By Jesse Barker Gale, PhD Candidate Flinders University
On January 20, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. I, and many other observers of American politics, were spectacularly wrong when we declared this race over in July. There is still extended debate regarding what went wrong for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In hindsight, her campaign’s play for the more conservative states of Georgia and Arizona, rather than securing the more progressive states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania came at a huge cost.
Post-election analyses, indicate that 107,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania decided the 2016 election. 107,000 out of the 120 million cast for the Presidency. The combination of America’s first-past-the-post electoral system and with the Electoral College amplified this small margin into a decisive result in favour of Trump, 306 – 232.
In the popular vote margin, Clinton won almost 3 million more votes than Trump. This is a small consolation to be sure, but one boosts his opponent’s claims that he lacks popular mandate. You can expect this fact to be raised repeatedly over the next four years as the Democrats unite in opposition to the Trump Administration.
So, having learnt my lesson about bold, sweeping predictions, here are 4 bold predictions for the state of American politics for the short-to-medium term.
1: The transition sets the immediate tone for the Presidency
It is difficult to find an independent report of the Trump Transition that praises its gracefulness and professionalism. Rather, the transition seems to be a textbook case of what not to do, with reports of chaos and tension within the various elements of the transition team. While tensions within the team are not unusual, the Trump team’s approach to finding appointees for the approximately 4000 positions each incoming Administration fills, seems largely motivated by animosity, revenge, and egoism.
Several people appointed to high ranking positions within Trump’s inner circle have ignited furious pushback from the broader community. Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, announced as Chief Strategist and Senior Counsellor to the President, is viewed as an unabashed racist, misogynist, and a leader of the so-called ‘alt-right’. The President’s pick for National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn (ret.) is stridently anti-Islamic, concerning many that Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims during the campaign will be doubled down on.
The political capital that the Trump campaign is expending on these fights is unnecessary and hobbles the incoming Administration as they gear up to provide on many of the promised initiatives. These controversial picks have also been largely made without consultation with Republican leadership, tying their hands and forcing them to bear some of the heat for these choices.
2: Increased tensions between Congress and President
Trump ascends to the Presidency at a time when relations between the legislative and executive branches of the government are spectacularly low. The Republicans, having announced their intention in 2010 to “kill” the agenda of President Barack Obama and make him a “one term President”, made good on part of their pledge, blocking many of the reforms promised by the Obama Administration.
These tensions were only furthered by the 2014 midterm election which saw the Republicans gain control of the Senate in addition to expanding their number of seats in the House of Representatives. Trump’s election coupled with the Republicans retaining their majorities in both chambers of the Congress indicated that the future relationship should be largely tension-free.
However, it is not so long ago that Republicans en masse were condemning Trump or rescinding their endorsements in light of his admission of sexual assault. While this appears to not have impeded his Presidential prospects, additional stories alleging similar behaviour will force a reaction from House Republicans concerned over their own re-election prospects. Trump is not known to be forgiving, and in the days after his election, his campaign indicated that they had a list of people who did not support Trump’s nomination.
More recently, Trump criticised Republican efforts to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics and demanded that Republicans act immediately to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He added that he wanted replacement legislation to be ready almost immediately. There is currently no Republican plan for replacing the Affordable Care Act.
Congressional wariness of Trump has been demonstrated in the confirmation hearings for the major Cabinet offices. The hearings for Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO nominated for Secretary of State, have been bruising, with Senators confronting Tillerson to determine whether he shares the contentious foreign policy views of Trump. Two key Republican Senators, Marco Rubio (Florida) and Lindsay Graham (South Carolina) both primary opponents of Trump, indicated after the hearing that they were undecided on supporting Tillerson’s nomination.
Trump’s desire for quick resolutions to genuinely complex issues (healthcare, ISIS, taxation, trade) will put him at odds with the processes of Congress which are not known for their haste. The passage of legislation from introduction to being signed into law involves several steps, any one of which can feature a roadblock. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Trump, chafing at the slow process of legislating, issues an executive order, upsetting the process and drawing condemnation from Republican legislators.
Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House with a Supreme Court seat to fill. They will start from one of the most powerful positions in American political history. Along with this power comes an almost unavoidable urge to use it in furtherance of their mandate. This overreach has already been seen in the weakening of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which prompted a severe backlash, but is also expected in the issue areas of entitlement reform, taxation, and consumer protections.
One guaranteed use of their power will be the defunding of reproductive health provider, Planned Parenthood. Perhaps the most prominent target of the so-called ‘pro-life’ movement, Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of abortion services in the United States. Despite abortions comprising approximately 3 percent of Planned Parenthood services, and a prohibition on federal funding of abortions (in place since the 1970s), calls to strip the organisation of all federal funding acquired new life after the election.
Approximately 40 percent of their funding comes from federal sources (the bulk from Medicaid), all of which goes to supporting critical and preventative health care and its loss would severely diminish the ability of Planned Parenthood to provide critical services to those most in need.
4: Increasing, unceasing partisanship
Partisan posturing has been an increasing feature of the American political scene in recent years. Far from receding in the aftermath of the election, Democratic disgust with Trump has only deepened. Given that Trump’s popularity is at an all-time low, expect Democrats to continually provoke the notoriously thin-skinned Trump. They will also tie vulnerable Republicans to Trump, and, if tensions rise or remain between Capitol Hill and the White House, this could prove critical in the 2018 midterm elections.
The election of a personality like Trump to the highest office in the land guarantees that the media attention on the nation’s capital will increase, not fade over the next four years. Far from upsetting the politicians, this increased coverage will play perfectly into sustaining the partisan rancour. To modify a famous remark of Paul Keating: Never get between a Member of Congress and a television camera.
It is not simply rancour between individual politicians, the combined power of cable networks and social media to amplify regional issues into national debates has heavily influenced the conduct of politicians. These communication networks enable various groups to fundraise for or against members, and given a member of the House of Representatives needs on average $1.5 million to run an effective re-election campaign, ginning up the base by attacking the other side is a tried and true method of fundraising.
Trump is still manifestly unqualified for the office to which he has been elected. How he, his family, and his top aides will handle the trap of the Presidency and its powers and responsibilities is anyone’s guess and everyone’s problem.
Disclaimer: this is the view of the author and Flinders University does not take responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the material and does not accept responsibility for, or endorse the contact or condition of, any linked website.