This Election Isn’t About Love or Hate. It’s About Competence.
As I write this, the week after the Democratic National Convention, most polls of likely voters show Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a neck-and-neck race.
The optimist in me wants to believe that Trump has reached his high-water mark. I trust that Clinton’s post-convention bounce in the polls will be healthy, and that it will stick. And I expect that as Election Day approaches, even Trump’s supporters will be put off by his reliably unpresidential behavior. This week alone, he suggested that Russia hack into Clinton’s e-mail server and descended into a damaging feud with the family of the deceased Army Captain Humayan Khan, prompting rebukes from fellow Republicans. The Trump campaign will die of a thousand of these self-inflicted wounds—or so I would like to think.
But the realist in me has to consider the possibility that I am wrong.
- Trump supporters may be in such an antiestablishment mood that they’re willing to keep overlooking or excusing his antics.
- Despite attempts to unify the party around Clinton in Philadelphia, the Sanders insurgency may have divided Democratic voters in ways that can’t be repaired in time to stop Trump. Bernie supporters who decide to sit this one out or vote for third-party candidates like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein could wind up handing the election to a man they should all detest.
- Some horrible news event between now and Election Day could play to the fear, xenophobia, and law-and-order yearnings that Trump is so skillful at exploiting.
Clearly, close to half of America wants Trump to be president. And since things could go either way, it’s time for everyone, Clinton and Trump fans alike, to consider what a Trump presidency might be like.
And when you do that, even a little bit, you quickly realize this isn’t an outcome anyone, even Trump’s current supporters, should really want.
You don’t need a crystal ball to foresee one certain feature of a Trump presidency: Capitol Hill gridlock. In the House, the GOP’s current 247-to-188 majority is likely to shrink to something like 242–193, even in a Trump-dominated election. That’s not enough to change the way that body functions — or malfunctions, depending on your point of view. But in the Senate, things will be different. There, Democrats are likely to pick up three or four seats, whether or not Trump is elected. That will give them 49 or 50 votes (not counting potential Republican defectors).
This isn’t enough for Democrats to have a controlling voice, but it’s enough to ensure stalemate. Senate rules require 60 votes to end debate on legislation or Supreme Court nominations, and Republicans won’t have that many. Senate Democrats’ constituents would expect them to block and discredit a President Trump at every turn, so they would take over the obstructionist role currently played by Republicans. They’d use the power of the filibuster to prevent a Trump administration from passing new laws, appointing new Supreme Court justices, and perhaps even funding the operations of the government.
Trump could push through some changes using executive orders, but he wouldn’t get the money to build his wall on the Mexican border or deport millions of immigrants. And he wouldn’t have the votes to impose punitive tariffs on China, repeal Obamacare, or overhaul the tax code.
In other words: as long as the federal government has three separate and coequal branches, Trump supporters would get very little of what he’s promising them.
What they would get is an economy stuck somewhere between zero growth and a massive recession (according to economists at Moody’s Analytics) and a world with less freedom, less safety, and a diminished role for the United States (according to a group of 121 Republican national security experts). Also, of course, the momentary satisfaction of knowing that they gave Washington the finger.
I can understand their urge to do that. Congress is truly mired in dysfunction, and it’s tempting to think that we should send in a rabble-rouser to fix things—someone who isn’t a “career” politician. In his cover story in The Atlantic this month, “How American Politics Went Insane,” Jonathan Rauch highlights a thesis, first outlined in 2002 by political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, that 25 to 40 percent of Americans are “politiphobes” who see all jockeying over policy alternatives as a form of corruption or partisan feuding. In Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s view, this group pines for a strong outsider who can knock some heads in Washington and push through commonsense solutions to the country’s problems.
But hopes like these will always be dashed. Saying you don’t want a career politician as president is like saying you don’t want a career surgeon doing your triple bypass, or a career architect designing your house. It takes a while to get good at governing, and it’s not about corruption: it’s about building alliances, earning and using seniority, handing out pork, currying favor, and doing favors. Outsiders have no political currency to spend.
At some level, voters understand all of this. Even people who run as outsiders rarely win without credentials as experienced insiders (see: General Dwight Eisenhower, Senator Barack Obama). But Trump ascended to the GOP nomination, Rauch writes, because we’re in a uniquely antipolitical moment and he was “the perfect vector to concentrate politiphobic sentiment, intensify it, and inject it into presidential politics.” Rauch sees Trump — and Sanders and Cruz, for that matter — as political sociopaths, “meaning not that they are crazy, but that they don’t care what other politicians think about their behavior and they don’t need to care.”
Clearly, Trump does not care. But do voters really want a president who feels no need to work within the system? David Frum, also writing in The Atlantic, argues that Trump voters don’t believe in institutions anymore, and that they like their nominee because he’s a scam artist and because he pisses off people in the Acela corridor. But if they imagine, in their rage and disillusionment, that Trump will be their voice in Washington, they’re only setting themselves up for more disappointment. A President Trump wouldn’t cure dysfunction in Washington — he would guarantee that it spreads.
The “love trumps hate” chant at the Democratic convention was clever, but it caricatured both sides. Clinton’s strength is not that she’s a nurturing grandmother type, but that she’s a hard-working policy wonk with a vast personal network. Trump, meanwhile, is not hobbled by prejudice or hate per se, but by his callousness and self-involvement. This election isn’t about love or hate. It’s about who can get the wheels of government turning again, so that we can get on with more important business. That isn’t Trump.
The need now is to persuade those who can be persuaded that unaccountability is a weakness in a presidential candidate, not a strength. Voters don’t have to like Hillary Clinton or agree with all of her proposals to understand that she is a canny, tough, and competent leader who knows how to work the system, at home and on the world stage. If they still can’t stomach her, that’s too bad. They should suck it up, say no to Trump, and work to nominate a more experienced and reasonable Republican in 2020.
After all, if people are afraid of a fire in their neighborhood, they don’t hire an arsonist to protect them. They find someone who knows how to drive a fire truck.
For more of my election musings, see “Clinton Versus Trump: Who’s Stronger on Innovation?” Xconomy, July 26, 2016.