Opinion
09.11.16

An unfettered Trump presidency

USA, Ohio, Cleveland, 19 July 2016 | The Press booths seen at Quickens Loans during the floor vote to nominate Donald Trump for the presidential race. Nina Berman / NOOR

Trump will not have historic institutional constraints to limit him, says Mark Hallerberg.

The election result remains a shock. At some stage, after the gloating from the winners and the depression of the losers, the country will move on. What does the future hold?

In terms of policy, I don’t think I am being unduly critical to say that Trump’s proposals simply do not add up. His policies—to the extent he had clear positions in the campaign—are contradictory and, at best, difficult to implement. He has said time and again he will build a wall with Mexico. Many of his supporters think this is figurative; a “real” wall would simply be too expensive and take too long to build. He wants to repeal Obamacare in a special session of Congress and “replace it with something better”. He opposes current trade deals, though he vaguely promises to have new trade deals that put Americans first. He won’t cut social transfer programs (or “entitlements”, as Americans call them) like social security and Medicare. He will fight corruption and “drain the swamp”. He threatened a political vendetta against his opponent. He will ban Muslims from “America’s enemies”. He said he wants massive tax cuts, benefiting mostly the wealthy. But he also criticised Democrats for budget deficits and for increasing the debt.

Out of this, it is very hard to predict which policies he really will pursue. This is a candidate who never spoke about compromise or set priorities during the campaign. Just take Obamacare, which provides health insurance to 20 million Americans who did not have it before. Does he take away their insurance? If he continues to provide it, what then does he really change? Does he forbid premium increases, which were an issue in the campaign? Does he increase public funding for a system that looks very much like this current one?

My initial guess is that he changes the status quo a lot less than he promised, or than his supporters expect. He won an election criticising his opponent. He did not win with a mandate for a specific slate of policies.

But the institutional landscape for Democrats is bleak. The US system is famous for its “checks and balances”. In practice, it is rare for a sitting president to have majorities in both houses of Congress. The Supreme Court usually provides an additional check from the judiciary.

What will these checks and balances look like going forward? Not only did Trump win, but his party held both the House and the Senate. I would expect him to have majorities in both for his full term—in 2018, only eight Republicans are up for reelection in the Senate versus 25 Democrats. Redistricting of House districts, which are now designed in a way that provides a bias towards Republicans, cannot happen until 2022 at the earliest. The Supreme Court is currently deadlocked at 4-4. Trump will appoint a person who will become the deciding fifth vote for many years to come.

So we don’t know really what he will do. But once he makes up his mind, he will not have the historic institutional constraints limiting him.

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