Writing at Bloomberg this week, Megan McArdle makes the case that Donald Trump’s “revolution” will almost certainly get a lot less revolutionary if he actually makes it to the Oval Office:
This is the reality: Most of what you want to do to Washington won’t get done—and neither will much of what you want to get done outside of it, if you insist on taking Washington on.
There are several reasons for this. The first, most glaring problem is that people complaining about Washington are quite often demanding the impossible. …The second problem [is that e]verything you do in Washington is a compromise. There are a lot of people in the country, and most of them don’t care about what you want. …
The third problem is bureaucratic proceduralism. Yes, yes, I know: Everyone hates bureaucrats. But everyone loves Social Security checks. And federal funding for their local school. And … and … I’m not going to bore you with the list. Anything that gets done by Washington must be done by the civil service. These folks are lifers. You can’t fire them. Because of the abovementioned legislative compromises required, you also can’t push a bill through that will let you fire them. And they—not the president, and not the cabinet secretaries—are the folks who do most of what government does. The president can wave his hands like Jean-Luc Picard and say, “Make it so.” But if they don’t wanna, they ain’t gonna.
This maddens almost everyone, including me. But that is the reality. And it means that the effects of President Donald Trump would be, in most areas, much less dramatic than his followers expect. He could issue some executive orders. I probably wouldn’t like them. But in most departments, the government would continue to go on operating very much as usual.
McArdle isn’t the first to make this argument.
Stephen M. Walt at Foreign Policy said on Tuesday that “whenever the next president is elected, he or she is going to get an earful from the permanent national security bureaucracy about the difference between the fairy tales peddled during the campaign and the realities of the real world.”
If Trump refuses to listen to conventional D.C. wisdom, Walt added, “bureaucracies have lots of ways to slow down, obstruct, interfere, and dilute whatever cockamamie ideas a president might try to pursue.”
Similarly, I’ve said that if Trump is elected, we can expect congressional obstructionism on steroids. Congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle abhors him, and whatever else one might think them (personally, I don’t think much), they’re not going to play along with a Trump presidency.
Though our next president will have some extra sway where foreign policy and executive orders are concerned, most of the average American’s experience of government will remain unchanged by the victory of any of the 2016 candidates, Trump included.
“This will be dismaying news to Trump’s supporters, of course, who imagine wholesale war where the losers who are stealing all of America’s greatness get ruthlessly destroyed,” McArdle concludes. “Sorry to say it, but if you hate the government now, you’ll hate it just as much under Trump. It will be doing all the same things.”
(If it’s any consolation, the same can be said of Bernie Sanders.)
These dynamics are what make “serious” candidates like Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton scarier, in some ways, than a Trump or Sanders.
Of course, Clinton might find herself sometimes stymied if the GOP—with its hatred for all things Hillary—keeps its hold on Congress. But Rubio and Clinton are both Washington insiders. They know how the bureaucracy works, and their goals, especially where foreign policy is concerned, often consist of putting a new spin on more the same. That makes D.C. inertia something of an asset for these two, more so than for the likes of Sanders and Trump.
However this election turns out, a Trump presidency (or indeed most any presidency) will probably change less than you hope and/or fear. An object at rest tends to stay at rest—and no one politician is a big enough outside force to get it moving again.