George Will’s Obtuseness

Normalizing Trump via poor analysis.

George Will’s current column, A Constitution-flouting ‘authoritarian’ is already in the White House, is maddening, if not infuriating. It is the kind of thing that gives cover to Trump’s truly egregious behavior. It is the kind of argumentation that will allow a lot of people to rationalize that since “all politicians are the same” then all of Trump’s behavior in office and out isn’t that big of a deal.

After all, if all politicians are really authoritarians, then might as well vote for the one on my team.

We know that Trump told the insurrectionists at the White House that he “love[d]” them, after having egged them on the Mall, and after having watched their chaos for hours without intervening.

We know that Trump wanted Mike Pence to act unconstitutionally and not certify the legally cast Electoral Votes.

We know that he is currently promising to be a dictator for a day on day one, and is using Hitleresque rhetoric.

But, you know, Biden has acted unilaterally on some issues (as, quite frankly, all presidents do, which is an issue worthy of debate but is not the kind of problem of, say, the insurrectionist type), and he almost potentially violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (but, actually didn’t).

On the unilateral action:

Instances of Trump’s anti-constitutional behavior have been amply reported and deplored. Biden’s, less so — although they (e.g., the eviction moratoriumthe vaccine mandate, the cancellation of student debt), and judicial reprimands of them, have been frequent.

So, trying to address a pandemic (the eviction moratorium and the vaccine mandate) and dealing with student debt is the same as Trump’s anti-constitutional behavior? This is Will being too clever by half in deploying long-standing complaints about the imperial presidency in a way that creates a substantially false equivalency with Trump’s behavior in office (not to mention that which is currently being promised).

News flash: the president has, over the centuries, acquired a lot of power and is hard to check in some arenas. That is a problem that can only be rectified by some serious political reform. But trying to forgive student debts with questionable legal authority is simply not the same evil as fomenting an insurrection and being willing to overturn an election.

For Will to yada yada Trump’s behavior (“Instances of Trump’s anti-constitutional behavior have been amply reported and deplored”) and then equate it to the vaccine mandate is shamefully absurd.

How about Biden’s flaunting of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act?

Check out the horror of it all:

Biden nominated Ann Carlson last March to be administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Two months later, when it was clear that the Senate would not confirm her, Biden withdrew the nomination. But less than five weeks after that, he named Carlson acting administrator. His impertinence would perhaps be limited, by the Vacancies Act, to 210 days, which would expire Dec. 26. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has held that the act prohibits “any person who has been nominated to fill any vacant office from performing that office’s duties in an acting capacity.”

Biden, whose indifference to these legalities is Trumpian, is also unimpressed by several other provisions of the act that redundantly disqualify Carlson. In a masterpiece of understatement, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) says, “It would be odd indeed for the law to prohibit someone to serve as acting while nomination is pending but to allow them to serve as acting after their nomination was pulled.”

Yes, that’s right, it is “Trumpian” to have appointed an acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Note that Carlson did, in fact, resign on December 26th (which Will notes in the column). Whether she should have been allowed to have the position even on an acting basis, I will not here attempt to debate. I will just say that I know enough about government to say that this is a low-level problem as compared to, say, calling the Secretary of State of Georgia and asking him to find you the votes you need to win an election you lost.

By the way, it is disingenuous of Will to assert “it was clear that the Senate would not confirm her” when the real issue was Republican obstruction at the committee level.

As a scholar of democracy, I can assure Will that this is not exactly the stuff of authoritarian nightmares. But I can also assure him that a man who had legal protesters cleared from LaFayette Square for an awkward photo op, who speaks of his enemies as “vermin” and asserts that immigrants are poisoning our blood, and who said that he “love[d]” the 1/6 insurrectionists will be far more of an authoritarian threat than Biden’s NHTA administrator appointment ever was.

Moreover, while Will engages in a bit of Very Serious Concern about the fact that separation of powers and checks and balances don’t work the way it is usually taught in school, I would refer him to my post, Partisanship, Separation of Powers, and the Limits of Oversight. Because, indeed, Madisonian checks and balances do not work the way they are described in Federalist 51 because Madison’s model did not account for political parties.

