What does a Trump victory mean for progressive politics in the US, asks Elaine C Kamarck
The extraordinary 2016 presidential campaign was one of the ugliest and most divisive in recent US history. But it is not the only reason this election will be remembered for a long time. The winner, president-elect Donald Trump, is the most inexperienced holder of the office of the presidency. He ran a campaign that was long on bumper stickers but short on policy papers. What is more, he stuck to the bumper stickers in the face of criticism. For candidate Trump and his supporters, ignorance was a virtue, while complexity and nuance were the provenance of the elite establishment types that he and his supporters despised. This turned out to be a winning strategy, with the desire for change so strong that it triumphed over people’s doubts about Trump’s abilities.
Exit polls asked voters if they thought Trump was qualified to be president. Sixty-one per cent of a sample of over 24,000 respondents said no. Sixty-three per cent answered no when asked if Trump had ‘the temperament to be president.’ Yet experience mattered little in a presidential race marked by apathy towards Hillary Clinton among the Democratic base and enthusiasm for Trump among Republican and rural voters.
Thus, the Trump presidency is likely to be unpredictable. This makes it difficult to know what it may mean for progressives. To a certain extent this will depend on Trump’s level of engagement with policy. Here are three possibilities.
First, Trump could delegate policy to his vice-president, Mike Pence. Before Pence was offered the vice presidency the following news story circulated widely. On 20 July 2016 the Hill newspaper reported: ‘Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr, reached out to a [John] Kasich adviser after the Ohio governor ended his own Republican presidential campaign, promising that if he accepted the vice-presidency, Kasich would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.’ Kasich did not accept the job, in fact he continued his opposition to Trump, going so far as to refuse to attend the Republican convention which was held in Cleveland, Ohio – his home state. Was this offer sincere? If your vice-president has foreign and domestic policy, what is left for the president do?
We saw this same tendency in the weeks leading up to the Republican convention last summer when Trump’s campaign took a hands off approach to the platform writing – an unusual step for a presidential candidate in either party. This seemed to signal a willingness to adopt standard Republican rhetoric on a range of policy issues.
It is likely that on a wide range of issues, Trump steps back and goes with consensus policy in the Republican party – as interpreted by Pence. In fact, if this comes to pass, Pence might become the first de facto prime minister in US history; running the government as Trump travels the country, holding giant rallies to ‘make America great again’. This would amount to bad news for progressives on a wide range of policy ideas – Pence is a pretty predictable conservative on social and economic issues.
Second, Trump could push the rest of his party on a few policy areas important to his base. In this alternative scenario, Trump moves away from standard Republican policy in some of the key areas that were of vital importance to his base. Nearly a third of the voters, according to exit polls, felt that they were worse off financially than they had been four years ago. Seventy-seven per cent of these voters voted for Trump. Much of his support came from Rust Belt states where voters felt they had been hurt by globalisation and by international trade agreements.
This is a view widely shared by the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic party and US labour unions, as well. Thus Trump’s pledge to junk the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other older trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement will no doubt be music to the ears of many progressives who feel that globalisation has hurt domestic workers more than it has helped. By abandoning free trade, Trump is moving away from the establishment position of the Republican party. But before progressives cheer this on the question they have to ask themselves is: what will Trump replace these trade agreements with? In the end will the Trump negotiated agreements be a better deal for workers? Or the owners?
The other issue of importance to Trump’s base of voters is immigration. Eighty-three per cent of Trump voters thought that illegal immigrants working in the US should be deported to their home country. It will be difficult for Trump to soften his views on this issue without alienating a substantial portion of his base. As with trade, his hardline stance on immigration puts him at odds with the Republican establishment. But unlike on trade, he will find few allies on this issue on the other side of the aisle.
Finally, Trump could challenge his party’s orthodoxy. There are two policy areas where progressives could be pleasantly surprised by president Trump. The first is in his approach to issues around gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. In spite of receiving an overwhelming 80 per cent of the evangelical Christian vote, Trump does not seem very much in tune with the anti-gay attitudes that have found such a comfortable home in the Republican party in recent years. In fact, as the battle raged over a North Carolina ‘bathroom bill’ mandating that people had to use the bathroom of the sex they were assigned at birth, Trump refused to side with the hardliners in his party telling the Washington Post in April: ‘People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate … There has been so little trouble. And the problem with North Carolina has been the strife and the economic punishment that they’re taking.’ Trump is, after all, from New York City and his attitude towards the LGBT community appear to be much less hostile than many in his party.
Another area is social security. During the Republican primaries, Trump repeatedly proclaimed that he would not cut social security. This should be music to progressives’ ears but it puts Trump on a collision path with much of his party – especially the speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, who is an advocate of serious reform of social security and Medicare. Ryan’s approach to reform – for instance, placing a ‘cap’ on Medicare expenditures each year – has been anathema to progressives. Trump, however, has promised many things from the government, including infrastructure spending and tax cuts. He may be willing to simply grow the deficit – a tack taken by previous Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and George W Bush – despite protestations to the contrary.
The bottom line is that while everyone can agree that Trump as president will be bad for progressives – no one really knows how bad. During the campaign he relished attacking the Republican establishment. Since election day he has softened his tone on Obamacare and even on building that infamous wall on the Mexican border. There may be some bright spots in his presidency for progressives, but there might also be chaos as he learns on the job. Even if Trump is a little more progressive in some areas, he still has the rest of this party to contend with.
Elaine C Kamarck is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and author of Why Presidents Fail, and How They Can Succeed Again
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