Thursday, 26 May 2016

Just get Trump into the White House so he doesn't hurt anyone


I like Donald Trump. Not the person but what he represents. If I were a US citizen though, I wouldn’t be fooled by his rhetorical tricks and I certainly wouldn’t be voting for the man.

That might sound contradictory but it isn’t. On the one hand, Mr Trump has defeated every other Republican hopeful to become the party’s de facto nominee for November. Supporters are attracted to him because he represents change from the Barack Obama administration. But whereas President Obama was elected as, essentially, not George W Bush (I know that’s cartoonish), Mr Trump’s success is due to his essentially being not a politician. And I appreciate the sentiment.

Conversely, what makes Mr Trump attractive is exactly what should guide my hand to pretty much any other small, square, inky box at the voting booth – preferably a box storing all my possessions where I sometimes watch hilarious movies. And by “box” I mean “house,” because staying at home in November is the best choice.

Although I agree with Mr Trump that the US government is a broken machine desperately needing surgery – the cosmetics applied by Mr Obama just won’t do, it’s time to get out the bone-saw – there’s simply no chance Mr Trump as President will dent the leviathan’s enormous body.

Harvard economic and financial historian Niall Ferguson told NBR Radio this week that although much of the world may finally be pulling clear of global financial crisis nastiness, populist candidates of the Donald Trump variety could reverse the valuable gains made over the last eight years.

“Donald Trump is a reckless, irresponsible person whose business record alone should disqualify him from being the town sheriff, never mind being the president of the US. He is formidable, however. He has ripped up the rulebook of American politics and crushed the Republican establishment with a campaign that tells normal citizens they are less well-off than 16 years ago, because of a) immigration, b) globalisation and c) corrupt politicians in Washington who are too close to Wall St.”

Harsh words. So assuming all goes well with Mr Trump’s Washington facelift, America will be great again, yay!

Prof Ferguson doesn’t think so. And in this estimation, the Harvard professor sounds just like everybody else. Except this time around the power of the US executive branch is being overestimated, and that’s a problem.

Everyone knows politicians will say anything to be elected, even those who haven’t spent a day in any official political role. This fact connects Mr Trump with his opponents: they are salespeople through and through, selling themselves to a populace trained from birth to look for certain and specific semiotic giveaways of an ideal leader.


But when a new president finally sits down in the Oval Office, and aides with dossiers as thick as their forearms wait their turn to show the most powerful man in the world the realities of the nation, the blood from Mr Trump’s face will drain.

Those dossiers represent the left and right-hand boundaries of what is possible and feasible for the not-so-all-powerful president. That spectrum is always surprisingly, and often annoyingly, thin.

So Mr Ferguson and every Trump supporter are actually aligned on one crucial issue: they believe, for different reasons, that if Mr Trump is elected he will be able to carry out his extreme bone-saw programme. And if that possibility is something you, dear reader, also believe then thank Athena I am here to say, you have no idea what he’s up against.

Not only was the executive branch designed carefully in the US Constitution to avoid concentrating the kind of power many Trump observers are fearful of him achieving, the reality is that sometime in the 1930s the government switched to operate under an unwritten constitution via a series of Supreme Court precedents (here’s one). This gradual but clear evolution to a new deal (recognise the term?) constitution is about as different from the yellowing parchment sitting in the National Archives as it is from the 60,000 pages of the Trans Pacific Partnership – which Mr Trump says he doesn’t like either.

Let me explain.

Under an unwritten constitution, there is a single dominant legislative institution controlling the actual power of government. This authority cannot be questioned or legally disobeyed because the law is whatever this institution says it is. In New Zealand, this institution is Parliament. But in the US, the body sitting in the throne room is the Supreme Court.

Once these laws, expressed as judicial decisions, are made (usually broad and vague), Congress writes its own laws within the new boundaries. Those too are broad and vague enough that every other government agency can write regulations within the boundaries set by Congress. At this point, laws crystallise into more specific stipulations such as an exact consequence for failing to file taxes. If this isn’t legislative sovereignty, what is?

