Photo: Protesters march against Trump in San Francisco. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Donald Trump began his presidency with a rampage of executive orders, but now the limits of his power are becoming more apparent. For all his bluster and cavalier self-confidence, Trump is actually in a uniquely weak position for a new American president. Trump campaigned on ‘making America great again’ (which appears to entail building a White-Christian supremacist corporatocracy), but he’s going to have a difficult time pulling this off. A federal court slapping down his travel ban on people entering the U.S. from war-torn Muslim countries is only the first of his problems. Here are ten reasons why things will continue to not go his way.
1. Trump and his appointees are politically inexperienced.
Trump and his closest advisors have very little practical experience in government and few true allies in Washington. Put simply, they are going to be terrible at governing. Yes, Trump and his advisors have already released a parade of offensive pronouncements and executive orders, so it appears nothing is stopping him. Implementing and sustaining those plans, however, is something completely different. Trump seems to fundamentally misunderstand how a constitutional republic actually works.
Executive orders can be damaging and bombastic, but at some point Trump is going to have to work with Congress on legislation. This is going to be more complicated than it may currently look. While there are important points of agreement between Trump and Congressional Republicans on immigration, producing more corporate friendly laws, and shredding civil rights protections in general; the free trade agenda of many Republican Senators and Representatives is at odds with Trump’s domestically-focused protectionist views.
Don’t forget how many Republicans either publically denounced Trump during the campaign, or – like John McCain who delivered the dossier to the FBI claiming potential Russian influence over Trump – have continued to work against him since his election. There are strong fissures within the Republican Party and there is no guarantee these won’t continue to surface in Congress. Who in Trump’s administration has the experience and political savvy to shepherd bills through Congress when the going gets tough?
2. Most of the workforce of the Federal Government opposes everything Trump is trying to do.
How is Trump going to run all the federal agencies in the executive branch that are hostile to Trump, his cabinet appointments, and his policies? With the possible exception of the installation of a recent General into the Pentagon (a problematic move in the first place), what cabinet-level appointees are going to be embraced by the workforces they are supposed to lead? The Department of Education? Hardly. The EPA? No. NASA? Not likely. The CIA? Not after the trash-talking Trump has leveled at that agency (and the weird publicity stunt Trump pulled by bringing his own supporters to a talk at CIA headquarters to serve as his ‘laugh track’). How about the Department of Energy which is getting a new head that once said the whole department should be abolished? And then there is Housing and Urban Development getting a department leader (Ben Carson) who in November said he shouldn’t work in the administration because he “feels he has no government experience.”
It’s one thing to walk into a job as an inexperienced hack when your employees are largely sympathetic to your agenda. It’s quite another when your workforce thinks you are a petulant child. As has already been shown through government agencies creating ‘alternative’ social media accounts after presidential gag orders were issued, it is likely the government bureaucracy will only increase its recalcitrant behavior.
Newt Gingrich knew this was going to be a problem for Trump. He stated that for government workers, their “No. 1 goal will be to find ways to sabotage each new cabinet secretary as soon as they walk through the door. All those bureaucrats overwhelmingly voted for Clinton. There won’t be any real cooperation until we change federal law so we can fire them.”
Gingrich is right. Take a look at D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia in the voting maps for the presidential election: hardly anyone within 50 miles of D.C. voted for Trump (Trump received only 4% of the votes cast within D.C. itself). These are the people who actually turn federal policies into action – and they won’t want to do it for Trump or his cronies. These people could all be fired (or pushed to resign) through a wholesale housecleaning, as Gingrich suggests and as Congress recently gave itself the ability to do. These veteran officials could then be replaced with inexperienced lackeys. This however would just trade an unwilling workforce with one that is untrained and ineffective. In the end, the federal government could become a cobbled-together apparatus where half the people in it don’t want it to work, and the other half don’t know how to make it work. The words of Harry Truman regarding Eisenhower’s ascension to the White House could become just as applicable to Trump: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
3. There are actually laws that constrain the power of the executive branch and Trump likely won’t handle that well.
So what is Trump going to do when he discovers that governments don’t run like companies or military outfits? Aside from the slow bureaucratic protocols operated by people who have complete contempt for him, there are also laws enshrined in the constitution that limit executive action – even if there are few checks-and-balances presented by Republican majorities in Congress and (likely) the Supreme Court. Trump found this out when his ‘Muslim Ban’ order was blocked by a federal court in Seattle. His response showed his utter disdain for accepting the decisions of an independent judiciary. What happens when his other executive orders, like the one about withholding federal funds from cities that fail to enforce his anti-immigrant policies, are found by courts to be unconstitutional,which is likely? His dictatorial impulses are going to be frustrated by this.
