Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

What If Trump Wins?

Contemplating the consequences of a GOP victory in November
What If Trump Wins?

Writing in The New Yorker, Evan Osnos has a long, provocative piece exploring what would likely happen in the event of a Trump presidential victory. He talked to a number of people involved in politics, government, economics, foreign policy, and so on, asking them practical questions. The answers would be sobering, if sobriety were a thing we did anymore.

Some uneasily pro-Trump Republicans assure themselves that Congress would put the reins on a President Trump. Not so fast:

What, exactly, can a President do? To prevent the ascent of what the Anti-Federalist Papers, in 1787, called “a Caesar, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian in America,” the founders gave Congress the power to make laws, and the Supreme Court the final word on the Constitution. But in the nineteen-thirties Congress was unable to mount a response to the rise of Nazi Germany, and during the Cold War the prospect of sudden nuclear attack further consolidated authority in the White House.

“These checks are not gone completely, but they’re much weaker than I think most people assume,” Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said. “Congress has delegated a great deal of power to the President, Presidents have claimed power under the Constitution, and Congress has acquiesced.” The courts, Posner added, are slow. “If you have a President who is moving very quickly, the judiciary can’t do much. A recent example of this would be the war on terror. The judiciary put constraints on President Bush—but it took a very long time.”


Trump could achieve many objectives on his own. A President has the unilateral authority to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, to order a ban on Muslims, and to direct the Justice Department to give priority to certain offenses, with an eye to specific targets. During the campaign, he has accused Amazon of “getting away with murder tax-wise,” and vowed, if he wins, “Oh, do they have problems.”

Any of those actions could be contested in court. The American Civil Liberties Union has analyzed Trump’s promises and concluded, in the words of the executive director, Anthony Romero, that they would “violate the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution.” Romero has said that the A.C.L.U. would “challenge and impede implementation of his proposals,” but that strategy highlights the essential advantage of the President: the first move. “The other branches are then presented with a fait accompli,” according to a 1999 paper by the political scientists Terry M. Moe and William G. Howell. After the September 11th attacks, Bush signed an executive order authorizing warrantless surveillance of Americans by the National Security Agency, and, though lawmakers voiced concerns, and lawsuits were filed, the program continued until 2015, when Congress ordered an end to bulk phone-metadata collection. Similarly, Obama has used his powers to raise fuel-economy standards and temporarily ban energy exploration in parts of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.

Here’s something that will keep us up nights:

For many years, Trump has expressed curiosity about nuclear weapons. In 1984, still in his thirties, he told the Washington Post that he wanted to negotiate nuclear treaties with the Soviets. “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” he said. “I think I know most of it anyway.” According to Bruce G. Blair, a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton, Trump encountered a U.S. nuclear-arms negotiator at a reception in 1990 and offered advice on how to cut a “terrific” deal with a Soviet counterpart. Trump told him to arrive late, stand over the Soviet negotiator, stick his finger in his chest, and say, “F*ck you!” Recently, a former Republican White House official whom Trump has called on for his insights told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”

We talk about how Hillary Clinton is “Nixon in a pants suit” (I have used that phrase on multiple occasions), but in a way, Trump is a more reckless version of Tricky Dick:

Watching Trump on the campaign trail, Timothy Naftali, the former director of the Nixon Presidential Library, said, “Trump tweets what Nixon knew not to say outside his inner circle, and we know what he said from the tapes. What Nixon would do is project onto situations the conspiracies that he would have concocted if in the same position. Nixon was convinced that the Democrats were spying on him. So he spied on them. To himself, he rationalized his actions by saying, ‘I’m only doing what my enemies are doing to me.’ ”

Surprisingly, the Chinese will probably be pretty chill with President Trump:

In some cases, Trump’s language has had the opposite effect of what he intends. He professes a hard line on China (“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” he said in May), but, in China, Trump’s “America First” policy has been understood as the lament of a permissive, exhausted America. A recent article in Guancha, a nationalist news site, was headlined “trump: america will stop talking about human rights and no longer protect nato unconditionally.”

Shen Dingli, an influential foreign-policy scholar at Fudan University, in Shanghai, told me that Chinese officials would be concerned about Trump’s unpredictability but, he thinks, have concluded that, ultimately, he is a novice who makes hollow threats and would be easy to handle. They would worry about the policies of a President Hillary Clinton, who, as Secretary of State, oversaw Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, intended to balance China’s expansion. “She is more predictable and probably tough,” Shen said. “Human rights, pivoting—China hates both.”

