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American institutions will stop Trump from destroying the country (even if he wants to)

Donald Trump meets Barack Obama
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Friends? Frenemies?
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The prospect of Donald Trump taking the reins of the country on January 20—with the support of a Republican Congress, no less—has unleashed an internet firestorm of end-of-the-world predictions about America’s future. I understand that pessimism: I grew up in a country that was taken hostage by another noted billionaire tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi. But panicked hysteria is counterproductive when dealing with a populist. In Italy, it obfuscated the opposition’s ability to realistically assess the situation and craft a pragmatic strategy to claw its way back into power.

That’s why I set out to compile a list of things that I hope will provide my American friends some comfort:

Change in democracies tends to occur gradually—and there’s data to prove it

The US is, by some metrics, the world’s oldest democracy; its checks and balances are strong, and its institutions resilient. Therefore, a democratic leader’s ability to effect change—for good or bad—is limited.

Does the theory hold up? One easy way to put it to the test is by looking at an area of public policy where change is relatively easy to measure: economic policy. If checks and balances prevent democratic leaders from implementing drastic economic reforms in a short amount of time, then democratic regimes—at least, well established ones—should have a record of steady growth rather than dramatic booms and busts.

That’s exactly what Ruchir Sharma, a Morgan Stanley fund manager and one of Wall Street’s most original thinkers, found in his recent bestseller, The Rise and Fall of Nations. Looking at 150 countries between 1950 and 2015, Sharma counts 36 nations that have experienced numerous cycles of very fast growth and steep recession. Of those, only two—Iceland and Greece—are mature democracies.

This finding is in part why Sharma has been repeatedly arguing that a Trump victory wouldn’t hijack the US’s positive economic trajectory.

Sharma is speaking to investors, but the same democratic checks and balances that contain a demagogue’s damage on the economy apply elsewhere.

Even with a Republican Congress, Trump faces checks and balances

Many of the world’s democracies are parliamentary systems where the legislature can topple the prime minister. A US president who can count on friendly majorities in both houses of Congress is infinitely more powerful. So when it comes to specifics, what exactly would keep a Trump administration in check?

Jon Michaels, a professor of law at UCLA whose forthcoming book is promisingly titled Separation of Powers All the Way Forward, does not downplay the potential impact of a president Trump. Even without support from Congress, Michaels notes that Trump could repeal all of president Barack Obama’s executive orders—including rules limiting greenhouse gases and extending workplace protections—with the strike of a pen. A likely first casualty, Michaels predicts, is the 2012 Obama directive that spared illegal immigrants brought into the country as children from deportation.

And with both House and Senate behind it, the new administration could dismantle other big Obama-era laws, starting with the Affordable Care Act. But the new president, just like all of his predecessors, will have to contend with the federal bureaucracy and the judiciary.

When implementing legislation or presidential directives, “the professional civil service has to justify the decisions it makes through reasonable determination,” Michaels says. A failure to do so will make federal rules vulnerable to legal challenges.

There’s plenty of historical precedent for this. For example, it’s what happened when president Ronald Reagan, who had campaigned on deregulating the auto industry, tried to rescind the rule that required cars to have either seatbelts or airbags. Reagan ordered the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration change the rule, which it did. In response, insurance and consumer groups sued the government, and a Federal appeals court overturned the president’s measure, saying Traffic Safety Administration had acted ”arbitrarily and capriciously” in implementing the administration’s fiat.

It’s telling that former House speaker Newt Gingrich has advised Trump to end lifetime tenure for federal workers, says Michaels. That’s something the president and Congress can do through legislation, he adds, though depriving existing federal employees of labor protections is harder than eliminating them for new hires. Politicizing the entire bureaucracy would take years.

The Supreme Court will likely go back to being as conservative as it was before, but not more

And what about the Supreme Court? For now, says Michaels, we’re in for more of the same. A conservative nominee would simply return the court to the balance that existed before Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, even if Trump were to follow on his threat to select a judge willing to reverse Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that made abortion legal.

But even if Trump had the opportunity to choose a second nominee—in the event that a liberal justice retires or dies during his tenure—the court would not necessarily start overturning its own prior rulings. In the past, notes Michaels, the court has tended to narrow the scope of previous rulings, rather than strike them down. That’s what happened in 2013 with the Voting Rights Act.

Trump and Congress won’t necessarily get along

Much ink has been spilled on this one, but it bears repeating: The GOP and Trump have had their differences. And Democrats are apparently already thinking about how to exploit them. As Scott Salmon previously explained in Quartz:

Like [Lyndon] Johnson, the Democrats may be able to use ideological divisions to drive a wedge between Trump and Congressional Republicans. By making both camps look alternatively like sellouts or overly partisan obstructionists, the Democrats may still accomplish several longtime goals. Maybe.

Trump does not seem like an ideologue


What Trump will or will not do in office can only be the subject of speculation. What we do know, though, is that what he says is not necessarily what he will do. Some, including president Obama, have called him pragmatic. He already appears to be walking back on some of his most contentious campaign promises, including pursuing charges against Hillary Clinton, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and reintroducing waterboarding.

That doesn’t mean he won’t carry out some of his many other dangerous pledges. But it’s reasonable to think that, after doing whatever it took to win the election, he will do whatever it takes to stay in power. As the exit-poll data suggests, that might have more to do with jobs and economic growth than Muslim bans.

Some Trump supporters aren’t racist—but they are swing voters

As FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, many of the white male voters who cast their ballot for Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, had previously supported Obama—in both elections. This, and the fact that Trump fared better than Mitt Romney among minorities, suggests that many Americans backed him despite his vitriolic rhetoric, not because of it.

This implies that Trump does not have an electoral mandate to implement a white-supremacist agenda. It also means that Democrats can hope to reclaim some of those votes in 2020.

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