My esteemed colleague Lee Drutman marshals political science wisdom and a good dose of calm to argue that even supposing Donald Trump is able to get elected president of the United States, he is overwhelmingly likely to find himself the captive of the Republican establishment, or some combination of embattled/irrelevant/impeached, undone by his own ignorance of political process and the relatively puny powers of the executive branch when confronted by legislators with a firm grip on the purse strings. Putting the likelihood of a successful "maverick populist realigner" Trump at only 5 percent, Drutman says, "Poor Donald; it won't be a bit like running his own company."
Unfortunately, Drutman is wrong — because his analysis omits the policy areas in which Trump would have the most executive leeway, because Trump's colleagues and competitors have been slow to repudiate his proposals, and because those views are already having some effect, regardless of whether Trump is elected or even nominated.
It is increasingly clear that the single substantive area in which Trump departs from the mainstream of both political parties is at the nexus of immigration and security. It is also well-documented that large proportions of Trump's supporters agree with his views and find them a compelling reason to support his candidacy.
A Trump win would certainly be read by him and his base as endorsement of his racist and nativist rhetoric. What is more, because I agree with Drutman that Trump would likely be so centrist and/or ineffective on other issues, this would be where he could use executive powers to deliver. We don't have to assume that he is successful in enacting all his proposals on the subject. But let's consider the consequences of three that he could enact, in all or in part, through executive action.
1) Deport everyone who is here out of status
Trump says he would do this in two years — certainly, he couldn't hire enough additional federal and local law enforcement personnel to accomplish it without massive budget increases. But his immigration plan lays out a number of actions that he could take through executive action. Just reversing President Obama's executive action that let some categories of out-of-status young people and family members remain would affect as many as 4.4 million people. He also proposes mandating automatic removal for "gang members" and those convicted of crimes, and barring law enforcement from releasing anyone pending adjudication.
2) Block not only Syrian refugees but also Muslim immigration, of any kind
This proposal, the only one here that has drawn widespread condemnation from across the GOP, would be relatively easy to implement, in fact if not in law, without Congress. Before the spate of ISIS-inspired terrorism provoked this outburst, Trump had already called for "higher standards" for refugees and a "pause" before new green cards are issued to anyone in his immigration plan.
3) Deal with terrorists through waterboarding, "tak[ing] out their families"
Trump has said he would bring back waterboarding and "more than" waterboarding, adding, "If it doesn't work, they deserved it anyway." Waterboarding is recognized as torture, and was illegal as such under US law when it was practiced in the George W. Bush administration. Intentional targeting of civilians is illegal in wartime or peacetime under international human rights and humanitarian law (different bodies of law cover wartime and peacetime). Congress's reluctance to act in these areas under both the Bush and Obama presidencies suggests that in practice, a president is relatively free to order changes in tactics. Given broad and sustained condemnation of torture by US military leadership, the biggest backlash to these proposals might well come not from Congress but from the Pentagon — setting up a challenge to civilian control that raises more unsettling questions.
We have to date little evidence that the GOP would stand up before he began trying to implement these.
Whether or not these initiatives could be fully implemented, here are some of the results they could be expected to produce:
- A significant hit to the US economy, particularly in certain sectors and regions. Five years ago, the Center for American Progress found that it would cost between $206 and $230 million to deport 4 million people, and that the resulting economic dislocations would shave 1.46 percent off GDP, with reductions of more than 2 percent in some sectors. While the effects would include higher wages for low-skilled workers, they would depress wages for higher-skilled workers.
- Social unrest as some states and localities would refuse to comply; would Trump call out the National Guard or military, and would it obey?
- Rage in Latin America and the Muslim world, which account for nontrivial chunks of US trade, particularly in some key sectors
- A significant hit to the soft power the US can deploy in dealing with allies and adversaries globally; the pressure on European governments to retaliate against us would be intense
- A likely uptick in extremist violence, which would produce more social strain and more pressure for extreme measures at home, not to mention moving to Ted Cruz–style "carpet bombing" abroad
But as it happens, we don't have to wait for a Trump presidency to see. The entrance of these proposals into mainstream public discourse is already producing some of the predicted effects:
- Uptick in discrimination, threats and violence against nonwhite Americans. The FBI says that while all other categories of hate crimes it tracks fell in 2015, attacks against Muslims rose. Engy Abdelkader, a legal fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, compiled this alarming list of incidents in which Muslim students were bullied in recent months — not by fellow students, but by school employees or officials. Incidents of Latino and African Americans being attacked by avowed Trump supporters have been repeatedly documented by the media. The past five years of anti-immigrant rhetoric have brought with them a 50 percent rise in hate crimes against Latinos, so a further "Trump effect" should be no surprise.
- Added danger to Americans serving overseas. Lindsey Graham, not usually known for his pro-Muslim sympathies, commented that Trump's rhetoric "is putting our troops serving abroad and our diplomats at risk. For interpreters and others risking their lives abroad to help America — this is a death sentence."
- Diminished capacity for US diplomacy and "soft power." Imagine that you are the US ambassador to France, going to talk to right-wing leader Marine Le Pen, whose party just won big in regional elections, about how the US expects France to hew to human rights norms. Imagine you are the ambassador to Moscow, asked to remind the Russian military that it must not intentionally target civilians with its bombs in Syria. Or you are in Vienna, asking regional governments to step up the ground wars against Bashar al-Assad and ISIS, and they say — as they do — when are you going to relieve pressure on Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon by taking your share of refugees?
In sum, the Trump effect is real, and in some ways calculations about the likelihood of his winning and being an effective president are irrelevant. The effect is already here, and we will be living it in our domestic social fabric and our international relations for years to come.