The Unpredictable Presidency of Donald Trump
By Gordon Repinski and Holger Stark
In the moment of his triumph, when Donald Trump began making his way to the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan in the early morning hours of Wednesday, the chanting started -- aggressive and loud, bellowed out by a group of frenzied men. It spread through the crowd and was aimed at Trump's erstwhile opponent, Hillary Clinton. "Lock her up! Lock her up!"
Trump, after all, had promised to do just that -- to throw his political adversary in prison as soon as he had taken the oath of office on January 20, not unlike the way Vladimir Putin deals with his enemies in Moscow or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. And thus, the zero hour of the new American era began just as the campaign had ended: with a threat that contained little in the way of reconciliation and was reminiscent of distant dictatorships -- even as Trump later sought to rein in the chants by speaking of "binding the wounds of division" and of coming "together as one united people."
His followers saw his victory as a signal, as the beginning and not as the end. They bared their teeth and cheered as the Empire State Building radiated red in the night sky with a gigantic image of their leader projected onto the facade.
On that evening, America experienced a revolution. The successful postwar Western model, rooted in mobility, enlightenment and inclusion has been convulsed by this angry protest vote.
It was a vote of no-confidence in globalized capitalism, an expression of America's partition into liberal cities and backward rural areas. With this election, the country's white majority has sought to affirm and protect its identity.
The political system has experienced a delegitimization of democracy that makes it impossible to simply carry on as before. It is a delegitimization aimed primarily at the elite, Hillary Clinton first and foremost -- a woman who represents this system more than any other politician.
This election was about more than simply a change in government. It completed an epochal shift. The Trumpian revolution is an overthrow of the neoliberal conservatism of the Republicans, of the faith in free trade and of the advantages of a multicultural society. On Tuesday evening, aggressive nationalism returned to the White House.
The President of the Defeated
Trump is the president of the defeated: the white middle- and working classes who are among the economic losers of globalization -- and among the cultural losers of the demographic change that is making the US more diverse. Many of these "forgotten men and women," as Trump described his supporters on election night, are from the lower middle classes and are driven by fears of losing their jobs and their places in society. They rose up with the anger of desperation to take back their country, which they believe Obama and the country's minorities had sought to take away from them.
In Trump, they have found a charismatic and callous leader. He was unable to win the popular vote, but he won the electoral vote, which is enough. The voices of his voters have united in a cry for change.
And it is true: Many in America have the feeling that the system no longer serves the citizens of the country, instead promoting the interests of a clique that controls power and prosperity.
That is true of politics and even more so of the economy. Those who have visited the ghost towns of the Rust Belt in the northeast -- where the death of American industry can be observed, where Trump's core voters live -- can hardly be surprised that the people there would ultimately rise up.
What is surprising, however, is how and when it happened. And that it was a person like Trump who was able to profit from their deep disappointment -- a vulgar billionaire who plays people off against each other. Still, the search for reasons as to why voters backed Trump should not gloss over the fact that around 60 million Americans elected a racist and a chauvinist to the White House. He is a man who unabashedly courts neo-fascist elements. After three brutal TV debates and Trump's announcement he would prevent Muslims from traveling to the US, nobody can say they didn't know the kind of person they chose to be the 45th president of the United States.
Even Trump himself seemed in disbelief on Thursday as he sat down next to Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Slightly slumped, he sat next to the president, his arms resting in his lap as Obama spoke. When it was Trump's turn, he was no longer full of bravado, indeed, he sounded almost submissive. "I have great respect" for the president, he said, adding about the meeting: "As far as I'm concerned, it could have gone on for a lot longer." Obama had called Trump at around 3:30 in the morning on election night to invite him to the White House.
Now, a man is set to take on the country's highest office who directed his entire campaign against the establishment and who presented himself as an outsider until the very end. "Drain the swamp" was one of his maxims, a reference to Washington, DC. How much of this populist campaign will he attempt to transform into reality in the coming months. What will his presidency look like?
"Presidencies are like a gas tank," says Jeffrey Lord. "You start full, but then it lowers. Trump has to start implementing his plans immediately, just like Ronald Reagan did in 1981."
Lord served as associate political director in the Reagan White House and is among Trump's earliest supporters. At a recent appearance in Pennsylvania, Trump even called his friend Lord up on stage and they chatted extensively once the event had ended. Lord believes that Trump could ultimately end up on Reagan's level, a man who was initially an outsider and vociferously reviled but who today is counted by many as among the best presidents in recent US history.
