Make no mistake: President Donald Trump’s policies may end up damaging the United States and bringing instability to the world order. But there is a silver lining. Since democracy is based on a contract between candidates who make promises and voters who believe them, Trump’s willingness to deliver on his campaign platform should be commended – and may have a lasting positive effect if it teaches voters to take rhetoric seriously.
Indeed, during the last presidential campaign, many observers ignored Trump’s vows as pure campaign rhetoric. If elected, they believed, Trump would not deliver on his most controversial promises. A common expression among pundits and some of his supporters was that “Trump should be taken seriously, but not literally.” They expected Trump to quickly abandon many of his campaign pledges once elected. Perhaps as a result of wishful thinking, or because many observers and analysts have grown used to hearing candidates say one thing and then do something different after they are elected, many people chose to disregard the things Trump repeatedly said on the campaign trail.
In the less than a month since he was sworn in, Trump has already proven many of those observers wrong. He wasted little time in making good on some of the most controversial promises he made as a candidate. A week after taking office, he issued an executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Though the government has insisted that the ban was not a ban on Muslims – something that Trump called for when he was a candidate – the president did make good on his pledge to introduce a travel ban to allegedly secure the border.
Trump has also kept other controversial promises. During the campaign, his call to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border became a symbol of his immigration policy. After his inauguration, Trump began to move forward with the plan to build a wall. Though he will first need to secure funding from the U.S. Congress, the president already forced the cancellation of a meeting with Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto when he tweeted that if Mexico was not ready to pay for the wall, maybe Peña Nieto should not bother traveling to Washington.
The nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court to fill the seat vacant since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February of 2016 also constituted an unequivocal message of consistency between what candidate Trump said he would do and what President Trump did.
It is true that Trump has not moved as swiftly to fulfill his protectionist promises. He did announce the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but during the campaign it became clear that both Hillary Clinton and Trump would backtrack on the agreement negotiated by then-President Barack Obama with 11 other nations. But Trump has so far not outlined how he plans to deal with what he considers an unfair trade relationship with China and other countries that allegedly manipulate their currencies to achieve a trade surplus with the United States. Yet, wherever he has made announcements, Trump has moved in a direction that is perfectly consistent with the promises he made as a candidate. Even in trade, where he has only made a few announcements, Trump has not deviated from his campaign messages.
Many experts, analysts and experienced politicians from the U.S. and elsewhere have warned that many of the policies that Trump has announced will be counterproductive. Instead of fostering growth and employment in the U.S. – to “make America great again” – protectionist policies will undermine future economic growth. By withdrawing the U.S. from international cooperation initiatives, Trump will make the country and the world less safe. In actively engaging with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Trump will threaten the strong cooperation between the U.S. and Western Europe that has been so central to the post-Cold War order. There are good reasons to fear that Trump policies will produce the opposite effect of what the president intends.
Nevertheless, voters can now count on candidates delivering on their campaign promises. That should probably also constitute a warning for those who disregard radical and controversial campaign promises as cheap talk and heat-of-the-moment declarations. Democracy is based on the premise that people elect leaders based on what those leaders promise to do as candidates. Once elected, leaders are expected to make good on their campaign promises. Trump has honored that basic principle of democracy. What comes out of it might not be very good for the future of the country, but it does strengthen the principle of accountability.
Navia is a contributing columnist for Americas Quarterly. He is a professor of liberal studies at NYU and professor of political science at Diego Portales University in Chile.