On the Meaning of the Election and Its Aftermath

Much ink has already been spilled about what are the implications, big and small, of the 2016 presidential election. I offer a few thoughts as to its meaning and what we can expect from a new Trump administration.

The election was certainly a rebuke—it’s far from clear if it was a decisive repudiation—of a corrupted elite, especially by non-favored demographic groups that are tired of being stepped on. These included the working class, which believes it has been ignored or discarded in trade and immigration policy decisions by Washington decision-makers of both parties that have left it economically dislocated. It included rural voters, who are tired of having their livelihoods undermined or even wiped out in places like Appalachia by environmentalist dogmas that hold, among other things, that any use of coal in energy production is disastrous. They included Christians who put aside their reservations about Trump’s morality because of the left’s increasingly bold challenges to religious liberty. The non-favored groups, to be sure, were tired of consistent attempts to put them down as every manner of bigot for even raising legitimate issues about marriage, the problems arising from permitting widespread violation of immigration laws, public restrooms being opened to people regardless of sex, and the like.

They were tired of supercilious, out-of-touch elites who never thought it necessary to even talk to them before making decisions in their name (like the feminists who claim to speak for all women, the hyper-Democratic union leaders who seem disconnected from workers, and every manner of leftist interest group driven by ideology often disconnected from reality). Hillary Clinton’s calling a broad swath of them “deplorables” summed up well the leftist elite’s attitude toward Joe and Jane Average Citizen. Taking their cue from the leading lights who fashioned so much of the thought that animates them—writers such as those chronicled in Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books That Screwed Up the World, and Five Others That Didn’t Help—the current elites never have even taken the time to truly get to know the people they have for a long time been imposing public policies on. They seemed to be stunned when the people struck back with their one decisive weapon: the vote. The fallout from elite arrogance and the Clinton sleaze factor did in the Democratic nominee.

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Only time will tell if this and the 2014 mid-term election signal a permanently weakening of the Democratic Party. The Republicans, however, don’t have a good track record of capitalizing on their advantages.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, the magisterial left showed another of its vintage attitudes that was a reason why the voters spurned them: their intolerance of anyone opposing or defeating them, most often expressed with protests, demonstrations, and claims of unfairness—that “flawed” Constitution, after all, makes electoral college instead of popular votes decisive—around the country.

As is typically the case when an elite is displaced, another elite that takes its place. The billionaire business mogul Donald Trump is hardly like most of the citizens who voted for him, but the things he said on the campaign trail enabled them to identify with him.

What will happen with a Trump administration? In light of the emphasis he placed on it during the campaign, it seems likely that there will be changes in trade policy starting with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Immigration will be addressed, but probably not in the sweeping way suggested by his campaign rhetoric. There will probably be an enhanced effort to track down and deport—hopefully permanently—criminal illegal aliens. There may be an effort to build at least a partial wall on the southern border. Don’t expect Obamacare to be repealed completely, though there probably will be changes to its unpopular features such as the mandate—that is, if the Republicans in Congress can avoid being legislatively outmaneuvered by the Democratic minority. In general, we probably won’t see sharp policy changes, even if there is a clear need (e.g., on entitlements). The Republican tendency to “moderate”—which the Democrats have become increasingly immune to—and the imperatives of politics make that unlikely. Indeed, we’re already seeing toned-down rhetoric, hedging, and backtracking from the Trump camp.

If major reversals of Obama’s leftist actions and policies—many imposed by executive fiat—are to occur, the new administration needs to strike quickly while it has post-election momentum and the customary early public support. A major part of this would involve revocation of Obama’s executive orders and a rollback of many of his and previously-adopted regulations. We’ll see if this occurs.

Trump has made much of how he will appoint judicial restraintists to the Supreme Court and he will get his first chance after he takes office with a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Republican presidents, at best, have a mixed legacy in this regard—even though previous ones have had a better-developed political and judicial philosophy than Trump.

Trump has shown an admirable willingness to confront the left, but to gain public support for genuinely new directions and avoid letting the oppositional approach turn on him one has to couple it with education. The educative function of politics—sensibly, intelligently, and consistently making the case for political perspectives and broad policy agendas—seems almost ignored nowadays and Republicans have had a problematical record of following through with it after attempting major initiatives. The 1994-95 “Contract With America” is a case in point.

Catholics should not be concerned about possible Trump policy initiatives on trade, immigration, health care, or even on something like overturning the new federal mandate about expanded requirements for overtime pay (which has just been put on hold in the federal courts). As the great Catholic economist Heinrich Pesch, S.J., held, reasonable protectionism is acceptable. Contrary to what some Church spokesmen seem to claim, open immigration is not a moral imperative. As the social encyclical Pacem in Terris states, nations have a duty to accept immigrants but only “as far as the common good rightly understood permits” (#106). The Catechism says, “Political authorities … may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions” (#2241). While Pacem in Terris mentions the right to medical care (#11), the Church does not mandate particular public policy approaches or governmental responsibility for it. She upholds the cause of workers, but again does not anoint particular policy approaches and certainly doesn’t insist that prudence be tossed aside as with a nationalized overtime standard that does not take into account legitimate local and regional situations and may have the effect of causing workforce cutbacks.

Serious Catholics should not expect great breakthroughs during a Trump administration in the culture wars. Even if he were to nominate a solid replacement for Scalia, that would only keep the Court at status quo ante on same-sex “marriage” and it’s not clear even an additional appointee would mean a willingness to reverse the 1973 decisions legalizing abortion. Trump himself said that the judicial imposition of same-sex “marriage” was “settled law” and there is little to suggest that he would square off against the homosexualist movement. Religious liberty, which is so much tied up with these issues, will be respected more but he likely won’t challenge state-level violations of it.

There’s no indication at all that perhaps the greatest constitutional crisis, the decline of balance of powers in the national government, will be restored during a Trump presidency. That would involve a frontal challenge to the Supreme Court—requiring something like presidential refusal to enforce blatantly unconstitutional decisions—which is nowhere on Trump’s radar screen. Nor can we expect the branch our Founding Fathers viewed the “first among equals,” the legislative, to rise again.

In short, the elites were dealt a setback in the election. It is not so clear that this means a decisive turn for the American political order.

(Photo credit: Wikicommons)


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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