To those who believed, sequentially, that Donald Trump would drop out soon after entering the GOP primary field; that this or that outrageous provocation of his would fatally turn off primary voters; that while he might be winning primaries, he had a ceiling of support among Republicans in the 40-percent range through which he could never pass; that he would never win a majority of delegates to the convention; that if he did, the party establishment would do its utmost to deny him the nomination; that under pressure from GOP defectors, he might drop out of the race; and that he could never win the general election—to all of you, I say: It’s time to start thinking about how Trump intends to win reelection. He will certainly be thinking about it, and it is likely to illuminate some of the decisions he makes.
Let’s start with a preliminary list of liabilities and assets. First of all, he lost the popular vote. Of course, getting to 270 in the Electoral College is how you determine the winner in this game, and Trump has declared with characteristic baldness that if instead he had needed to win the popular vote, he could have—a point pollsters dispute (just as you’d expect them to do, his supporters would say). Second apparent liability: The media no less than Democrats were shell-shocked by the election result and will give him no quarter, continuing to cover every move in maximal negative light. Third, the president-elect has given no indication he intends to give up tweeting, a medium known for neither nuance nor subtlety. And he has said he has no regrets about anything he said during the campaign, because “I won.”
Fourth, although most Americans have come to terms with the election result, they have not exactly rallied around the president-elect to the extent seen in years past. Some bitter-enders remain defiant, and on social media as well as in street protests, the attention they draw far outpaces their numbers and is likely to continue to do so, providing little relief from the hyperpartisan tone of the campaign season. Fifth, there’s the character issue: The percentage of Americans who see him as unforgivably deplorable is considerable. The Clinton attack on his character, though in retrospect misguided as the centerpiece of her campaign, was nothing if not thorough. Trump’s core supporters don’t care about critics’ allegations, but the damage among softer supporters and independents was genuine.
Sixth, Trump showed little interest during the campaign in the details of policy, and many of his pronouncements have provoked the release of antibodies into the American system. His comments on making allies pay up, for example, have led a chorus of voices to note that we have treaty obligations that are not tied to accounts receivable, and that if we spurn these obligations, U.S. credibility would be shot. Finally, many such allies and global elitedom more broadly are in a panic, wondering what the Trump administration has in store for them. So those are the liabilities.
As for the assets, well, first let’s reconsider those liabilities. On the popular vote, Trump knows perfectly well Hillary Clinton outpolled him. If he’s running for reelection, he may indeed see it as good enough to win the Electoral College again, while likewise losing the popular vote, but I doubt it. Trump eked out his status as a winner in 2016, and he will want no doubt about that status in 2020. One could say of George W. Bush that he didn’t appear to be fully comfortable with his presidency until after his reelection, when he finally won the popular vote as well as the Electoral College. Trump’s style is never to look uncomfortable or as if he harbors a doubt, but he will certainly want his job approval rating to rise over time as he builds a plurality if not a majority for 2020. If he had won a big Reagan 1980-style victory, that might have encouraged him to “make America great again” in ways that could cost him with voters, but he has voters to burn only to the extent he can replace them with new supporters in greater numbers. Another word for an unpopular populist is “loser.”
With regard to the hostility of the media, Trump won despite it. He isn’t the least bit needy here. In a job approval contest with the media, he will almost certainly come out ahead. And he concluded long ago that he has more to gain than lose in calling out the press for unfairness. The genius of his Twitter feed is that it gives him a direct line not only to his nearly 16 million followers, but also to anyone who is criticizing him on Twitter, where the practice is to “quote” the tweet on which you are heaping derision, and where “quote” is Twitter’s euphemism for “republish.” We should note that the conventional practice for the old media is now to quote someone’s tweet as his or her definitive statement on a subject. No one will ever wonder what Trump’s views are on any given subject.
