Eric Posner is wary about making predictions about Donald Trump’s presidency. Understandably enough. The University of Chicago law professor admits to underestimating Trump as a candidate, and he’s not about to make the same mistake as Trump’s administration gets underway.
But Posner does have a good sense of what it takes for a president to enact his preferred policies, and insists the brand of populist bombast that Trump excels in will not do the trick. He argues the new president will need to exercise “bureaucratic leadership,” which means “being able to motivate a large group of people, and getting them to do what you want them to do.”
“Whether he is smart and disciplined enough to do that, I don’t know,” he said in an interview a few days before the inauguration.
At a time when some Americans are full of high hopes, while many others are fearful, Posner — the author of a thoughtful blog and many books, including Law and Social Norms — offers a nuanced picture of what the next few years might look like. He suspects presidential rhetoric may not reflect reality, and isn’t too concerned that Trump will turn into an authoritarian figure.
An edited transcript of our conversation follows. We began by discussing one possible source of presidential power: the bully pulpit.
In a Washington Post interview earlier this week that addressed one of his many policy disagreements with the Republican Congress, Trump said he favors a health-care plan that includes “insurance for everybody.” He added that, if that’s not what Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell want, he’ll go over their heads by appealing directly to the people, who will pressure them to go along. Could that work?
It could, if the policy he proposes is popular. This approach was originated by Teddy Roosevelt. Now, he was a popular president; Trump is not. He doesn’t have the reservoirs of good feeling that most presidents have when they’re first elected. So he’s in a more difficult position than someone like Ronald Reagan, who [got his conservative fiscal agenda passed by] a Democratic House of Representatives. But if he really has a health-care plan that people like — which I doubt — he could succeed.
It’s very hard to know what Trump really thinks about health care, because, like every other issue, he says something and its opposite. But imagine if Trump came up with a face-saving way to maintain Obamacare, but calling it Trumpcare. The Democrats may very well go along with him. Then it’s a question of finding a few Republicans who feel vulnerable from states where Obamacare is popular.
What do you make of the fact that so many of Trump’s cabinet members expressed fundamental disagreements with his policy statements? Who’s going to be in charge here?
I can imagine a number of possibilities. He might genuinely not know what he wants to do beyond maximizing his power. He seems like a very cynical guy, and he might be making a distinction between what his supporters want to hear and what sensible government policy is. His supporters will read his tweets and continue to support him, no matter what his administration ends up actually doing.
Take something like torture. Trump might say it’s a great thing, leading his supporters to think he’s doing whatever it takes to protect us. Meanwhile, the security agencies don’t engage in it, because they think it’s impractical or morally unjustified.
When he does things like lash out at [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], he’s saying things his supporters want to hear. Among them, there is this feeling that we are being bossed around by the Europeans. A friend of mine dug up some old Breitbart articles about how terrible Europe is, including one that asserts the [European Union] is telling us we have to treat LGBT people in a certain way. So Trump attacks Europe. But as he does so, all of our trade and military institutions could continue to cooperate with the E.U.
But how long can Trump sustain such a disconnect between image and reality?
He’s very good at tactically trying to survive in the short term. But it’s certainly possible that, in the long term, this will catch up to him. You can imagine that people will figure out that he just lies all the time.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of tribalism right now. When people have these strong tribal [or] partisan attachments, they interpret what they hear in that light. If the media keeps telling people Trump is, say, not actually torturing anyone, they may not believe the media, rather than believe Trump has broken his promises.
True, but a lot of Trump voters have told reporters that they sincerely feel he’s going to make their lives better, by bringing jobs back to the heartland, improving their health insurance, and so on. How long can the smoke-and-mirror show work if things don’t improve for them?
If things don’t get better, his supporters could blame others. They could say, “Trump tried, but he was thwarted by Congress, or foreign countries.” That’s what authoritarian leaders often do. Fidel Castro would say, “Nothing’s working, but it’s because of the U.S.” Another possibility is the economy does fine, thanks mainly to the policies of his predecessor. He may do nothing of any significance, but the economy does better anyway, and people give Trump credit.
It’s also possible his policies (of playing economic hardball with other countries) could work, in terms of helping his key constituencies, such as certain groups of workers. Most presidents have not wanted to do this because it’s extremely risky; there could be a trade war, where everyone retaliates against one another.
How would that work?
Free trade benefits small countries more than big ones like the U.S. The U.S. pursued free trade mainly to unify Europe, and help Europe recover [from World War II]. It was all to counter the Soviet Union. Trump may think we don’t need Europe the way we used to, so we need to take back this economic surplus we gave them. He might be totally wrong, but that’s probably his logic. He wants the U.S. to get a better deal. What critics are worried about is the effort to renegotiate all these deals at once will just lead to chaos.
There is a lot of fear of Trump turning into an authoritarian ruler. How likely is that, and what would it look like?
It would mean he would be able to do the things he wants to do, even if other major American institutions, like Congress or the courts, opposed him. The president already has an enormous amount of power, by virtue of his bureaucratic leadership of the executive branch. It is a funny kind of power, however. He can’t just tell this huge bureaucracy to implement whatever his goal is. They can just ignore him. He controls the bureaucracy through appointments, but, as we’ve seen, his appointees might not agree with him about everything.
How could he get around those constraints? He could find loyalists who are both competent and willing to do whatever he wants. I’m not sure there are that many people like that. That’s one reason not to be too concerned.
He’s clearly trying to delegitimize the press. I think his use of tweets, while repulsive, is also kind of brilliant. He’s getting around the press, which is something past presidents haven’t been able to do that effectively. That’s a matter of concern, but I can’t see him undermining the press in any significant way. He’s probably unifying the press.
Most successful authoritarian leaders are either very popular — which Trump is not — or they motivate supporters to engage in violence in a semi-organized way, which is unthinkable. Hugo Chavez was very popular, but it still took him many years to undermine the independent institutions of Venezuela. That’s true of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan as well. You can’t get rid of all of the people who disagree with you overnight.
Under what conditions could he consolidate power in an unconstitutional way?
There are two possible paths to authoritarianism. One is if he’s fabulously successful — which is possible, because there’s a lot of randomness in how things turn out. He becomes immensely popular, stays in office a long time, appoints a lot of judges, and members of Congress feel they have to kowtow to him. He could undermine institutions in that way.
Or the opposite could happen. He could be thwarted by Congress, the press, the courts. Somehow he manages to persuade a large majority of the public that all these institutions are acting illegitimately, preventing him from making America great again. If he could get mayors and governors and bureaucrats to agree with him, we could see a move toward authoritarianism. But both of those paths seem really unlikely right now.
I do think he has the temperament to be an authoritarian. Nixon had it too. I think if the Army approached most presidents and said, “We’d like to make you dictator,” most presidents would say no. I think Trump would say, “OK.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.