I didn’t stay up all night awaiting news of the US mid-term elections but I did take a look at the results when I got up. The campaigning preceding the vote was said to be some of the most personal and abusive ever, with misogyny and racism at every turn. The man at the centre of all of this, Donald Trump, was either going to solidify his power or else it would be held in check. In fact neither happened meaning the changes this election brings are likely to be subtle at first but significant later.
The headline that Trump’s Republicans have lost control of the House of Representatives but gained seats in and still control the Senate give the impression that this was a mixed result. Whilst that may be the case it will likely lead to changes in approach from Trump. The first thing to note is that if the president wants to get legislation through Congress he now might need to reach out a bit more. He hasn’t shown much of this in the past, even with his own party but the results might hone his senses a little in this regard. US Congressmen are not as tied to their party as UK MPs are so there may be those willing to defy the president but they will also be aware that they may owe their seats to Trump in some regard. In other words he may actually find it easier to sway Republican Senators and Representatives to his way of thinking.
The powers of the president are limited on domestic matters and the US constitution results in compromise being a good tactic to actually get things done. But Trump doesn’t really seem the compromise type. It could mean that he simply attempts fewer controversial pieces of legislation, knowing that they are unlikely to make it through both houses. He will also use the State of the Union address to seek to influence Congress and potentially charm them with a policy agenda that both houses can get behind to a certain extent.
There is also the use of Executive Orders, one of the powers of being Chief Executive, which give the president some leeway without having to deal too much with Congress. These have the power of law and can be overridden by legislation, the Supreme Court or a future president but stand until such time that they are overridden. We might also see a raft of new appointments to agencies of government, ensuring that Trump has as many of his people in key governmental and quasi-governmental positions. As Chief Executive Trump is responsible for ensuring that laws are enacted. Obviously laws can be enacted in various ways so having your people heading the agencies responsible for enacting the laws is a huge extra set of powers. There is also the issuing of grants or the reduction of grants. The president can give grants to individual states within the USA for them to carry out certain projects. We may see a holding of funds in certain areas and possibly new issues getting extra funding, depending on what priorities Trump thinks important.
For those of us living outside of the USA we receive a strange view of their politics. Trump is pushed to the forefront of everything we see and we rarely get any insight of state or local politics. This is understandable as the president does not have the same checks and balances on foreign affairs as he does on domestic matters. As the Commander in Chief and the Chief Diplomat his main opposition comes from the press and public opinion. It is this president that most of the world sees on a daily basis and it is this area of work that Trump may retreat into more now that domestic matters have become more complex for him.
When the constitution was written the president was given the role of Commander in Chief of the army and navy. Over time that has come to also mean the air force and now the space force. It has become a more important role because of the USA becoming a superpower. The constitution also gave the president the power of Chief Diplomat which means that he can appoint ambassadors and sign treaties and Executive Agreements between nations. Treaties require a two-thirds majority in the Senate to be ratified but Executive Agreements (which are pretty much the same thing) only require a majority in both houses. Foreign policy therefore provides an area of work a president can retreat into and create a legacy on if domestic matters are too complex to get anything done.
Space Force, developing a stockpile of nuclear weapons, meetings with other strong men around the world, sanctions for Iran, war in the middle east on several fronts: it is these matters that may well come to the fore more now (not that they have been on the side-lines). It is obviously these areas that can affect the rest of us, sometimes subtly and sometimes in a profound and life changing manner. I expect him to focus much more on international matters and in much more sensational ways as he grasps for attention and news stories that might play well with his supporters.
The next two years are now all about the presidential election in 2020. Trump has said he will stand. The moment he announced his intentions was the moment he could start getting finance for it. Generally speaking the more money a candidate has the better they do. We do not know yet whether anyone from his own party will challenge him. The last election was exceedingly close, with Hilary Clinton getting more votes than Trump but crucially not enough Electoral College votes. Small changes can swing the result. There will be winners from Trump’s domestic policies and there will no doubt be those that feel America has been made great again by those policies and his actions on foreign affairs. A second term in office still looks very likely.
Whether we’re talking about US domestic or foreign policy what we find is a president whose actions are often shielded by the controversy over the things he has been saying. No sooner have people started to object to his latest outburst than he’s said something equally disgusting. As such we are always on the back foot. It is better to ignore what the man says and look closely at what he, and the team of very hawkish and clever men around him, are actually doing. Fewer memes about what a buffoon he is might be helpful. They haven’t worked so far and they will unlikely convince those who might secure him a second term in office. There is little most of us can do about him frankly. I can’t help but think he is about to get worse than ever.
Image: Peak Oil