The greatest challenge facing Trump is that of shifting from campaign-style attack mode to the day-to-day business of running the government, says Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois. McAdams specializes in analyzing presidents and in the spring, he spent three months taking a close look at Trump's psyche. He believes Trump is highly unstable and considers him to be a neurotic narcissist. "It's the hunt that I believe I love," Trump once said.
And that is how he ran his campaign -- politics as a hunting expedition, chasing down adversaries like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and, later, Hillary Clinton. And Trump got them all. The question is whether someone like him can suddenly stop hunting and start governing.
A Political Counter-Revolution
Lord believes that Trump has changed. "He has become more mature and has learned. He has understood that he is leading a movement of millions of people who support him passionately.
He won't disappoint them." But that could be easier said than done. The expectations of his followers are immense. The eight liberal years under President Obama have changed the country and Trump supporters want more than simply a change in direction. They are seeking a political counter-revolution.
Mike Pence, Trump's designated vice president who hails from the party's evangelical wing, has already said he wants to see a tightening of abortion regulations. Arch-conservatives see the more than 40-year-old right to abortion as a betrayal of Creation, and Trump promised to abolish that right along with one of the central achievements of the Obama presidency: that of making healthcare available to all.
But what kind of a president will Donald Trump really be? In the past, he has also voiced approval of more liberal abortion laws and he once demanded health insurance for all Americans himself. Over the years, he has held all manner of contradictory opinions on many different political issues, sometimes at the same time.
Those who think they know what Donald Trump will do as president are likely overestimating their own intelligence. Trump will be the most unpredictable president that America has ever had. That holds true of his thin-skinned personality just as it does for his political positions.
Anything, really anything, is possible. And that is the most disturbing thing.
The American Hugo Chávez?
It is possible that Trump will turn out to be the US version of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez -- that he will appease and divert Americans while at the same time dramatically eroding the country's institutions and politicizing the judiciary, the CIA and the FBI. And that he, as he indicated he would, will allow for the return of torture. And that he will build the promised wall on the border to Mexico, impede people from Muslim countries from coming to the US, turn up the volume on bigotry and use the presidency to personally enrich himself. It could mean the end of NATO -- but it could also be that his bromance with Putin will cool and turn hostile.
It is equally possible, though, that Trump will turn over the governing of the country to experienced Republican politicians and will preside over proceedings as a kind of CEO. It is possible that he will build his wall as a sop to his supporters but will quickly realize that his announced intention to deport 11 million illegal immigrants makes no economic sense. It is possible that he will service the yearnings for a resurgent white identity primarily with rhetoric, that he will seek to stimulate the economy with billions in investments and that his foreign policy will simply be a continuation of the American withdrawal that began under Obama.
We simply don't know.
The only thing we know -- from his statements, his campaign and his personality -- is that he will be a president unlike any that has come before.
A Danger to Democracy?
That is another reason why Trump's opponents have found it so difficult to find the correct response to him. Should they give him "the chance to lead," as Hillary Clinton suggested in her almost uncannily magnanimous concession speech delivered the day after the election? Or would doing so be akin to normalizing a presidency that is anything but normal and which many see as a danger to American democracy?
It is certain that Trump's approaching Supreme Court appointment will have far-reaching consequences. The post of the late Justice Antonin Scalia has been vacant for months, with the Senate declining to even hold hearings for Barack Obama's compromise candidate Merrick Garland. Leading Republicans like Ted Cruz are demanding that Trump appoint an archconservative candidate to ensure that gun laws remain permissive and that the right to same-sex marriage, established just a-year-and-a-half ago, be overturned. In contrast to Cruz, Trump is not an archconservative, but he is flexible enough to service the extreme right wing of his movement.
But will Trump really launch trade wars with China and Mexico? That seems doubtful because it would be bad for business. There is much to indicate that Trump's economic policy will be a kind of ersatz foreign policy, with a president who sees international diplomacy as being not unlike the negotiations surrounding a construction contract. Beyond that, it remains unclear what the new president's foreign policy will look like. From the very beginning, Trump presented himself as a candidate who had a national focus and he has shown no interest thus far in consensus-based international alliances. He sees NATO primarily as a financial drain and as an alliance from which America's tight-fisted European allies profit. His advisors had to work long and hard to prevent him from flirting with leaving NATO during the campaign.
