How I learned to stop worrying and love Donald Trump

Dr Eric Crampton
The Spinoff
1 March, 2016

Eight reasons why a Trump presidency may not be as bad as you imagine.

Don’t get me wrong: it could, and likely will, still all go horribly, horribly wrong. But a Trump Presidency is probably not going to be quite as bad as you probably think.

And so, here’s a short list of reasons why you are probably overestimating how much damage Trump can do to America, and the world.

1. Every President is institutionally constrained and very few get everything they want.

Remember that a Presidential system is very different from New Zealand’s parliamentary system.

In a parliamentary system, if the governing coalition wants to do something, they can pass the legislation to do it – so long as they have the numbers. Political parties enforce party discipline and votes tend to be along party lines.

Why? In Parliamentary systems, party discipline is worth the effort. If the government fails to pass a budget, we get a new election. In America, if Congress fails to pass the President’s preferred budget, they all just sit around for a while until somebody blinks. So party line votes are less common, and bills passed by bipartisan consensus among centrist Democrats and Republicans are not uncommon.

And so presidents do not just automatically get what they want. Even if Trump faced a unified Republican House and Senate, he’d still have to convince them to pass things. And that brings us to point two.

2. The GOP establishment really seems to hate Trump. So even if he faced a Republican Congress, it’s hard to see any cakewalk.

Most of the crazy things that Trump seems to want would have to be passed by Congress. And he’s spent the past several months campaigning that the rest of the Republican Party is corrupt and beholden to their donors. Does this seem the kind of thing likely to enamour him to them?

3. It’s easier to imagine bipartisan consensus to pass legislation despite Trump.

Remember how a bill becomes a law. After it is passed by the House and Senate, it has to be signed by the President. The President can instead choose to veto the legislation.The threat of a President’s veto gives the President some ability to influence the content of legislation. But vetoes can be broken: if two-thirds of the members of each of the House and Senate want to, they can override the veto. If Congress needed to, it could get things done despite the President. If Trump is as bad as everybody thinks, it’s more plausible that the centre two-thirds of Congress will band together. But is he quite as nuts as everyone expects?

4. I doubt Trump will feel much constrained by any of the things he’s mooted as policy during the campaign.

Trump isn’t running on policy, he’s running on mood. He clearly has some pretty crazy policy views, but he’s also pretty clearly making policy up as he goes, sometimes just to get an applause line. So long as whatever policy he winds up promoting is consistent with the mood he’s setting, whether it meets the letter of what he’s said in the campaign probably won’t matter much. Why?

5. Trump should be better than most at providing the symbols his supporters want, while gutting the substance, when he needs to.

Again, Trump isn’t really running on policy. He’s running on the long frustration felt by rather a few Americans. Working class, high-school-educated Americans living away from the coasts in ‘fly-over country’ have been the objects of elite derision for ages. Does Trump seem better or worse than most at providing the kinds of symbols his supporters crave, while not doing much of substance?

6. Most people overestimate the President’s influence.

Even in America, where people kind of understand, sometimes, the division of powers and federalism, people systematically overestimate the President’s influence on outcomes. Bryan Caplan, Ilya Somin, Wayne Grove and I looked at data comparing voters and political scientists’ views on the President’s influence. Voters blame government for far too much, and diffuse responsibility for outcomes too broadly. The public underestimated the President’s influence on the budget (forgetting that the veto gives the President some sway over the budget) and underestimated the President’s influence on wars. Otherwise, Americans overestimated the President’s influence. It would be surprising if Kiwis, used to a Prime Minister, didn’t similarly overestimate things.

7. Congress has long needed to step up and block unilateral Presidential war-making. Trump could encourage Congress to step up.

The President is Commander in Chief, but Congress is supposed to authorise wars. With Trump’s finger near the button, Congress just might step up.

8. The American bipartisan consensus protects much that is good, but also much that needs fixing. A promiscuous iconoclast might be guided to the latter.

Trump seems to love smashing things deemed sacred. Some sacred things are long past smashing. There is some chance that he could be guided toward the kinds of icon destruction that could do the country some good.

I’m hardly endorsing a Trump candidacy here. South Park, a few seasons ago, imagined an election campaign where one candidate was a turd sandwich and the other was a giant douche. If they thought that applied back then, I wonder how they’d illustrate it now.

The options left here really aren’t looking good on either side of the aisle. The rest of the GOP field complains that Trump doesn’t hate Planned Parenthood enough; Hillary seems the neoconservatives’ choice for continuing the American ‘bomb and hope for the best’ foreign policy; and Sanders’s economic policies have been described by sane economists of the left as ‘literally incredible’.

But every one of them would be constrained, Trump included. And that’s some comfort.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates