Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Case for Political Optimism Part II: Donald Trump
Today, we continue to make the case for political optimism in the 2016 Presidential Election. And yes, that case even extends to possible election of Donald Trump, who was officially confirmed yesterday as the GOP nominee.

The basic premise of our belief is straightforward. The near-term outcomes of US politics may be a tragedy, but in the long-term, they are an opportunity. Yesterday, we discussed the upside of Hillary Clinton; today is Trump's turn.

Evaluating the likely impacts of a Trump Presidency are more challenging than considering Hillary's effects. While Hillary is a known quantity, Donald Trump is anything but. He has been known to express contradictory positions within the same week, and occasionally, even within the same speech. It's not even entirely clear whether he does this on accident or deliberately, which would basically mean taking political posturing to a new level.

With that said, there are still some consistent themes that have emerged. And from a libertarian perspective, they are almost exclusively bad--trade (less of it), free speech (more restrictions and lawsuits), police brutality (less accountability), and immigration (build a wall and deport immigrants already here).

On the question of terrorism and foreign policy, Trump is slightly more complicated. On the one hand, he has taken Islamophobia to new and appalling levels, and his emphasis on national security does not bode well for civil liberties. However, he has also been (at least during the election season) one of the most outspoken and effective critics of US regime change operations overseas. When Donald criticizes US intervention, he's unfortunately not sophisticated enough to make the blowback argument--that these interventions are in fact the dominant motivation for terrorism against Western targets. For Donald, Islam is still the leading explanation of that, which informs his other bad ideas. Still, the fact that the Republican standard bearer is willing to criticize US intervention at all--albeit not consistently and imperfectly--is decidedly new ground. It's also not something we're going to hear from Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail.

Most of the above items were strong strikes against Donald Trump. But as with Hillary, the benefits of a Trump Presidency lie more in his unintentional impacts than his deliberate policy proposals.

Animosity with the Press
The media's loathing of Donald Trump is palpable and unprecedented. Partisan biases in the media are nothing new, but this is something else. Indeed, we recently reported with glee on a particularly enjoyable outburst of antagonism between Trump and the press. You'll recall that this was in regards to a Trump fundraiser where the exact amount of funds raised was being questioned. After being pestered about it for weeks, Trump seems to have called a press conference for the sole purpose of berating the media. And it was an absolute delight:
[Trump] called one reporter "a sleaze", the general group "unbelievably dishonest" , and said they should be "ashamed" of themselves.

In response to the abuse, one of the reporters, apparently shaken, asked if it was always going to be like this.

Reporter: "I think you've set a new bar today for being contentious with the press corps, calling us 'losers' to our faces and all that...[interruptions]...Is this what it's going to be like covering you when you're president?"

Trump: "Yeah. It is...Yeah, it is going to be like this, David."

It's not clear whether our lovable reporter David was hoping for a peace offering or just deciding whether to go into another line of work. But, his question is revealing. As it stands, the press corps typically enjoys a very friendly and pleasant relationship with people in power, including presidents. That's why they have a highly publicized White House Correspondents' Dinner ("Nerd Prom") where everyone enjoys champagne while making light (or ignoring) of all the atrocities the amiable President invariably committed in the past year. It's also why the New York Times sees fit to publish fawning pieces like this one on our current president--Sure he's murdered children, but he has so much integrity and grace when he does it!
In the aftermath of the episode, the good folks at the New York Times (and probably many other places) took it upon themselves to explain the critical role of the press to hold politicians accountable. This was ironic, since it is those same news outlets which have proved fantastically inept (or disinterested) in holding anyone in power accountable--including their own journalists that helped sell America the Iraq War. But I digress.

While other politicians consistently receive favorable, uncritical coverage in the media, Donald Trump does not--not now and not when/if he occupies the Oval Office. So far, most of the critical coverage has been petty and trivial (OMG, one of Trump's forty-seven businesses failed!). But we should assume that if a President Trump ever had a real scandal or tried to implement some of his worst ideas, he would soon find an adversarial press corps to be alive and well--for the first time in years.

Public Outrage
Another positive factor (for all of us, if not for Trump himself), is that Trump seems to spark considerably more outrage among the general public than past Republican politicians. People may not have liked Romney for instance, but they weren't going to move to Canada if Mitt took office.

It's worth debating whether the degree of outrage about Trump is really justified. Our own answer is yes and no. Yes, he's an awful candidate, but no, he's not a uniquely awful candidate:
Trump's real crime is not his ideas or his biases. It's his willingness to express them in explicit ways that should and do make us all uncomfortable. He doesn't support enhanced interrogation techniques; he supports Torture with a capital T. He doesn't just support a "strong national defense"; he wants to go after people's families. Unfortunately, there's little that's new here. But it's not often that all of America's worst ideas are thrown out into the open for all to see. That is Trump's core offense. It's why he's inspiring more passionate opposition than any candidate in recent memory. But if the ideas are really bad, and they are, they should have been opposed all along--no matter what form they took and which party was supporting them.
Right or wrong though, the intense opposition to Donald Trump is healthy and useful. I wish all presidents faced such opposition; we might not be where we are now.

What this unprecedented public opposition means is that, contrary to popular belief, Trump is actually likely to wield far less power than President Obama currently does. There's little doubt that Trump, like Obama and Bush before him, would seek to expand his power. But Trump is going to be watched much more closely, by the media and the public. This is an important constraint.

Moreover, there is a genuine fear of Trump having all the power that is already vested in the President by historical precedent (though not by the constitution). Trump is the perfect combination of arrogant and despised to start a real conversation about the necessary and proper limits of executive power. Undoubtedly, this conversation would be initiated with a primary goal of scoring partisan political points. But it could lead to useful outcomes nevertheless.

Trump may also help folks on the left rediscover the merits of state's rights / the Tenth Amendment as an invaluable tool to block unwarranted excesses of the federal government. The left (along with libertarians) has already made major progress using the Tenth Amendment strategy in recent years to legalize marijuana. This same approach could be employed to prevent implementation of Trump's controversial deportation policies, just as northeastern states used it prior to the Civil War to resist the appalling federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. If things get bad enough, we might even see far-left states like Washington or Vermont begin to contemplate secession as a possible remedy (Vermont already has a group advocating for precisely this). For reasons we won't elaborate on here, this too would probably be a good thing.

Economic Policy
Finally, on economic policy, Trump is likely to prove blandly disappointed. Like Hillary Clinton, Trump's major economic policies--namely, erecting new trade barriers--will be calamitous for the US economy. Unfortunately, because Trump is a businessman and a member of GOP, which has a completely undeserved reputation of promoting free markets, an economic disaster on Trump's watch will probably be blamed on capitalism rather than the policies that caused it. There is a minor chance that Trump himself would be blamed given the previously discussed media hatred for him. But even if this did happen, the blame would probably be placed on Trump and his demeanor rather than particular policies. Thus, it's unlikely a failure under Trump will have the same educational value as a failure under Clinton would.

One possible upside comes from some off-hand and decidedly sensible remarks Trump made with regards to the US debt early on in the campaign season. In essence, Trump acknowledged that US debt would need to be restructured. This was viewed as blasphemous because the media still pretends paying off the debt at par is going to happen (it isn't). And Trump immediately walked the comments back the next day, and tried to pretend he never implied that the US would have to default.

It's not clear if he would make any game-changing decisions on US debt as President. Cutting spending has not figured as a priority in his plans, so it's unlikely he will make progress on the deficit. This, in turn, makes it likely a President Trump would face a debt-ceiling showdown just as Obama did.

Now that Trump has publicly acknowledged that the debt won't be repaid (even if he did retract that comment), this could make the next debt-ceiling crisis far more interesting. If investors perceive a real threat that Trump will allow a default, US debt could finally lose its perceived status as a risk-free investment. And when that happens, all bets are off. Interest rates would adjust sharply higher as investors unload US bonds, and the shock would almost certainly spark the next financial crisis, if it hadn't already occurred by then. But in spite of the short-term pain, this correction is actually a great thing for the long-term stability of the financial markets.

The ever unpredictable President Trump may help accelerate this process by his mere existence. If he does, it be a major step toward getting the economy back on a sustainable course. It will also finally discredit the dominant Keynesian view of economics which holds, in effect, that the US can continue accumulating debt indefinitely with no adverse consequences. Both of those outcomes would be welcome news.

Thus, we find that even a Donald Trump Presidency has serious upsides for the state of US politics four years hence. As with Hillary Clinton, the benefits are derived not from his affirmative policies but by the substantial opposition forces that will be unleashed against him. The strength of the Executive Branch and the federal government might receive overdue scrutiny, and Trump's mistakes will be highlighted by an adversarial mainstream press corps that is finally interested in holding the powerful to account. These forces will slow Trump down at every turn, mitigating the impact of his worst ideas.

Another likely benefit of Donald Trump is that his election would thoroughly shatter the prestige of the President. While that sounds bad at first, it really just means that people will clearly understand that the US President is human like anyone else and deserves at least the same level of skepticism. In a time when each of the last two presidents has claimed the power to prosecute new wars without Congressional approval and assassinate people without any semblance of due process, the unpopularity of Donald Trump could provide a much needed remedy.

And that's why there's no need to be pessimistic in this election cycle. Trump or Clinton will win the election, and they are just as bad as you think. But America will survive their leadership. And the reaction against their failures will pave the way for a better path forward.

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