Americans haven’t elected a take-no-prisoners executive bound to drag the country into a hard-right populist dystopia.
Instead, they’ve elected a third-party-style insurgent (albeit from within the Republican Party) who will struggle to make allies in either congressional party and fizzle out after four years of smoke, but not a lot of noise — or economic or policy accomplishments.
It already happened — in Minnesota. In 1998, voters weary of grey establishmentarians, elected instead the flamboyant Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler. Christening himself as Jesse ‘the Mind’ Ventura, he narrowly clipped Republican Norm Coleman (then St. Paul mayor) and Democrat Skip Humphrey (the son of the former vice president). But Ventura, in his one lonely term as governor, transformed a $4 billion budget surplus into a $4.5 billion deficit and otherwise spent most of his time fighting with the media and with members of the state legislature.
Ventura, who ran and governed on the quirky Reform Party ticket founded in 1996 by Ross Perot, lent his support in 2000 to Trump’s nascent bid for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination. Trump eventually lost to the anti-trade, anti-immigrant conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.
Far from a lapse to 1930s-style authoritarianism, perhaps the Trump administration will be far more like a national version of the Ventura experiment. Trump has already squandered nearly a quarter of his first 100 days on distractions and controversy.
There’s a real chance that the courts and Congress will continue to stand up for constitutional values, as the Ninth Circuit is already doing, and we end up in a period where policy is locked (somewhat) in amber for four years, while Trump suffers an endless parade of indignities that he literally can’t stop (like this week’s bathrobe silliness or his tantrum over Nordstrom or Trump’s amateur-hour phone call with Australia’s prime minister).
He’s already starting to seem powerless to do much more than Tweet in frustration at the same old enemies, notably the mainstream media.
John McCain already feels like the shadow American foreign minister from inside the US Congress, smoothing over international relations while Jim Mattis and John Kelly tend to the hard business of defense and homeland security with a far more serious and professional tone than Trump’s West Wing.
‘Alternative facts’ aside, even his voters in the near-mythical white working class aren’t as stupid as Trump takes them. They know that while he’s still taking a sledgehammer to the establishment they, like Trump, despise, Trump is still lying when he takes credit for creating phantom jobs.
Trump is also learning that the presidency is far less powerful than he thought. Sheer incompetence slows down all administrations. It will be devastating to one as inexperienced as this. For all the hand-wringing over the Trump administration’s hubris, consider this: the chief of staff (Reince Priebus), Trump’s chief strategist (Stephen Bannon), the national security adviser (Mike Flynn), the nominee for treasury secretary (Steve Mnuchin), the defense secretary (Mattis), the secretary of state (Rex Tillerson) and the president, too, have no relevant executive branch experience. Remember the days when Bush-era aides claimed that the were rewriting and making their own history or when Obama-era aides spoke of the new permanent Democratic majority? Trump’s team, who are probably as startled as anyone to be working in the Oval Office, will be just as prone to overreach.
A Ventura-style outcome seems particularly likely if Trump continues to eschew the apparatus of the federal government. Today, though Trump is in power, he doesn’t quite hold power. The presidency is more than just one official — or even a series of officials in the West Wing. So long as Trump treats running the country like the Trump business or the Trump campaign, he will find himself frustrated at every turn by forces designed to stop him from implementing a radical agenda. With a neophyte at State, Trump still hasn’t decided who will serve in the key deputy secretary of state role or the other undersecretary roles.
Trump won’t sign the most radical Republican legislation, to his credit, but that will only serve to alienate him from traditional conservatives like House speaker Paul Ryan, and there’s already a sense that Trump is far more comfortable with Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer — or at least at his happiest when he is plucking Ryan or McCain or someone else in the Republican establishment. Trump’s already a mildly unpopular president. Those numbers could rise or fall, but if they fall, traditional Republicans will have a huge incentive to break with Trump, just as they did with the Bush administration after 2005 and 2006. Republicans will not figure out how to replace Obamacare because the Obama administration, in trying to win Republican support, already tried the market-friendly approach that conservatives were advocating in the 1990s. Trump and the GOP will now own anything that happens with health care costs (hint: they will continue to rise), even if they do nothing, after spending six years bragging about their magic-bullet replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
Worried about the bellicose language from the Trump administration? On the world stage, Mattis, Kelly and McCain can contain the damage from Trump, and the civil service within the federal government will continue to keep the wheels of the executive branch running. The world, meanwhile, will adapt to Trump’s erratic statements and realize they are nothing more than ‘crazy uncle’ talk, not policy pronouncement. Trump’s craziest Tweets are already starting to lose their shock value. China realizes Trump’s errant comments aren’t worth starting World War III, though, like Bush and Obama before him, Trump will discover that ‘resets’ and charm offensives will not make Vladimir Putin his friend.
Any kind of trade war with real teeth against China or Japan or Mexico will soon come roaring back on middle-class American consumers. Just watch what happens when the price of clothes rises by 200%, when iPhones cost 150% more or even avocados cost 130% more. Or imagine what happens when Midwestern farmers find themselves unable to sell surplus corn and grain to Mexico at NAFTA-level prices.
The Trump administration will find it easy to undermine but difficult to unwind completely the Obama-era deals on climate change (China still has domestic reasons to push forward), Iran’s energy program (which China, Russia and the European Union still support) and Cuba opening (just try and stop the wave of pent-up American commerce now deluging the island). NATO probably is more obsolete today than in 1989, in the sense that the will probably doesn’t exist to check Putin’s growing aggression, and Obama and Trump are far closer on NATO’s ‘free riders’ than you’d think — Obama just used far more diplomatic language about it. Europeans have nowhere else to turn, and Latin America, Africa and Asia are growing fine enough on every front without too much help from the United States these days (though with quite a bit from China).
We could come out of the next four years having significantly strengthened the checks and balances of American democracy, while reducing some of the majestic awe surrounding the office of the presidency, not to mention the constant ratcheting-up of executive power, especially under Bush and Obama. That, perhaps, is something even conservatives and progressives alike can agree.