Thoughts on President Trump

A great deal has been said already on this topic, but let me point out a few things that have not received much attention.

First off, allow me to admit that I was completely surprised by the result. Congratulations to Andrew Potter for having called it correctly a couple weeks ago, but until last night I thought he was wrong. Mainly that’s because I believed all the stuff about the importance of the “ground game” in turning out the vote. I thought Trump’s inability to put together a coherent campaign organization was going to hurt him more than it did.

Also, I should note that this outcome is a huge victory for political science over punditry. Political science tells us that things like debate performances and “gaffes” don’t matter very much, but that electoral outcomes are driven by a very small number of “macro” factors – foremost amongst them is a desire for alternation of the parties in power.

On Tuesday in the New York Times, I drew an analogy between Donald Trump and Rob Ford. Both of them ran campaigns that committed, according to the conventional media wisdom, almost every mistake that it is possible to make, and yet they still won (although I suppose it is worth noting that Trump lost the popular vote, he only won the electoral college). I think this analogy is a strong one, and I suspect that Trump’s term in office will also resemble Ford’s in many ways – in the first year, he will steamroll everyone, but that over time the accumulated effects of all the rule-breaking will begin to bog him down.

But that is not what I came here to say. Instead, I want to make observations on two topics:

How did it happen?

There were lots of different factors that converged upon this result. Without downplaying the significance of race, economic factors, etc. I would like to comment on one motivation commonly expressed by Trump supporters, which was the desire for “change” in a “corrupt” political system. On this point, there was a clear contrast between the two candidates. Hillary Clinton’s special expertise, and indeed, much of the case that she made for herself, was that she was a veteran political insider, who knew how to get things done within the existing institutional structure of the U.S. federal government. Apart from muttering a bit about Citizens United, it was clear that she had no intention of reforming any aspect of how America is governed – on the contrary, she had a great deal invested in keeping things the way they are, precisely because her major selling proposition was her ability to navigate the byzantine pathways of the system. Electing Trump, by contrast, is like sending a bull into a china shop. He will do about as much damage as possible to the existing institutional structure.

The question is, why would so many Americans want to damage their own political institutions in such a radical way? The answer, I think, involves a very hazardous dynamic in the U.S. political system, which arises as a consequence of the fact that essentially unreformable. In this respect, the U.S. is highly unusual. If you look at Western democracies over the past few decades, most of them have responded to various problems and pathologies that have arisen by enacting structural reforms. (Consider, for instance, the devolution of powers to Scotland, or the reforms made to the House of Lords in the U.K., or the changes to the voting systems in Australia or New Zealand.)

My background view of the United States is that it is locked into process of long-term political decay (a thesis that has been defended, most prominently, by Francis Fukuyama). Of course, predicting the collapse of America is a mug’s game. What I find striking about the current situation, however, and the reason that I say the U.S. is “locked in” to a decline, is that the political system (understood in the broadest sense possible) is incapable of reforming itself, in order to address challenges that it encounters, or pathologies that it develops.

Consider, for instance, the contrast between the current discussion we are having in Canada over electoral reform, and the situation with the electoral college in the United States. Once again, one candidate (Hillary Clinton) has won the popular vote, yet lost the electoral college, and thus the U.S. system has failed to appoint the majority winner of the election to the Presidency. This is essentially a repeat of what happened with Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. People in Canada may complain about the fact that our first-past-the-post electoral system allows parties to hold a majority in the legislature, even if their aggregate vote share was less than 50%. But the fact remains that in Canada, every single MP elected to parliament was the winner of a plurality rule contest – which is to say, he or she receive more votes than her opponent. The U.S. presidential system, by contrast, violates that principle. Not only did Donald Trump fail to secure more than 50% of votes, he was not even the plurality winner in the electoral contest – more people voted for Hillary Clinton.

That seems like a pretty big flaw in the system! And so unsurprisingly, the day after Trump’s victory, rumblings began about abolishing the electoral college. By contrast to Canada, however, no one is taking this seriously. It is interesting to note the overwhelming sense of futility in this article. Basically everyone interviewed says, “yes, it’s stupid and undemocratic, but there’s nothing that can be done about it.”

One can find similar resignation in the face of relatively “small” issues, like gerrymandering, lobbying, campaign finance, as well as big issues, like the structure of Congress, or the electoral system itself. Consider, for instance, that the United States is suffering from a very acute case of the major pathology of majority systems, which is that it tends to generate two hegemonic parties (Duverger’s law), which in turn generates profound dissatisfaction on the part of large segments of the electorate. And yet there is absolutely no discussion in the U.S. of any change to the voting system. Why? Every U.S. political theorist that I ask about this says the same thing – it’s pointless to talk about, because nothing can be changed. Meanwhile in Canada, where we are not suffering from this, the major pathology of first-past-the-post, we are nevertheless engaged in serious discussion of reform of our electoral system (which, I should note, I don’t expect to go anywhere. At the same time, I don’t doubt that it could be done, or that our system is capable of change. I just don’t think change will occur, because there is no need for it.)