As for those who have loudly denied the legitimacy of a President Trump, the numbers are not large. One could imagine a scenario in which violent protests and Twitter mobs continued to escalate through the inauguration, at which point the new president would face the prospect of enforcing a clampdown to “restore order”—and one can imagine the volatile response. But for now, the protests seem to be diminishing rather than gathering strength. Demonstrators and vocal critics have long been a foil off which Trump plays, to the plain end of rallying neutrals to his side by virtue of the unattractiveness of the opposition. He’s good at it. When Trump first took to Twitter after the election with a complaint about the “unfair” protests against him, Twitter lit up with a chorus of there he goes again, he can’t even control himself after he’s been elected president, etc. Yet I suspect anyone even remotely dispassionate was entertaining the possibility that it might indeed be a bit unfair to demonstrate against someone who hadn’t yet actually taken office and done anything.
About character, one might have thought the second term of Bill Clinton had settled the question of whether vulgarity or worse was a bar to occupying high office. It might go too far to say that Americans have done Machiavelli one better and now no longer require even the appearance of virtue in their leaders. But they seem to be adept at balancing conduct they may reprehend against other, more desirable qualities. In any event, Trump absorbed a full onslaught of revelation and allegation and prevailed. We need a new metaphor for this phenomenon. The old one was “Teflon,” for a politician to whom nothing sticks. Now everything sticks, but it doesn’t matter.
As for the absence of policy detail in the campaign and a thoroughly flabbergasted global elite, Trump now has a lot of latitude to craft an agenda, and expectations worldwide are rock bottom verging on the fantastical: He’ll probably win grudging respect simply for avoiding global thermonuclear war.
So the liabilities on the balance sheet are in some respects not so disadvantageous. What about Trump’s assets? Well, prima facie, he is something of a political genius. He has just traveled the most unusual path to the White House in the history of the republic: from private citizen to president in 18 months. If you thought Barack Obama was precocious, note that the 44th president at least had the Illinois legislature and a successful U.S. Senate race behind him. One of the oddest features of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was the response many of his aides and hangers-on gave to the challenge that Obama, with no executive experience, was ill qualified for office. The rejoinder was: untrue—because, after all, he was running a successful multimillion-dollar presidential campaign! Though absurd, the claim had a certain reductionist brilliance to it, much like saying the essential element of leadership is followers. But yes, you don’t win the presidency by accident, and Trump didn’t.
Add to this, in Trump’s case, a Brechtian ability to dissolve the Republican party and elect another. He saw, or intuited, something few thought possible: a path to the White House through the upper Midwest and Pennsylvania. Many now step up to take credit as the avant garde for this vision, including his boosters on conservative talk radio. True, he was (eventually) their man. But their working political assumption had been that the right presidential candidate, a true conservative, could arouse an ideologically conservative electorate, which would then defeat liberalism. The problem with previous GOP nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney, in this view, was that they weren’t really conservatives.
Well, neither is Trump, at least not in any sense conserv-ative talk radio uses the term. So “conservative” was out as the prime qualification, and “antiestablishment” took its place, as if they were the same thing. But they aren’t, and acting as if they are does an injustice to Trump’s originality in his conception of the challenge and his opportunity.
We’ll leave the balance sheet there. The primary issue in Trump’s reelection is this: About two and a half years from now, as he contemplates his political prospects, what will he point to as evidence that he has made America great again (or is well on the way to doing so)?
Unless they are very foolish politically, as was George H. W. Bush, presidents seem to understand that while a substantial amount of what they said to get elected can fall by the wayside once they are in office, they are obliged to keep faith with commitments their first-term voters regard as core. That’s why Barack Obama felt obliged to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by 2012 and could talk himself into the view that any adverse consequences would be minimal. As a candidate, he presented himself as the one to end an unnecessary and wasteful war. It’s why Bill Clinton felt obliged in 1996 to sign a welfare reform bill not at all to his liking: He was hoping a Democratic Congress would write the legislation, but had to cope with a more draconian GOP Congress instead. But as a candidate, he promised to “end welfare as we know it.” So he signed. A misconception about the importance of core commitments caused Bush 41 to break his most famous campaign declaration: “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
What were Trump’s core commitments? The first is obvious: illegal immigration and the security of the southern border. Although some have spoken of Trump’s wall as if it could be redefined as metaphorical, I read the commitment as requiring a physical barrier in order to pass muster. So he is probably going to build a wall. (As for getting Mexico to pay for it, a gimmick would likely suffice.) And if border patrol officers catch people trying to enter the country illegally, the Trump administration will send them back. There will be little of the ambiguity that seems to characterize current enforcement policies. A second focus of his campaign message on this subject was criminal illegal aliens. The Trump administration will likely have little compunction about deporting them and -drawing attention to what it is doing. And for purposes of drawing attention, the Trump team will probably be happy to see protesters fill the street in defense of criminal aliens. As for Trump’s remarks about keeping Muslims out and “extreme vetting,” the question is whether he is willing to act within the reasonable limits of executive authority or whether he is going to pick a court fight he probably can’t win.
