WASHINGTON – We Americans would like to think of ourselves as reasonably rational people who make choices on the basis of what makes sense. Well, may be so in some areas. But when it comes to the political process we are quite willing to enter a Fantasyland where normal categories and values do not apply.
The year of the Savior
For mysterious reasons, this is the year of the Savior. By luck or by design, a large chunk of “the people” have decided that Donald Trump is just that: “The Savior”. He will make everything right. And how can he do it? Because he is smart. Because he is successful. Because he is rich.
None of this has anything to do with the rational evaluation of anything. This is about Faith. Not in a religious sense. But his followers really believe that Trump has something akin to magic powers that will allow him to fix everything.
The Constitution does not allow a strong President
Never mind that the American Constitution is designed to prevent any President from fixing anything all by himself. We have a system founded on the principle of separation of powers. A President, even a popular President, cannot force Congress to pass laws, even when the Congress is led by his own party. In fact the powers of the US President are rather limited. (In contrast, the British Prime Minister is the unchallenged national leader of the party that won the elections, and the head of the executive. And he can count on the loyalty of a parliamentary majority which in almost all circumstances will obey his orders, and pass all the legislation he proposes).
He will fix everything
But none of this –the constitutional constraints on presidential freedom of action– matters. Trump is smart. And he is after all a “Great Negotiator”. Therefore, he has unlimited “Powers of Persuasion”. He knows how to get people to agree. As he put it, he will get all the relevant players in a room and he will get them to agree on what he wants done. And all will be well. Isn’t it wonderful?
And what about major inconsistencies in his policies? What about his plan to cut taxes without cutting entitlement spending? No problem, argues an enchanted supporter on TV. This lady, a major national leader of the tea party movement, stated with a straight face that it is quite possible to cut federal taxes with no corresponding deep cuts in federal entitlements. For some reason this folly (far less revenue, same or higher spending) will have no negative effect on deficits and on our growing national debt. There will be no deepening of our fiscal crisis.
Of course, this is absolute nonsense. As scores of experts have pointed out, Trump’s numbers simply do not add up. But, hey, the lady on TV is happy. And she added that, of course, Trump will get top-notch subordinates and collaborators who will take care of all the details. After all he is so smart that he will figure out how to deal with the national debt without cutting benefits. Yes, this is the Trump version of “the free lunch”. Except that this will a free banquet, every day.
Fantasies and more fantasies
indeed. But this is only a dangerous a fantasy. Most government spending in all Western countries these days goes to retirees and to pay for health care. The only way to have a major tax cut without causing a fiscal catastrophe is to convince millions of voters that we should drastically overhaul –and this means reduce– this massive social spending.
The problem is that reducing social spending is so difficult that nobody has done it. Ronald Reagan, the US president who embraced free market capitalism like a religion and whose campaign slogan was “get the government off the backs of the people”, could not reform entitlement spending. In fact, with lower taxes and higher defense spending, he started the era of fiscal irresponsibility that resulted in perennial budget deficits that got progressively larger year after year, under different administrations. (There was only a brief counter trend under Bill Clinton. But it was way too short).
Of course you can have your cake and eat it too
But Trump declared that he can cut taxes while keeping current levels of social spending; and this will have no impact on our fiscal deficit. This is absolutely crazy.
Yes, except that for his supporters none of this matters. When politics becomes the secular equivalent of religion, choices are based on emotions and beliefs. The candidate says things that do not make any sense? Well, we just erase them, or rationalize them. “For sure, when he gets to be President, Trump will think of a great solution for this”.
No rational evaluation
And so millions of Americans have checked any sensible rationality at the door. Right now they just want to be mesmerized. They want to be and stay in love. They want to believe that finally there is a Savior who will take care of all problems: lack of national pride, lack of jobs, negative balance of trade, terrorism, dangerous Muslims.
Self-Government is predicated on sensible citizens
Yes, this a dream. And a dangerous one. Effective Self-Government –this is what a strong Republic is founded on — is predicated on rational citizens who can be counted on to make reasonable choices most of the time. When we allow our very consequential political choices, like electing a President, to be based on dreams and fantasies, we are no longer rational people capable of managing self-government in a reasonably effective way.
We become a confused mob desperately seeking a leader. And this is not what a Republic is about.