The True Power of a President (and the real reason to fear a Trump presidency)

From the start of the American presidential primaries last year there has been considerable talk of “establishment” candidates vs “outsiders” or “anti-establishment” candidates, talk that increased with every “establishment” Republican that dropped out of the race leaving Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee. On the Democrat side, the “establishment” candidate Hillary Clinton won out over self-described democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders, though Bernie shattered all expectations for his campaign and put up a very good fight. Now the presidential race is still largely about “establishment” vs “anti-establishment”, but the polarizing primaries have put things into a different light.

Now people are talking about the fact that neither Hillary, who is described as being “shrill” and “bitchy” (as most women in politics tend to be described, sadly), or Donald, who actually is shrill and bitchy, are likeable. We like to think that the personal likeability of a candidate isn’t all that important to their qualifications to lead a nation, but whatever we think of Obama’s approach to drone warfare, we melt into adoration for his unruffled demeanour, sense of humour, and open displays of fatherly tenderness toward his family. Nobody is looking forward to a White House Press Gala jokes from Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – they’re just not likeable personas. Nor are their policies likeable: Donald Trump’s policies are largely morally reprehensible, tapping into deep-seated racism and surging xenophobia to scapegoat virtually everyone, while Hillary Clinton is dogged by investigations into her criminally careless approach to sensitive information as Secretary of State and her voting record on morally questionable policies of the past. There is a general sense that both of these candidates were chosen out of political strategy rather than out of any sense of their real qualifications: Trump’s populist juggernaut wasn’t stopping, so Republican leaders who had mocked him only weeks prior began to endorse him; and Hillary was largely seen as the Democrat who could beat Trump.

Faced with two unlikeable, and potentially even scary, candidates for president, the movement toward a third candidate is gaining steam. There have always been many candidates for President in the US, but never any that garnered enough votes to challenge the supremacy of the two parties and their official candidates. The Green Party in the US is apparently now offering Bernie Sanders their nomination, with presumptive Green Party nominee Jill Stein saying she’ll run on his ticket as his potential Vice President. Having a nominee who has such a massive profile would undoubtedly be a coup for any third party in the US, and Bernie’s politics are generally very Green-friendly anyway, but it is likely that the fear of splitting the progressive vote and handing Trump the presidency will keep him from accepting.

So we’re still stuck with a very uncomfortable question of which of two cringeworthy candidates will lead the United States, and that has a lot of people questioning what the future might look like. As with every election (including the recent Brexit referendum in the UK), Google reports that the phrase “how do I move to Canada?” is spiking; but others who are less prone to flee across the border are asking out loud how much power the President of the United States really has.

We’re all asking “do we really want Donald Trump with his finger on the button” (of the US nuclear arsenal)? But does even the Commander-In-Chief of the largest military force on the planet have the power to really mess things up? Not really. To remind us of that fact, Freakonomics recently re-broadcast an old episode from 2011 called How Much Does The President Really Matter? The answer is, not nearly as much as we think. The President is only one branch of US government, and needs the approval of the other two branches in order to act on most matters. So not even Yosemite Sam (or Donald Trump) could pick fights on behalf of his nation, screw up the national or global economy, or otherwise damage the US beyond repair. If there’s one thing the US political structure does well, it is limiting the power of any individual.

The real value of the President, as the podcast points out, is not in deciding or implementing policy, but in setting the national agenda and representing the nation abroad. The President’s high status gives so much weight to whatever he (or hopefully someday soon, she) says that the rest of the government, and the people, have to respond. The President’s role is therefore to steer the national conversation in such a way as to address the important issues and inspire the best in their citizens and legislators. This is the real reason why the possibility of a Trump presidency is so scary, and the possibility of a Clinton presidency is so underwhelming and dull.

Hillary, for all of her excellent credentials and experience, has a limited ability to inspire people. This is certainly at least partially because of deep-seated sexism: we are generally prone to not take women seriously as leaders, even today, though I am pleased to see Hillary making big gains in that regard (and kudos to Jill Stein and Elizabeth Warren for their leadership and groundbreaking work too!).

Donald Trump, on the other hand, inspires virtually everyone. This is his only real credential: the ability to capture our attention and dominate our conversations. In that respect, he’s already about as powerful as the President. The problem is the quality of the conversations he inspires. Donald Trump inspires hatred: hatred of him, for those who do not identify with him; and hatred of others (women, and racial and religious minorities and outsiders) for those who do. While Obama ran on a platform of Hope with a capital “H”, Donald Trump’s vision for “Making America Great Again” is based on scapegoating almost every identifiable minority group for all of America’s problems. As much as we’ve never been without racism and xenophobia and division, the wave of white nationalism that is rising across Europe and North America right now almost makes the LA race riots and other incidents of the 1990’s look like a series of blips in an otherwise progressive and tranquil time (I say this with the detached hindsight of someone who wasn’t actually there). The realities right now are frightening, with a massive upswing of racial violence: Britain saw a 50% increase in racist violence since they voted to leave the EU; over 100 unarmed Black men have been shot to death by police in the US in the past year, and yesterday a Black man retaliated, killing five police officers and wounding six or seven more; and even in Canada there is increasing violence and protest targeting Muslims and Black people, often even with reference to “President Trump.”

Violent and hateful rhetoric inspires violence and hate. That’s why we have hate speech laws in Canada – because we recognize that words have consequences, and even free speech carries responsibility. America has no such law, and Donald Trump’s ability to inspire people to greater and greater fear and hatred of others is far scarier than the notion that he might have limited access to “the button.” Because if he is given the biggest platform in the world, he might create conditions in which he’ll have the social license he needs to actually push that button. Even short of starting wars, his ability to create division around the world, between people groups within nations, has the capacity for chaos.

So don’t fear the damage that Trump could directly do as President; there are checks and balances that will prevent him from doing any real harm. But fear the power of the platform he may be given, and guard against the polarizing rhetoric such a platform will send around the world.

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