Other than Kim Jong Un nuking South Korea, a coordinated attack on Israel by Hezbollah from the north and Hamas from the south, California seceding from the United States, a paternity suit brought by Rosie O’Donnell, or a hurricane that floods the gift shop at Trump Tower, what’s the worst that could happen in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency? Political scientists across the U.S. are unanimous in their forecasting: We. Don’t. Know.
“The hard thing about predicting anything about Trump is that his track record shows no consistency whatsoever,” says Cary Covington, associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Iowa. “He’ll say terrible things about someone one day and say great things the next and vice versa, and his political background doesn’t give you a clear indication of where he’s going to go next.
“He’s been a Democrat, he’s been a Republican, and he’s been an independent. He seems to be the kind of person who will say whatever needs to be said to accomplish the goal in front of him, and never mind the implications of that down the road. The one enduring explanatory variable of his life is his feeling, ‘What’s in it for me? If it’s not for me, then I’m against it.’ ”
“Could he soothe the nation in an hour of crisis? We don’t know,” says Bob Shrum, the long-time adviser to Democratic Party presidential candidates who now holds the chair in practical politics at the University of Southern California. “We are in terra incognita. I can’t think of any elected president in American history about whom we can be certain of less.”
One clue as to the intentions of the incoming commander-in-chief might be the man’s own public utterances, especially when they were authored by someone of more stable mien and not expelled as a midnight tweet. For example, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington last April, Trump pledged “a new foreign policy direction for our country, one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace.
“And then there’s ISIS,” Trump declared. “I have a simple message for them. Their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. We must as a nation be more unpredictable . . . But they’ll be gone quickly. They will be gone very, very quickly.”
Two months later, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Trump promised, “We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities . . . Our horrible trade agreements with China, and many others, will be totally renegotiated. That includes renegotiating NAFTA to get a much better deal for America.”
But since his elevation to the Oval Office with a two-million-vote minority under America’s antique system of state-by-state balloting for the highest national office, Trump has marched determinedly backward, reneging on almost every vow he used to inflame his mostly Caucasian constituency. “He’s so scattershot,” says Leti Volpp, professor of law in access to justice at the University of California at Berkeley. “We have this history of him making extremely frightening statements, but since the election there’s been no mention of mass deportations, no mention of the wall on the Mexican border, and no mention of some kind of ID registry program for people who are Muslim, so it’s very difficult to know what’s going to happen.”
“It has to be pointed out that when he had his interview on 60 Minutes, part of what he was saying sounded a lot like what the Obama administration already has been doing. People call him ‘Obama the deporter.’ Maybe it started as part of [Barack Obama’s] political calculus, that to push immigration reform through Congress, he thought he had to show how tough he was. That calculus completely failed.
“What Trump talked about during the campaign was an increase in scale of this policy coupled with a kind of violent hate speech. But at this point, he’s just saying, ‘I’m going to deport all those illegal criminal aliens and then we’ll decide what to do.’
“My take, which tends to run contrary to a lot of the people I know, is that Trump can do no lasting damage to my country in terms of domestic policy,” says Covington. “I just have so much faith in our institutions that I believe that we can withstand a Trump presidency no matter what he tries to do domestically. It might be 40 years before we right the ship, but I have no doubt that anything Trump does to us in terms of domestic policy will ultimately be transitory.
“Where I fear a Trump presidency is in terms of national security policies—that it takes us down a road that leads to a cliff and we don’t know it until we’ve gone off the cliff. It’s hard to measure what an existential threat to the U.S. would look like, but we could become isolated, vilified by nations that have been our allies for generations. For example, most middle-class Muslims across the Arab world want nothing more than a peaceful life. If Trump did something to alienate those people, it could have very dangerous consequences for us.”
“Foreign policy, who knows?” Shrum agrees. “At one time, he had these very hardline people advising him. Now he says he wants to use his son-in-law Jared Kushner to make peace in the Middle East. He’s begun talking about renegotiating NAFTA, not tearing it up.
“The Iran deal? He can’t end that agreement unilaterally and he can’t get Russia and China to reimpose sanctions and he may not even know that seven other nations are party to that agreement. But beyond that, you can’t expect that the ayatollahs are going to proceed rationally, and Kim Jong Un could go after just about anybody. You want to talk about a crazy person with nuclear weapons, that’s not Trump, that’s Kim!”
In November, when president-elect Trump issued a YouTube video outlining his priorities for his first term, one eight-letter word was never uttered: “Congress.” The idea that his trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal, for example, actually would have to be approved by the Tea Party deficit hawks in the House of Representatives has seemingly not yet registered.
Neither has the idea that trying to combine the presidency with his continued, profit-driven connection to the Trump Organization might be a huge conflict of interest. As chairman Trump told the New York Times in November, “In theory I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly.” But that may be the cliff that Trump never sees until he goes over it.
“A year from now,” says Covington, “the potential for personal kinds of corruption, the idea that he wants to enrich his family and his estate through the manipulation of the presidency, I have the sense that that could get really bad, really fast, and that is really the wild card.
“The idea that his business interests are profiting from the policies he enacts as president is really the Republican Party’s insurance policy against him doing fatal damage to the country. They can always cash in that policy and impeach him and then they’ll have Mike Pence as president.” Still, Covington says, “I have a sense that a year from now that we’ll have the sense how moderate a lot of things he will do really are. My prediction is that a year from now we’ll go ‘Ha, he wasn’t as bad as we thought.’
“But if I’m wrong, hopefully you have a short memory.”