Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford University and Mosbacher Director of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
President Trump’s election provoked extraordinary fears that he would become an American strongman in the mold of authoritarian leaders he admires such as Vladimir Putin of Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Unlike those countries, however, the United States has a very robust set of institutional checks and balances that are supposed to prevent any one individual from acquiring excessive power. The empirical question, then, is whether that system would successfully contain a president who displayed little respect for legal or ethical constraints.
At the 100-day mark, it seems clear that the system is working properly and that Trump is more likely to go down in history as a weak and ineffective president than as an American tyrant. Apart from the appointment of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, he has failed to carry through on any of his major campaign promises such as stopping Muslim immigration or building his “big, beautiful” wall. His most abject failure was the effort to replace Obamacare with the American Health Care Act, which had to be withdrawn for lack of votes. This absence of winning (is it called “losing”?) unfolded even as the Republican Party controls both houses of Congress and the presidency.
There are multiple sources of this weakness. Most immediate is Trump’s own ignorance of the workings of the U.S. government and the inexperience of the advisers he chose to surround himself with. He seems to have come into office believing he could run the country the way he ran his family business, through executive orders. But the American system puts Congress in the driver’s seat for any major initiatives, and presidents are powerful only to the extent that they can build legislative coalitions. Trump failed to do this on health care, and he is no more likely to succeed with tax reform or infrastructure.
Trump’s second weakness is structural. To be a powerful president, he would have had to reach out beyond the narrow base that brought him victory in the electoral college, just as President Ronald Reagan succeeded in doing. Trump has sought the opposite, doubling down on his core supporters while doing everything possible to undermine trust on the part of Democrats and independents. In theory, he could create a bipartisan coalition on an issue popular with Democrats such as infrastructure, but at this point they are unlikely to want to rescue what looks like a failing presidency.
This does not mean, however, that Trump will be an inconsequential president. His main legacy will be a highly negative one: the first president to undermine a whole series of informal norms about American government. He and his family have not even pretended to avoid conflicts of interest after taking office. Meanwhile, the administration is rolling back transparency laws as it loads its staff with former lobbyists, despite its “drain the swamp” slogan.
The second negative legacy has to do with government service. The Trump administration has done nothing but express contempt for the public servants who run the government. Administration officials have shown no particular urgency in appointing the hundreds of mid-level officials needed to run the government, declared a hiring freeze and pay cap, and solicited ideas for which government agencies to eliminate entirely. The administration seems not to realize that the federal government actually has fewer full-time workers than it did in the 1960s, despite the fact that it is processing five times the amount of money (the gap being made up by contractors). What bright young person is going to want to go to work for the State Department when the secretary of state has abetted its marginalization?
Third, Trump is the first president in living memory who has not paid even lip service to the importance of democracy or human rights around the world. His embrace of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt and his congratulations to Erdogan after the Turkish strongman consolidated his presidential powers send powerful signals that the world’s leading democracy no longer cares about democracy elsewhere.
The one area in which the president has authority to act on his own is foreign policy. While recent moves regarding Syria, China and Russia suggest he is moving back into the Washington foreign policy mainstream, the more important legacy may be the administration’s uncanny ability to undermine its own credibility. The recent miscue on whether the USS Carl Vinson was sailing toward North Korea is only the latest example.
Is a presidential tweet the same thing as U.S. policy? Neither our friends nor our enemies know, and credibility is the coin of the realm in foreign policy. How this legacy will play out in the real crises we face in Asia, Europe and the Middle East is unknowable at this juncture, but the danger that the United States will abate rather than enhance global stability is all too real.
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