April 23, 2017

Donald Trump’s effectiveness as a political candidate in the Republican primaries, and the electoral college success that put him in the White House, has unnerved political commentators and the policy establishments in his own party and beyond. On entering office, President Trump was to many regarded as — at best — a populist ‘know nothing’, who had managed to take the oath of office as the result of an idiosyncratic Republican primary electorate, and a fluke of America’s eighteenth-century constitution.

The charismatic candidate who captured the ‘imperial presidency’ with his Twitter account

In other quarters, the Trump presidency was seen to represent a much darker prospect. For much of the liberal media and the left, the Trump White House was the embodiment of what some political scientists and academic constitutional lawyers — such as Yale’s Professor Bruce Ackerman — had forewarned for years. For them, this was the emergence of a charismatic populist candidate, capable of breaking all the rules of the two-party system. In office, they thought that such a politician could deploy the powers of the ‘imperial presidency’ — famously catalogued by Arthur Schlesinger, fifty years ago — to impose an authoritarian federal government, which would intimidate all institutions, including the media.

The Republican foreign policy establishment wrote Trump off before he became the Republican candidate. His rhetoric on trade, interventions by the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO’s effectiveness, and his openness to a relationship with President Putin sent them reeling. Their concern was not so much about the imperial presidency, but a retreat to an agenda of isolation and non-intervention that hadn’t been ventilated since the 1940s.

The vivid voice of opposition

Many words have been used to describe the media since President Trump took office, but ‘cowed’ should not be one of them. The liberal and academic left has managed to achieve impressive feats of hyperbole. The February/March edition of the stimulating review Bookforum has set a benchmark for this form of journalism. Its Morning in Trumplandia special section asks how the Trump administration happened, what is to be done about it, and how it can be resisted. Its writers aim to ‘consider the lessons of history, revisiting books that may shed light on the upheavals to come. And they reaffirm literature’s power to sustain us, help us understand what is at stake, and urge us to keep moving forward’.

There is no doubt that — for people interested in politics, with a taste for agitprop writing — Trumplandia is something of a treat. Its reviews include Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism by L.A. Kauffman, and Hegemony How–To: A Roadmap for Radicals by Jonathan Smucker. The section Populist Momentum, how to motivate the masses includes a review of Lawrence Goodwin’s book The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Algerian Revolt in America, which was published in 1978. The most enjoyable and best-illustrated review (featuring an original New Deal WPA Federal Theatre poster) is Rhonda Lieberman’s write-up of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. Published in 1935, Lewis’s satire explored what would happen if a demagogue, such as Huey Long, were to defeat President Roosevelt.

An inexperienced, plutocratic, and pragmatic administration

Four months into the Trump administration, however, things appear more prosaic. An inexperienced administration has struggled to get to grips with its executive powers, and has struggled to make swift appointments. Most of the big jobs have gone to figures of the sort that would normally officer a Republican administration. Indeed, more business people have been appointed than might have been expected: the administration is decidedly plutocratic and Goldman Sachs and Wall Street are well represented. Overall, it can be described as more pragmatic than ideological.

An internationally-engaged foreign policy, led by technocratic military advice

Trump’s reaction to the horror of the gas attack in Syria and to the antics of the North Korean government, and his recognition of the importance of NATO have put paid to worry that a Trump administration would turn America in on itself. The national security and foreign policy team are impressive, and heavily drawn from the military technocracy; the administration appears to emphasise acting on military advice, and if anything may be cautious about restraining it.

Constitutional checks and partisanship

In terms of constitutional checks and balances, so far it appears to be business as usual. Defectively drafted executive orders on border control have been reviewed and struck down. The administration’s first foray into significant legislation — the repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act — foundered in Congress. The President’s first nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, appears to be an admirable lawyer. The only thing that went wrong with his appointment was that the Democrat Party in the Senate chose to replay the saga of the Robert Bork nomination: they attempted to block the appointment simply on the grounds that the Republicans proposed him. The Republicans, in turn, overrode the filibuster. This partisanship represents a further breach of the comity and constitutional conventions that are needed to make any constitution work, and is probably a more serious constitutional matter than any defect of political character that Trump may have brought to office.

The federal government’s fiscal challenge

Having been stymied on healthcare legislation, the administration has made it clear that tax reform is its main legislative priority. The benchmark here is the Reagan administration’s 1986 revenue-neutral tax reform that widened the base and cut marginal rates. The US federal government has a serious fiscal problem in rising spending on social security transfer payments and health care for older people, and a tax system that, under present law, will not yield enough revenue to finance its commitments in a sustainable manner. This fundamental problem is aggravated by a structure of income and corporation taxes that is distorted by tax reliefs, allowances, and so-called tax expenditures that increase the deadweight cost of collecting the revenue it does raise — thus damaging the supply performance of the economy. Moreover, it is a tax system that fails to make use of extensive and less distorting expenditure taxes of the sort employed in Australia, Canada, and Europe.

The Trump administration’s first budget message to Congress

It is not clear how the administration will work with Congress on this challenging agenda. The budget message the administration sent to Congress for fiscal 2018 was strident in expressing the President’s election campaign promises. It was a striking document, owing to its terseness. Normally, the budget messages dispatched to Congress are political visions with numbers attached — compilations of comprehensive analytical and historical perspectives. In many respects, these documents — along with analyses produced by the Congressional Budget Office — put the budget papers of other countries to shame. In contrast, this year, the administration produced a single cursory document.

A Presidency constrained by laws, bureaucracy, and the Washington power structure

Perhaps the most astute comment about what a Trump administration would involve was made in June last year. In a ‘Lunch with the FT’ interview, former US Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State James Baker, said that he would not get his ‘panties in a wedge’ over the thought of a Trump White House. Baker commented that what candidates say in the campaign, and what they do once they are in the White House, are not the same thing: ‘Presidents can do a lot but they can only do so much through the system of checks and balances. We are a country of laws, limited by bureaucracy and the power structure in Washington. Presidents are not unilateral rulers. If they did not know that, they will find out soon enough’. He also observed that isolation and protectionism do not work.

Trump — both by his experience and his temperament — is one of the most unusual men to have occupied the White House since the nineteenth century. Whether Bookforum’s sort of academic and lurid assessment of him is accurate is yet to be determined.

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