It's Election Day eve, and America is worried.
The part of America I live in—big-city, liberal, too many brunch places—is worried about Donald Trump. These are the people who obsessively check the FiveThirtyEight forecasts, who are talking only half-jokingly about leaving the US if the Republican wins, who have been calling Trump a fascist since last year. Every presidential election is always the most consequential election in history until the next one, but in 2016, the fear is not solely over Republicans taking control of the government, but of the end of democracy itself.
Everyone from Glenn Beck to documentarian Ken Burns has compared Trump to a Hitler-esque dictator. "America is a breeding ground for tyranny," declared Andrew Sullivan in New York in May. "An American dictatorship is now a realistic possibility," wrote Mario Loyola in the right-wing but anti-Trump National Review back in February. "Donald Trump undermines the legitimacy of our democracy," was the headline for an October Boston Globe op-ed by Michael A. Cohen. "Donald Trump's success reveals a frightening weakness in American democracy," warned Ezra Klein in Vox on Monday. "This reads like hyperbole. But is it?" asks Klein.
Since he asked: Yes, it is. But it's matched with hyperbole from the parts of America wholly unlike the America around me—rural, gun-owning, conservative, almost a total lack of brunch places. These Americans are worried about Hillary Clinton as much as the people around me are worried about Trump.
"This is the last chance to save America from ruin," a right-wing militia member told Reuters in between drills preparing for post-election chaos. Trump supporters canvassed by the New York Times last month were talking about a rigged election, a revolution,"bloodshed" if Clinton comes for their guns. "On November 8th, I'm voting for Trump. On November 9th, if Trump loses, I'm grabbing my musket," right-wing former congressman Joe Walsh wrote in a widely shared (and mocked) tweet.
Walsh isn't actually going to grab his musket if Clinton wins for the same reason that all those celebrities threatening to ditch a Trump'd America for Canada aren't going to follow through: Starting a revolution or uprooting your life is a lot more work than talking tough in the days before an election. Voters are scared, they are angry, but very, very few, if any, are prepared to do anything more than issue 5,000-word Facebook rants. And though you may think Trump or Clinton may be a bad president, that's all either of them will be—a president, with all the restrictions and encumbrances that that office comes with. Here is how those restrictions would stop either one from transforming America into something unrecognizable.
If Hillary Clinton Wins
Starting with the more likely Election Day outcome first, a Hillary Clinton presidency would be hobbled from the start. Whoever wins the Oval Office, the House of Representatives is going to stay Republican, and that means it would be viciously hostile to Clinton, investigating her for every uncrossed "t" and stray "pls print" email and blocking every piece of Democrat-helmed legislation. Even with a slim majority in the Senate, Clinton would be basically restrained to advancing her agenda through the executive branch—and that would be hard when it comes to major issues like gun control and immigration reform.
On guns, "there's essentially nothing Clinton could do that would be legal that Obama hasn't done," said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies program when I called him up. "The law is fairly clear about there being pretty stark limitations on what can be done around guns through the executive branch. It really requires Congress."
Immigration reform would similarly require congressional approval. The most Clinton could do, Hudak told me, is re-implement some Obama-era policies that were blocked by the courts in the hopes that a Supreme Court would uphold them this time around—if Clinton wins, she'll be able to fill the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia's death, changing the high court's composition.
That ability to nominate justices will probably be Clinton's most important power. In that department, Hudak doesn't think obstructionist Republicans will be able to stop her, as some more moderate Senate Republicans, like Susan Collins of Maine most likely won't take part in an "all-out assault" on Clinton's judicial appointments.
The area where a president Clinton (or a president Trump) would be least restrained by Congress is foreign policy. That could mean that the US military becomes more involved in Syria, and it will definitely involve a continued campaign against ISIS. But though many doves and anti-interventionists on both the right and left worry about Clinton's documented hawkishness, no one thinks that increased presidential power when it comes to foreign policy (a decades-long trend) signals the end of democracy or anything like that.
If Donald Trump Wins
Trump would come into the White House with a far friendlier Congress than Clinton would, and the effects of his presidency shouldn't be minimized. He could withdraw America from the Paris Agreement on climate change. He could work with Republican legislators to repeal Obamacare, potentially depriving millions of Americans of insurance they have thanks to the Affordable Care Act. He could deport even more undocumented immigrants than Obama did. Trump's foreign policy is largely incoherent, but he would have the same powers to enact it that any president would.