When Trump finds himself in this position, he’ll have a few choices. He could back off and slow down on what he wants to do (nothing in his psychological make-up or history points to this being his strong suit). He could bend/break laws, ignore court orders, and therefore create a constitutional crisis. Lastly, he could go whole-hog for dictatorship, claim an ‘emergency,’ and suspend constitutional government altogether. Choosing either of the latter two options will further erode his legitimacy and there are millions of people – inside the government and out (even Republicans) – just waiting to pounce if they are given evidence of an impeachable offense.
Presidents can get away with a lot in terms of ‘reinterpreting’ or bending laws when they are popular and they have staunch allies surrounding them. George W. Bush certainly got away with this, but Trump just doesn’t have that same level of support. It’s hard to read the tea leaves regarding which direction it might go. One option that seems unlikely is that all of his plans will just smoothly roll on without more resistance from the courts.
4. Trump and Congress can cut federal social programs, but the blowback is going to be severe.
Trump and Congress (when they do get along) do have one main weapon at their disposal: they can defund programs and shut down government agencies. The neoliberal ideals Trump, Paul Ryan and others follow dictate that government functions – like social security, environmental protection, helping pay for education, etc. – ought to become personal responsibilities or new opportunities for profit extraction by corporations. This will cut government expenditures and allow more tax cuts for the wealthy. It is clear the result of this is greater income inequality and more misery for low and middle-income individuals. Trump’s logic is that this increased wealth at the top will spark innovation and create jobs, but that of course has been shown to be a fallacy.
Interestingly, based on what he said in his inauguration speech, Trump does actually appear to believe that middle-class Americans have become poor through exploitation. In opposition to most analyses of how value is created and redistributed upward in capitalist societies however, he declares that the American middle class has become poor from their wealth being taken by foreign countries and by the government in Washington instead of usurped by bosses, landlords and rapacious domestic capitalists like himself.
He therefore sees cutting government spending as literally putting money into the pockets of lower income people. Of course, these same middle class and poor people depend on these government programs and many will likely end up in a much worse spot when they are cut. After all, social programs were built in this country because people demanded them – not because the government was handing them out looking for people to take them. Reducing government programs will likely provoke stiff resistance (quite possibly from Trump’s most ardent poor and middle class supporters if Medicare, Social Security and SNAP benefits/food stamps are affected). It is one thing to be politically able to make the cuts in the first place. It is quite another to survive the firestorm it sets off once the cuts start affecting people where they live.
5. Trump hasn’t really thought through this whole ‘deconstructing-the-Federal-Government’ thing.
Trump and others on the political Right appear to believe that if you dismantle the Federal Government and devolve power to the states and municipalities that the result will be a Center-Right national politics that goes even further to the right in conservative states. Certainly the gutting of the Federal Government frees up conservative locales to implement new right-wing policies (and allows for diminishing taxes on the super-rich wherever they are). In addition to this, however, it also erodes the very base of power that Trump is sitting on and diminishes his capacity to actually implement his policies. It creates voids. As noted above, people are still going to want the services previously offered by the Federal Government.
While corporations will likely try to profit by taking advantage of these voids in social services by preying upon the newly abandoned, in more liberal and progressive places we can expect a very different response. In the major cities and regions like the West Coast, New York, Illinois and New England (areas that voted decidedly against Trump) the devolution of power created by voids in federal services will allow these locales to experiment with radical new approaches to governance and to the delivery of the social services that their citizens are going to demand. We are already seeing resistance from these places in terms of their stances on Sanctuary Cities and maintaining climate change research programs. This resistance is likely to increase and become more widespread in the vacuum left by the diminishment of the central government – partially as defiance, and partially as necessity. While Trump has promised to punish rebellious locales with the withdrawal of federal funds, that tactic could lead to even greater resistance and autonomy for these progressive cities, towns, and states. In the end, Trump may learn it’s hard to run the country without at least the tacit support from people living in its most populous and productive cities and regions.
6. Most of the press hates Trump and they will dog him at every turn.
Unlike most aspiring dictators, Trump does not control the media. A lot of this is his fault. After all, it was Trump himself that managed to piss off, at one time or another, almost every major news organization in the country – even right-wing stalwarts like the Arizona Republic and Fox News. We have had lying presidents before, but the press has often bowed to power, remained gracious and given presidents the benefit of the doubt – even when they did not deserve it. Not so with Trump.
Take a look at this report from CNN about the first briefing by Trump’s spokesperson Sean Spicer. Forget about the actual story. Read its language, its headline, its tone, its bluntness: it’s deliciously brutal. Most authoritarians want a press that will hear their message and just deliver it. Authoritarians want to be able to frame the terms of a debate, define what ‘normal’ is, and massage the public’s opinions on key issues. That is not what is happening. Trump can insist all he wants that Breitbart and Twitter are the only place all Americans should get their news, but it isn’t going to happen. Unless he tries to illegally shut down almost every news organization in the land (and then see point #3 above), he is set up to be mocked and called-out incessantly during his stay in the White House.
