From Franklin Roosevelt onward, American presidents have been vice presidents (Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush senior), members of the House or Senate (John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama), or governors (George W. Bush). The one exception was the eminently political general, Dwight Eisenhower.
Our presidents came to the White House with direct experience of the intricacies of our institutions, of the obduracy and changeability of public opinion, of national and international crises, large and small. The one with large academic knowledge of the Constitution and its history, the professor of law Barack Obama, had the least experience (four years as a senator). That became evident during a very public process of learning.
An American president is the executive director of a federal work force of two million, seven hundred thousand officials. The president literally forms (subject to senatorial approval for hundreds of positions) his or her own government. The president appoints not only cabinet secretaries (ministers) and agency heads, but four thousand other officials.
Critical to the success of any president is the White House staff – an inner circle which works with the president day by day, and an outer one on permanent call. Some of the most important are often unknown to the public, if known to the influential in Washington.
The president has to deal with 100 senators, 435 representatives — with the senior ones quite used to seeing presidents come and go. Support on any given issue from those of his or her own party is not necessarily accorded to the president. The members of Congress have their own agendas and constituencies. Many are intensely interested in particular issues for years – and they and their staffs (20,000 persons work at the Congress) often have very direct relationships to the senior permanent officials in the federal government working on their issues of choice. They find it easy to impress upon the president’s appointees that they owe their appointments to the president, but will owe policy support to the budgetary and legislative assent of the Congress.
A president has also to deal with fifty governors (themselves employing, with the mayors, some 20 million people. The governors frequently dispose of their own political capital, and ambitions. In larger states or those with traditions of independence and political innovation, they may be experimenting with policies the president has to scrutinize as explicit or implicit alternatives to the presidential agenda.
The president also nominates, subject to senatorial approval, federal judges who serve for life. In a system of separation of powers, the independence of the judges has often taught both Congress and president the limits of their powers.
At least and perhaps more important, as head of state and “First Citizen,” the president must respond to a complex, conflicted, divided and yet demanding civil society. The claims of ethnic groups and churches, of the expectant young and the dependent old are incessant. The president is in some large measure pastor to the national soul. A partisan, there are significant occasions on which he or she has to transcend party and speak to and for the entire nation.
The president is in some large measure pastor to the national soul. A partisan, there are significant occasions on which he or she has to transcend party and speak to and for the entire nation.
In all of these respects, Mr. Trump will find the presidency a task for which he is either unprepared or unfit. He has had no governmental experience. It is unclear that he understands the constraints on the presidency. He has held out to enthusiastic supporters an historical caricature: an omnipotent president.
Mr. Trump’s experience of business is not that of a large corporation interacting with society on several levels. It is of the often corrupt world of real estate, in which secretive book keeping is the rule. Mr. Trump’s character, as he has presented himself in the campaign, foretells a very difficult time in Washington. He is not a gentleman, enjoys vindictive hostility, and divides the world into antagonists and possible partners in a deal. His pronounced lack of empathy ill becomes the possible leader of a very diverse nation. In particular, his attitudes to women have repelled many.
Should the Democrats win a majority in the Senate, they are likely to be not only unforgiving but also effective opponents. A Republican House majority is likely, but the divisions within the Republican congressional group are deep. A president can always appeal to the voters over the heads of Congress, but a narrowly-elected president who will not have united even his own party is in a poor position to do so.
Sooner rather than later, the president will have to contract enduring allies in his own party. At the moment, a substantial segment of the party is apprehensive of a Trump presidency. They do not recognize him as a Republican but think of him as a political pirate, possibly dangerous to their own projects and values. Former President George H.W. Bush is not the only Republican who thinks Mr. Trump morally and psychologically unqualified for the presidency.
A paradox is striking. With his obsessive support for the campaign to depict President Obama as born in Kenya and an illegitimate occupant of the White House, Mr. Trump made a substantial contribution to a situation in which nearly a third of the nation disrespects the president.
