Is Trump an incompetent buffoon, an evil Machiavellian genius, or both?

I am reminded of growing up during the cold war, when there were two reigning theories of the Soviet Union. The first was that it was the massive “evil empire”: loaded with nuclear missiles and a huge military, relentless in spreading chaos around the world, and amazingly effective in disseminating propaganda and stealing secrets from its enemies. The second was that it was a hopelessly inefficient, lumbering behemoth, which could barely feed its people. The Russian people were similarly caricatured as either communist maniacs or oppressed victims kept in line by the fantastically effective secret police. We did not take a sensible middle position but instead kept the two contradictory images in our head, flipping from one to another as circumstances required, in the spirit of the rabbit-duck illusion.

I came to think that the caricatures were important psychologically for us in the west. The evil empire / communist maniac caricature kept us motivated to defend our freedoms and/or rationalized the enormous amount of money sunk into defense and third-world proxy wars. The lumbering behemoth / oppressed population caricature held out hope that we would ultimately prevail. The mushy sensible middle would have both drained us of motivation and eliminated any hope of success.

This pattern is repeating itself with Trump. The Trump-the-buffoon caricature temporarily expired when he won the general election, but was revived after the inauguration-crowd and immigration-executive-order imbroglios. Meanwhile, Trump-the-evil-genius is also making the rounds, with theories that he plans to establish a dictatorship gaining increasing currency. Creative souls who have noticed the contradiction have tried to resolve it by adopting a new Trump-the-puppet theory: Trump-the-buffoon-puppet is being manipulated by Machiavellian evil genius puppet-master Steve Bannon. Come to think of it, this was also the dominant theory a few presidents ago: Bush-the-buffoon/puppet being manipulated by evil-genius puppet-master Dick Cheney (until Bush defenestrated him for his incompetent advice and Cheney was exposed as very much a non-genius).

Perhaps, the current psychological stance will fire up Trump’s opponents and lead them to ultimate success, saving us either from Trump’s mediocrity or from his threat to our institutions, but in the meantime one laments the damage to public understanding.