There is likewise still no convincing explanation for Trump and his team's strange closeness to Moscow. On Thursday, Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, announced that the Russians had maintained contact to Trump's people. Not all, he said, "but quite a few have been staying in touch with Russian representatives." Nobody in Washington is willing to predict just how the remote bromance between Trump and Russian President Putin might affect relations between the two countries. Nor is anyone venturing a guess as to what strategy Trump might employ in the fight against Islamic State. As such, Trump's foreign policy ambitions remain a great unknown.
Among the decisive questions facing his tenure will be whether Trump can break the power of multinational corporations, as he promised to do in the campaign. And what his relationship to free trade will be. On the campaign trail, he promised that within 48 hours of entering the White House, he would force Ford to bring its factories back to the US. He also wants to force Apple to cease producing the iPhone in Shenzhen, China and bring production to America.
And he wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in addition to blocking ratification of TPP and TTIP, trade agreements with Pacific Rim countries and with Europe, respectively. He has indicated he will use protectionism to warm the hearts of his unsettled followers.
Trump knows that a significant measure of his success will be whether he is able to create jobs -- and he is likely to present an investment program for the country's aging infrastructure.
Because he is certainly right about one thing: America is a dilapidated country where wealth is private but the potholes belong to everyone. When it comes to the daily needs of Americans, the state has failed.
An infrastructure project would create jobs and stimulate the economy in the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. With such a show of strength, Trump could appease those who have been forced to stand aside helplessly in recent years as jobs have migrated abroad to places like China, Malaysia and Mexico.
But it would also stand in direct contradiction to Republican dogma, which has long been intent on shrinking the state. Indeed, Trump will likely face significant opposition from within his own party should he seek to transgress GOP gospel. And would the Republicans also oppose him if he were to use the office of president to threaten the guarantees inherent in the constitution?
In the days following the election, a dazed Washington sought to convince itself that things won't get that bad. Government institutions, people insisted, would limit what the president would be able to do. But Trump is being presented with an unusually favorable opportunity: Not only does the GOP control both houses of Congress, but once Trump has made his appointment, the Supreme Court will likely be conservative as well. The fact that the Republicans don't have a two-thirds majority in the Senate is the only thing preventing Trump from pushing through constitutional amendments as well.
All of that means that Trump will have significant latitude for at least the first two years of his term.
Furthermore, Obama demonstrated just how efficiently a president can circumvent Congress by way of executive orders -- and Trump wouldn't even need the support of his own party to issue them. He could theoretically use the strategy to sidestep all those lawmakers who harbor grave doubts about the constitutionality of mass deportations of foreigners and of banning Muslims from entering the country. Trump can lure his party to his side with appointments and by including them in the decision-making process -- he knows that he will need them.
Birth of a Populist Movement
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan -- a man who spent months waffling back and forth between rejecting Trump and capitulating to him -- is likely to play a key role. It is still unclear what his relationship to the new president will ultimately look like.
The Republicans of the future, believes Trump's friend Jeffrey Lord, could be the party of the white working class, grassroots conservatives, libertarians and populists while following hardline positions on free trade and immigration. That would mark the end of Abraham Lincoln's Grand Old Party, but it would be a political apparatus to Trump's liking. It would mark the end of traditional conservatism and the birth of a new populist movement.
Trump's entire life has been defined by not adapting to his surroundings, but by adapting his surroundings to himself. He is surrounded by advisors who pursue a similar agenda, led by his campaign manager Stephen Bannon, who used to lead the right-wing populist website Breitbart News.
In the White House, Trump could surround himself with a mixture of experienced political professionals and outsiders, who represent a new beginning. Those in the running for cabinet positions include: Senator Jeff Sessions, who is among Trump's closest advisors; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; and the chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus.
Mike Flynn, former director of the military intelligence service DIA, is under consideration for defense secretary or national security advisor.
Trump is also likely to include businessmen in his cabinet, people similar to himself. Forrest Lucas, head of Lucas Oil, could become secretary of the interior while Steven Mnuchin, an investment banker with Goldman Sachs, has been mentioned as a candidate for treasury secretary. For secretary of state, the archconservative former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is in the running as is Senator Bob Corker. And right-wing journalist Stephen Bannon is actually under consideration for White House chief of staff.
"Trump has always surrounded himself with people who reinforce his worldview," says Tony Schwartz, who ghost wrote Trump's book "The Art of the Deal." And he has also understood the message sent by the voters in this election: People are extremely forgiving of newcomers as long as they aren't part of the establishment.
Hillary Clinton embodied that establishment. That was well known and choosing her as the party's candidate -- capitulating to the Clinton clan -- will go down in history as the Democrats' fatal error.