But, really, for a man who has warned us against Trump in the past, Will is doing a lot of work in a column like this to normalize him.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    Trump is obviously not the only delusional reality impaired person in the public eye.

    Gads, and I thought his baseball ramblings were awful.

  2. just nutha says:

    To quote Bunny McGarry, “What the fecking feck, George?”

  3. EddieInCA says:

    Thanks for writing this, Dr. Joyner.

    I’m already in the mindset that Trump will be re-elected, mostly because of the media. I listen to Smerconish, Halperin, Abrams, and the rest of the so-called “moderates” in media, and each of them, EVERY SINGLE FUCKING ONE OF THEM, normalize Trump on a regular basis. Most people are unaware of the seriousness of the misbehavior by Trump, but it’s just become another game of “Both Sides Suck.”.

    Biden is hammered for Hunter. Yet Jared reaped billions from the Saudi’s and Ivanka had Chinese trademarks given to her after her dad agreed to change a policy.
    Biden is blamed for inflation, but given no credit for the great jobs numbers and roaring economy.
    Trump is allowed to blatantly lie and break all precedents with zero accountability.

    I’m tired of it. I will still donate money to the Dems, and I will still show up on election day to vote, and I will do what I do every four years, and drive people to the polls so they can vote. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that a not-insignificant number of my fellow citizens are not only okay voting for a narcissistic con-man, racist insurrectionist rapist, they’re actually looking forward to it.

    I’m hoping that a conviction or two will change the dynamic, but the legal system is set up to go slow as hell. And there is no doubt that Trump is playing the stall game. Every single filing response is done at the absolute last minute.

    I’m so glad I’m 63 and not 23. I fear for your two daughters.

  4. RWB says:

    Trump Taj-Mahal 2024

  5. Ken_L says:

    I imagine Will has had an Alec Guinness Bridge on the River Kwai “What have I done?” moment. Instead of being hailed as one of the courageous True Conservatives who stuck to their principles when that loutish buffoon Trump led weaker minds astray for a few years, he finds himself utterly irrelevant. Republicans, if they think of him at all, consider him a media Mitt Romney, who should please die soon. Democrats despise him for the same reasons they’ve always despised him.

    Consequently he’s making one last desperate attempt to appear important, or at least keep his sinecure at the Washington Post. Trump isn’t really so bad, it turns out! A bit rough around the edges, but just look at the alternative!

    I expect him to be an enthusiastic backer of the No Labels candidate, assuming they ever manage to find one, with the rider that if it ends up costing Biden re-election, no big loss.

  6. gVOR10 says:

    I wish you’d posted this earlier in the day. I’d love a good pile-on dumping on George Will. Someone years ago observed that the route to financial success for a pundit is not careful analysis and truth telling, but to find an audience and tell them what they want to hear. Will has been a very financially successful pundit. And non-stop liar.

  7. al Ameda says:

    I think Will has calculated that it’s safe to start walking away from his ‘Trump is dangerous and appalling’ kabuki. In the end he’s going to stand with the radicals like Vance, Cruz, and Hawley who want the system torn down and reconstructed, cleansed of liberalism, not that he wants to get his hands dirtied in the process.

    I have for a long time considered George Will to be a prototype ‘centrist conservative’ poseur. Over the years he’s burnished his ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’ credentials, by; (1) appearing on various talkies as the ‘intellectual conservative’, and (2) he’s always had a stereoypical tweedy professorial look. I think he’s insufferable.

  8. Charley in Cleveland says:

    Will helped prep Ronald Reagan for a presidential debate and then, without mentioning his coaching role, wrote a column the next day heaping praise on Regan’s performance. When confronted with that fact, and told by the WaPo editors that he was ethically obligated to disclose his role, he threw a public snit. Will’s wife is, a la Ginny Thomas, a Republican operative, and he didn’t like having to disclose that fact when he wrote columns singing the praises of his wife’s clients. He’s always had that, “How dare you question ME?!” attitude. And writer Dan Jenkins nailed it when he quipped, “If baseball was as complicated as George Will says it is, the players couldn’t play the game.”

