Machiavelli on the Potomac: Trump’s promises and reality

A version of this piece was published in Religion and Ethics on January 26, 2017. See to it thmachiavelli-imageere, click here




Machiavelli on the Potomac:

By Marcia Pally

How did he become a candidate? Why did he get elected? What’s he going to do? Three questions of the Trump wonder.

In these pages last fall [click here  or read “Dondal Trump: Apostle of America’s Civil Religion on this blog, click Articles, then from the drop-down menu, click Politics], I noted that Trump won by tapping into America’s civil religion of anti-authoritarian suspicion of government—by directing anger about working and middle class economic squeeze to Americans’ faith in “small government” as the answer to what ails ya’. When things go wrong, throw the bastards out, especially the bastards in Washington. Good things come of this: a critique of inherited privilege and status quo ways of thinking, for instance. Obama too campaigned on “change.” In 2008, it was throw the Bush bastards out.  But with suspicion of government may also come an uncritical populism: throw the bastards out and bring in the new—but which “new”? Taking the nation in what direction?

Wariness of government is a faith that goes back to the earliest settlers fleeing centralization and persecution by European states and state churches and it continued through Jeffersonian and Jacksonian politics, across the frontier, to present suspicion of Washington.

The size and role of government is the factor that most divides America today. It undergirds the powerful rural-urban divide (rurals preferring small government, urbans, larger) and party divisions. Seventy-two percent of Democrats/leaning Democrat see a major role for government in lifting people out of poverty; 36 percent of Republicans do. Eighty-two percent of Democrats see government as having a major role in health care; 34 percent of Republicans do.[1] It undergirds opposition to Obamacare: two Supreme Court cases were brought claiming that it violates constitutionally protected freedoms by requiring Americans to buy health insurance (low income earners receive a subsidy for the purchase). That is, the government requirement to buy health insurance abrogates liberty. And it undergirds America’s gun-rights movement, whose purpose is not to preserve hunting or enhance crime-prevention (as no gun legislation prohibit these) but rather “to protect against the tyranny of our own government,” a lawyer for the National Rifle Association noted in a 2009 Harvard Law Journal article.[2] In 2009 the executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, said, “Our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules.”

“Throw the bastards out” turns populist when the “bastards” are identified as D.C. insiders, constrainers of liberty, corrupt, and incompetent. It turns nativist when the “bastards” are immigrants or other suspect groups. Trump tarred Clinton as the being first and weak on the second. In the end, that he had only sketchy policy plans didn’t matter enough because, when it comes to U.S. voting, belief counts.

Now that Trump is the government “bastard” you want to throw out, what will he do? The man has a knack for strategy. The first of two strategies is to maintain the Republican coalition of big business and populist interests. Big business is where Trump’s interests and those of his wealthy supporters lie. Yet it’s more than interests: business is how Trump sees the world—operating as a business and requiring the strategies of tough deal-making so that one’s own firm profits most. And so he comes to his inaugural theme, “America First,” as a sales rep “inspirational” retreat might come to “Walmart first.” On the other hand, Trump must satisfy his populist base. Should he lose one or the other bloc, the party risks splitting and losing its political hold.

The second strategy is retention of Trump’s personal political hold, where through unexpected, bold moves extra-congressionally, he determines the course of action, leaving Congress, states, and administrative department to implement what he has triggered. He benefits from the appearance of leadership while they look reactive and unprepared, bolstering populist suspicion of government and his personal popularity as an “outsider” who’ll throw the bastards out. Should the outcomes of his unexpected moves be problematic–as they might, absent thought-through planning and the legislative process–Trump has only to blame the incompetence of government compared to his personal effectiveness.

It’s a strategy not uncommon among the more Machiavellian monarchs and CEOs, who keep their courtiers/employees scrambling.

It is also an end-run around representative government.

And it is what Trump did on his first day as president. Between his election in November and inauguration in January, there was some debate about whether the Republican-controlled Congress would repeal Obamacare before or only after they had a replacement. This debate was about the two Republican blocs. To satisfy populist distrust of government and the health industries (which seek less regulation of medical care)—that is, to satisfy both sides of the Republican coalition–Trump promised to repeal Obamacare as a first priority. But this would lose 18 million their health insurance in the first year, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office,[3] and up to 30 million people over the following years.[4] Fifty-six percent of those losing insurance would be white; 80 percent would be those without a college degree—in short, Trump’s populist base. So Republicans debated the idea of repealing Obamacare but delaying implementation, hoping to reap the benefits of repealing and keeping Obamacare at the same time and satisfying both Republican flanks.

