Trump Transition is Vindicating the Instrumental Rationality of his Voters

by Michael Dorf

Two stories in Tuesday's New York Times underscored an emerging theme in the coming Trump administration. One noted that a meeting between Trump and Al Gore provided environmentalists with some reason for hope that the administration will not abandon existing commitments on climate change and environmental policy more generally, even as Trump not-so-quietly goes about naming climate-change skeptics and drill-baby-drill enthusiasts to fill key posts. The second, with a headline about the choice of Ben Carson to head HUD, noted that the planned Carson nomination and other domestic policy personnel choices signaled that Trump would likely govern from the right, even with respect to issues on which he had either not campaigned at all or campaigned as a centrist.

It is tempting to read these stories and wonder about Trump's motives. Is he simply a bumbling narcissistic ignoramus who takes meetings with whoever flatters him and will make policy based on the last person who spoke with him? Is he an evil genius without any core convictions who nonetheless recognizes that the way to achieve and hold power is to delegate policy making to the far-right-wingers who will provide his base of support while he holds up enough shiny objects--whether in the form of provocative tweets or hints at moderation that go nowhere--to distract the press and those parts of the public that lack firm political convictions?

Trump invites an endless stream of such speculation about what is really going on between his ears. What does he think about the anti-semitism his campaign has inspired and unleashed, given that he has a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren? To what extent, if any, are his policy pronouncements driven by his business interests? Etc. These are important questions, but in their focus on Trump himself they tend to overshadow larger forces. Here I want to suggest a reading of the most recent news and of the election that focuses more on those larger forces.

Here too it is easy to make the mistake of being distracted by marginalia. Why did just enough voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan swing to Trump to carry the Electoral College for him? Why weren't Latino and African American turnout higher? How much of a role did James Comey play in the election? What role did Clinton fatigue play?

Again, these are all interesting questions but they miss the big picture. To my mind, the prima facie gigantic mystery of 2016 is how so many people voted for Trump. In asking that question, I don't mean to rehash the debate over the relative role of racism, economic anxiety, media, etc. I'm not especially interested right now in what swung the relatively small number of swing voters. I want to know what led millions of Republicans to vote for Trump despite their very substantial and very well-justified doubts about his qualifications along virtually every relevant dimension. Never mind why Trump won some Rust Belt states by a few thousand votes. How do we explain the fact that over 60 million people voted for him?

Upon inspection, there is no mystery at all. Nearly all of those people voted for Trump because he ran as a Republican and they favor policies Republicans generally favor, from deregulating industry to keeping guns easily accessible to forbidding most abortions. These people may have bad reasons for being Republicans. For example, they might doubt that man-made global warming exists, they might think that legal same-sex marriage threatens the stability of society, they might believe that anti-white racism is a bigger problem than anti-Black racism, they might want the U.S. to worry less about civilian casualties and civil rights in fighting terrorism, etc. But given their views across the range of issues that divide Democrats and Republicans, it was instrumentally rational for Republicans to vote for Trump, despite their doubts about his temperament, qualifications, and commitment to their issues, because whatever the sum of those doubts, he was always more likely to carry out policies favored by Republicans than was Clinton or any other plausible Democratic nominee.

To be sure, some Republicans, even very strongly ideological Republicans, might have chosen not to vote for Trump because they feared that his tendency to lash out would lead him to start a nuclear war in a fit of pique. Indeed, that remains a rational fear, made more urgent by Trump's conversation with the President of Taiwan and subsequent aggressive statements towards China. (The risk is less that Trump will get us into a civilization-ending nuclear war with China, although that risk is non-zero, than that Trump's more aggressive posture will lead Beijing to play less of a role in constraining North Korea.) If I had a vote for where to set the hand of the Doomsday Clock, which currently stands at 3 minutes before midnight, on the basis of Trump's election I'd move it at least a minute forward. (Had Clinton won, I would not have moved it back, but I wouldn't have moved it forward either.) But then, part of the calculation used to set the Doomsday Clock is the risk of catastrophe from global warming and remember, our instrumentally rational Republican voters don't worry much about that.

