Many voters fear that a President Donald Trump would be a despot. Trump's authoritarian streak, colossal ego, and disdain for limits would spell tyranny, they worry.
This fear is misplaced. Donald Trump couldn't be a tyrant even if he wanted to. Instead, Trump would be an incontinent windbag whose ignorance, self-regard, and lack of self-restraint would produce a daily string of embarrassments. Some of these would be destructive and dangerous to the country and the world. That's the real reason good people should fear a President Trump.
Trump very well might have authoritarian and tyrannical aspirations. He certainly speaks as if he does. His economic plan largely involves calling CEOs and threatening them with punitive tariffs targeted at their businesses. This fits into the governing style he promises: ad hoc deal-making. From what we know about him, this would evolve into self-serving cronyism, in the most literal sense of the word, if Trump had his way.
Beyond economics, Trump sounds scarier.
He has promised to "open up our libel laws," to go after critical journalists. He has advocated torture and threatened to punish military personnel who refuse his unlawful orders. Trump says he would kill the wives and children of terrorists, which is also illegal. In fact, it's a war crime.
Many voters like these strongman ideas, which is why Trump is popular. But they clash with the principles of American government, where the rule of law and the rights of the individual are foundational.
Trump's clash with our founding principles, however, is precisely what makes his tyrannical leanings less worrisome. Our Founders drafted the Constitution in order to prevent the would-be tyrant from becoming an actual tyrant. While executives and Congress have abused their power throughout the centuries, the rule of law, checks and balances, and the separation of powers have served as bulwarks to defend from enemies of the constitutional order.
The president isn't above the law, and he doesn't get to rewrite the law. He may not torture, he may not order executions of the innocent, and he may not implement security provisions not authorized by Congress. Cabinet officers (who must be approved by the Senate) can derail his plans. Military officers must refuse unlawful orders.
Presidents, including President Obama, have often bent or crossed the lines here, but Trump would actually find it harder than Obama or Bush to overreach here. Obama and Bush enjoyed significant public support and the full support of their parties and their own ideological media allies. Trump's support is far narrower, even within his own party.
Ultimately, Congress could impeach Trump, convict him, and remove him from office. But Congress cannot keep Trump from shooting off his mouth and causing national or international disasters.
If you think Trump's logorrhea won't matter, you underestimate the weight of a president's words. Consider President Obama, a gifted and careful speaker. On a couple of occasions, reporters have caught Obama off-guard, and his imprudent answers have caused problems.
Six months into his presidency, President Obama was asked about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, whom cops caught "breaking into" his own house. "I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts…" Obama began, prudently, before adding imprudently, "the Cambridge police acted stupidly."
Obama perhaps forgot for a moment that the president ought not play pundit. The comments caused a stir and hurt feelings, which Obama eventually tried to patch over with a "beer summit" a week later. The remark has caused lasting damage with law enforcement nationwide.
Obama's done worse, though. Asked in August 2012 about U.S. military action in Syria, Obama said "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."
This was unscripted. The New York Times later reported that Obama's comments "surprise[d] of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the 'red line' came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back."
The ill-considered "Red Line" comment plagued Obama for months, and once we proved Assad was using chemical weapons on his people, Obama's words almost pushed the U.S. to intervene in another Muslim civil war, at a time Libya was visibly descending into post-regime change chaos. In the end, Obama backed down, asserting "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."
Obama thus damaged American credibility. Some commentators argue that by drawing a Red Line and letting Assad trample it, Obama emboldened Russia's Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine.
A president's ill-considered comments can cause real damage.
Donald Trump would say stupid things constantly, because it's his habit, and because he is both remarkably uninformed and also supremely confident in his own intelligence.
So would a President Trump be scary? Yes. Not because he'd be the vindictive strongman he promises to be, but because he'd be the erratic blowhard he constantly shows himself to be.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.