In response to the impossibility of reform, the American system has slowly evolved into what Steven Teles calls a kludgeocracy. Rather than enacting reforms, people have found “work-arounds” to the existing system, ways of getting things done that twist the rules a bit, but that everyone accepts because it’s easier than trying to change the rules. (This is why, incidentally, those who hope that the “separation of powers” will constrain President Trump are kidding themselves – the separation of powers in the U.S. is severely degraded, as an accumulated effect of decades of “work arounds” or kludges that violate it.)

Because of this, the U.S. government suffers a massive shortfall in “output legitimacy,” in that it consistently fails to deliver anything like the levels of competent performance than people in wealthy, advanced societies expect from government. (Anyone who has ever dealt with the U.S. government knows that it is uniquely horrible experience, unlike anything suffered by citizens of other Western democracies.) Furthermore, because of the dysfunctional legislative branch, nothing ever gets “solved” to anyone’s satisfaction. All that Americans ever get is a slow accumulation of more kludges (e.g. the Affordable Care Act, the Clean Power Plan).

Most people, however, do not think institutionally. When they see bad performance from government, they blame the actors that they see readily at hand. And their response then is to send in new people, committed to changing things. For decades they’ve been doing this, and yet nothing ever changes. Why? Because the problems are institutional, outside the control of individual legislators. But how do people interpret this lack of change? Many come to the conclusion that the person they sent in to fix things got coopted, or wasn’t tough enough, or wasn’t up to the job. And so they send in someone tougher, more radical, more vociferous in his or her commitment to changing things. When that doesn’t work out, they send in someone even more radical.

A vote for Donald Trump is a natural end-point of this process. Or at least, we can hope it’s the end point. In any case, it is already predictable that Trump will fail to make any significant or positive changes, and so the death-spiral will continue. First of all, Trump doesn’t think in terms of process, or of institutions. When he sees a bad outcome, he just assumes that it’s because the people involved were “stupid,” and if you sent in “smart” people instead, you’d get a better outcome. This is a recipe for disappointment. Second, the specific changes that he is committed to making – mainly congressional term limits – will only make things worse. Meanwhile, the court appointments he is promising to make will strengthen the constitutional straightjacket, making things like campaign finance reform or an end to gerrymandering impossible.

What is the significance?

Americans have been preoccupied with the question “what does this mean for America?” As a non-American, I am more interested in the question “what does this mean for the world?” Perhaps I am overreacting, but I do feel as though yesterday was one of those moments, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, that alters the trajectory of civilization. That’s because the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency is deeply discrediting to Western-style democracy. In fact, I think the big winner, globally, from Tuesday’s election, is Chinese-style authoritarianism. And so, in the same way that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the final nail in the coffin of communism, Trump’s election represents a turning point, in what will become a general move away from liberal democracy.

Whatever Americans may think about Trump, the most important thing to observe, from a global perspective, is that people all around the world view him as an incompetent clown. The Chinese, I should note, were already having a field day with the mere fact that Trump was the nominee. China got huge propaganda gains from the presidency of George W. Bush – their argument was basically “our political system is better, because it would not allow anyone this incompetent to become leader.” Think now how that argument looks in the age of President Trump (along with the clowns and madmen that will staff his inner circle, Giuliani, Gingrich, Palin, even Bolton). It certainly makes it impossible to pressure China to democratize.

More importantly, think of what happens to global leadership on issues such as climate change. Europe is a fractious, self-absorbed mess, and in any case is not in a position to do much more on the climate file. The United States is suffering from catastrophic governance failure, and its leadership is in complete denial about the problem. So where do people look to for leadership? All of it naturally passes to China. More generally, it starts to look like the future of humanity lies with China. And, depressingly, it starts to look as though China’s political system – subject to certain limited governance reforms – is the one better able to guarantee stability and prosperity. The three-hundred year period in which China was not the most advanced civilization on earth starts to look more and more like an anomaly, but that it is now returning to its traditional role.

To a certain extent this conclusion is unwarranted, since there are many other ways of organizing a liberal democracy, most of them better than the American. (As I have pointed out many times, Americans don’t even try to reproduce their own system abroad. After the invasion of Iraq, for instance, they imposed a parliamentary democracy on that country – tacit admission on the part of Americans that parliamentary systems are superior to presidential ones.) Nevertheless, the United States is the most prestigious democracy in the world, and its governance failures are widely interpreted as failures of democracy, not failures of America as a nation.

So even if there is no “isolationist” turn with Trump (e.g. he does not torpedo TPP, he does not undermine NATO), this election is a huge win for China, and a huge boost to those who admire and defend the Chinese political system.


Thoughts on President Trump — 13 Comments

  1. This piece is both brilliant and a bit clueless. While a technocratic analysis of the American electoral system may explain some tiny bit of Trump’s election appeal, the minute you zoom out, you see that this kind of populist backlash isn’t an exclusively American phenomenon, and has erupted in places that have a parliamentary style system.


    From your NYTimes post:

    Contemplating the difficulty of this task may be enough to encourage us to adopt a more conservative attitude toward the forms of social capital that we still enjoy. More important, it may encourage us to think more critically about the value of always thinking critically. We have become very good at questioning authority. We need to work on the harder part — when to trust authority.