There are, of course, other reasons why traditional Republicans might have been and remain wary of Trump, most notably his opposition to Republican orthodoxy on trade. But here Republicans may be able to count on Congress to resist Trump. Yet a third story in Tuesday's NY Times made just this point: Republicans might be willing to stomach a few Carrier-style deals by which companies that were planning to cut jobs in the U.S. in favor of cheaper labor elsewhere receive tax breaks to stay, but they will balk at Trump's proposal to impose a 35% tax on goods imported from firms that moved jobs outside the country.

As an aside, I'll just note that the GOP congressional opposition to the plan is sensible. If the tariff applies only to U.S. companies that formerly made products in the U.S., it simply favors foreign goods made by foreign firms. To avoid that idiocy, the Trump plan would need to levy a 35% tax on all imported goods, which would lead to a full-on highly destructive trade war.

But my point here isn't that Trump's proposal is bad (although it is). My point is rather that the instrumental rationality of Republicans who held their noses and voted for Trump is looking more and more instrumentally rational by the day--as Trump increasingly turns to GOP conservatives to staff his government and the GOP Congress vows to push back against the most unorthodox elements of Trump's program.

The upshot is that increased intra-party ideological purity and increased inter-party polarization over the last two decades have led the U.S. to become something like a parliamentary democracy. Notwithstanding the fact that presidents are elected separately from Congress, the vast majority of voters have strong party preferences that determine their presidential votes and their congressional votes. Only two prior presidents (JQ Adams and Rutherford Hayes) lost the popular vote by a higher percentage margin than Donald Trump and yet won the Electoral College, but for my purposes the more salient statistic is the relative closeness of the popular vote in the last five presidential elections. Obama won by what we regard as a comfortable margin of over 7% in 2008, yet that was in the midst of what looked like it could be a replay of the Great Depression. For the foreseeable future, it is highly unlikely that we will see anything like the 18% margin by which Reagan won re-election in 1984, much less FDR's 24% margin in 1936. There just aren't enough swing voters to generate those sorts of margins.

One of the many justifiable complaints about the media coverage of the 2016 election was the almost invisibility of policy. That begins to look less crazy when one realizes that there isn't much of a market for policy news. The vast majority of voters were either going to vote for Clinton because they're Democrats or for Trump because they're Republicans. Those people are interested in policy but there's almost nothing that could have been said that would have dislodged them from their choices because the gap between what the parties favor is much larger than could be closed by an article or news segment discussing policy. The folks in the middle, by contrast, were not going to vote on policy anyway. If they had strong policy views they would already be either Republicans or Democrats (or Libertarians or Greens or something). Swing voters were paying attention to the ephemera served up by the media--the latest Trump scandal or outrageous statement du jour and the endless discussion of Clinton's emails--because they were always going to vote on the basis of something other than policy.

That such people could compare and contrast Trump and Clinton and conclude that Trump was the lesser evil was and will always remain mind-boggling, but looking to the small number of people who were swingable and swung towards Trump is like blaming the star basketball player who misses a last second shot at the end of the game, when his teammates repeatedly made poor plays for the first 47 minutes and 59 seconds of the game. Yes, the missed shot at the end of the game is a but-for cause of the result, but if the coach responds by drilling his players on last-second shots rather than on the fundamentals that made the game close in the first place, he's missing the big picture.

Finally, in saying all of the foregoing, I do not deny that the reason people who identify as Republican (or as Democratic) favor policies favored by Republican (or Democratic) officials often has little to do with the policy merits. Polarization exists in part because of the effectiveness of packaging and a kind of brand loyalty to the parties. After all, there's no reason why support for gun rights would be inversely correlated with support for abortion rights, but once one joins a team, issue preferences tend to be formed as a group rather than a la carte. I'll grant all of that, but it's still true that once people have the party-related preferences they have, they vote accordingly. Trump's successful primary campaign revealed that free trade is not nearly as important to GOP voters as we might have previously thought, but his moves since the election reveal that whatever he attempts or accomplishes on trade, he will in most respects look like a generic Republican on policy.