The main actor in Trump’s presidency so far has been American democracy, not the president himself
No one will easily be able to forget the night of Nov. 8, 2016. That was the night when the things that happen in the rest of the world, but not in the United States, happened there, too. The night in which the phenomenon that defines our era — the people’s rebellion against the political establishment, the rise of the outsiders — conquered the most powerful country.
What’s happened since then? What is most important is what hasn’t happened. American liberal democracy hasn’t only survived Donald Trump; in a sense, it’s tamed him. Wisely, the founders of the United States drew up a founding document and created institutions with two characteristics which seem contradictory but which, with time, have proven to be complementary: permeability and durability. The former guaranteed that democracy would keep evolving. It was thanks to this evolution that, for example, slavery disappeared. The latter guaranteed that checks and balances would permanently and unchangingly limit the power of politicians, starting with the president. Something so permeable can’t simultaneously be unchanging, but the founders achieved that elusive combination, which is the main reason Trump hasn’t been able to undermine democracy.
What he has done is exacerbate tensions. Those tensions were already present, in a sense; he didn’t unleash them. Let’s remember the virulence that the populist right-wing directed against Barack Obama, and the aggressiveness of left-wing activism against George W. Bush, to use two recent administrations as examples. But Trump provoked an escalation of tension and aggravation of intolerance on both sides, which led some to fear for coexistence and for democracy itself. Time has shown that those fears were exaggerated, since democracy is not just a very strong institution; it’s also a living entity. What does that mean? Essentially, that there’s an active, alert civil society. This civil society curbs, from the right, the extremism of the left when needed, and vice versa. Often both sides exaggerate situations, and sometimes they cross a line. But there are mechanisms in place that prevent greater evils.
One of the notable characteristics of Trump’s administration this year has been the distance between the talker and the doer. The talker, frustrated by not being able to do more than the political system allows him, vents his frustration by turning up the volume, creating tension. That’s why he fights with China, Mexico, and Germany—then makes friends with China, Mexico, and Germany—with football players, with Hollywood, with late-night TV hosts, with Broadway musicals or with pro-immigration mayors. But the doer hasn’t yet managed to get any significant laws passed in areas such as health care—he had promised to undo Obama’s reforms—immigration, public works or taxes.
That being said, the doer has an area reserved for him in which he was able to exercise his power with little restraint. That’s the area of regulation and administrative policies. There, Trump’s energy does have room to maneuver. The country had a colossal bureaucracy (it still does) which was in need of a regulatory trimming, or at least the start of one. Trump has reduced the Federal Register, the central government’s collection of bureaucratic regulations. He’s issued 60 percent fewer regulations than Obama, and he’s also been able, according to the American Action Forum and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to shrink the collection of bureaucratic rules by a third.
The reason Trump hasn’t worked with the same energy in the legislative field has more to do with his Republican Party, which holds a majority in both houses of Congress, than with the Democratic Party. Internal divisions and the degree to which congressmen are beholden to their local issues have stopped Trump from reaching the necessary number of votes. In some areas, such as tax reduction, he might manage it, but the battle’s not over yet.
In the area of immigration, one of Trump’s defining issues, enactment of his policies has been blocked by the judiciary system. Three immigration bans issued in the name of national security were stopped in the courts, and it’s unknown what the Supreme Court will make of them when they get that far. Trump hasn’t been able to begin the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico either, since there’s no money for it, and that’s something only Congress can produce. However, Trump has commissioned models to be built in San Diego. Meanwhile, as in other areas, he’s exploiting the regulatory space allowed him by the bureaucratic register as much as he can. He’s reduced the number of refugees to 45,000 as he wanted, and he’s intensified the policy of arrests. But he hasn’t kept his promise of arresting and deporting the 3 million “bad hombres”—immigrants with a police record or criminal record. There are fewer people coming into the country, but this decrease was already visible before the election; it’s not clear how much the new administration has had to do with it.
As for trade, another one of Trump’s signature issues, there’s also a gap between what was promised and what’s been achieved. Except for leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the administration hasn’t been able to follow up on its own protectionist and nationalist rhetoric. The important treaties, such as NAFTA, are being renegotiated, but Trump hasn’t taken his country out of NAFTA.