As president, Mr. Trump’s lack of civic responsibility will return to haunt him. In forming a government, Mr. Trump would attract the calculated allegiance of those anxious for appointments. He will not have the implicit loyalties generated by shared moral commitment. What will render a Trump presidency fragile, prone to accident or worse from the outset, are his own failings.
He has certainly not read Carl Schmitt. Still, his presidential modus operandi would be a vulgar authoritarianism, more characteristic of the primitive and plebian reaches of American business and politics than what was the decent bipartisan tradecraft of Washington, eroded by figures like former vice president Dick Cheney, who can indeed claim to have prepared the way for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump’s rhetoric does not echo the Constitution and the judicial, administrative and legislative practice built upon it.
Mr. Trump inherited a local firm constructing housing in the outer boroughs of New York and joined the closed world of New York real estate. His opaque dealings abroad are similar ventures in exotic settings.
Mr. Trump’s father had his own political profile. In the 1920s, the hooded and sheeted organization of domestic terrorists, Ku Klux Klan, moved out of the south to propagate racism and xenophobia on a national scale. It objected to the eastern and southern European immigrants, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, who had come by the millions between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the virtual cessation of immigration with the adoption of draconian legislation of 1924.
It was a movement of white Protestants. Mr. Trump’s father was arrested in 1927 for participating in a Klan protest against the Irish Catholic presence in the New York City police force. His firm was subsequently unremarkable in refusing to rent, whatever the law, to African-American tenants.
Mr. Trump makes frequent use of a slogan, “America First,” that also bespeaks a political heritage.
In the debate 1939-41 on Roosevelt’s anti-Nazi policies, “America First” was a broad social movement mobilizing the antagonists to American support for the United Kingdom and the USSR. It included the German, Irish, Italian ethnic communities, white nationalists espousing a distinctive American heritage, and a large component of antisemitism. It also comprised enemies of the east coast cultural and social elites accused of conspiring as in 1917 to bring the nation into war. Its most prominent figure was the Minnesota pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh.
Mr. Trump’s slogan has revived a tradition belonging to millions of families with homespun legends of the past. He has modernized it to capture the anxieties of those who cannot comprehend why, as citizens of the “greatest nation on earth,” their daily economic struggles and striving for security and status are matters of no concern to their more prosperous fellow citizens.
These are the same groups which denied bestowal of good faith on President Obama. If he wins in November, it is Mr. Obama that a President Trump will have finally defeated, years after constructing the untruth of his Kenyan birth.
Once again in recent days a group of senior figures in the foreign policy apparatus has declared that a President Trump would make the nation unsafe. As president, Mr. Trump would serve as commander in chief, in charge of our nuclear arsenal and able, with congressional approval, to name the senior officers of the armed services – one million, three hundred thousand strong.
Mr. Trump’s campaign statements on the military resemble a fever chart. He condemns Mr. Obama for not listening to his commanders, then promises himself to dismiss serving generals and appoint new ones. He uses the most reductive language to describe military operations, and attributes defeats incurred by the U.S. armed forces to the mendacity of the president. He has little idea of the evolution of warfare since the U.S. campaigns against the Indians of the Great Plains.
That is part of his larger syndrome of geopolitical ignorance, condemned by much of the foreign policy elite. They note that Mr. Trump appears to think of foreign policy negotiation as something like bidding for a building site. They have responded especially strenuously to his apparent willingness to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has been accompanied by casual remarks on allowing South Korea and Japan to become nuclear powers, and the reduction of relationships to NATO to bilateral business deals.
No doubt, he will find careerist mediocrities from the apparatus to staff his foreign policy, and military commanders who will think it their responsibility to remain in function and proffer advice. There is not a hint of a long-term strategy in what may charitably be termed his thought. Without both elder statesmen and younger thinkers, he is likely to revert to the lowest of common denominators of militarized gesture – and initiate ventures he cannot end.
