“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Donald Trump declared last year. He’s spent his entire time in the White House putting this theory of his enduring political popularity to the test — and so far, he’s proving himself mostly correct.
Trump backed a health care bill that would strip coverage from 24 million people. He’s turned his top aides into punchlines who tout obvious falsehoods and are often immediately contradicted by Trump himself. He briefly removed the deeply damaging story of his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey from the headlines by replacing it with the even more damaging news that he’d leaked highly sensitive information to the Russians.
And yet Trump’s numbers are remarkably constant among his core supporters. Although a Public Policy Polling poll released on Tuesday finds that a plurality of voters believe Trump should be impeached, his approval rating with his 2016 voters remains at 86 percent. Trump’s overall approval rating, according to HuffPost’s average, fell from 44 percent shortly after he moved into the White House to 40.6 percent today.
He’s unpopular, but he’s hardly hemorrhaging support.
This persistent loyalty matters because it speaks to one of the fundamental flaws with the American system of government: It is virtually impossible to remove a president who enjoys the support of any meaningful political faction within the United States.
Impeaching and convicting a president requires a two-thirds super-majority in the Senate — a mark that has never been achieved in American history. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment allows a president to be permanently stripped of their authority, but only if the vice-president, over half the cabinet, and two-thirds of both houses agree to do so.
Especially given the extraordinary historical weight that falls upon any Congress that becomes the first to remove a president from office, members of the president’s own party will be highly reluctant to break with their party’s leader. And it is nearly impossible for the opposition party to obtain the super-majority necessary to remove the president on their own.
As a result of this system, when an incompetent or even a dangerous president occupies the White House, the nation is nearly incapable of replacing that president before their term expires.
A nearly ungovernable nation
At the same time, however, when America elects a perfectly ordinary president — a man or woman who is diligent, patriotic, who acts in a good faith effort to better their nation, and who doesn’t make obvious mistakes like blabbing about our most closely guarded secrets to an adversary — the American system makes it extraordinarily difficult for that president to govern.
The Obama years brought an explosion of interest — or, at least, an explosion of interest among center-left public intellectuals — in the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz. Linz’s most famous work, “The Perils of Persidentialism” warned that democracies like the United States, where the president is elected separately from the legislature, are inherently unstable.
This instability arises from the fact that the voters may award one political faction control of the presidency and a rival faction control of the legislature. In such circumstances, both have an equal claim to legitimacy, as “both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives.” When a conflict arises between the two factions, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved,” and the result can easily be a government shutdown or worse.
“It is therefore no accident,” Linz ominously notes, “that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power” in presidential democracies outside the United States.
Even a completely isolated president who has lost the confidence of Congress and the American people has significant power to endanger the nation’s security or to sabotage effective governance.
Yet, while disastrous presidents are able to make significant mischief, ordinary presidents are likely to preside over extended periods when they are barely able to perform basic governmental functions. Just ask President Obama, who spent many months of his presidency engaged in humiliating negotiations with Congress just to keep the government’s lights on. Or ask Justice Antonin Scalia’s former colleagues, who were unable to decide many cases for over a year thanks to a feud between rival political factions.
A better way to do it
The alternative to a presidentalism is a parliamentary democracy, which is broadly defined as a system where the voters choose the legislature and then the members of the legislature choose the nation’s chief executive. That eliminates the risk that rival factions be unable to govern — especially when you add the fact that many parliamentary democracies allow a snap election to be called if an impasse ever does arise. But it also lowers the stakes considerably for a majority party that loses faith in its leader.
Consider Margaret Thatcher, who led the United Kingdom from mid-1979 until late 1990. Thatcher rose to power after, as leader of the opposition Conservative Party, she called for a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister James Callaghan. Callaghan lost this vote by the narrowest of margins — 311 to 310 — but that was enough to trigger an election which Thatcher’s Tories went on to win.
Unlike the American system, in other words, where a party leader is locked into power for an entire term once they become president, the Tories were able to remove a prime minister by uniting with just a small minority of the coalition that put Callaghan in power. Such a system discourages leaders like Donald Trump, because it would enable Democrats to unite with only a small segment of the GOP to trigger a new election.
Thatcher was the dominant British citizen during her time as prime minister, and she led her country in an historic shift to the right. As the sun set on the 1980s, however, she was an increasingly unpopular figure both within her own party and in Great Britain as a whole. Polls showed the opposition Labour Party poised for a victory in the next election. Thatcher’s own deputy prime minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, resigned in protest of her policies towards Europe.
If similar events played out in the United States, Thatcher’s Conservative Party would have been forced to wait out the next election with an anchor about their necks — and Thatcher would have retained her full powers as the nation’s top official during this wait. Instead, after Thatcher performed poorly in an intra-party leadership ballot, she resigned her office to allow a new Conservative leader, Prime Minister John Major, to take over the reigns of government. With Major at the party’s helm, the Tories rebounded and won the next election. The Conservative Party retained control of the government for nearly seven full years under Major.
The point isn’t that Britain was better off with seven more years of Tory governance than it would have been if Labour took over sooner. The point, rather, is that the British system imposes a much lower cost on governing parties that choose to swap out their top leader. Indeed, in some cases, such as when the Tories’ polls were down in 1990, it even incentivizes a governing coalition to remove a struggling leader and replace them with someone else.
That means that a party is much less likely to keep a dangerous or incompetent leader in office, because they are much more likely to survive the shock of removing that leader.
If news broke tomorrow that current Prime Minister Theresa May gave sensitive intelligence information to a major adversary of the United Kingdom, that would be both a major news event and a serious blow to her Conservative Party credibility. But removing May from office would not be anywhere near as heavy a lift as removing Donald Trump would be in the United States. It would neither be an unprecedented historic event nor a similarly perilous political calculation for Conservative Members of Parliament who want to maintain the confidence of their own voters in the next election.
And that means that Great Britain is much safer from truly terrible leaders than the United States.