The Incompetence Smear

If Donald Trump’s critics are to be believed, the president’s middle name isn’t John, it’s Incompetent.

Longtime Trump critic S. E. Cupp wrote in her April 15 syndicated column, “We’ve grown complacent about Trump’s obvious incompetence and unmanageable mania, numbed by the inundation of idiocy over the past three years. But now it’s costing American lives, and we are all still in the crosshairs of his ineptitude.”

David Frum had shared a similar sentiment in The Atlantic a week earlier, when he insisted that while the COVID-19 pandemic is “not Trump’s fault,” the “utter unpreparedness of the United States for a pandemic is Trump’s fault.” Frum concluded his lengthy article in the same disrespectful terms that Cupp had employed in her column: “No matter how much he deflects and insults and snivels and whines, this American catastrophe is on his hands and on his head.”

MSNBC commentator Richard Wolffe was equally harsh in a March 13 op-ed for England’s Guardian newspaper: “The coronavirus outbreak has revealed the full stupidity, incompetence and selfishness of the president to deadly effect.”

President Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic does not mark the first time his critics have accused him of incompetence. The New York Times editorial board has shouted it repeatedly from its Eighth Avenue mountaintop.

For example, in a February 17, 2017 editorial, the Times proclaimed, after quoting presidential historian Douglas Brinkley’s nonhistorical observation that President Trump was “just releasing comments, tweets and policies willy-nilly,” that, “If there is any upside here, it is that the administration’s ineptitude has so far spared the nation from a wholesale dismantling of major laws.”

Trump had been president of the United States for less than a month when that editorial was published. How could he possibly repeal innumerable “major laws” that quickly, if—and it’s a big if—that’s what he wanted to do?

In a January 12, 2018 editorial condemning President Trump’s immigration policy, the Times called the president a “racist,” “ignorant,” “incompetent,” “undignified,” and a “liar.”

No wonder the American people have so little faith in the media today. It is possible to disagree with the president without resorting to such invective. It’s also worth remembering that President Trump’s immigration policy has been upheld on multiple occasions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sadly, the incompetence smear is nothing new. George W. Bush was savaged in similarly disreputable terms by the left-leaning media and Ronald Reagan was, too.

With respect to Bush, Harold Meyerson titled a 2006 Washington Post column about the president, “Bush the Incompetent.” Meyerson began by asserting, “Incompetence is not one of the seven deadly sins, and it’s hardly the worst attribute that can be ascribed to George W. Bush. But it is this president’s defining attribute.” Meyerson continued to insult Bush for an additional 750 words after firing those opening salvos.

Meyerson was not alone in his unfavorable assessment of President Bush. After polling a series of historians at the close of Bush’s presidency, CNN declared in a 2008 report that “the word most used to label George W. Bush’s presidency will be ‘incompetent.’”

Ronald Reagan fared no better with many political pundits. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis accused Reagan of being “incompetent” less than a year into Reagan’s presidency. Presidential historian Barbara W. Tuchman penned a 4,000-word article in the same newspaper— “All the News that’s Fit to Print,” as the motto goes—dedicated to “proving” that Reagan’s “incompetence” was largely responsible for “a nation in decline.”

The American people know the naysayer’s game: Reagan, the movie star, was all style and no substance. “The problem is serious,” Tuchman thundered. Voters have “put in the Presidency a person who appears likable and avuncular on the screen but is not otherwise equipped for the White House.” Electing Reagan president once was bad enough, Tuchman insisted, but re-electing him was “disastrous.”

Was George W. Bush “incompetent”? Of course not. He guided America through the 9/11 terrorist attacks in heroic fashion.

Was Ronald Reagan “incompetent”? Obviously not. He presided over the end of the Cold War and he returned the United States to its rightful place as the greatest nation on earth.

Is Donald Trump “incompetent”? Same answer. No. Before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the world, Trump had secured one of the largest tax cuts and reforms in American history, destroyed ISIS, rebuilt the military, maintained America’s status as the top energy producer in the world, fostered an economic boom that created more than 7 million jobs, and constructed more than 100 miles of wall (and counting) on the southern U.S. border, among other accomplishments.

Trump also got elected president. No one—absolutely no one—can do that who is incompetent. Indeed, many very bright people have failed to win the White House, including most recently, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney.

In short, the First Amendment gives everyone the right to call any president any name in the book, including “incompetent.” But as my grandmother used to say, just because someone says it doesn’t make it true.

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About Scott Douglas Gerber

Scott Douglas Gerber is a visiting professor at Brown University’s Political Theory Project and a law professor at Ohio Northern University. His nine books include A Distinct Judicial Power: The Origins of an Independent Judiciary, 1606-1787 (Oxford University Press).

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/POOL/Getty Images

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