I haven’t talked very much about President Trump since he was elected back in November. Just a few days before the election, I published a post entitled “America, You’re Not Really Going to Do This, Right?” In that post, I acknowledged the pre-election momentum towards Donald Trump, but I concluded that Ms. Clinton would still win. “I think that just enough will re-think the situation once faced with the true responsibility of being an American voter, and will give the system some more time to try to right itself.” Well, so much for my political clairvoyance. A whole lot of Americans in the right places (relative to the Electoral College) were not about to give the existing system more time, i.e. by voting for Hillary Clinton. The Trump Revolution was on.
And so, Donald Trump is now President, and thus far he is making good on his campaign promises to disrupt the current state of affairs in a “big league” kind of way. A whole lot of progressive Democrats (as well as independent moderates) are very downhearted by this. Over the past 3 months, many of them have engaged in a variety of wishful thinking exercises, including hoping that enough members of the Electoral College would take the initiative to vote counter to their state’s “winner take all” mandate, such that Clinton would become President. Some people thought that Trump would be different once he took the oath of office, but thus far, that has not panned out. And a variety of articles have been published (e.g. Salon, Huffington, and Michael Moore) speculating that Trump will not finish his first term but will either resign or be forced out by impeachment proceedings within two or three years. Will these predictions do any better than the other wishful thinking exercises to date?
Trump has started his Presidency with a lot of gusto and gung-ho, appointing a team of like-minded, wrecking-ball types with little or no experience or investment in the current state of government. He is having a lot of fun with his power of executive order. But what happens when he has to knuckle down and get Congress to legislate, and then get the bureaucracy to carry out his will? And what about the courts — will they defer to Trump or will they respond to the many pleas and petitions coming their way to block many of the new President’s initiatives (including the 7-country travel ban, which is currently on hold because of a temporary restraining order from a federal appeals court)? Even though Congress is now completely controlled by the GOP, it doesn’t mean that the Democrats are completely powerless. And as many point out, congressional leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have not always been in synch with Trump.
My point is that Trump is quickly harvesting the low-hanging fruit, so as to give his Presidency a lot of momentum. But what happens once that is all gone, and once getting anything more done involves the usual political trench warfare, slow and unpleasant? What happens when other political leaders start acting like rivals and take credit and move into the spotlight for whatever does get done? Does Trump really have the personality and skill-set to “go the distance” in the White House?
I don’t think that anyone can lightly dismiss Donald Trump at this point. Back in July 2015, almost every pundit laughed at his campaign announcement and declared that he didn’t have a prayer. As the winter of 2016 turned to spring and Trump racked up victories in the GOP primaries and held his own in the debates, the pundits forecast that Trump’s support had a peak level which would not allow him to garner enough delegates to go to the GOP convention as the clear winner. Once again, how wrong we all can be. How easy it has been to underestimate the political skills and instincts of Donald Trump. Despite the bar-room flavor of his speeches and interviews, he turns out to be a very quick study with a keen feeling for other people’s strengths and weaknesses. And he has been able to get the right people to advise him on how to play the game of politics, or at least give him the most relevant information about it.
The 538 website has an article, written by 538 guru Nate Silver himself, outlining fourteen Trump Presidency scenarios. These long-run outcomes include “America Made Great Again”, constitutional crisis, resignation, Trump grows up and mellows out, impeachment, and a Putin-esque new American autocracy. For those dreaming of the options whereby Trump goes the route of Richard Nixon post-Watergate, Mr. Silver’s words are a useful dose of reality:
what [Trump has] accomplished is impressive, especially given the long odds that many people (including yours truly) gave Trump at the start. Maybe the guy is pretty good at politics? One can imagine various scenarios where Trump’s default approach to politics turns out to be a winning one over the long run, even if it leads to its fair share of rocky moments.