  9. wr says:

    I think you are being far too kind to Will by ascribing this column to obtuseness.

    Sure, if it had come out in a vacuum, maybe. But this idea that Biden is the real insurrectionist is being spread by the Trump campaign, looking to defuse the issue in the election. They’ve already planted it in the hard-right media, and now it’s time to worm its way into the mainstream.

    So step one is getting a “respectable” Republican pundit to make the claim, guaranteeing that center-left pundits will momentarily abandon their new expertise on plagiarism and the general inferiority of uppity Black women who are allowed to steal a prestigious post that naturally belongs to a white man and eagerly start debating whether or not Biden is as bad as Trump. And thus the idea gets mainstreamed, and ideally it loses all power against Trump.

    This time Will got picked, and he happily played his part.

  10. Chris says:

    George Will finding himself no longer relevant in the conservative pundit pool, because of his prior views on Trump, now seeks to become MAGA’s useful erudite idiot because he misses feeling “Will-fully” important.

  11. Assad K says:

    It’s mind boggling how much MAGA and MAGA-lite is prevalent in the opinion pages of the ‘left leaning’ media. Certainly the WSJ sees no obligation to highlight liberal, or even vaguely lefty, thoughts.

  12. becca says:

    @EddieInCA: I think a lot of pundits are afraid of the trump mafia. Some may be on the bandwagon, but fear is a motivating factor for some. Trump’s hero, Putin, regularly has critics defenestrated or poisoned. Trump would love to follow suit.
    Vox had an interesting article yesterday on right wing death threats to Republicans who get out of line. I have mentioned this topic before. Romney writes about it, with first hand experience, in his book.
    Republicans are far more afraid of their own than they are of any “other”. Trump is a wannabe mafia don and the press knows this, but they are human and most humans are cowards. So here we are, which is not in the home of the brave.

  13. CSK says:

    Every time I see this mugshot of Trump I laugh. He’s trying desperately to appear tough and mean, but he ends up looking churlish and sullen.

  14. TheRyGuy says:

    To be clear, Trump SAYING certain things and WANTING to do certain things and JOKING about certain things is authoritarian.

    Political partisans conspiring with federal law enforcement and the U.S. intelligence community to undermine and destabilize an elected President with a blatant lie about “Russian collusion”…not authoritarian.

    Democrats trying to punish a Republican for a crime that he has neither been charged with nor convicted of…not authoritarian.

    Censoring and delegitimizing a true news story before an election…not authoritarian.

    Prosecuting trespassers more harshly than child abusers and violent criminals based on their politics…not authoritarian.

  15. Matt Bernius says:


    To be clear, Trump SAYING certain things and WANTING to do certain things and JOKING about certain things is authoritarian.

    You skipped over actually DOING things like not accepting the results of and trying to overthrow the last Presidential Election–especially while being told by lots of experts and external advisors, including Sean Hannity, that he lost. Nor his active attempts to obstruct attempts to recover documents by the national archives. All those ACTIONS tell us a LOT about him and his respect for Constitutional order.

    And remind us what happened on January 6th, 2021, because most of our conservative commenters seems never to want to talk about that for some reason.

    Prosecuting trespassers more harshly than child abusers and violent criminals based on their politics…not authoritarian.

    Ummm… can you provide some context for that accusation–especially with reference to the Federal Criminal Legal System (prosecuting Jan 6th related charges) versus State Legal Systems (which usually deal with child abuse and violent crimes).

  16. Ken_L says:


    a blatant lie about “Russian collusion”

    Anyone who keeps reciting this nonsense in the face of the (Republican majority) Senate Intelligence Committee Report into ‘RUSSIAN ACTIVE MEASURES CAMPAIGNS AND INTERFERENCE IN THE 2016 U.S. ELECTION’ has self-identified as a troll with no interest in a good faith discussion.

  17. @Ken_L:

    with no interest in a good faith discussion.

    Yup. Quite clearly.


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