I am not going to underestimate him again.
Back in January, in a moment of weakness, I believed the assurance of a supposed expert that Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination would fizzle out when “real voting in real primaries” began.
For this reason, I am ignoring everyone who now says: “Oh, it’ll be OK.” In the past week I have heard two bogus reasons to keep calm: He’s not going to win the election. And if he does he’ll just be an American Berlusconi, more bling and bunga bunga than the nemesis of the republic.
No and no again. First, Trump can beat Hillary Clinton. Forget the bookies who currently give him just a one-in-four chance of victory in November. Even if she does not end up being indicted for storing top secret e-mails on her private server, Clinton personifies the political establishment that the public loathes and that Trump is running against. And precisely because he is not a professional conservative, but a liberal on a number of social issues, Trump is far more likely to lure white working class voters away from Clinton than Ted Cruz would have been.
The American Berlusconi? Sorry, Trump can’t afford to forget his election pledges and focus on partying. Remember, the first question a newly elected president asks himself is always: How do I get reelected four years from now? To quote his adviser Roger Stone: “Having gone out a thousand times to say ‘I’m going to build a wall,’ he has to build a wall. He has said he would scrap trade deals; his voters will demand he scrap trade deals. He knows that.”
The only half-decent argument for keeping calm is that the Constitution was purpose-built to constrain a man like Trump. To see why the separation of powers still matters, just consider what Trump says he is going to do if he wins.
By the end of his first 100 days as president, Trump assured The New York Times recently, his wall along the Mexican border would be designed and his blanket ban on Muslim immigration would be in place. On Day 1, those American companies that have the temerity to employ people abroad would be threatened with punitive fines. Finally, Trump would impose an across-the-board tariff on Chinese imports. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” he declared at a rally last weekend.
Now for the good news. He can do almost none of this if Congress opposes him. According to the Constitution (Article I, Section 8), it is not the president but Congress that has the power to regulate immigration, taxation, and trade. The president’s principal power lies in his being commander in chief of the armed forces. Even his right to make treaties is conditional on “the advice and consent” of the Senate.
In short, the Donald’s antiglobalization program depends on his being able to muster majorities in Congress. How easy is that going to be when the speaker of the House — a Republican — can’t bring himself to endorse Trump and the Democrats stand a good chance of retaking the Senate?
For this reason, Trump may have to focus on foreign policy from the get-go. And here’s where my worries really begin. For if there is one sure sign that a Trump presidency would be a disaster, it is the eagerness with which President Vladimir Putin looks forward to it.
“A very bright and talented man,” is how Putin put it last year. Trump reciprocated. “I think that I would probably get along with him very well,” he said in October. “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader,” he added in December. “You know, unlike we have in this country.” In his foreign policy speech on April 27, Trump made it clear that he hopes to do a “great deal” with Putin. The prospect of Donald and Vlad consummating their bromance in Moscow next year freezes the blood.
Putin sees more in Trump than just a kindred macho spirit. He sees the ultimate solvent of Western unity. Trump’s thinly veiled contempt for NATO is of a piece with his admiration of Putin, not to mention his enthusiasm for Brexit. What more could Putin ask for (apart from a few more chunks of Ukraine and Syria)?
But what to do? Everything has failed so far: Bush, Rubio, Cruz. So “Republicans for Hillary” will probably fail too. That leaves sane Republicans to ponder even less palatable options. Do they seek to field a third-party candidate, as proposed last week by Senator Ben Sasse, running the risk of helping Trump win? Do they prepare to work with (or in) a Trump administration in the hope of mitigating the damage? Or do they just doggedly shun him, in the knowledge that he is bound to be a one-term president?
I was about to recommend the third course. Then I realized I’d just underestimated him again.
Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.