"The wall is going to be an extraordinarily expensive consideration. Mexico is not going to pay for it, and the United States Congress isn't going to either."
But let's not forget that eight years ago, Barack Obama took office with majorities in the House and Senate but faced incredible obstacles on the way to passing Obamacare. Trump is going to have similar problems when it comes to his signature policy of that big, beautiful border wall.
"The wall is going to be an extraordinarily expensive consideration. Mexico is not going to pay for it, and the United States Congress isn't going to either," Hudak said. Democrats will oppose the wall, and so will the Republicans who are in favor of comprehensive immigration reform or opposed to a massive expenditure.
"A lot of Trump's ideas that he has put out there are not just unpopular with Democrats, but they would be unpopular with a sufficient number of Republicans to give him a tough time," Hudak said.
Trump's other signature policy, the restriction of Muslim immigration, would be more doable, because as Hudak told me, "Presidents do have quite a bit of an ability to affect the rules regarding alien entry into the United States and the issuance of visas." Though a full-on ban on all Muslims entering the US might be unconstitutional, Trump's administration could likely find some less drastic option that wouldn't necessarily be struck down by the courts.
Trump would actually have an easier time then Clinton unilaterally enacting his immigration plans. "It is easier for a president to block people from entry than to change the rules around allowing people to enter," Hudak said.
Repealing Obamacare sounds easy, but gets harder when you have to tell voters what that means.
But achieving many of Trump's other goals is going to be tricky. Trump would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, but justices tend to get more liberal with age—Republican appointees recently cast deciding votes in decisions upholding Obamacare and striking down the ban on gay marriage. A US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would devastate international efforts to fight climate change, but it might also turn America into a "diplomatic pariah," according to the AFP. And repealing Obamacare sounds easy, but gets harder when you have to tell voters what that means.
"Republicans don't fully appreciate what the political fallout of repealing Obamacare will be," said Hudak. "People will be thrilled that Obamacare is repealed, and then furious that their 25-year-old kid is now off their insurance," among other broadly popular parts of the law that would disappear.
"When you do public opinion polling on this, everyone hates Obamacare, but they love a lot of the elements of it," Hudak added.
As Obama learned, having a Senate majority is only good for so much if you don't have the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. It's true that Republicans could enact a rule change with a simple majority that would wipe out the filibuster—Jonathan Chait of New York and other people think this will happen very soon, whoever wins on Tuesday.
That move—the "nuclear option," as it's known—would create a new level of hostility in the Senate, however, and the opposition party would have other tools to obstruct legislation. "Democrats could still slow things to a halt in the Senate if the filibuster were killed as much of Senate business proceeds with Unanimous Consent Agreements," said Hudak. "The party that killed the filibuster would come to regret it."
The final, worst-case scenario is that Trump would advance some unconstitutional policy conceived of during a late-night Twitter session (banning Muslims from owning guns, say), be blocked by courts, but refuse to abide by their ruling.
"Frankly, he's a man who throws a temper tantrum when he doesn't get his way," Hudak said. "We've had presidents like that before—Andrew Jackson was a president like that. He defied court orders. This is something that happens from time to time."
"The system works as well as it does because there are checks on powers, and there is an ability to deal with situations in which power is abused."
It'd be up to Congress to rein in a rogue president Trump. It could do that through censure, through denying funding to the unconstitutional program, or through impeachment. If everything breaks just exactly wrong, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan may hold the future of the republic in his Crossfit-conditioned hands. But even if that future comes about and the three branches were engaged in open conflict, it wouldn't mean the end of democracy.
"In fact, it suggests that American democracy is working," said Hudak. "It's not a system that is without the ability for power to be abused. But the system works as well as it does because there are checks on powers, and there is an ability to deal with situations in which power is abused."
It's easy to get lost in the angry rhetoric this election has stirred up. But America has always been worried. Our politics has always been dirty. You may feel a chill when someone tells you that Clinton will take your gun, or when someone else tells you Trump will get us into nuclear war, but back in 1800, papers warned that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, "We would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution." Things are always darkest before Election Day.
"We look at the partisanship in our politics right now and the polarization between our parties, and we see a scenario where it almost seems like no Congress is going to push back hard against a president of the same party," Hudak said. "But in moments like those, where a president is very seriously disrupting the constitutional order, I think you'd be surprised at how quickly Congress stops being red and blue and starts being protectors of the republic."
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.