I’d say the next core commitment is working-class jobs. This may or may not be tied to Trump’s promise to do something about “unfair” trade, but it seems the bigger issue. Soon after taking office in 2009, President Obama lamented the absence of “shovel-ready” projects to which to devote stimulus dollars. I think Trump will find some, probably starting with a spate of approvals for private-sector energy projects, but continuing with large-scale public infrastructure spending. A defense buildup including such job-creating elements as more ships for the Navy would also make sense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Social Security payroll tax cut for individuals as part of the mix as well.
The premise of much thinking in the Democratic party on economics is that an advanced economy such as ours can’t reasonably expect economic growth to exceed 2 percent or so per year. If Clinton had won, we would have had no serious test of this proposition. Trump will test it. Rapid-fire deregulation by way of revocation of many Obama administration executive orders will certainly be an early element. Another likely move will be to find a way to repatriate the $2 trillion or so U.S. corporations have parked offshore because of the tax obligation if they bring the money home.
On trade, Trump will likely feel obliged to pick some fights over dumping and currency manipulation. The big question is how seriously he will take on China. He will also “invite” Canada and Mexico to open a round of negotiations on revising NAFTA, to which they will agree: Even proponents of the treaty would probably concede that some provisions could stand revisiting in light of the passage of 22 years since its approval. (There’s an opportunity here to devise a scheme whereby Mexico can be said to be paying for the wall, too.) Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership will go back to the bargaining table as well. It will be interesting to see if Trump is prepared to accept success in renegotiating trade deals in his first term or if he would prefer to keep negotiations open into his second.
On foreign policy, Trump’s core commitments seem to be the destruction of ISIS, an end to what he sees as adventurism abroad, a demand that U.S. allies pay more, and (how to put it?) a reset with Russia. On ISIS, Syria’s brutal Bashar al-Assad may be the inadvertent winner in a common Russian-Syrian-U.S. front. On the other hand, one wonders how much Vladimir Putin loves Assad personally, as opposed to his utility in providing Russia a presence in the Mediterranean. Perhaps Trump strikes a deal with Putin that removes Assad to a dacha in Crimea while retaining Russian influence over Syria’s successor regime? Sanctions against Russia are probably going to go as well. I wonder what Trump the negotiator could get in exchange for that and for recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. As for an end to the U.S. propensity for adventurism abroad, that probably comes after the destruction of ISIS and the application of military power against its affiliates.
As for those supposedly free-riding U.S. allies? Look for them to be increasing their defense commitments forthwith. I was at the German Ministry of Defense a few weeks before the election on other business, but my interlocutors were very eager to convey the message that Germany had turned the corner and was increasing defense spending. And that was at a time when everybody thought Clinton was going to win.
Meanwhile, at home, throw in some outreach to African Americans and to primarily English-speaking Hispanics, as well as an end to the federal government’s interest in who can use which bathrooms, et voilà! America, great again.
Events will, of course, intrude. But it is hardly implausible that Trump could deliver on his core commitments and as a result be well-positioned to improve on his 2016 electoral performance. Politically speaking, he is already the biggest thing to hit the GOP since Reagan. Over the summer, I was thinking of writing an article whose working title was going to be “Trumpism After Trump.” That is really going to have to wait.