I’m now safely back from America but still digesting the results of last week’s election. I’ve been working on some statistical analysis (something sadly missing in most of the commentary), but today I want to draw attention to a couple of more general points that can easily be missed by those who aren’t familiar with American political culture.
I haven’t in any way retreated from my view that a Trump presidency is very bad news indeed for America and the world. But there are two things worth noting that might take some of the edge off that pessimism.
The first is the special reverence with which Americans view the presidency. It’s more than just a political position; it’s the summit of national symbolism, and therefore inspires quite different feelings from, say, the prime ministership in Australia.
It’s easy to imagine even someone with as big an ego as Donald Trump being somewhat overawed by the prospect – and even more, come January, the reality – of acceding to such a position. Reports from his meeting last week with Barack Obama suggest just that. Trump was unusually subdued, and unusually generous with praise for his opponents, including the Clintons as well as Obama.
Fundamentally, of course, Trump is a con man. Having just pulled off the biggest con in history, one can well imagine him bamboozled and a little frightened at his own success. One can only compare him with Boris Johnson in the aftermath of the British EU referendum; I said at the time that Johnson “looked a bit like one would expect Donald Trump might feel were he to win the presidency – silent horror that something that started out as a lark had actually borne fruit and taken him prisoner.”
Johnson, mind you, is a much more intelligent man than Trump, so the horror probably hit him more quickly.
Being a con man, however, Trump is at best unsecurely attached to any of his convictions. His goals are power, prestige and comfort for himself, and if any of the policies he put forward during the campaign turn out to be obstacles to those things, there’s little doubt that they will be quickly jettisoned.
The second point is about the relationship between Trump and the Republican majority in Congress. Unlike in a parliamentary system, members of Congress are not elected with a view to governing: their natural relationship with the presidency is adversarial, even when they come from the same party. That tendency has been magnified by the fact that Congressional Republicans have spent eight years in opposition, attempting (with considerable success) to frustrate the president at every turn.
Even with the best will in the world, it will not be easy for them to suddenly switch into the mindset of being allies of the White House. And since Trump not only has a different world-view and different priorities to theirs, but also has no experience in political negotiation and compromise, it’s quite likely that their relationship will be a stormy one.
One should not underestimate the potential for mutual frustration built into the system. And since the policies coming from all players are likely to be bad ones, the more they can frustrate one another’s intentions, the better.
Many Congressional leaders evidently expect that Trump will follow their lead and allow them to set the agenda. They may be right, but as I see it there’s nothing in his record to suggest he will be content with such a passive role – particularly if (as is likely) he finds that Republican policies would make him unpopular.
He has already made it clear that he has no interest in revisiting the legalisation of same-sex marriage, which will have surprised many Republican fire-breathers in Congress. I suspect there will be more such surprises to come.
There’s nothing new in the idea that a Trump presidency has some potential upside. Throughout the Republican primary campaign, I and others said that the worrying thing about Trump was his unpredictability: that while he might be a better president than his Republican rivals – unlike them, he had a record as a political moderate on a number of issues – he posed risks that they did not.
We know, for example, pretty much what a Ted Cruz presidency would be like, and it would be very bad. We know that he identifies with the most extreme positions of Congressional Republicans, and probably would have worked with them to enact most of their agenda. Trump could well be even worse, but there’s a significant chance that he will be quite a bit better.
When choosing an occupant for the most powerful position in the world, it makes sense to plan for the worse case and minimise the downside risk. But now that the choice has been made, we can only hope that what we actually get will be somewhere more on the upside.