This Is How Donald Trump Thinks the U.S. Government Works
Shortly after the White House released the outlines of its tax proposal, President Donald Trump railed on Twitter against Democrats who opposed it, noting that his “Tax Cut and Reform Bill” was winning “great reviews.” Except that there wasn’t an actual tax cut and reform bill pending in Congress yet for Democrats to support or oppose. The legislation hadn’t been introduced. What the White House put forward was just a framework to be filled in during the normal bargaining process on Capitol Hill.
That was after the president tweeted that the “approval process” for his tax reform package would soon begin, which, again, is not how Congress works. The House of Representatives will introduce its own bill, incorporating some of the president’s priorities to be sure, but there will be no formal process of approval for what he’s proposed. Some of his preferred policies might not make it into the final bill at all.
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It’s possible the president knew all this, that his tweets were merely inelegant phrasing, and in any event we all can get the gist of what he meant. Then again, it’s also possible, and indeed there is ample evidence, that the president of the United States really doesn’t understand the constitutional process, or even American history, much at all. This is a man, after all, who at the age of 70 seemed surprised to learn that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.
So here’s a weird question—weird since in our current political culture the answer is unknown: Does it matter whether or not the president of the United States understands how the Constitution that elected him works? Many Americans simply don’t seem to care about that question—which I suppose says a great deal about how much we expect from presidents these days. Or, conversely, how much faith our country has lost in any of our leaders that the bar has fallen so low.
Actually it really should matter to Trump’s supporters that their champion does not seem to understand how the constitutional process works—if, that is, they actually want to accomplish any of their stated goals. For anyone who still cares about such petty matters as separation of powers and representative democracy, it might be instructive to see just how far our country’s chief executive is from understanding them.
First, there’s the issue of his own election and why he won it. A few years ago, private citizen Donald Trump attacked the Electoral College, a system that has been in place since the nation’s founding to ensure a voice was given to smaller, less-populated states, as “a disaster for a democracy.” Of course, had this “disaster” been abolished by the time of the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton would be president of the United States today.
Shortly after he lost the popular vote to Clinton, and quite unsurprisingly, Trump became a booster of the very same Electoral College, calling it “actually genius,” and claiming falsely to have won the largest Electoral College landslide since Ronald Reagan. Feeling sensitive about his rather sizable loss of the popular vote, Trump went on to Twitter-boast: “If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y. Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily.”
This is also a total misunderstanding of the system. And almost certainly untrue. Trump did campaign vigorously in Florida, visiting it more than any other state, and barely won the popular vote there. Running hard in New York and California, both states where Trump is uniquely unpopular, likely would not have helped his popular vote total much, and in fact might well have taken crucial time away from states where he did win, such as Wisconsin and Michigan. If he truly understood how the Electoral College worked, and what it was intended to do, which he apparently doesn’t, the president could have made a much smarter argument about his victory: that he in fact won the popular vote in more states (30) than Hillary Clinton did (20).
Why this should matter to Trump supporters? Because if Trump doesn’t understand how he won in 2016, how will he figure out how to win in 2020?
Second, there’s the matter of the legislative process, another feature of our Constitution that is supposedly revered by the conservatives who voted for Trump. A few months ago, Trump attacked that process as “an archaic system” with “archaic rules.” What irked the president is the fact that he can’t seem to pass legislation through a Republican-controlled House and Senate. And in fact he has the worst legislative record of any president during his first 100 days since Franklin D. Roosevelt. But that’s not the fault of the Constitution; that’s the fault of a poor legislative strategy.