However, on taking office, Trump vaulted over the debate and signed an executive order that federal offices and state governments do what they could—through regulation, decreases in spending—to limit Obamacare provisions they deem costly. Each federal and state office is now experimenting with different changes to health insurance. “What do they do?” Rodney Whitlock, healthcare advisor to Senator Charles Grassley (Republican), asked. “Something incredibly cryptic that no one understands.” [5]

With this, Trump appeared decisive; others are left with the maze of implementation—an uptick for his personal political hold. Should implementation take time, he has nonetheless given less regulation to the health insurance and medical industries, gratifying that bloc, and the satisfaction of “small government” to his populist bloc—an uptick in holding the Republican coalition together and thus, its political power.

Also on his first day, Trump cancelled a reduction in Federal Housing Authority mortgage costs, making home purchases more expensive for first-time and lower-income buyers. It’s a financial boon for the banks and as it cancels a new government action, it satisfies small-government populism—even if it raises mortgage costs.

This is the great American paradox: distrust of the federal government by those that need its help. In late 2016, 6.4 million signed up for health insurance through Obamacare, significantly more than in the same period in 2015. Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania had the most enrollees, and all voted for Trump.[6]

Trump’s two strategies–enhancing personal and party power by giving something to each bloc of the coalition, thus maintaining it—are in evidence in his cabinet nominations, which give some indications of future government action. The following overview is necessarily schematic.

Towards satisfying the big-business bloc, Trump has filled those positions responsible for the economy with representatives of Wall St., notably Goldman Sachs, the company Trump used to smear Hillary Clinton as an “insider” beholden to big money. Jay Clayton, Trump’s nominee to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, responsible for overseeing the finance industry, is a lawyer for Goldman Sachs, Barclays, and other Wall St. firms. He advocates undoing sections of the 2010 financial reform legislation (Dodd-Frank), enacted to prevent 2008-type financial meltdowns.[7]

Trump’s cabinet nominees include also representatives of the fossil fuel industries and of other large corporations that favor business de-regulation. Still in his first week, Trump revived construction of the Keystone and Dakota oil transport pipelines. Though they are unlikely to have significant impact on job creation or environmental degradation,[8] halting construction became a symbol of American commitment, under Obama, to environmental protection. The weapons, nuclear, and associated industries stand to benefit from Trump’s pledges to build up the U.S. military and nuclear capacity.

A scan of Trump nominees shows: 1) opposition to increases in the minimum wage, parental leave, and overtime pay; 2) opposition to campaign finance and election reform to limit the effects of money on politics and to ensure that minorities are not barred from voting;[9] and 3) support for privatizing health care, education, affordable housing (and possibly Social Security for the elderly).

Both Moody’s[10] and the conservative US Chamber of Commerce[11] estimate losses of 3.5 million jobs from Trump’s protectionist trade and tax campaign proposals. But these populist proposals may not come to implementation as support for global trade, favored by finance and big businesses, dominates among Trump appointees save Peter Navarro (White House Office of Trade and Industrial Policy) and Wilbur Ross (Commerce Secretary).[12] In his first week, for instance, Trump rejected Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal in a much-publicized announcement while bi-lateral trade agreements, especially with China, proceed.

In short, it appearsat this point that economic policy will be more finance and big-business friendly than populist. It may mean some well-publicized protectionist, populist measures and open trade in industries important to Trump and his business supporters, giving something—but not equal somethings–to each Republican bloc.

This is yet unclear, but the interested observer will look at advantages to sectors beneficial to Trump and his supporters as a guide to Trump’s foreign policy as well. Some indication of this has already emerged in Trump’s warm relationship with Putin, with whom he and several of his nominees (Tillerson, Pruit, Perry, Zinke) share oil and other business interests.

