Longtime readers of this blog will recall that our contributors here disagree on nearly everything except on the issue of Donald Trump’s utter unsuitability to serve as President. The voters, not just our contributors, spoke tonight and notwithstanding predictions both weak and strong, Donald Trump has won the Presidency. His party has retained control of both houses of Congress. Over a short period of time, the chances are good that Republican appointees will constitute a clear and reliably solid bloc of votes on the Supreme Court.1
Before you learn about how to apply for Canadian citizenship, I suggest you take a moment to soberly look to the future here. So what does America under Donald Trump look like? Realistically, I mean.
The President Himself
Donald Trump truly did bother me with the many authoritarian-sounding things he said on the campaign trail. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him make efforts to significantly advance the security state. Nevertheless, after a time of heightened rhetoric, it is now a time for sobriety. Trump is best categorized as a right-wing nationalist with far too much comfort in proximity to repulsive views about issues of equality and inclusion.
I am not convinced we’ve just elected a classic fascist: fascists are both friendly to large corporations (Trump is not this, at least not the Trump of the campaign trail) and capable of delivering efficient government (at best this is a wild card about which no one has any realistic basis to do more than guess). What we have done, though, is politically shat the bed. Trump is a lot of hat with very little cowboy underneath. He’ll be a terrible, embarrassing symbol of America to the rest of the world, and I have little idea how I’m going to explain what just happened to my relatives overseas. His fragile ego will make him a toy for malign foreign leaders to play with as they see fit.
Ultimately, he’s not popular with actual conservatives, a great many of whom only supported him because they saw him as less bad than Hillary Clinton. By all traditional calculi, this should eventually prove his undoing: his support group supports and backs him only so long as they are presented with an alternative course of action they deem unacceptably worse. To earn their trust and loyalty, he will have to remake himself into one of them, and he’s not psychologically capable of being anyone but who he really is: a shallow, fearful, inattentive man who makes up for his very real as well as merely self-perceived personal inadequacies with bluster, shock, and grandiosity. He is, in short, a bullshit artist.
So, what I really think just happened is we elected an American version of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. He’s got bromantic feelings towards Vladimir Putin and highly questionable legal dealings from his past just waiting to bite him in the ass when the conflicts of interest he inevitably doesn’t do enough about mitigating become irreconcilable with the discharge of the Presidency’s duties. There is every reason to believe that he will simply try to charisma his way out of any and all of the likely manifold political troubles he will stumble into.
Policy and Congress
After all, unlike those rather more dire historical comparisons, Donald Trump has also demonstrated, again and again, that he is fundamentally disinterested in governmental policy. He will offer very little direction in terms of what he wants to see the government do. He promises to enact protectionist policies to foster a re-growth of manufacturing jobs. Well, sure, I guess he’ll try. But he has to get protectionism past a Republican Congress first. Most of those Republicans are still pro-trade and ambivalent about immigration.
Trump says that he wants to beef up border security — and at least he’s abandoned the silly talk of an expensive and doomed-to-be-laughably-ineffective physical wall on the border with Mexico. Well, okay, I don’t like it and I don’t like setting the cause of meaningful and economically advantageous immigration reform back a dozen years but I guess we’ll muddle through that somehow.
Fact is, not everything Trump promised on the campaign trail is bad, either. Meaningful reform of the Veteran’s Administration is well past due and it’s shameful how we’ve been treating our veterans. Maybe President Trump will actually make that awful situation better. I’m skeptical, but it is a moral priority.
One thing about nationalists is they do tend to be on the isolationist side of military intervention. It may well be that we see pullbacks from foreign military intervention. I, for one, think we’ve been at war for too long and am not anxious to see more deployments in more theaters of military activity than are going on right now anyway.It’s hard to argue that the nation as a whole isn’t weary of our seemingly constant warfare and our young men and women coming home damaged after desultory fighting to no apparent geopolitical benefit to anyone.
