Those concerned by a Donald Trump presidency should take comfort in the knowledge that the way a person governs is often starkly at odds with the way he campaigns, argues Scott Fitzsimmons.
To say that Donald Trump’s election to the office of President of the United States has some people scared is perhaps the understatement of the year. On the face of it, their fears seem well-justified.
Whether gauged by his lack of government experience, spotty knowledge of policy issues, or questionable self-control, Trump is the least qualified person to ever win the presidency.
But what many people fear most is the possibility that Trump will implement the radical ideas he talked about during his campaign, like building a wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico, banning Muslims from entering the United States, and giving Vladimir Putin a free hand to project Russian power in Europe and the Middle East.
While it is impossible to predict how Trump will govern with any degree of certainty, there are good reasons to believe that his administration will not be nearly as radical as his campaign rhetoric.
For starters, campaign rhetoric is often a poor predictor of how a candidate will govern after they take office. George W. Bush peppered his campaign speeches with references to “compassionate conservatism,” a philosophy of using the tools of government and society to help a county’s citizens in need, and criticisms of the Clinton administration frequent use of American troops to intervene in the affairs of other countries.
However, once in office, he secured tax cuts for the rich, oversaw a lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina, bailed out several large financial institutions, and embarked on two major wars that involved nation building on a far larger scale than anything attempted on Clinton’s watch.
Likewise, who would have predicted that Barack Obama, an anti-war candidate who was swept into the White House with a mandate to pursue “hope” and “change,” would approve a grossly watered down health care package, use tax payers’ money to bail out his own fair share of multi-billion dollar corporations, and not only continue American military involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also take his country into new wars in Libya and Syria?
Obama will leave office having spent more days at war than any other president in history and be able to count assassinating an unprecedented number of terrorists, but not “cleaning up Washington,” among his significant accomplishments as commander-in-chief. This isn’t why he was elected, but it’s how he governed.
The fact that Trump, a former Democrat, has voiced multiple contradictory positions on just about every policy issue he is likely to confront as president makes it especially important to take his campaign rhetoric with a grain of salt.
Presidents also face a number of potent restraints that limit their ability to pursue radical campaign promises. Foremost among these is the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.
Obama was unable to pursue much of his domestic agenda because the Democratic Party lost control of the House of Representatives after the 2010 midterm elections and later lost control of the Senate.
Once Republican legislators took power, they made it clear that they would block virtually every one of the president’s policy initiatives. Even when the Democrats controlled the House, however, Obama found it very difficult to pursue his campaign promises because his own party’s legislators were reluctant to pass laws, such as the original, far more ambitious version of Obama Care, that would undermine their own chances of being reelected.
Although Trump could benefit from the fact that his party currently controls both houses of Congress, it is important to bear in mind that Paul Ryan and many other senior Republican legislators loath the new president and have publically disagreed with many of his most controversial campaign pledges.
Like their Democratic counterparts, they are also unlikely to favour radical legislation that could place their own seats in jeopardy. Of perhaps greatest importance, these leaders have shown themselves to be willing to stonewall a president’s legislative agenda for years, an approach that has proven quite popular with their voters.
America’s strong legal and constitutional tradition should serve as another important constraint on the new president.
Any attempt to pursue the mass deportation of illegal immigrants, which will involve breaking up millions of at least partly-American families, will almost certainly face a sober review by the Supreme Court, as will attempts to control the movements of certain people on the basis of their religious beliefs or to impose constraints on whether and how American businesses can outsource their operations to other countries.
Moreover, it’s important to remember that the American government faces a dire fiscal context.
The need to merely make the interest payments on the government’s enormous and ever-growing debt will undermine the new president’s ability to pursue promises, such as building a wall along the US-Mexico border, that will require significant new spending.
Like Obama, Trump will probably find that, rather than being able to initiate numerous bold new programs, he will frequently be preoccupied by fights with Congress over how to raise the debt ceiling again, and again, and again to ensure that the country remains solvent.
Finally, to put it bluntly, being President of the United States changes a man. Assuming the role of America’s chief executive strongly influences how those who achieve this office view the world and behave in it.
Thomas Beckett famously switched from being a strong advocate of royal authority to an equally strong opponent of attempts to impose royal authority over the affairs of the Catholic Church when he left the role of Chancellor of England and assumed the role of Archbishop of Canterbury back in 1162.
Trump’s transition from candidate to president should, likewise, radically alter his worldview and actions.
Not only is Trump likely to soon feel the responsibility of, as he awkwardly phrased it in his victory speech, being “president for all of Americans,” including, one can hope, members of its most disadvantaged, marginalized, and vulnerable groups, but he is also likely to adopt foreign policy stances appropriate to the role of leader of the free world.
If Russia or any other country starts encroaching on the free world that Trump will soon lead, we should expect the new president to do what his role requires and stand firm in the face of aggression.
Indeed, his apparent friend, Vladimir Putin, may soon be heard grumbling something akin to “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome president?”
Of course, we should still expect Trump to pursue and achieve at least some of his controversial promises, and he will inevitably say and do certain things that many people in America and around the world will disagree with.
But his detractors should take comfort in the knowledge that the way a president governs is often starkly at odds with the way he campaigns.
Scott Fitzsimmons is a Lecturer in International Relations in the University of Limerick’s Department of Politics & Public Administration
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