Turning to Trump’s populist voters: they are given little economic certainty. They are promised:

1)possible jobs in the fossil fuel, defense, and nuclear industries though many of these are overseas or temporary employment. For instance, in announcing the pipeline revival, Trump said it would create 28,000 jobs, though the State Department estimates 4,000 temporary construction jobs of 19 weeks duration and another 10-11,000 in ancillary spending during the construction period. This includes jobs where the work has already been done. Trump announced that the pipeline would use pipe made in the U.S., but most of the pipe needed has already been made.[13]

2) tariffs on imports, though this is unlikely as it will prompt protectionist retaliation by other nations, damaging US exports and profits to big business

3) a hawkish foreign policy, including the use of torture (a Trump position) and increased government surveillance of American citizens

4) re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership, though increased productivity, rather than trade agreements, is the major source of American job loss. Though the steel industry lost 400,000 jobs between 1962 and 2005, steel production did not decline. Job loss resulted from the increased productivity, notably owing to the mini-mill.[14] Overall, 13 percent of manufacturing job losses result from global trade, the rest, from technological change.[15] There’s little economic evidence of job loss owing to NAFTA, as the Congressional Research Service concluded.[16]

In light of the historical record, Trump’s proposal to create jobs through protectionist measures may have little effect on the sources of job loss: automation and technologically-driven increased productivity. There has been some success in addressing these over the past twenty years through improved education, worker re-training, and regional re-development by local and national governments and business, often in cooperation. Such policies have been funded in part by more progressive taxation. Democratic states have engaged in these development and taxation policies more than Republican states have, and they score higher on income, life expectancy, and education levels.[17] For such programs to proceed, increased government action and cooperation among federal and local governments, industry, and schools would be needed. And that’s at odds with the civil creed of many who would have to demand it.

Fifth, on offer to Trump’s base, are various “throw the bastards out” satisfactions, including:

  1. a) populist small government, though—the great paradox—this cuts government programs, on which many rely
  2. b) nativist border closings, including the wall between Mexico and the U.S., which Trump at this writing says American taxpayers will pay for and Mexico will reimburse “later.” Trump proceeded to begin wall construction in his first week in office, though immigrants add jobs and tax revenue. The September 2016 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report, by researchers inclined for and against immigration, found a positive effect of immigration as immigrants spur innovation and create jobs. After the first generation, when immigrants cost government more than they pay in taxes ($57 billion annually, most for education), immigrants contribute substantially to the tax pool (about $30 billion/year in the second generation, $223 billion/ year in the third)[18]
  3. c) a law-and-order approach to criminal justice, historically associated with racist assumptions coloring police, jury, and judge conduct
  4. d) Islamophobia, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn considers Islam not a faith but a “political ideology” that has “metastasized” into a “malignant cancer.”[19] He supports reduction or cessation of immigration from Muslim countries and possibly a registry for American Muslims. Though these too may not come to implementation, his positions have bolstered Trump’s populist appeal
  5. e) strong gun rights to, as above, “protect against the tyranny of our own government.”

Trump, in his inaugural address, said, “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth… The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.” His jeremiad of hellfire for Washington gives voice to popular discontent and to the belief that is will be solved by throwing the “insider” bastards out. The more unflinchingly he preaches, the more he’s in sync with the national creed. To many, he just “feels right.”

Given this, should the economic situation of Trump’s populist supporters worsen, the sources of decline may go unnoticed–as they went unseen under Ronald Reagan. On a “small government” platform, Reagan enacted two well-publicized tax cuts (1981, 1986)—somewhat similar in fanfare to Trump’s pipeline and anti-NFTA and TPP announcements–and so convincingly preached small government-ism that few noticed when he later raised taxes several times[50] and that middle class purchasing power stagnated. Reagan won a landslide re-election in 1984.

You might want to know why, given American populist fervor, the rich aren’t thrown out. Trump’s populist voters seem unconcerned about the high number of “super-rich” in Trump’s cabinet, the wealthiest in American history. Besty DeVos’s net worth is over $5 billion; Wilbur Ross, $2.5 billion; Vincent Viola, $1.8 billion; the secretaries of labor and treasury are each worth in the tens of millions.[51]

They seem equally unconcerned about Trump monetizing the presidency for his business interests, which, unlike all recent presidents, he will neither disclose in tax returns nor turn over to a blind trust. Daughter Ivanka also seems not to disquiet, though her clothing labels manufacture not in America, as a populist stance would mandate, but in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam, and though she helps run Trump’s businesses while remaining one of his closest advisors[52] Neither does son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose businesses pose conflicts of interest with his position as a Trump White House advisor.[53] Also of little worry are potential violations of the Stock Act, prohibiting government officials from trading on insider information, which Trump would have through contact with his children, to whom he says he is turning over business.

