Erich Kirchubel works as a parliamentary researcher for a Conservative MP.
On November 8, Americans will head to their local polls and vote for the next President of the United States. Seventy-three days later, the winner will be sworn into the White House, where he or she will spend the next four years guiding the country. It is becoming increasingly likely that the November ballot will feature Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the candidates for the two major American parties – the Democrats and Republicans. While many pundits believe Trump has no chance of being President, there is still a very real possibility that his new address will be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC in January next year.
In the current election cycle, as Trump has continued his unprecedented campaign, both Americans and foreigners have been worrying about what a Trump presidency might look like. His boisterous speeches, his brash attitude, his contempt for anyone who disagrees with him, and his outlandish promises have created an atmosphere of fear around the world. As the “Leader of the Free World,” the President of the United States needs to be grounded, rational, patient when possible, assertive when necessary, and above all, not a threat to other people. Few would say that Trump fits that mold. However, the American system of government, with its rigorous checks and balances along with a clear separation of power, protects the American people from the type of President Donald Trump claims he will be.
Arguably the most powerful branch of the American government is the legislative branch. Comprised of two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives, Congress has the most enumerated powers and is considered the direct voice of the populace. The United States Constitution lays out the powers of Congress in Article I, and the sacred document vests considerable weight to the legislative branch. Taxation, inter-state commerce, declarations of war, naturalisation, and the establishment of military rules and regulations all fall under the purview of Congress.
Admittedly, recent decades have seen a waning of legislative power and an increase in executive power, notably in the form of executive orders which allow the President to bypass congressional approval for various activities. Nevertheless, executive orders are not concrete and a congressional supermajority can overturn any executive order deemed improper. Although the present Congress seems wholly unable to agree on anything and neither party has a supermajority, both Republican and Democrat leaders disagree with many of Trump’s ideas.
Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine the two sides teaming up to prevent, say, the refusal to admit all immigrants that adhere to a certain religious doctrine. Furthermore, Congress has the ability to refuse to fund any executive order it does not agree with – so although Trump claims he will force Mexico to pay for a wall on the border, if Mexico refused, Congress could then refuse to pay for the wall, leading to a failure of the executive order.
On the subject of trade, only Congress has the power to approve trade deals, and the most that the President can do is advocate for or against one. If President Trump does not want TTIP or TPP, he can complain to other leaders, and to the American people, but with a supermajority, Congress could approve the negotiations and override his veto. Likewise, the president cannot raise tariffs by himself, so a mercantilist America in 2017 is entirely implausible.
The third branch of American government, the judicial branch, may also prove to be a thorn in a President Trump’s side. Regardless of whether Antonin Scalia is replaced before the election, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court would accept as constitutional many of the outrageous policies Trump promotes. As the country has become more liberal ideologically so, too, has the Supreme Court and Scalia’s sudden death and vacant seat, will, in all likelihood, be filled by someone more moderate than he was. If the seat remains empty until next January, Trump’s selection will still have to be confirmed by Congress, and if Congress fails to support his executive orders or policies, it will surely not support a Supreme Court nominee who will wreck the highest court in the country.
Aside from being the face of the United States abroad, the president is also the Commander-in-Chief of the military. As such, he can call up the armed forces for a number of reasons and can, controversially, send military members overseas in emergency situations without Congressional approval for short periods of time. A President Trump would be able to commit forces using this method for 60 days before being required to get congressional approval for the continuation of a deployment. Should he decide to go to war with Russia or China on dubious grounds without being attacked first, Congress would have to approve the action. Even if he tried to send forces into Russia or China using the War Powers Resolution, the military has an obligation to refuse any order it deems unlawful, meaning that a war that unsupported by Congress and the American people would likely be prevented by more rational minds.
A Trump presidency would certainly be undesirable for many reasons. Americans and foreigners have a right to be worried that he will do damage to the nation either through his policies or his international interactions. However, it is important to remember that the Founding Fathers had just overthrown a tyrannical ruler by uniting the people against a leader when they drafted the US Constitution and designed the system of government. Many safeguards were put in place to prevent one person from having excessive power and, for 229 years, no president has been able to override the authority of Congress and the Supreme Court. Donald Trump will be no different.
If his policies are detrimental to America and her position abroad or if they run counter to American values, those policies will be crushed by the checks and balances enshrined in the system. Fear not: the comparisons between Donald Trump and history’s worst dictators are poorly constructed. William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States, served in the White House for a mere 30 days. American checks and balances may ensure that he had a more productive presidency than any enjoyed by Donald Trump.