    1. Ethnic diversity is one of the major ingredients tending towards lower social trust. Therefore, lowering immigration numbers and being more picky about who you let in would be the most obvious thing to do.

    2. Trust in authority, as Jonathan Haidt has shown, is a socially conservative sentiment. More trust in authority would require a turn towards a more socially conservative culture and politics across the board.

    Needless to say both these things are anathema to most of the people in government, media and academia, not to mention large portions of the left leaning public. So, the prudent thing to do is unlikely to get done.


    Incidently, the main reason Canada has largely escaped such a populist backlash is that we are the most geographically isolated developed country in the world: we’re far away from the Middle East and North Africa, and there is the vast geographic and population bulk of the U.S. between us and the large number of poor Central and South Americans out there. Even Australia, surrounded by water, is relatively more accessible. We’ve also been reltively picky with who we allow to immigrate here. Though it is worth noting the Rob Ford arose in the most diverse part of the country, and not, say, in rural Alberta.

    • Your comment is a bit clueless.

      1. Ethnic diversity is already a matter of fact in the United States, and no lowering of immigration will change this. Social trust cannot be based on homogenity, since homogenity can only be possible by extreme measures.

      2. Please elaborate your take on “socially conservative sentiment”. Although trust in authority is, of course, a conservative sentiment, this conservativism is relative to the government, politics and culture of the polity. Thus, you find a high degree of trust in authority in the highly liberal, largely social democratic states in Scandinavia, which I presume are outside of your definition of “socially conservative culture and politics”.

      • Ethnic diversity is already a matter of fact in the United States

        Oh please. When you’re in a hole, of course, the first thing to do is stop digging.

        You may be right that, due to ethnic diversity, the U.S. already be well past the point of no return on the way to Caesarism, but other places around the world aren’t so far gone yet.

        • You fail to fathom that a high level of trust in authorities is attainable in heterogeneous societies, and that a low level of trust may develop in a homogeneous polity. Trust in authorities is found in liberal democracies today (Scandinavia) and in near-totalitarian regimes (Singapore).

          There are several paths to trust, and yours seems nefarious and backwards. Your “one day you’ll see I’m right” speculation about the future of the Scandinavian states is a prediction without merit, and so I cannot take it seriously.

  2. highly liberal, largely social democratic states in Scandinavia, which I presume are outside of your definition of “socially conservative culture and politics”.

    Scandinavian countries are small and were, until recently, ethnically homogenous. The support for the welfare state drew heavily on cozy nationalistic sentiments. We will see how long the Scandinavian welfare state lasts under the pressures of diversity.

  3. Trump cannot be elected without a majority of votes. At least 270 of the electors for president must vote for him. The 538 electors (collectively often termed the “electoral college”) are the only people electing the president. Period.

    Just as in Canada it is often assumed that the party with a plurality of seats gets to form the government, so in the USA it is often assumed that there is a nationwide vote of the people for their president. There is no national vote at all, much less one for president. People may vote for the presidential electors where the state legislatures have decided to let them. The national popular vote totals often reported in the media are meaningless in both Canada and the USA.

    Am I being pedantic? Perhaps. But a system is not “flawed” when it is functioning as designed.

  4. “the separation of powers in the U.S. is severely degraded, as an accumulated effect of decades of “work arounds” or kludges that violate it.”

    I know this is part of an aside, but I’d be curious for you to explain what you mean by that. Are you saying that presidents are much stronger than was intended by the Founders, that Congress is more powerful, or something else entirely?

  5. Great essay. One amendment: the state governments are significantly easier to reform than the federal. The blue states in a variety of ways have to been enacting policies in attempts to compensate for the federal deficits. For example, coastal states have signed onto a North American compact on climate change. While a large proportion of the American population is covered, partial inter-state initiatives cannot be sufficient. Now we will see if Trump and his neoconfederate allies can disable the state engines of social change.

  6. On a tangentially-related note, the failures of democracy sometimes bring up the idea of rule by algorithm. As an American I would love to see an algorithmic approach to fighting gerrymandering, which is a problem with a fairly limited scope and relatively clear guidelines. The various cases of artificial intelligence leading to distortions, unintended racism, etc. of course give the thoughtful person pause before heading down that track, even if in some ideal philosophical world it might be the solution to seeking rationality when humans so clearly lack it (Enlightenment 3.0?), and could represent demographics that just don’t come out to vote.

    This article mentions Iain Banks’ Culture as an AI-driven government, which I know appeal to some of your sensibilities, Joseph:

    I’d still love to read your response to how our economies will respond to upheaval from automation, which commentators such as Vivek Wadhwa feel will undermine any Trump promises to do pretty much the one thing he claims he can do – bring back low wage manufacturing jobs to white Americans:

  7. But surely one of the reasons the US government is uniquely dysfunctional is that both Congress and the Senate have been dominated by a party whose raison d’etre has been: a) to thwart any and all legislation proposed by President Obama; and b) in the immortal words of Grover Norquist, to shrink government to the size where they can drown it in a bathtub.