Trump very obviously hasn’t a fishing clue what to do about Daesh, but can we really come down on him too hard for that? No one has a fishing clue what to do about Daesh except hope that enough of the nominally good guys in the area grind out a boots-on-the-ground military defeat against them, inch by slow and bloody inch, with air and materiel support from us. Getting Daesh actually wiped out, distasteful as it may seem, require making common cause with Russia and its puppet Bashar Assad in Syria — who knows, maybe Trump’s bizarre attraction to Putin makes him the right guy to do that. The only other real alternative may well be to tolerate Daesh’s existence, which appears to be a non-starter of an idea all around.
To the extent that policy direction comes from the White House, we’re promised it’ll come from Vice President Mike Pence. Maybe. There will be a cabinet. The Cabinet will consist of Republicans, and the talent pool from which President Trump will draw will be pretty from a body of standard conservatives. Those on the left side of the aisle won’t like them or their ideas one bit, but they will, mostly, have subject matter expertise. Their more far-reaching proposals are going to be litigated.
But really, I think we’ll be seeing most policy originating from Congress. There’s skepticism about whether Paul Ryan retains the Speakership. I, for one, am not sure at all that House Republicans are going to reshuffle their leadership because a President they almost all distrust doesn’t think that their current leader bent the knee sufficiently or for long enough — and I don’t think they relish the idea of another internal struggle to come up with new leadership. Ryan’s the best they’ve got.
Whether Ryan remains the functional leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives or not, the achievable policy agenda is clear. Taxes are going to be cut, a bit. The deficit is going to rise, a bit. And Obamacare will be repealed, and replaced with nothing.
Basically, we’re going to revert to 2002 on a policy level. If you’re liberal, that’s not good, but no matter your political alignment, we did somehow survive it.
The Immediate And Not-So-Immediate Political Future
Simply put, President Trump is going to need to earn the trust of the conservatives there, who currently feel like he owes them, not the other way around. He can probably get a pre-vetted Supreme Court judge from the Heritage Foundation list appointed to SCOTUS without having to mend fences with Congressional Republicans, but I rather doubt much more than that. Donald Trump is not a guy who, by temperament, offers olive branches all that often.
The Republicans’ triumph appears complete tonight. It will be more so when they get around to reclaiming the Supreme Court to their column early next year. This is a mirror image of what the political landscape looked like in 2009. The Republicans took eight years to completely turn their fortunes around. There is no reason I can see that the Democrats could not do so as well. Perhaps the same tactic that the Republicans used — obstruct everything, constantly assail the President and impugn his legitimacy, keep the government in stasis — will work for them. Sauce for the goose works on the gander, too. This is the Era of Hard Feelings, after all.
I see the Democrats probably having to bide their time until 2020 to really have a shot at reclaiming meaningful power at the Federal level. By then, a Republican Party that is profoundly uninterested in actually governing will have four years’ worth of track record to demonstrate whether they’re actually ready, willing, and able to lead. So Democrats have substantial reason to be optimistic about the next cycle. It’s their turn out in the wilderness right now, and hopefully they find someone better than Hillary Clinton to lead them out of it.
I can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that Trump got all his free media and attracted so much attention by virtue of the fact that he’s spent years building up his public persona: a reality TV star, cultural icon of disdainfully vulgar wealth. So I’m a bit fearful that the White House is going to wind up looking like Saddam’s Palace before Donald Trump becomes Citizen Trump once more.
The campaign has exposed a side of him that looks much more detestable. “Deplorable,” even, although that’s a word that will need some careful rehabilitation now. This white nationalism business gets a whole lot more credibility even as Trump himself dances away from it winking and nodding. We need people to take strong, decisive stands against racial, sexual, and religious prejudice more than ever.
There will now be a prolonging of the silly-if-it-weren’t-scary debate about the role of Islam and Muslims in contemporary America. Expect to hear the word “assimilation” a lot, as in this is something that Muslims need to do more of, and expect that it will take on multiple layers of meaning, some of which will be socially tolerable and others of which will be code for something a bit uglier and more intolerant.