And notice that the executive branch was entirely sidestepped throughout this neat sausage-making process. Curious, it’s almost as if the president doesn’t have any actual power over domestic US affairs …

One hindrance keeping the US government from transitioning to a truly parliamentarian structure is that tricky written constitution of 1789, which still requires court and congress officials to stretch their laws around its yellowy framework. Officials are good at gymnastics and generally have few problems getting what they want. So in all the ways that matter, there is little difference between the American government and the way the Commonwealth governs – although the accents are easy to spot.


But what makes me really snicker when Mr Trump talks about cleaning up Washington is that most of his extreme policies (immigration, Islam, Wall St) involve more government, not less.

The idea of limited government is admirable but it doesn’t take much to see how it is impossible in the modern structure. How can a sovereign limit its own power? And if it decides it doesn’t like that flavour anymore and wants to take back the power, who will stop it?

Consider something I know a bit about: media. It is impossible for any government agency to tell the US press what to write. The mere idea is laughable. The New York Times and Washington Post are therefore at least as powerful and robust as many formal government agencies, perhaps more so.

For instance, during the recent Panama Papers leaks, the media cleverly framed the issue for the public about whether the hoarding of wealth and failure to pay taxes was a good thing. The default assumption however, made by every journalist and missed by most consumers, was that, of course, it’s kosher for the press to handle, view and publish legitimate private business records – for profit – “in the public interest.” Of course, of course.

But observe that when spy agencies are caught looking at a handful of private metadata records (not the contents of this correspondence) of innocent citizens, a procedure signed carefully into law by every branch of government under multiple administrations (the same is true for New Zealand’s spies), the agencies are dragged through the mud.

But if stolen private records, or illegally recorded celebrity phone conversations, are given to the press, it has complete and utter power to do whatever it wishes with those documents and will be protected by both law and custom when it does so. Again, if this is not actual power, what is?


So returning to Mr Trump, the central question is what powers the president of the US in the actual government has.

Republican voters possess a strange belief that presidents are the “leader of the country” and treat the position as CEO. But if this were true, then the President would control absolutely four aspects of government directly: budget, policy, structure and personnel. In other words, he or she can spread funds to government agencies, tell employees what to do and how to do it, arrange lower-level management and hire and fire employees at will. Hmm…we’ve hit a speedbump.

Most CEOs sitting in the Oval Office would be confused and a little irate that they were sold the most powerful position in the world but, like a standard potato chip packet, the job looks filled with a lot of funny-smelling air. The president cannot reallocate funds between agencies, let alone between programmes. Civil servants would laugh at him if he tried, and he couldn’t do anything about that either because he has no power to fire them.

Neither can he change the government’s organisational structure. If he doesn’t like the way management is constructed, the worst thing he can do is write an angry sentence in his autobiography – assuming it passes the censors. He can’t tell any official what to do, anywhere, for any reason. Far from being a CEO then, being a president is little more than ceremonial, where one's only job is to look noble and smile on CNN. The office isn’t yet entirely impotent like the British monarchy but come back in a century or so.

This page is instructive and stores the so-called “executive orders.” My favourites for Mr Obama’s stellar eight years are “Combatting Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria” and “Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women and Girls Globally.” I’m sure he’s keen to combat bacteria and violence against women. Those are admirable goals. But the question is how those orders made it to the tip of his fountain pen? The answer: Someone placed them in front of him to sign, and he obliged with a well-practised signature swirl.

Despite a leader’s happy smiles and shaking hands at new factories, the above is the day-to-day existence of every politician and political appointee in the modern Western system of government. They receive emails/orders/policies, drip ink in the right places and send it over to the proverbial outbox. The civil service, which by definition is permanent and cannot be altered, attacked or blocked by anyone who’s so much as idled next to a politician in traffic, takes care of everything else.


This is why in November, although I agree the US government demands serious surgery, it would be better off if Hillary Clinton is elected.