So, as to Trump making any tactical blunders that would subject him to impeachment (such as the many potential conflicts of interest regarding his and his families’ business holdings), or that would inspire the public to give the House and Senate back to the Democrats in the mid-year elections, I would not hold my breath waiting. If Trump is going to get into trouble, it will not be because of political stupidity. It would need to be a matter of personality.
In my opinion, Trump’s narcissistic psyche is a more fertile ground for speculation regarding his presidential longevity. The big magilla regarding the Trumpian temperament involves his huge ego needs. It’s not impossible to piece together a scenario whereby Trump’s ego forces him to cross enough Constitutional lines (akin to Nixon) such that even his own party turns against him (which he is not necessarily of one mind with; there are no long-term commitments between the GOP and Donald Trump).
Somehow, I don’t believe that Donald Trump is going to bind himself to the rules, once he finds out exactly what all the rules within which the President must operate are. Sure, he is a great negotiator, but . . . his negotiation experience was never about how much power he should have and how much he will be able to do with it. As a businessman, Trump never had a Constitution to deal with, along with a whole bunch of other people who are given lots of “checks and balances” against him by that Constitution. I am sure that he will quickly learn what the rules are, but I doubt that he will learn to like those rules or will resolve to accept them and work within them. Trump, I think, would be much happier as a dictator.
So, it’s not at all impossible that Trump will try to push the Presidency into dictatorship territory (as Mr. Silver considers in his 11th scenario). But if and when that happens, hopefully the intended checks and balances will kick-in, as the right people and the press stand up for the Constitution. Trump might keep on pushing anyway, inviting judicial or congressional actions to stop him. But what I personally think to be more likely is that after a while, Trump will realize that he is just not happy with the job of being President.
I’m not sure how Trump reacts to frustration — does he get depressed, does he just double down on aggression, does he ever quit? Right now Trump is on a sugar-high about getting the attention of just about every citizen of the United States, but what happens after two years when there’s nothing much new about his outrageousness and the press starts backing off from its all-Trump-all-the-time strategy? How does a Donald Trump who is frustrated and feeling ignored (despite his best tantrum efforts), and who cannot order a military coupe d’etat (hopefully) respond?
I myself would imagine just three main scenarios. In Main Scenario One, Trump holds on but does less and less with every day. He slowly stops caring about the Presidency. Actually, this would dovetail with Mr. Silver’s scenario 5, “Trump Cedes Authority”.
In Main Scenario Two, Trump voluntarily quits. Mr. Silver also hints at resignation in some of his scenarios (expressly in #2, implicitly in #8 and #9).
Main Scenario Three is that Trump does relatively well as President despite a lot of rough moments. He becomes increasingly popular despite some ups and downs, and perhaps gains a second term (a kind-of inverse copy of Obama’s Presidency). This would encompass Silver’s scenarios 1, 3, 6, 13 and 14.
The scariest scenario is the maximum version of Main Scenario #3, in which the public acquiesces to a new American authoritarianism. (Sure there would be many protests, but a strongman Trump with a loyal military could eventually minimize that threat, Tienanmen Square style). If Trump remains relatively popular while at the same time there is an increase in domestic terrorism, one could imagine Trump attaining his ultimate gratification by rapidly expanding the Presidency and solidifying its control of the military (with the help of the various retired generals on his Cabinet and staff), while contracting the realm of the courts, Congress and the Constitution.
Oh, and he would also need to toss out anyone in the Executive Branch bureaucracy who stands for the old system and will not willingly give in to the new king. The laws protecting bureaucrats from political pressure might make this difficult at first; but then again, if everyone else is giving in or growing toothless (including the courts), those brave women and men of principle who make the governmental wheels turn wouldn’t have any legs to stand on. They would be replaced in a quasi-Stalin-like fashion.