A segment of the Republicans recall that theirs was the party of Lincoln and has a moral legacy to defend, but most appear to have forgotten, or not to care.
Mr. Trump has promised to renew the military’s arms – but is clearly unprepared to deal with inter-service rivalry, the slow and costly development and procurement traps. A President Trump is in foreign and military matters likely to become prisoner of those vending nostrums and conspiracy theories, some of whom have already appeared on the margins of his campaign.
The success of his critics in preventing a national descent into illusion depends upon their establishing secure channels of communication with the forty or so representatives and senators who occupy critical committee posts in foreign affairs, intelligence, and military matters. It may also require them to enter into truce negotiations with the anti-imperial minority in the academy, the Congress, and the government itself.
Mr. Trump has presented a budget plan in two versions, described by the Washington Post as “from worst to bad.” It favors high-income earners and corporations. It would also reduce or eliminate sufficient government income to make current government programs of all kinds impossible.
Mr. Trump also envisages deep reductions in government regulation, but a good deal of it is written into law and would require new legislation to undo. Republican obstructionism has made the budget setting process under Obama a matter of constant uncertainty. Democrats whose constituencies depend on federal programs are likely to prove equally obstinate in defense of the continued existence of the federal government, the end of which a Trump budget might engender.
Mr. Obama drew his economic officials from those with serious giovernmental experience. Mr. Trump’s present advisors are Wall Street speculators, often with notions of “government” as simple as those of the ordinary citizens who applaud Mr. Trump’s shorter clichés. Generally, Republican presidents are taken in hand by party elders who – with Wall Street and the larger corporations and the Ivy League universities – install competent market economists at the White House. Mr. Trump may refuse this sort of discipline, but would then confront all sorts of Congressional opposition — as well as objections from governors who require federal funding.
He has both criticized and praised the present chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, whose first term ends in 2018. These are not matters that will be confined to the Washington water glass. Millions of Trump voters will expect economic improvement, while donors will exact payment for their millions.
The least that can be said is that Mr. Trump is preparing large and resolvable conflicts for himself. These will be matched by the problems posed by his reckless declarations on immigration.
The U.S. population at the moment is around 328 million and the foreign-born number about 44 million. Of these, around 11 million are without legal standing – even if at least half of them have been here for 10 years and many have children or spouses who are U.S. citizens. Appealing to the xenophobia of large numbers of citizens (themselves of course often descendants of historically recent immigrants), Mr. Trump has undertaken to deport the undocumented 11 million.
He has accompanied this with insulting descriptions of Mexican immigrants, in particular, and has promised to build a wall on the southern border to be paid for by Mexico itself. A broad coalition in favor of amnesty, a serious step to resolve the present illegal status of the undocumented is led by employers, churches, and of course the families of those without documentation.
Frequently, the states have taken initiatives, by issuing drivers’ licenses, for instance, to those without visas. Mr. Trump sometimes reiterates his pledge to deport 11 million, and other times intimates some concessions. The deportation of the 11 million would, of course, require the conversion of the entire U.S. judicial and police apparatus into a single police state, which is constitutionally and politically impossible.
It will also be impossible for Mr. Trump to renegotiate the North American Fair Trade Agreement with Mexico while expelling millions of its citizens. The more severe the deportation policy, the more distant the chances of the Republican Party winning substantial segments of the Latino electorate, even if many Latinos have left the immigrant friendly Catholic Church and joined fundamentalist Protestant ones – and are open to the Republican anti-modern cultural project.
Latinos born in the United States or abroad number around 17 percent of the population. The rest of the Republican Party will not allow Mr. Trump to abandon these to the Democrats. Shouting apart, little will be done.
Just 1 percent of the American population is Muslim. There has been a series of bombings and shootings by younger Muslims. Mr. Trump, joined by any number of public figures of the right, has denounced Mr. Obama for failing to condemn these attacks as derived from a Jihadist conception of Islam. He has demanded the cessation of Muslim immigration to the United States, and exceptional surveillance of the resident population.
