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Can Trump Actually Follow Through on His Campaign Promises?

We spoke with an expert to find out.
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In 1984, political scientist Michael Krukones released a study that found 75 percent of presidential campaign promises made were actually kept. The very next year, another political scientist, Jeff Fishel, published research to add a bit of nuance to the picture: Even when presidents fall short of their promises, it’s generally not for lack of effort, but rather a result of a disobliging Congress. (Think here of Barack Obama and Guantanamo Bay.)

That body of research, though dated, has been bolstered by subsequent scholarship: It seems the men (a tradition in gender that will, for now, carry on) elected to the White House really do try to make good on the pledges that carried them there in the first place.

What does this mean in the face of Donald Trump’s impending presidency?

Trump’s agenda, which includes the construction of a $30 billion wall, a full repeal of Obamacare, and a proposed ban on Muslims, could spell disaster for minorities and low-income Americans alike. To find out the likelihood Trump accomplishes his biggest campaign promises, I spoke with Jennifer Victor, a political science professor at George Mason University. For reference, I used Politifact’s curated list of Trump’s “top 10 campaign promises.”


Research shows that presidents generally do a pretty good job at keeping their campaign promises, or at least trying to keep those promises. This election has obviously been a strange one, though. Does that research still apply?

Trump puts us in uncharted territory. Trump has never worked in government in his life; he’s worked in golf courses, beauty pageants, and hotels. The objective of those organizations is to make profit, and the objective of government is to provide public goods. So the sentimental idea that he’s going to run the government like a business, there’s some disconnect there because they have different objectives. We don’t know because we have no track record. And we can’t look to his business experience as a great indicator of how he will govern because the processes and objectives are entirely different.

So it’s really a black box. We’ve never been in a situation where we elect somebody who has literally zero record.

What about the wall? That seems to be pretty impossible.

It does kind of seem impossible. I suspect the wall will be to Trump what GitMo was to Obama. That thing he talked about a lot and was really passionate about and the reporters seemed to care about, but it just could never quite get done because of the intractability of the policy. He may continue to talk about it, it’s not clear how that happens. It seems like, there’s some physical impossibilities in there, and then to add the financial impossibilities on top of that, it’s not quite clear.

Compared to the wall, his proposed temporary ban on Muslims seems a bit more plausible.

It’s probably more feasible compared to the wall because you don’t have to actually pick up and go build something, it’s just another tack in policy. Even though the Republicans will have the majority, it’s not clear to me that they’ll just be able to pass that policy. There’s going to be push back from Democrats, obviously, and it’s not obvious if all Republicans are on board with that policy.

He’s been promising to bring manufacturing jobs back and promising tariffs on goods made in Mexico and China. What do you think is the likelihood there?

I’m pretty skeptical about bringing manufacturing jobs back and the challenge there is that it comes with a change. And we are more of a service-based economy than a manufacturing-based economy. And we can’t just create stuff for the economy; that’s not how markets work. So, he can’t change the fundamental reality that technology has allocated the demand state of how our economic system works and where future jobs are going to be. They’re not in manufacturing. But trade is something he could do. It’s not unreasonable to think as a Republican coalition moving increasingly protectionist. Trade to protect sectors of the American economy. That seems like a real possibility to me.

Trump talks a lot about infrastructure spending. That actually seems quite achievable.

He’s talking about the order of half a trillion dollars of spending on infrastructure. In the past, infrastructure spending has been something both Republicans and Democrats have supported. Rebuilding roads and highways and dams is something that affects everybody from all districts. There has been some fiscal disagreement in the most recent years, but historically these have been issues both Republicans and Democrats have supported. There’s a lot of room there for improvement and so forth. And investment is a huge need, looking at a report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, we’ve got crumbling infrastructure. There’s demand and there are incentives, so that’s really a ripe area.

Trump has talked about spending half a trillion dollars on it but also cutting taxes. You can’t spend a half a trillion dollars, and if you do, and if you reduce the amount of revenue the government is bringing, the deficit will go up.

Speaking of taxes, with a Republican Congress, lowering income taxes seems like a no-brainer.

The reduction of personal income tax has been a standard component of the Republican agenda for a couple of decades now, so I would expect them to pursue that and probably be able to achieve it in some form. Exactly what it looks like and who it’d impact I don’t think we’ll know for some time, but it does seem like a possibility. The evidence suggests, though, that when we do that the government revenue goes down despite some of the arguments to the contrary. So if you’re going to cut taxes and revenue goes down and you walk around complaining — they don’t tend to complain about the deficit, they tend to complain about the debt, and most people don’t know the difference, and maybe they’ll just ignore some of the cognitive dissonance.

I have been quietly wondering in my head if Trump is going to be a little bit like Ronald Reagan: Invest in spending a lot of money on stuff—for Reagan it was defense, for Trump maybe it’s roads—reduce taxes, reduce revenue, and blow up the deficit. That seems kind of consistent with what he’s been talking about. Republicans have got this huge coalition to try and hold together now, and doing that would kind of make sense: a big deficit is more consistent with some of the populist perspective. The reduction in taxes is traditionally more conservative, so in a way doing it would offer something to both ends of the coalition of his.

What about his promise to fully repeal of Obamacare with a marketplace alternative?

I don’t know what to expect about alternatives. But it does seem we should expect some sort of Obamacare repeal. It’s going to be interesting to watch that happen though because remember the poll numbers on Obamacare are, everybody uses Obamacare. The individual provisions of Obamacare, people were wildly in favor of. It was the label and the package that they were against. Certainly they’re going to do it. What exactly it looks like I think is a bit of a mystery at this point.

And the renegotiation of the Iran deal: What do you think?

In no sector is [his inexperience] greater than when it comes to foreign policy. He just doesn’t talk about it very much, he doesn’t seem to know very much about it, he doesn’t seem to care very much about it, it’s not what his passions are. We just have no idea what he will pursue and what might happen there. I think we want to pay really, really close attention to who he selects for secretary of state, and secretary of defense. Because who those folks are and what their ideology and priorities have been, are going to probably be more indicative of where the administration will go than anything Trump himself has said.

That applies to ISIS as well, yes?

Again, the version of Trump that we have is the campaign version. He’s been the star of the campaign show, now, for several months and pretty soon he gets to be the star of the government show. And whether or not the rhetoric is the same in both of these shows, we just don’t know. Again, he’s never governed anything before, but I think it’s really hard to anticipate if the rhetoric and the policies that he talked about in the campaign trail are things he actually tries to pursue in government. Maybe they are, it certainly is an indicator of what he might do, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if he pursued something entirely different.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.