Early Prediction: Trump Splits the Difference with Republicans by Midterm (2018)

12Nov16

In May 2014, I bet that the Republican candidate would win the presidential election in November 2016. As a follow-on, I bet “that the Republican will win because the Democrat will be tainted by Obama’s handling of key international issues.” The purpose of the early bet — other than demonstrating the power of my crystal ball — was to stimulate interest. I have found that I tend to pay more attention if I have taken a position on an issue, even if I do so just for purposes of discussion.

Now it’s time for a new bet. For background, let’s start with an article in The American Conservative titled The Trump Era’s Promise, by ardent Trump supporter Scott McConnell (Nov. 9, 2016). McConnell seems to believe that Trump’s achievements or priorities will include the following:

  • Back off, in some sense, from “trying to expand NATO right up to Russia’s borders” and, more generally, “seek hostility with no country” — that is, back away from the neoconservative inclination to take preemptive military measures, abroad, in order to preserve America’s international military dominance. The conservative preference would be more inclined to use the military only to protect the territory of the United States.
  • “Nominate Scalia-like justices to the Supreme Court.”
  • “Stem illegal immigration.”
  • “Progress toward peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict is obviously off the table.”
  • An end to what conservatives considered some of the worst failings of the Obama administration: “good working class jobs disappearing, accelerating entry of unskilled immigrants, the creation of an ultra-liberal Supreme Court that will shape the law for generations, collapsing infrastructure, rising crime, escalating attacks on police officers, political correctness enforced at increasingly insane levels.”

Of course, Trump himself made a variety of colorful promises during his campaign, including these:

  • Build a wall on the Mexico border, to keep out illegal immigrants, and get Mexico to pay for it.
  • Prosecute and imprison Hillary Clinton.
  • Temporarily ban Muslim immigration into the U.S.
  • Repeal Obamacare.
  • Scrap trade agreements, notably NAFTA and TPP, and bring manufacturing jobs back.
  • Renegotiate the Iran deal.

From the liberal side, Roger Cohen in the New York Times (November 9, 2016) sees Trump in somewhat more ominous terms:

  • “American anger and uncertainty in the face of the inexorable march of globalization and technology had reached such a pitch that voters were ready for disruption at any cost.”
  • “Enough of elites; enough of experts; enough of the status quo; enough of the politically correct; enough of the liberal intelligentsia and cultural overlords with their predominant place in the media; enough of the financial wizards who brought the 2008 meltdown and stagnant incomes and jobs disappearing offshore.”
  • “This is the revenge of Middle America, above all of a white working-class America troubled by changing social and cultural mores — not every American loves choose-your-gender bathrooms — and by the shifting demographics that will make minorities the majority by midcentury.”
  • “[R]acism did not die with America’s first black president. Sexism is also alive and well, as Trump’s misogyny-sullied road to victory illustrates.”
  • “Trump has shown a worrying contempt for core American values, including respect for diversity, inclusiveness, an independent judiciary, and, at one point, the democratic process itself.”
  • “The past months have revealed a personality given to impetuous anger, meanness, mendacity and petulance.”
  • “Leaders like President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran favored Trump for a reason: They believe he will make America weaker, the trans-Atlantic alliance weaker, and the American-buttressed post-1945 global order weaker. They could well be right.”

Those are the sorts of expectations people on the right and left have, regarding the likely policies of our president-elect. My bet is, he’s going to surprise everyone.

I would say that Donald Trump is one of two people, or perhaps a combination of two. On one hand, he could be more or less an idiot, way over his head in an extraordinarily complex and nuanced job — an oaf who will say and do a great many stupid things while being suckered and steered by cronies manipulating him, the way Dick Cheney et al. manipulated the clueless George W. Bush. On the other hand, Trump could be a master gamesman, constantly playing people for his purposes. I suspect he’s more of the latter than the former. He’s not stupid. He will be manipulated at times. All presidents are. But the key point is, he has been playing people for years; he’s good at it; and he will continue to do it.