There will now be a prolonging of the tiresome-if-it-weren’t-still-scary role of the government in monitoring for the potential for violent activity by all manner of disliked minorities and a variety of police activities like stop-and-frisk will continue to be back on the table.
Not that a Clinton win would have cured us of our problems in those respects, but at least it wouldn’t have been what feels like a profound setback along our winding and rocky pathway towards realizing those national ideals.
Which is something I think you should remember. The pathway to realizing our cultural ideals is not straight, smooth, easy, or comfortable. There are setbacks. There are obstacles. There are those who want to go a different direction, for reasons which sound — to them — like morally good ones.
In other words, you can’t think that your neighbors who voted for Trump are evil proto-Nazis that you should hate and scorn and shun. We have to live together. The one good thing to say about (actual) conservatives is that they are all about preserving our institutions. I don’t pretend that President Trump is an actual conservative; he’s not. He’s a nationalist, and a bit of a radical. I have zero faith in his desire to preserve institutions. But the talent pool of people he’s going to be drawing from are Republicans, so expect them to push things in a conservative direction, and that’s fundamentally establishmentarian. So if you don’t like the results of this election, the right next thing to do is rely on the institutions we have in place. Our courts. Our Constitution. Our elections.
What’s more demographic and economic changes are not going to stop. America will continue to darken in its average skin color, variegate in religious faith, expand the Babel of languages it speaks, and the generations will continue to advance in age. In the long run, it’s hard to see how Republicans benefit from these irreversible and unstoppable trends.2
The fact of the matter is, we’ve gotten through things like this in our history before. I see two temperamental and political analogues to President Trump from our past: Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon. Both of them changed the way politics was done and did some pretty damn bad things while in office. But neither of them were strong enough to fundamentally change the nature of America as a Constitutional republic.
The fact is, 2016 was a year that had good fundamentals for a “generic Republican.” Donald Trump is anything but generic, but nevertheless, he was given an opponent with a whole lot of really bad history to move past. And the even more unpleasant fact for those displeased with the results on the 2016 election is that the fundamentals in 2018 will also favor generic Republican gains, not just holds, in Congress and a large number of the governorships.
The markets have already expressed their horror at Trump’s election. Worse than they did with Brexit. They will eventually recover. Don’t do anything impulsive with your 401(k). Yes, some of our trade deals are looking murky and unreliable. But it’s not like trade is going to stop. It’ll slow. Who knows, maybe the protectionism will work. I doubt it, but I’ve been wrong about a lot of things during this annus horribilis.
A Personal Thought
This really has been an annus horribilis for me, and seeing an ogre like Trump ascend to the Presidency is a capstone disaster to it, both disappointing and embarrassing for me as an American.
I’m not going to opt out of this nation. I am displeased with, but accept, the results of our free and fair elections.3 Certain matters transcend partisan preference for the good of our nation as a whole. When President Trump directs our troops to war as he surely will, I shall wish them unvarnished, swift success. Should the markets collapse completely I shall hope for a prompt economic recovery. Natural disasters and other difficult-to-predict events will occur, and I shall hope that there is wisdom and good counsel and prompt solutions to those problems. Let no one wish for an impeachment or a death in office and let our fears that Trump’s terrifyingly unfiltered speeches do not too distantly alienate our allies and trading partners.
I am not now and will never count myself an ally or a supporter of Donald Trump. My presumption is that a policy idea emanating from his White House is to be opposed, until and unless I can be convinced to the contrary. When I see the government stepping on peoples’ civil liberties and reaching for more power than is Constitutionally appropriate, I shall call the government on it, even if only on these pages, and if the opportunity presents itself I shall not hesitate to argue against the government in court. Should the privilege of making such a challenge fall to me, I shall call myself a patriot for pursuing it.
May Donald Trump’s Administration be peaceful, accomplish as little of his declared agenda as possible, and last only a single term.Notes: