Vice president-elect Mike Pence, watches as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during an election night rally, Nov. 9, 2016, in N.Y.
Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Who’ll serve as a ‘check’ on President Trump?

Updated
For months, one of the most common words from Republicans’ lips was “check” – as in, “Voters need to elect a far-right Congress so that it can serve as a check on Hillary Clinton.”

The point of the argument was hardly subtle: with many assuming Clinton’s victory was a foregone conclusion, and with some chatter in the early fall about the prospect of a blue “wave,” Republicans saw value in positioning themselves as a stopgap against Democratic overreach.

Few stopped to reflect on the possibility of a Trump victory – and who might be able to serve as a “check” on him.

Writing in Slate yesterday, Reihan Salam raised the point that the president-elect doesn’t really “owe” anyone who might try to rein in his ambitions – Trump doesn’t seem to care much about donors or party officials – which only makes the amateur politician that much more unpredictable.

Around the same time, Vox’s Ezra Klein made the case that it’s up to “America’s institutions, and the people within them, to check his worst instincts.”
There is danger in Trump. He’s a man with authoritarian impulses, a conspiracy theorist’s bent, and a taste for vengeance. He has an alarming temperament, little impulse control, and less decency. He has a demagogue’s instinct for finding enemies and a bully’s instinct for finding their weaknesses. He is uninterested in policy, unrestrained by shame, and unbound by norms. He surrounds himself with sycophants and enablers, and he believes both the facts and the falsehoods he finds congenial.

But he is entering an office that is weaker than many realize…. He is constrained by the House and the Senate, by the Supreme Court, by the executive agencies, and – in ways less formal but no less powerful – by his own staff and party.
And while that’s true, in practical terms, those appear unlikely to be effective checks of any kind – because we’re talking about partisans being asked to establish limits on one of their ostensible allies.

The House and Senate, for example, will be led by Republicans. The Supreme Court will have a far-right majority – for a long time. The executive agencies will have leaders, nearly all of whom will answer to the Trump White House. The president will have a staff, which will be made up of people who serve at Trump’s pleasure.

In other words, Americans elected a president with authoritarian instincts, and no meaningful interest in democratic norms and traditions, who’ll be checked by allies who have an incentive to let him do what he pleases.

This isn’t a recipe for success.

Ezra added that there is a possible sliver of hope:
The incentives of governance are different from the incentives of opposition. The Republican majority will have to face the voters in 2018, and then again in 2020. If they have taken health insurance from tens of millions of people without replacement, if they have ripped open families and communities with indiscriminate deportation, if they have embroiled us in disastrous wars or confrontations, if they have sent the economy into tailspin, those elections will not be pleasant.

Perhaps this is a weight Trump will feel in a way he has not over the course of the campaign, and he will change his behavior accordingly. But even if he doesn’t, Republicans have a majority, and it will be one they hope to keep. To keep it, they will need to govern well, or at least convince the electorate they have governed well. And to govern well, they will need to keep Trump’s worst tendencies in check.
I wish I found this more reassuring, but with Republicans becoming a post-policy party, uninterested in substantive policy work, “governing well” doesn’t appear to be a leading GOP priority.

On the contrary, it seems more likely to me they’ll take health insurance from tens of millions of people without a replacement, and then blame the Affordable Care Act itself. They’ll rip open families and communities with indiscriminate deportation and say it was necessary in the name of national security. They’ll embroil us in disastrous wars and confrontations, and brag about how “tough” they are. They’ll send the economy into tailspin, and insist President Obama’s responsible.

If the key to constraining Trump’s worst and most dangerous impulses is effective policymaking from congressional Republicans, I have two words of advice: buckle up.