There’s a lot more, so read the whole thing. I have a few reactions.

1. This piece is the voice of the Establishment speaking out against Trump, who threatens it. It is rich reading Michael Chertoff, who served in the administration of the president who took us into Iraq after 9/11, warning how “reckless” President Trump would be. Also, the economic alarms sounded in the piece by Larry Summers ought to be considered in light of the fact that he, along with Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan , set the economy on a course for the 2007-08 crash. A committed Trump voter will not be persuaded by this piece, simply because he discounts the authority of the people quoted in it.

2. But that’s as foolish as taking everything they say at face value. Not everybody quoted in the piece is ideological, and some even work for Trump. The people Osnos quotes may not be infallible, but they know a lot more about their fields than you or I do. Is it really wise to doubt the top financial analyst who said if a President Trump repeated candidate Trump’s reckless public speculation that the US would consider defaulting on its sovereign debt, the global economic consequences would likely be calamitous?

3. A Trump presidency would be destabilizing in a way we have never seen before. Trump is not a conservative; he’s a radical. That’s why so many people like him. But we should think hard about whether or not we can afford for someone as powerful as the American president to be a radical. True, Ronald Reagan was a transformative president who struck fear into the heart of Establishment Washington. Reagan understood that the sclerotic Establishment needed shaking up. Trump, though, is no Reagan. Reagan had a vision, and he had convictions. Trump only has attitude, and a very thin skin.

4. On the other hand, the Establishment needs destabilizing. From the Osnos piece:

Randall Schweller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, told me, “I think we’re just at a point in our history where he’s probably the right guy for the job. Not perfect, but we need someone different, because there’s such calcification in Washington. Americans are smart collectively, and if they vote for Trump I wouldn’t worry.”

There was a reason Trump beat what pundits had considered the best GOP presidential field in ages: a plurality of Republican voters didn’t want what they were selling. If you find this mystifying, then I would suggest that you are out of touch with what’s happening in this country. Trump (and Sanders) didn’t come from nowhere. A large number of Americans have waning confidence in the system as it is. Perhaps the most depressing thing about Hillary Clinton is the sure confidence that she means Four More Years Of Staying The Course. The only thing more depressing is the idea that the only thing standing between that and America is Donald Trump. If Hillary wins, I expect her term to be like Francois Hollande’s in France: desultory, tiresome, and tired.

5. On the other hand, giving the power of the American presidency to a man of such vanity, arrogance, incuriosity, and recklessness — negative qualities that the destabilizing visionary Ronald Reagan never had — could be catastrophic. Osnos concludes that nervous Trump voters who tell themselves not to worry, that Congress and other forces will restrain him, are fooling themselves:

Trump presents us with the opposite risk: his victory would be not a failure of imagination but, rather, a retreat to it—the magical thought that his Presidency would be something other than the campaign that created it.

6. By the way, for those who think Trump will chart a new, unorthodox economic course should note that his chief economic adviser is Stephen Moore, the founder of the Club For Growth and an unreconstructed supply sider. Excerpt from the Osnos piece:

Moore visited Trump on his plane, and, during a series of meetings, he and others crafted an economic plan based on the cornerstone of supply-side economics: cut taxes to encourage people to work and businesses to invest. “That’s basically the theory there,” Moore said. “This is the signature issue for conservatives since Reagan went into office. This has been the battle between the left and the right. The liberals say tax rates don’t matter”—for stimulating growth. “We say they do.”

“This is the signature issue for conservative since Reagan went into office.” Huh. Not for this conservative. The idea that what America really wants and needs is more Reagan-era supply-side economics; the concept that this is the message of the 2016 campaign season — well, it’s remarkable. And this is who Trump is listening to on economics.

