Part of me wishes there was an exciting answer to this question. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — there is not.
In 1852, Karl Marx published an interesting work titled The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where he analysed the coup successfully organised by then democratically elected president Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in France at the end of 1851; the coup that ultimately proclaimed him emperor Napoleon III.
Among many other things, Marx notably warned against the dangers of a president who is directly elected by the people, as compared to an elected Parliament:
“While each separate Representative represents only this or that party, this or that city, this or that dunghill, […] that one, the President, on the contrary, is the elect of the nation, and the act of his election is the trump card that the sovereign people plays once every four years.
“The elected National Assembly stands in a metaphysical, but the elected President in a personal, relation to the nation. True enough, the National Assembly presents in its several Representatives the various sides of the national spirit, but, in the President, this spirit is incarnated. As against the National Assembly, the President possesses a sort of divine right, he is by the grace of the people.”
This is exactly how we think about the American president.
The president seems to be extremely powerful, the head of the executive branch as well as being, if one watches American television and movies and buys into that rhetoric, head of the “highest office in the land” and the “leader of the free world”.
Unfortunately, in reality, the American president is not as strong as most people think.
Any actual policy proposal that the president may have must be presented and approved by the US Congress – that is, the American Parliament or National Assembly, to use Marx’s words.
Even more than that, thanks to the famous “checks and balances” of the American institutional make-up, every single decision of the president must be confirmed by Congress before it actually gets into effect.
For instance, the president nominates the justices of the Supreme Court.
In February 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia died, creating an opening in the court. Scalia was a right-wing conservative justice nominated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Barack Obama simply nominated a replacement, a respectable judge called Merrick Garland. The Senate, however, must confirm this nomination.
Given that the current Senate majority is Republican, the Senate has refused to even hold hearings about such confirmation.
Its plan is to wait until November to see if the Republican party wins the presidency, so the incoming Republican president will nominate a right-leaning justice to the Supreme Court instead of Obama’s left-leaning nominee.
This behaviour is unprecedented, but nonetheless shows how impotent a president actually is without the support of Congress.
The problem becomes even more complex if we consider something that we call the “incumbency advantage” – that is, the electoral advantage enjoyed by those who are in office running for re-election.
In the US Congress, the incumbency advantage is incredibly large, as my own research has shown extensively, by focusing on the US House of Representatives, the US Senate, and throughout history.
In fact, I can predict right now, without even looking at any data or other information, that about 90 per cent of members of Congress running for re-election will be successfully re-elected in November.
In fact, the only effective ways that people leave the US Congress once they are elected is through voluntary retirement, death and, as I have also shown through extensive research, as a consequence of involvement in a public scandal.
Ultimately, this means that no matter who wins the election, American politics will be in 2017 more of the same.
Donald Trump can scream and shout and talk as much as he wants, but ultimately it is the US Congress that calls the shots, and the US Congress in 2017 will essentially look identical to the US Congress in 2016.
Even when the majority party changes, these changes mostly take place thanks to minor shifts in “open seats” – seats where there are no incumbents running for re-election.
What is fascinating is that Americans do not like Congress.
According to the Gallup poll, since the beginning of the year, the disapproval rate of the US Congress has been somewhere between 79 per cent and 84 per cent.
Since 1974, between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of the population has consistently disapproved of the way Congress does its job. But then why do Americans keep re-electing their Congress?
Interestingly, Marx can actually help us understand this paradox. Because American politics is notoriously candidate-centred,
Americans feel connected to their own members of Congress – the people they vote for themselves.
In other words, while their connection to Congress as a whole is metaphysical, their connection to the specific people they elect to Congress is direct. They feel like they can approve the work of their member of Congress, while disapproving the work of Congress as a whole.
The result is levels of elite stability that can be envied by aristocratic societies.
The ultimate consequence is that the answer to the question “What if Donald Trump wins?” is, I’m afraid, quite boring.
Dr Rodrigo Praino is a lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University’s School of Social and Policy Studies and director of the Graduate Program in Public Administration online. He is an expert in American politics and elections and has published extensively in the field. His works appeared in journals such as American Politics Research, Social Science Quarterly and Congress and the Presidency. His academic work has featured prominently in the international media, including the Washington Post, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Pew Research Centre and the Discovery Channel.
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