Trump’s proximity to his businesses through his children gives foreign countries leverage over the U.S. In turn, it gives Trump businesses leverage over foreign countries, which might want to pass or bend regulation in favor of Trump concerns when seeking US support. Further, an attack on Trump property overseas could potentially embroil the US in a geopolitical conflict which would affect not only the country of attack but U.S. allies, NATO and others. It is unclear whether the US government—taxpayers—will pay for security on properties bearing the Trump name, a high-visibility target or whether foreign governments will pay. Also unclear is whether foreign payment—or foreign officials staying in Trump hotels—would violate prohibitions on presidents accepting gifts from overseas powers.

These issues are not of greater concern because on the whole, the rich are not resented in America. They are considered self-responsible, inventive, and daring. In a December 2016 rally, Trump addressed press criticism that trade deals are being negotiated by “very rich people.” To a cheering crowd, he answered, “Isn’t that what we want?”[54]

What of Clinton, Obama, and Sanders? The sister-article to this piece [click here or read “Dondal Trump: Apostle of America’s Civil Religion on this blog, click Articles, then from the drop-down menu, click Politics] describes their alternate gospel, born in response to labor abuses at the turn of the twentieth century: government should give the little guy a leg-up. Government is not a problem to be kept as small as possible but a source of help so people can get going. Summing up the distinction between Clinton and Trump, The New York Times wrote that we have “Mr. Trump seizing on economic dislocation in mixing populist anti-trade positions with traditionally Republican tax cutting, and Mrs. Clinton seeing a strong government hand in creating jobs and driving up wages.”[55]

Given Trump’s positions and appointments, it is not clear that he will relieve the loss of work and pride suffered by his populist voters. His intention to make “America First” leaves open the questions of who–not rhetorically but in policy–is in Trump’s America. Should conditions for his voters worsen, they may vote Democrat in 2018/2020 or to move further right. This depends in part on the programs the Democratic party develops and how well it educates voters.

One area demanding attention is U.S. voting districts, which give more weight to Republican rural areas. Democrats won six out of seven of the last presidential elections but lost two presidencies in the Electoral College; in 2016, Clinton won by 2.8 million votes but lost the presidency. Because Democrats are concentrated in cities, they can win a majority of a state’s population but not a majority of state districts and so end with a minority of representatives in state congresses. In the national Congress, rural, Republican Wyoming has two senators and one congressperson, three times more representation than it would have if representation were based on population. The electoral college is based on congressional representation. If the proportion of electors-to-population enjoyed by Wyoming were the same in California, California would have 159 electors; it has 55.[56]

A more foundational issue is America’s anti-authoritarian “throw the bastards out-ism,” which has given us democracy, critical thinking, and uncritical populism. For afoot in the United States at present is not Hobbesian, where the leviathan sovereign is needed to stop societal chaos (and who is otherwise quite limited). It is not Schmittian, where the fracturing of political opinion and values has so destabilized society that the sovereign faces chaos and thus, an “exceptional moment” in which she must make a decision about society’s future direction. It is the highlighting of division, chaos, and fears, tapping into nativist, populist, “small government” beliefs about their solution for the political and financial gain of those whom the Republican party usually benefits.



[1] Pew Research Center, “Beyond Distrust: How Americans view their government,” Nov. 23, 2015,









[10] Mark Zandi, who wrote the report, has donated to the Clinton campaign bur has also advised both parties; see,






[16] The report concluded that the “net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest,” Binyamin Applebaum, “US Elections Debate Fact Checking,” (The New York Times, Oct. 09, 2016),










[26] Little or no loss of employment is seen when the ratio of minimum wage to median wage rises to  55%;














[40]; see also,


[42] He was accused of calling groups like the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union “un-America” and of calling a black lawyer “boy.”