Life is much easier for politicians if they are aligned ideologically with the permanent civil service. And since the US civil service is comprised mostly of people voting Democrat (re: progressives), the whole machine works smoother with one of their own in the ceremonial position at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The left is always and in every case across the Western world the party of the permanent civil service. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, only that it most certainly is true.

It could well be that after reading the dossiers, Mr Trump decides to thrash around in the deep waters trying to “get things done” rather than simply turning over to float with the tide. At least for a while, Republican presidents like to try thrashing, and no one will be surprised if Mr Trump doesn’t “get the memo” quickly enough. He hasn’t, after all, spent a day in official capacity in his life.

The civil service is immune to this thrashing, and it has a few tricks. A simple and effective medicine is to ask the extended civil service for help – namely, the media. Describing what a president is doing as “politicising” a perfectly responsible and legitimate civil service idea is usually enough to flick the tiny Trump-sized flea from the shoulder of the leviathan. The press are shock troops for these little wars because politicians need press support to get elected. And by “need” I mean, without it, they might as well go fishing.

If Mr Trump decides to keep fighting the civil service, what will happen? Beyond mediocre power to block congressional legislation (every senator can do this, and Congress is only the second step in lawmaking, not the first), power to nominate Supreme Court justices (pending senate confirmation) and nominal control of the armed forces (limited to being “part of the discussion” and signing orders), Mr Trump can’t do much to hurt America or the world at all.

The problem with Mr Ferguson’s worry and all of Mr Trump’s supporters is the misguided belief that voting the overly-tanned fan of walls is the equivalent of doing something meaningful. It is also a common but incorrect belief that democracy in modern Western governments means what we think it means. It doesn’t.

The permanent civil service is larger than it looks and doesn’t like stepping into the light often. So one shouldn't feel guilty if it isn't noticed. None of the people who are involved at the business end of the leviathan’s actual decisionmaking process are elected officials. There’s a word for this structure, and it certainly isn’t “democracy.”


If Mr Trump tries to effect his extreme plans, and if any of those ideas are contrary to what the permanent government are already doing, I can already predict how that particular battle will play out.

He will then have two options: Either he learns to float or loses his job. The public responds to training, and it has been trained since childhood by schools, universities and the press to listen to authority. Understand, however, that this authority is not and will never reside in the person of the president of the United States of America. The institutions themselves are the true authority.

Assuming none of this changes reader’s minds, and Mr Trump (or for that matter, the New Zealand political leadership) is still considered an important role by my fellow citizens, then I do have one piece of advice:

Elect a person who will respond to unexpected events with sincerity, aplomb and poise. Because while those people do not possess actual power, they will be the first person a populace sees when the events occur. They will guide us through crises while the civil service figures out what to do.

If that person is a buffoon or wants to thrash about a bit too much, then the central fear of the civil service – which is what Mr Ferguson fears too – could become a reality: an overflow of angst among 300 million people who no longer trust the civil service. US government may be wide and numerous but it is always outnumbered. And ever since the explosion of world population after the 17th century, the fundamental question for any government is strictly: What will we do with all these people?

Attempting to solve this problem is the reason modern government institutions were created in this way – from the police to the press. Constrained as presidents may be in this system, a leader will always be symbolically important for humans, however. And something inside our brains cracks when these leaders are incompetent.

So in this regard, if nothing else, choose wisely, US voters.


Malcolm Hansen said...

You mean our Aussie pollies running for election are figureheads too?!

Then I'm not happy with compulsory voting!

Thesmith said...

Such is the modern Western system of government. I'm actually a big fan of a polity organising itself on the rule of law and scrapping the ceremonial warfare of democracy. It doesn't do us any good to keep pretending the civil service is some prostrate entity listening to the ideas of our dear leaders.

We should all just admit the system is an oligarchy and move on. Maybe that sounds too radical, but my position is that we ALREADY live under this oligarchy and everything seems to go swimmingly. So admitting the truth can’t be a bad thing. In fact, getting rid of the democracy farce would make everything we like about modern government go much smoother. Of course, now I sound like I’m advocating 17th and 18th century European models of body-politic government. Which I am, because I've no problem with that style, really.