7. Trump lies a lot and makes up his own facts.
Yes, we all know this one. Lying isn’t going to help him win many arguments with people outside his inner circle and his small core of ardent White Nationalist supporters. As John Adams put it, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Many people in the political Center still do have respect for science and evidence. The chances are low that Trump will win over new supporters if he keeps getting caught over and over in lies and exaggerations.
8. Trump has almost no international support and has trashed what was left of America’s former hegemonic standing in world politics.
Remember the idea of a global ‘Pax Americana’ or a ‘New American Century?’ Those are pretty much over. As most serious political scientists, geographers and international relations specialists can tell you, the U.S. was able to achieve a dominant position in the world after World War II not just through having the largest military force or biggest economy, but by convincing other countries to do want what the U.S. wants. The secret to hegemony is not the ability to bully other countries, but to get them to enthusiastically support your global vision. Over the past 70 years what the U.S. has been selling friends and foes alike is a vision of an inter-connected capitalist global economy where elites the world over can benefit by getting with the program and accepting U.S. leadership. U.S. military force was presented as a way to preserve this global order for everyone, not just for selfish U.S. national interests.
That international capitalist position – championed and escorted by the U.S. – has been steadily slipping for at least the past 15 years. The loss of U.S. hegemony has been like a slowly leaking bathtub. Trump however, has walked in and pulled the plug. He’s done this not necessarily by any particular action, but through his unequivocal rhetorical stances. The traditional position that the U.S. stood for certain universal ideals (as damaging and exploitive as they frequently were) has now been replaced by Trump’s insistence that his policies, including foreign policies, are going to be about “America First, last and only.”
What should other countries then do? Trump added in his inauguration that it “is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” In other words, there is no international ‘order’ to speak of now, just a collection of independent countries in a free-for-all. Trump assumes the country with the biggest military wins this international maelstrom and then gets to keep whatever resources it can militarily capture (like when he hinted about re-invading Iraq and simply ‘keeping the oil’). The child-like naivety and stupidity of this geopolitical world-view is staggering – and the leaders of other countries know it. American ‘leadership’ in world affairs, therefore, may be now officially over and will likely never recover to where it was before.
U.S. imperialism has sown misery, death, destruction and exploitation in countless ways, so this is not necessarily bad news to most people in the world. It is, however, destabilizing news. While the age of bloody American ‘humanitarian’ wars (and drone strikes) justified by lofty goals of protecting universal human rights may be over, we are now left with a global multi-polar competition between nationalists in China, the U.S., Russia, and elsewhere. Now that the old international order (as exploitive as it was) ended in many ways on January 20th, wars of conquest and great power conflict become more likely as systems of international economic, political, social and environmental interconnectivity are deemed to be irrelevant to what ‘really’ matters: the pride and wealth of one’s own particular walled-in nation. While the new international context is frightening, it is also one in which Trump has severed any support he might receive from allies. Even Vladimir Putin may end up with buyer’s remorse.
9. Trump is going to do something stupid
Something stupid? Oh, who am I kidding? If his presidency is anything like his campaign, it’s going to be a machine that spits out stupid at a pace never before known to humankind. I mean stupid by any reasonable person’s measure. He will do and say things that are self-destructive and offensive– and he’ll likely do it early and often. Some people will keep supporting him anyway, but he sure isn’t going to gain any supporters every time he offends new groups of people, or sticks his foot in his mouth.
10. Trump inspires people not just to hate him, but also to act against him.
People don’t just ‘disagree with Trump’s policies’ as if they were abstract political positions. People are aware that he plans to take away programs that sustain their lives and take away human rights they want to keep. There are millions of people in the U.S. that know there are only two real choices now: fight back in every way possible, or give up until 2020 and bear the unbearable. People who value equality, the environment, and human rights increasingly recognize that under Trump’s assault, liberal half-measures are not going to cut it. As Naomi Klein put it, we have to “fight these bastards as if life itself depended on it – because it does.”
In sum, Trump’s presidency is weakened by his own inexperience, naiveté, bluster, inability to build effective coalitions, and misguided policies. It’s also made vulnerable by the fact that the resistance has no choice but to take bold new steps to organize against him. While there are currently a large assortment of groups and initiatives vying to become the seeds of a broad Left movement, something will likely soon coalesce and provide a united front and a banner for the Left to rally under. When this occurs, Trump is in real trouble. This is especially true if this new movement does not limit itself to merely running candidates for far-off elections. If it can also serve as a new grassroots democratic institution that works within communities to create radical alternatives to Trump’s disastrous policies, it could really take advantage of Trump’s many weaknesses and make people’s lives better now – even before he’s thrown out of office.
Sasha Davis is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Keene State College and the author of Empires’ Edge: Militarization, Resistance and Transcending Hegemony in the Pacific.