7. Economics, foreign policy, domestic policy are all on Osnos’s radar — but he completely ignores culture. That’s huge. This may well be because he’s deep inside the liberal cultural bubble and can’t even imagine how it feels to be a Deplorable. He should read Ross Douthat today. Ross talks about how fed up a lot of people are with the kind of social liberalism that jumps down professional goofball Jimmy Fallon’s throat for having treated his guest Donald Trump like a normal person, instead of History’s Greatest Monster. Excerpt:

It isn’t just late-night TV. Cultural arenas and institutions that were always liberal are being prodded or dragged further to the left. Awards shows are being pushed to shed their genteel limousine liberalism and embrace the race-gender-sexual identity agenda in full. Colleges and universities are increasingly acting as indoctrinators for that same agenda, shifting their already-lefty consensus under activist pressure.

Meanwhile, institutions that were seen as outside or sideways to political debate have been enlisted in the culture war. The tabloid industry gave us the apotheosis of Caitlyn Jenner, and ESPN gave her its Arthur Ashe Award. The N.B.A., N.C.A.A. and the A.C.C. — nobody’s idea of progressive forces, usually — are acting as enforcers on behalf of gay and transgender rights. Jock culture remains relatively reactionary, but even the N.F.L. is having its Black Lives Matters moment, thanks to Colin Kaepernick.

Douthat says these gains create problems for the Democrats. For one, it makes liberals confident that they can roll over cultural conservatives, and will be pushing elected Democrats to do just that. For another:

At the same time, outside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion — which may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.

This spirit of political-cultural rebellion is obviously crucial to Trump’s act. As James Parker wrote in The Atlantic, he’s occupying “a space in American politics that is uniquely transgressive, volatile, carnivalesque, and (from a certain angle) punk rock.” (The alt-right-ish columnist Steve Sailer made the punk rock analogy as well.) Like the Sex Pistols, Parker suggests, Trump is out to “upend the culture” — but in this case it’s the culture of institutionalized political correctness and John Oliver explaining the news to you, forever.

That, plus this analysis by Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett (who, like me, is not planning to vote for either candidate this fall), points to something even smart liberals like Evan Osnos can’t seem to grasp about why lots of people fear Hillary more than Trump:

Although Trump is a dangerously unfit and morally objectionable candidate, I am clear-eyed, I think, about the law-and-policy consequences of Clinton’s election and administration. Many of these will be, from my perspective, bad. The Democrats’ platform this year has moved to the left and, in particular, that party’s stated position on abortion rights and funding is deeply unjust. More important than a party’s platform, however, are an administration’s personnel. A Clinton administration will be carefully staffed with well-credentialed, competent, ideologically motivated people. They will interpret regulations, enforce rules, exercise discretion, and control funds in a wide range of consequential departments and agencies. In the modern administrative state, and particularly after President Obama’s embrace of an expansive view of executive power and regulatory authority, this is where the action is.

And so, whether or not the Democrats control Congress, committed but largely unaccountable activists, lawyers, and think-tankers will aggressively and creatively use a variety of tools, including litigation, accreditation, licensing, contracting conditions, funding-eligibility determinations, and “Dear Colleague” letters, to pursue their goals. I expect they will do what they can—which is a lot—to undermine or overturn reasonable limits on abortion, remove barriers to and increase support for embryo-destructive research and physician-assisted suicide, hamstring school-choice and education-reform efforts, narrow the sphere of religious freedom, and continue divisive “culture wars” campaigns.

Also unfortunate, in my view, will be the effect of a third consecutive Democratic administration on the federal courts. About a third of federal judges are Obama appointees and the next administration will replace hundreds who were selected by Reagan and the first President Bush. Both the Supreme Court and the courts of appeals will move significantly to the left, and the effects of this shift will not be limited to, say, a more permissive stance regarding gun control and campaign-finance regulation. There is every reason to think that a 6-3 “liberal” Court could backtrack on letting parochial schools participate in voucher programs, on allowing states to ban euthanasia, and on permitting limits on late-term abortions. The Court’s role in civil society and in our country’s moral and policy arguments, which is already unhealthily outsized, would increase.

This is huge. To be fair to Osnos, his piece is about what a Trump administration would likely do, not what a Clinton administration would do. The truth is, it’s hard to predict what kind of people Trump would fill the federal bureaucracy with, and what kind of impact they would have on culture, in the sense Garnett means. Personnel is policy, though. From a cultural conservative point of view, though, as repulsive and vulgar as Trump is personally, there’s no question that the kind of militant liberal ideologues that would come with a Hillary Clinton administration will be out in the cold under Trump. And for some of us, that’s the best thing — maybe the only good thing — about him.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here