Contemplating a President Trump

Written by Vincent Keating, Assistant Professor at Center for War Studies

Remember when the Huffington Post decided to put their coverage of Donald Trump’s primary campaign in the Entertainment section, rather than Politics, claiming that “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow”?

It feels like it was a million years ago. Since his victories on Super Tuesday, Trump’s campaign has become very real. This has not only leading the HuffPo to move stories about his candidacy back to Politics, but also created a frenzy of speculation about his potential to win the Presidential contest against (an almost certain) Hillary Clinton. Given that the possibility of a President Trump has gone from whimsical speculation to a real, though perhaps still overstated concern, and particularly given some of his more controversial policy positions,* will the election of President Trump lead to a massive swing in American policy?

The US Constitution and the Balance of Powers
In considering this question, we need to frame a potential President Trump within the American legal structure, a product of the “eternal wisdom of the Founding Fathers,”** who produced a Constitution that deliberately divided powers among the three branches of government. There is no doubt that the Presidency has been acquiring more powers, but there are still serious limitations that a prospective President Trump will need to contend with.

To illustrate, the same problem that President Obama has had in shutting down Guantanamo Bay – that only Congress is constitutionally enabled to distribute funds – will hobble President Trump’s attempts to build his wall between the United States and Mexico. If the proposal involves spending money, then a President Trump will be unable to act unilaterally without the support of Congress. Additionally, any new law can be reviewed by the Supreme Court for its constitutionality. If President Obama succeeds in nominating a new Supreme Court Justice to replace Anthony Scalia, the balance of the court will swing in a decidedly liberal direction, making some of Trump’s more populist proposals less likely to pass constitutional muster.

Trump on his way to make America great again

This does not mean that President Trump would be completely without power. As President Obama has recently shown, the President can use their executive power to change law where Congress is unwilling to take action. In some fictitious accounts of the future Trump presidency, President Obama and Congress work together to eliminate these presidential prerogatives prior to Trump’s inauguration. Though fiction, it does show where the serious problems lie if the American populace elects a president who is, according to senior politicians from both parties, unfit to serve.

The President and foreign policy

The one place that the President has a particular effect is in foreign policy, which parallels our interest in international relations at the Center for War Studies. The presidential powers concerning foreign policy also come with checks and balances, but recent practice has shifted powers to the Presidency. Particularly, although only Congress can declare war, the President is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces.

This allows the president to unilaterally engage the US military in actions that are not considered war, such as Obama’s decision to participate in NATO airstrikes against Libya. It should be said that despite the passage of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which attempts to clarify this relationship, there is an ongoing debate over the extent to which the President can legally use military force without consulting Congress – and recent practice gives future Presidents some leeway to appeal to precedence should they want to embark in military adventurism.

Trump and Nuclear Weapons
So a potential President Trump has some ability to use military force at his discretion. Whether this means that he will be able to openly nuke Denmark, as some of his rivals have suggested, is far less clear. The fear of Donald Trump having control of American nuclear weapons has certainly generated press. This fear is likely overstated. Though a Trump presidency may be revolutionary in many ways, it is unlikely to be revolutionary enough to overcome nuclear deterrence and the nuclear taboo.

There has been no shortage of leaders “crazier” than Trump who have had access to nuclear weapons, and even threatened to use them, but this has yet to lead to their use. This does not mean that it is impossible for Donald Trump to make nuclear weapons a more active part of American foreign policy, but its likelihood, given these factors, is exceptionally small.

Policy instability and Toture
A more serious issue is whether his foreign policy will destabilize important existing relationships. In its vacillating inconsistency, Trump could increase uncertainty in American motives, leading to more suspicion in the international system over what the United States really wants, potentially eroding trust with allies and exacerbating security dilemmas with non-allies. In addition, his open advocacy of waterboarding and the assassination of the family members of terrorists threatens to further erode an American soft power that was so damaged under the Bush presidency.

The fact that he later retracted these statements and claimed he would be “bound by laws and treaties” should give us little comfort, since this is exactly the same argument the Bush administration made. It’s easy to follow the law when you redefine torture to exclude the torture you want to use and claim that the President has the right to act unilaterally if national security is threatened.

The overall take away is that though a Trump presidency might seem scary, it is important to know in what ways it is likely to be scary. Particularly, we must remember that the United States is a mature liberal democratic system that, despite its deficiencies, can likely cope with a President Trump. The constitutional checks and balances within the US government ensure that he cannot do anything that requires spending money without the consent of Congress. The Supreme Court can rule unconstitutional any laws that go too far.

President Trump can, however, do quite a bit of damage in foreign policy, even if the more elaborate musings on his potential use of nuclear weapons are overwrought. Unfortunately foreign policy is rarely a central issue in the domestic elections of any state. This is particularly a problem for a state as powerful and important as the United States, whose electorate would do well to pay attention to the real repercussions of electing Donald Trump as president. 

*The question of whether Donald Trump really ‘means’ what he says will be ignored. This is thus a worse-case scenario analysis. 
**The way that Americans deify the Founding Fathers and their resultant Constitution is weird, given the way it echoes the prophets delivering the Word from on high, but you cannot ignore that they also produced pioneering contributions to political theory and governance.

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