyal flunkies–which has given him more direct control, and he imagines the federal government will work the same way. And since he’s always been at the apex of the pyramid, he’s never had to learn how to operate administrative machinery. I don’t expect him to become competent, but if presented with the opportunity to rule by decree–a Reichstag fire incident–I don’t doubt for a moment that he’d take it.

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