Now, if you really want to extend this into nightmare territory, then add the possibility of secession. But not the secession of a particular state, as Texas has occasionally mulled over, nor of a block of states, as in the 1860s. Instead, imagine the revolt of the city-states. David Byler and Fareed Zakaria have recently posted articles about how the large metro areas of the US hold a significant portion of the population, and yet these areas do not have a proportional share of national political power, as evidenced in Hillary Clinton beating Trump in the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes. These urban centers control a similar chunk of the national economic output and net worth (and likewise pay a big share of the nation’s tax bill). Overall, US cities hold about 63% of US population, and about one-third of the populace lives within the top 10 metro areas. What if metropolitan New York and LA and Boston and Seattle and Chicago declared a new “coastal union of democratic city-states”? Would it be Civil War II time? That scenario is very unlikely, but not completely unimaginable at this point.
Given that Trump is so highly ego-driven, I believe that the “big outcome” will ultimately depend upon the polls. The GOP will drop him like a hot potato if the public sours on Mr. T, but will kowtow to his will if he can command a majority of the public’s loyalty. Trump is still fixated upon his poll numbers and other outward signs of his popularity — recall his obsessions about the size of the crowds at his inauguration.
So what do the polls currently say about Donald Trump’s approval from the public regarding what he’s done so far as President? Actually, that’s a bit confusing. There are a lot of polls that say a lot of different things. The presidential job approval polls currently listed on Real Clear Politics show a pretty wide range of outcomes. The RCP average currently gives Trump a 45.1 percent approval rating and a 48.6 percent disapproval, for a net negative of 3.5 percentage points. However, within that average are a Gallup poll showing Trump down by 10, and a Rasmussen poll showing him up by 6. The approval rates range from 42 to 53%, and the disapproval rates vary between 53 and 45 percent. So is it closer to 45-53 or 53-45? Unfortunately, there is inherent variation in poll results. President Obama’s last 11 polls ranged from 12 to 24 percentage points positive. His average was quite a bit higher than Trump’s, but his range was roughly the same, both in absolute and relative terms. This variation is all the more more frustrating when you have someone averaging close to the 50-50 mark, like Trump.
Going back to the 538 site, Nate Silver had an article in January asking “Can You Trust Trump’s Approval Rating Polls“. In a nutshell, Silver says that variation amidst polls is just part of the system, something to be expected. Perhaps what is more important is the trend over time. Obama ended on a good note regarding job approval, but went through a long period (from May, 2013 to March, 2016) when his average on Real Clear Politics was negative, sometimes as low as 13 points negative. So Trump’s net negative of 3.5 doesn’t seem so bad in that context. However, Obama (and most other presidents) usually get a month or two of good ratings right after they are inaugurated; in mid-February, 2009, Obama’s net approval was positive by about 41 percentage points(!). President Bush’s net approval average on RCP was likewise about 40 percentage points positive in February 2001. Trump’s early ratings are “historically low” relative to every president since Eisenhower!
If the usual trend holds towards lower approval ratings after the first 6 months or so of a new presidency, Trump can expect to spend much of his term with significantly negative average approval ratings, with few if any polls reporting net positives. I would guess that he will blame the polling organizations and will say that he doesn’t care what the polls say. But you know that he does. Will that affect the outcome of Donald J. Trump’s current White House gig? All we can say right now is, fasten your seatbelt and stay tuned!
Donald Trump is clearly a new kind of President. His candidacy began in a very unique fashion, his campaign was quite unique, his victory was rather strange (winning the Electoral College despite a large popular vote deficit), and the way that his time in office comes to an end may also be quite different.
Or not. The unique thing about Trump’s Presidency might be that he somehow makes it through 4 years with the institution of Constitutional democracy intact, despite all of the gloomy forecasts and expectations right now. The story page of Donald Trump, the Final Act, is currently blank; most anything, including the quotidian, can still happen.
Oh, PS, interesting article on TNR by Brian Beutler, agreeing with Mr. Silver and myself that should Donald Trump gain the public’s confidence as President, he may well lead the nation down the dangerous path to authoritarianism.