Partially thanks to this moderation imposed by liberal democracy and reality, Trump’s brand of populism has had to use the weapons of the talker, not the doer. The rhetoric is still there. But its effects are limited to the popular base of his party, not the country as a whole. That’s why economic players haven’t been inhibited, as many would have expected. On the contrary; there’s growing optimism among economic players. This optimism can already be seen by looking at purchase orders, the replenishing of inventories, and businesses’ capital investments.
In the second and third quarters of 2017, growth reached 3 percent, and everything indicates that it will continue at that rate. Unemployment has fallen to 4 percent, which is the same as full employment, and in four of the past nine months, the jobs Trump promised have been created: He spoke of 25 million jobs in a decade, which comes out to 208,000 per month. In industry, the area in which Trump’s economic protectionism is particularly emphatic, the rate of employment is the highest it’s been in four years.
Part of this has to do with the inertia Trump inherited. Another part has to do with the dampening effect that American democracy has had on populism. Yet another part has to do with the fact that Trump’s populism is a diverse creature, with some factions that even support ideas such as tax cuts or the elimination of bureaucratic regulations, which are liberal from a philosophical point of view. The expectations that Congress will end up passing some version of the tax reduction plan is probably contributing to the optimism of industry captains.
Trump’s relationship with conservatives is ambiguous. They don’t see him as one of their own because protectionist populism is incompatible with free trade and free enterprise in many respects. But Trump, who was once more liberal on moral issues — in the United States they’re called “social” issues — has made sure to take on conservative credentials on matters of conscience.
He has won over a sector of conservatism by nominating conservative judges. In a country where the great ethical and political battles always lead to the Supreme Court, the nominating power which presidents wield is a huge topic of debate. The nomination of Neil Gorsuch, who was confirmed by the Senate as a Supreme Court justice, has helped Trump stop the decline of conservative support for his presidency. So did the nomination and confirmation of 16 other judges to other courts, as did the nomination of 52 more, still pending confirmation by the Senate.
In the areas of foreign policy and national security, Trump has also had to face a reality much more complex than what he planned on. The isolationism of his rhetoric ran up against the leadership responsibilities the world expects of the United States, and against the continued existence of American enemies. Except for the (partial) withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and the early rhetorical clashes with Germany and Mexico, Trump’s policy is dictated more by the enemy than by Trump himself. This is especially the case with North Korea, which already has the nuclear bomb and is showing no signs of backing away from its aggressiveness, in spite of the sanctions that have been imposed on it. However, there is one achievement that is probably also due to an inherited inertia: the defeat of the Islamic State group. The caliphate has been destroyed, but Islamic terrorism hasn’t. The enemy is within, as the perpetrator of the Oct. 31 attack in New York reminded the country, but the enemy is also external. That’s partly why populist isolationism is unfeasible; the other reason that makes it impractical is, of course, the globalized economy.
It’s too early to say that Trump will be a one-term president. His unpopularity — he only has a 37 percent approval rating, the lowest approval rating at this point in an administration in 70 years — suggests he will. But his popularity among his supporters, important to note in a country where voting is voluntary, means that it’s impossible to make a definitive prediction. Furthermore, the tailwinds of the economy could help him regain some of the support he’s lost, neutralizing the disdain directed at him not only by the left wing, but also by a sector of the middle class taken aback by his arrogance and unpresidential behavior. Populism is still alive in a large segment of the population which views Trump’s enemies, especially the politicians and the mainstream media, with resentment.
The main actor in Trump’s presidency so far has been American democracy, not the president himself. Watching the institutions and civil society act in the face of presidential populism has been something new and instructive for many citizens who, perhaps, were not aware of the Constitution’s ability to curb the excesses of those in power. That struggle, by the way, is not over. It will last through the entire duration of the current administration. Perhaps this lesson has been learned in the rest of the world as well, where the fear of a Trump presidency was as great — or greater — than the fear that was present within the borders of the United States.
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