Trump Revisited

January 27, 2017

Shortly after Donald Trump's election I wrote a blog titled "On Trump" in which I briefly examined some of the myths about his election and its significance. I thought it would helpful on this, following the first week of the Trump presidency, to review my statements and predictions from early November, and to see what they might augur for the next four years.

Here I revisit several issues of concern I expressed about Trump.

1) "I've seen many people exaggerate the power that Trump will wield as president. As you'll recall from high school civics classes, our government has a built-in system of checks and balances, including on the president's power. The office has considerable power, of course, but Trump will find that the edicts he's used to issuing as the president of a company and on TV shows can and will be changed, muted, or blocked by others in the government. While his presidency does, I believe, pose many legitimate threats because of his ill-informed positions on a wide variety of subjects ranging from climate change to women's rights, no U.S. president has free reign. Politicians don't like to admit it, but the fact is that a country's progress, success, or failure is the product of many external factors that even the POTUS cannot control."

This has become evident in the past month during Trump's cabinet confirmation hearings, in which one after another of his appointees stated explicitly and on the record that they disagreed with Trump on fundamental issues. As The New York Times noted, "America should not torture. Russia is a menace. A wall at the Mexican border would not be effective. A blanket ban against Muslims is wrong. Climate change is a threat. Those statements are in direct opposition to some of the most significant declarations that President-elect Donald J. Trump made before his improbable ascension to the White House. They are also the words of his own nominees to lead the nation's most important government agencies."

Whether Trump will try to override decisions and positions taken by his cabinet (when he finally fills it) remains to be seen, of course, but it's not clear that they will rubber-stamp anything he wants to do. If Trump gets a reputation as president for routinely undermining the positionstaken by his senior staff, he will find them resigning en masse, which will in turn weaken his power. In fact that already happened, when the senior staff at the State Department resigned earlier this week. This will make it far more difficult for Trump to implement his plans. Lawsuits have already been filed, and many more are on the way, that will slow Trump's ideas.

Of course these limits on Trump's effectiveness work both ways and apply to the good things he claims he wants to do as well, including spurring stellar economic growth, making America great again (whatever that means), adding millions of jobs, and so on. I don't think he can do all or most of those things either, and for the same reason. What a person says they're going to do and what they actually do are often two very different things.


2) "Many have claimed that Trump's victory means that most Americans (or a statistical majority) at least implicitly endorse his views and positions. This is factually inaccurate, for several reasons. First, most Americans did not vote for Donald Trump; in fact slightly more people voted for Clinton than Trump. Fewer than 60 million people, out of about 319 million Americans, voted for Trump, thus about one in five Americans voted for him--a large number to be sure, but a minority. Second, just because one in five Americans voted for him does not mean that they did so because they necessarily agree with him on any given issue, or endorse his views on women, minorities, and so on. As CBS News reported, many people voted for Trump despite not agreeing with him on his signature issues such as immigration."

At the time of my blog, of course, all the votes had not been counted. When they were, my prediction was borne out: As CNN reported, "More Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than any other losing presidential candidate in US history. The Democrat outpaced President-elect Donald Trump by almost 2.9 million votes, with 65,844,954 (48.2%) to his 62,979,879 (46.1%), according to revised and certified final election results from all 50 states and the District of Columbia."

In fact Trump takes office as the least popular president in modern history. As Vanity Fair noted, "After securing the honor of ‘least popular major-party nominee in recorded history,' Trump now lays claim to the title of least popular president-elect in modern memory. Recent polls have put Trump's approval rating in the mid-40s. At around this point in 2008, Gallup put Obama's favorable rating at 68 percent; that figure was 59 percent for George W. Bush in mid-December 2000, and 58 percent for Bill Clinton in November 1992. And when voters are asked to judge Trump's performance as president-elect, he gets even worse marks. A new Pew poll finds that only 40 percent of Americans approve of Trump's cabinet choices, while just 41 percent approve of the job he's done so far in detailing his policies and plans for the future."

So there is little or no evidence that Trump's ideas, values, and positions (on immigrants, genital grabbing, or anything else) reflect or represent those of most Americans-as was widely claimed. As I wrote at the time, "People rarely agree with all positions taken by a given candidate, and often overlook or downplay views they disagree with--perhaps even vehemently--if there are other subjects which they feel are more important to their lives....People vote (or not) for any number of reasons unrelated to a candidate's position on a given topic. People will see the outcome through whatever prism they choose. We seek evidence that confirms our pre-existing psychological biases and ignore or downplay evidence that does not. It's undeniable that many racists and sexists supported Trump, but the fact that Trump was elected does not logically imply that many or most Americans share his views." The global reaction to Trump's inauguration, including the Women's Marches, made that clear.

3) "Some may even take a perverse comfort in the fact that Trump is a serial liar--that he says things for effect, things he doesn't necessarily mean, takes positions he doesn't really endorse."

Indeed, exactly this has happened. Trump has backed down on (or reversed himself over) several high-profile positions he took as a candidate, including building a wall with Mexico, immigration, and many other subjects. For various reasons (including becoming more informed about political realities, as noted above), Trump has taken opposing--or at least contrary--positions on many important topics. My take on Trump as a "serial liar" has become even more widely accepted over the past few weeks, with many mainstream news media unabashedly calling out Trump's routine deviations from the truth.

No president in modern history has so widely been disliked and denounced (by press and public alike) than Donald Trump. Nevertheless, Trump is in power and will remain so until he is impeached, resigns, or otherwise removed from office. Until then he can (rightly) expect to be the subject of protests and criticism, from the public, press, and others.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to have grave concerns about what a Trump presidency may mean for American and the world, but some of the concerns have been exaggerated: he does not have a mandate; he does not have the power he thinks he does; and his false statements are not widely accepted but instead are challenged daily. It's fashionable to view the world as binary and simplified through politically polarized lenses, but the truth is more nuanced. As I originally wrote, like it or not, we are all in the same boat. We may not like the captain, but we can help prevent the ship from going down through effective protests and pressuring elected officials--and hopefully set the course aright in four years.

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