Donald J. Trump is the president-elect of the United States.
Nope, still hasn’t sunk in yet. Let me type it again: Donald J. Trump is the president-elect of the United States.
It’s not getting much better.
The American in me, who fears Donald Trump’s temperament, honesty and choice in staffers, is still in a fetal position under the covers. I’m legitimately frightened for the groups that Trump’s campaign and his most devoted alt-right supporters targeted with their most extreme rhetoric: women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, Jews, the media, cosmopolitan elites, etc. I might be a straight white male, but I also fit three of those categories, so I’m not feeling the most comfortable this a.m.
The political scientist in me, however, sees this as the sequel of what has been the greatest natural experiment in presidential campaign history. With the Republicans preserving their control over both houses of Congress, and with Trump making all kinds of dumba– campaign promises, it’s worth asking what the next four years will be like.
More specifically: What has made the system of American liberal democracy function the way it has functioned for more than 225 years? What is noteworthy about the American system of government is not what it can do but what it cannot do. The president is not a tyrant. The separation of powers puts important legal constraints on the executive branch. Federalism puts important legal constraints on what the federal government can impose on the states. The Bill of Rights puts important legal constraints on what any level of government can do to the American people.
Layered on top of those legal constraints is a whole set of bureaucratic norms and procedures that can make it difficult for a president to manage even the executive branch. There are civil service protections for bureaucrats. There are standard operating procedures that officials are loath to contravene. For eight years Barack Obama and his White House staff have struggled with the “Blob” of the national security state, and sometimes lost.
When Trump is sworn into office, he will face all of these legal and bureaucratic constraints and more. Politically, Trump might have shocked the world, but he will have earned fewer votes than either Mitt Romney or John McCain when they lost. Trump seems likely to have lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. And as Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote very early Wednesday morning:
[Trump] is entering an office that is weaker than many realize. For all the same reasons Barack Obama could not bring about the change he had made people believe in, Trump cannot wrench America to his vision of greatness. He is constrained by the House and the Senate, by the Supreme Court, by the executive agencies, and — in ways less formal but no less powerful — by his own staff and party.
Klein is nominally correct — and yet, the situation is worse than that paragraph suggests. First, the Republicans have also won both houses of Congress. Those lawmakers will have an incentive to cooperate with the president — including filling new and existing Supreme Court vacancies.
Second, as Spoiler Alerts has noted repeatedly over the past two years, one effect of 21st century events and political gridlock has been for the executive branch to exert more authority in areas like foreign affairs. Trump is now the beneficiary of that agglomeration of executive power. And as Benjamin Wittes wrote in May, Trump in charge of institutions like the FBI and Department of Justice is somewhat disturbing given his oft-noted desire for revenge.
Third, there is the minor issue of whom Trump will appoint to positions of executive power. The leaked stories about his possible White House staff and Cabinet appointments suggest that, to paraphrase Trump, Republicans are not sending their best into the executive branch. The list of names that has been floated are, to put it gently, “a list, first and foremost, of people who have defended Trump personally again and again this election.”
Basically, what I wrote in May on this topic applies with equal force come January:
The political scientist in me wants to see a Donald Trump presidency, because it would be the greatest natural experiment in American politics about whether norms are as important as laws in constraining authoritarian impulses. The American in me is frightened about what the answer would be.
So I am not surprised that there’s a lot of apocalyptic talk Wednesday morning.
It is worth pointing out two very, very important things, however. First, I was super-wrong about how this election was going to play out. Everything my Post colleague Marc Fisher wrote Wednesday morning is correct: Trump broke every political rule of thumb in the campaign playbook and won. He feuded with his own party, had no ground game to speak of, lost all three debates, and still won. For the 2016 election, Bill Mitchell has a better track record of predictive success than the pundits who write for this newspaper. Or most newspapers.
Second, the country did not fall apart Tuesday night. Contrary to the fears of many, there was no disputed election and no election night violence of appreciable significance. Trump gave, by his standards, a gracious acceptance speech. President Obama invited the president-elect to visit him Thursday.
If I was this wrong about the political mood of the country, it’s quite conceivable that I am also wrong about what Trump will do as president. Maybe he will not implement the campaign promises he has made. Or maybe he will implement them, and the results will not be the economic and foreign policy disaster that I fear.
If nothing else, after the cognitive pasting that I received Tuesday night, I need to give President-elect Trump the benefit of the doubt. I have to hope that I am, yet again, wrong.