The Clinton's power within the party led to possible candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren refraining from running in the first place. It is said in Washington that Vice President Joe Biden elected not to run because it was clear early on that the Hillary Clinton network was too strong. Many believe that Trump wouldn't have had a chance against Biden -- and the socialist Bernie Sanders may have done better as well.
Her lack of a connection with the electorate should have been clear to Clinton when, for example, she made a campaign visit to Flint, Michigan, a state she would go on to lose. The largely poor, largely black city was once a symbol of America's industrial strength and was home to the auto industry.
Now, places like Flint stand as symbols of political failure: When the municipal government privatized the water supply in 2014, residents suddenly couldn't even rely on clean water. The city is decaying.
The American Clash of Cultures
Clinton wanted to show solidarity with the people of Flint, but when she visited a black church congregation in the northern part of the city, when her fleet of a dozen dark-colored sedans drove up, it felt more like an invasion. Many people in Flint still feel that they were merely being used as a backdrop for Clinton's campaign and that the visit had very little to do with their own concerns. The pastor of the church speaks of the cross-armed resistance that confronted Clinton. The people, he says, no longer believe that anyone can really do anything for them anymore.
In recent elections, the Democrats managed to win states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, with the Rust Belt emerging as an important source of support for Obama. This time around, though, they went to Trump.
Indeed, Trump didn't just win the election, Clinton lost it. Low voter turnout led to her defeat in some states. But the Democrats must also take a close look at why a large number of Americans who voted for Barack Obama four years ago decided to support Trump this time around.
Trump now finds himself the leader of a deeply divided country that is experiencing a clash of cultures: white America against diversity; urban against rural; modernity against anti-modernity. The America of tomorrow will include a growing number of blacks and Hispanics: Trump's victory was the last major rearguard battle of the whites.
American society will only slowly recover from the shock of this "American tragedy," as the New Yorker has branded it. And it's not yet clear if the country might be facing an even deeper crisis of democracy.
'We Were Wrong'
Donald Trump has made a new political culture acceptable and it is one that will be copied by future candidates, says John Hudak of the Brookings Institution. "They have seen that it pays to say unacceptable things." The challenge facing the political system in the coming years is that of making compromise possible again, he says. The entire world is watching with bated breath to see how a cosmopolitan society will react to having elected the leader of a nationalist, populist movement to its highest position of power.
"We thought that the great majority of Americans valued democratic norms and the rule of law," economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote this week. "It turns out that we were wrong." On the day after the election, Krugman tweeted in horror that it wasn't just the "immense damage Trump will surely do. There's also a vast disillusionment that as of now I think of as the end of the romantic vision of America (which I still love)."
Not much is left of the American optimism that always defined this proud nation. Trump has transformed this powerful, divided country to a greater degree than even his most bitter opponents thought possible. He has introduced a level of crudity and callousness that had seemed impossible in the otherwise so polite American society. "Once you inject hyper-anger into civil society, it is almost impossible to undo," wrote Republican pollster Frank Luntz in a Tuesday New York Times op-ed.
In a furious essay written on election night, David Remnick, the editor-in-chief of the New Yorker, wrote, "this is surely the way fascism can begin." The future he described in the piece was dark. "We will be asked to count on the stability of American institutions, the tendency of even the most radical politicians to rein themselves in when admitted to office . There is no reason to believe this palaver."
Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps close tabs on right-wing extremism, says that until Trump's candidacy, "there had been a democratic consensus to steer clear of white racists. But this stigma doesn't exist anymore. Trump is the fulfillment of many hopes of the radical right."
The campaign may now have come to an end, but the clash of cultures that Trump is leading will occupy America for quite some time to come. The country needs nothing so much as a therapist, but that is not a role that the new president is equipped to play. Seldom has a presidency begun with such a weight on its shoulders as that of Donald Trump.
Shortly before the election, four out of 10 Trump supporters said in a survey that they were not prepared to accept the election results in the event of a defeat. A country whose people are no longer willing to accept the outcome of free and fair elections is a country in decline. A country where women can no longer decide if they want to give birth to a child, where there are no equal rights for homosexuals and whose president has announced his intention to ban the entry of Muslims is no longer open.
Psychologist McAdams believes that Trump will be unable to develop any kind of sensitivity for the concerns of his opponents because he grew up in an artificial world. McAdams' hope is not based on the future president's policies, but on his psyche: "People who have very strong narcissistic agendas like Trump can be very charismatic," he says, "But sooner or later people get tired and lose interest in them."
Sooner. Or later.