Prime Minister Trump?
I started teaching comparative politics in the mid-1970s when memories of Richard Nixon’s resignation were fresh in everyone’s memory. So, when I would try toexplain the difference between presidential and parliamentary systems, students would invariably ask me about what would have happened to Nixon if the U.S. had had a Westminster style parliament.
Somehow I suspect that if I were still in a classroom today, that discussion would come up again—this time about Donald Trump and the possibility of impeachment which is being pushed by Tom Steyer (among others) and I had to deal with when I read a recent article by Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker. After all, parliamentary systems have votes of confidence, one of which would surely have forced Trump out by now. Or, would it??????????????
Then as now, the discussion would have been artificial, because the differences between the UK and US extend far beyond the structure and procedures of their respective legislative chambers. Nonetheless, it is a discussion worth exploring.
Then as now, too, I would raise the same two questions.
Could He Win?
The first difference has to be raised before we even think about impeachment. It would be very hard for a Donald Trump to rise to the top in a parliamentary system. There are exceptions, like Viktor Orban in Hungary. However, in well-established democracies like the United Kingdom, the pathway(s) to power would make it hard for someone like Trump to reach the top.
In that kind of a system, only veteran members of parliament (MPs) become prime minister. That’s the case because the prime minister is chosen from the ranks of the majority party in parliament, and the individual they choose typically has spent years building support among their colleagues. Thus, British Prime Minister Theresa May spent nineteen years in the House of Commons before she became prime minister in 2016. Like most of her predecessors, she reflected the center of gravity within the Conservative party, although no one would have mistaken her for a moderate. Still, she had demonstrated the ability to put together a coalition that included the majority of her party which required a significant amount of tact and respect for her colleagues.
There are exceptions, like Canada’s Justin Trudeau or May’s predecessor, David Cameron, who rose to the top quickly because their parties had a leadership vacuum. Still, even in that kind of case, there is little chance that a real outsider like Trump could become a serious candidate for the top office.
Could He Survive?
Now, it makes sense to consider whether a Prime Minister Trump would have survived in office for a year and a half on the off chance that he had become the American prime minister. In parliamentary systems, the prime minister and his/her cabinet remain in office as long as they retain the support of a majority in the lower house of parliament both on key legislative votes and on specially designated votes of confidence. Because a lost vote of confidence all but invariably leads to new elections, party discipline in the British House of Commons or German Bundestag is normally much stricter than it is in the United States House of Representatives. If a British MP receives what is known as a three line whip, breaking party ranks can be a suicidal act for one’s career.
In short, a prime minister can normally expect to survive all votes of confidence even with the kind of slim majority that the Republicans have in the House today as shown in the table. In fact, the pressure coming from Speaker Ryan’s office might well be less intense than it is today, because the costs of breaking ranks would be so high.
In other words, Prime Minister Trump would almost certainly survive a vote of confidence since at least eighteen Republicans would have to vote against him on a major piece of legislation. That has been rare even given the relatively lax party discipline of our congressional system.
That does not mean that Prime Minister Trump would have survived. In a far more likely scenario, a majority of his Republican “friends” in the House of Representatives would decide that he has to go. They would not, however, use a vote of confidence to get rid of him.
Instead, like the Conservatives did with Margaret Thatcher in 1990, they would go to her privately and make it clear that she had lost the confidence of her majority. Then, because parliamentary systems make it possible for a prime minister to resign and then be replaced by someone else who has the support of the parliamentary majority without holding new elections, Margaret Thatcher resigned barely a year after winning a resounding victory at the polls.
In fact, that is more or less what happened with President Nixon. As most historians see it, enough Republican leaders convinced him that he would lose his trial in the Senate and be removed from office. He therefore resigned and was replaced by Vice President Gerald Ford who served out the remainder of his term.
There is no evidence that Republicans in the House or Senate have reached that point with President Trump, despite some rumors to that effect. And, many of my liberal friends do not look favorably on the possibility of a President Pence.
Still, like Prime Minister Thatcher, a Prime Minister Trump might be removed in something like this way.
For most people, all of this is just idle speculation. And, since there is a chance that I will have write an eleventh edition of my Comparative Politics: Domestic Responses to Global Challenges, it isn’t an idle question for me.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Also published on Medium.