Each of these would violate the U.S. Constitution’s provision of religious freedom. It would also complicate U.S. diplomatic relations with Muslim states and confirm the Jihadists’ vision of irreducible hostility between the West and Islam.
Mr. Trump, however, cannot back down. He cannot simultaneously dampen his undertaking to deport unauthorized immigrants and abandon his demands for special treatment of Muslims. In certain states, he will be able to count on the governors, attorney generals, and police. In others, he will encounter principled resistance (in New York City, for example, the police force has 600 Muslim officers serving under a Latino chief of police).
Mr. Trump’s accession to the presidency would increase the sense of distance from the American mainstream of troubled younger Muslims.It certainly will not diminish acts of terror, whatever their source. The churches and the judiciary will resist Mr. Trump with some success.
Thirteen percent of the U.S. population is African-American. Mr. Trump’s current appeals to them for support because their economic and social situation is worse than ever are fraudulent. There is a large African-American middle class and the Civil Rights Act provided for voting rights in the south. African-Americans do suffer disproportionately from poverty and illness, unemployment and educational deficiency. That is the very active concern of 45 African-American members of the House of Representatives (all Democrats), and two African-American senators, one a New Jersey Democrat and the other a South Carolina Republican.
The accession to the presidency of Barack Obama and his re-election occasioned open hostility from that part of the nation which could not master its prejudices. Mr. Trump, in pursuing for half a decade the falsehood that Mr. Obama was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible for the presidency, made himself their voice. A third of the white population agreed.
He has also loudly defended the police forces which, one way or another, consistently find unarmed African-American citizens to kill. Mr. Trump has additionally not repudiated the support of white racist groups. He has supported Republican state governments that have sought to limit African-American voting by demanding onerous proof of eligibility, shortened voting periods and limiting the availability of electoral sites and machines.
It is very unlikely that Mr. Trump can achieve even a modus vivendi with the African-Americans in Congress, with African-American mayors, or with black churches and organizations. Indeed, a younger African-American generation organized in groups like Black Lives Matter will be resorting to direct action (as in North Carolina as I write) to make their protests.
A segment of the Republicans recall that theirs was the party of Lincoln and has a moral legacy to defend, but most appear to have forgotten, or not to care. On socio-economic grounds, on Constitutional and moral ones, the Democratic Party will remain the political agency of the African-Americans. There is no evidence that Mr. Trump senses any real obligation to them.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives the citizenry the right to bear arms — in a public militia. It has been juridically and politically perverted to legitimate the limitless possession and use of arms by citizens – with evident consequences. Mr. Trump is campaigning as a champion of these “rights” and he will not endanger his core support by any compromise.
There is if anything a more serious issue concerning his personality. His language is saturated with the metaphors of violence, he has repeatedly called for attacks on protesters at his meetings, and he has suggested in astonishingly open terms that his adversary Hillary Clinton could be killed. Severe crises will certainly disrupt an already conflicted nation under his presidency.
Western anti-federal militias, gun-rights groups, so-called self-protective organisations, and legal green lights for the bearing and use of firearms render the U.S. a powder keg. Mr. Trump has thus far refrained from forming his own gun-bearing organization: It is impossible to say that he will restrain himself in a situation of tension — after reverses of his policies by the independent judiciary, or congressional votes.
In the long run, however, the danger to his presidency may come from his own party. House Speaker Paul Ryan is a very ambivalent ally. His vice-presidential candidate, Governor Michael Pence of Indiana, is a hardened and experienced conservative at home in politely-clothed social brutality. Should Mr. Trump falter too visibly, ways and means to arrange his departure would be found. The Senate will have a set of younger Democrats preparing to run in 2020 and disinclined to political compromise.
It is quite true that Mr. Trump has succeeded in fusing politics and mass culture in ways reminiscent of the Third Reich. Perhaps that is an incentive for the American public to begin to question itself.
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