I suspect Trump played Russia’s Vladimir Putin, perhaps to obtain his assistance during the election but at least to set him up for later negotiations. He played the people who voted for him, telling them whatever they wanted to hear — anything that would be a popular alternative to Hillary Clinton. He’s got liberals worried that he means at least half of the things he has said, and he’s got conservatives believing that he means most of them.

I am suggesting that Trump will continue to say and do whatever he feels necessary, to take him where he wants to go. And where he wants to go is, above all else, to demonstrate his own greatness.

This was the impression I had yesterday, three days after the election. It seems to be supported by these words in Time:

President-elect Donald Trump, who had repeatedly campaigned on a promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act [a/k/a Obamacare], said he would consider keeping certain parts of the health care law after meeting with President Obama at the White House this week.

That is not what conservatives would care to hear. Regardless, it doesn’t mean Trump will or won’t preserve Obamacare. It only means that he made a statement that seemed advisable at the moment, motivated perhaps partly by the Democrats protesting in the streets — a statement to which people will have reactions — and he will gauge those reactions to figure out his next steps.

In other words, Trump may have a sort of interest in some policies, and sometimes that may influence him; but he is far more likely to be steered by whatever will contribute to the fact or impression of his own greatness.

As a candidate, to win, Donald Trump had to say all sorts of things that many consider outrageous. For the most part, that’s over. I expect that we will see, henceforth, a much more presidential persona — not because he is, by nature, presidential, but simply because that persona will be much more compatible with his effort to be seen as a great president. He will still say outrageous things, especially when it serves his purposes of manipulating people in various directions — but, for him more than most, talk is cheap.

For the moment, Trump has defeated the Democrats. On the road to greatness, the Republicans are now his primary adversaries, because they would have him do all sorts of divisive things, wise or not, that would conflict with his desire to become a sort of second George Washington, a man beloved of all the people. In this reading, he knows that he was elected in good part just because so many people detested Hillary Clinton. He has to do better than that: he has to become an accepted and even a widely respected figure in his own right.

I would guess that part of Trump’s effort will be to divide the Republicans — to get them fighting among themselves about priorities and details. To some extent, this would presumably include empowering the Democrats in Congress, to the extent he can, so that they rather than he take the blame for obstructing Republican progress. Winning Democratic goodwill also seems essential to preclude the rise of a plausible Democratic candidate who could ride a strong wave of anti-Trump sentiment to victory in 2020.

Based on these reflections, my bet is that Donald Trump will not deliver anywhere near the entire package that he promised and that now appears on Republican wish lists. He will have to deliver a lot, so as to avoid being labeled as a phony or liar. But what he does deliver will have to work for the public as a whole. Between now and midterm congressional elections in 2020, I expect to see Trump producing a mixed bag: some real results for the Republican base, but also some surprisingly liberal preferences on certain issues.

Just for the fun of it, I’ll try to be more specific. These are my guesses on what Trump will deliver, on some of the foregoing issues:

  • A reduction in some foreign military entanglements — slowed by developments that, in the public mind, justify continued U.S. military engagement abroad;
  • His first two Supreme Court nominees will include one conservative and one moderate;
  • Mexico will refuse to pay for a wall dividing the two countries, and Congress will refuse to fund it;
  • There will be some pursuit of an investigation of Hillary Clinton to which Trump will pay little attention, and it will end with, at most, a slap on the wrist for her;
  • Obamacare will be largely repealed, in exchange for an alternate plan that appears more popular;
  • NAFTA and other trade agreements will be renegotiated and renamed, but not entirely scrapped;
  • Skepticism toward political correctness and the liberal intelligentsia will be encouraged, and there will be an accelerated emphasis on redesigning higher education; and
  • There will be more effective financial regulation than Wall Street would prefer.

So that’s my bet, and the reasoning behind it. It should be interesting to see what happens next.

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