As the dust settles on one of the most surprising electoral outcomes in American history, many are asking what exactly a Trump Administration will do in office. But given that Trump offered few specifics for his many sweeping campaign promises, and often reversed himself throughout the election even on his core issues, such predictions seem like a fool’s errand.
And truth be told, this election has seen enough of credentialed pundits with big megaphones making confident predictions about the future that have proven to be completely wrong. So instead of telling you what will happen, I’d like to pose several questions for the next few months whose answers will hopefully tell us more about what a Trump Administration might have in store.
1. Will the many anti-Trump Republican professionals work for him? Will he want them?
Some of the Republican party’s best political and policy talent—particular on foreign policy—refused to support Trump on principle. Many publicly denounced him. Others worked for third-party anti-Trump conservative candidate Evan McMullin. But now, the Trump administration will need to fill hundreds of posts overseeing crucial domestic and national security priorities. Will Trump reach out to his party’s pros? And would they accept his offer? Or will the Trump administration end up being populated by third-rate rejects who latched on to the Trump campaign because no serious one would have them?
Notably, some Republican policy hands remained strategically silent during the election, neither denouncing Trump nor endorsing him. One such example was former George W. Bush National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. Other serious conservative wonks I have spoken to off-the-record endorsed Trump not out of any love for him, but in the belief that he was going to win, and would need sane people around him to guide his presidency. (As it turns out, they were right.) If these people end up populating the upper echelons of a Trump administration, it may end up functioning more like a traditional Republican one. If not, another more troubling question arises…
2. Will alt-right members seep into Trump’s administration, much like they seeped into his Twitter feed?
Throughout Trump’s campaign, he and his surrogates repeatedly mainstreamed propaganda produced by white nationalists and anti-Semites. This was not deliberate, but rather the result of the campaign essentially relying on an army of internet trolls for PR, because few serious GOP professionals would work for Trump. During the campaign, I wrote that this boded ill for a Trump presidential administration, which could just as easily end up absorbing such bigots into its ranks by osmosis. Whether Trump’s hires look more like @WhiteGenocide or more like Chris Christie, then, is something media outlets and concerned citizens should closely monitor.
3. Which Trump will we get as president?
On election night, viewers saw a side of Trump rarely in evidence during the campaign. “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all of Americans, and this is so important to me,” he said. “For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”
The magnanimous speech was reminiscent of Trump’s earlier iteration as a New York liberal who decried racism, denounced David Duke, and defended the Clintons. After spending months calling to jail Hillary Clinton, he declared “we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country.” And when Trump met with President Obama at the White House today, he dubbed the person whose native birth he’d questioned “a very good man,” and said “it was a great honor being with you.”
As disorienting as it might seem, this Trump reversal should not surprise. “I can be more presidential than anybody, if I want to be,” he said during the Republican primary in March. In January, despite his broadsides against political correctness, Trump declared, “When I’m president I’m a different person. I can do anything. I can be the most politically correct person you have ever seen.” In 1999, he criticized far-right politician Pat Buchanan for “warn[ing] his followers that the United States is controlled by Jews, especially regarding foreign policy” and his “attacks [on] gays, immigrants, welfare recipients.” As BuzzFeed put it, “Donald Trump has even flip flopped on bigotry.”
So, which Trump will show up in the Oval Office? The very presidential, very politically correct former Democrat? Or the vindictive avatar of the 2016 campaign? Likely, it will be a mix, and which persona gets more play may prove profoundly consequential.
4. Will Trump pursue a literal enactment of his most extreme campaign promises, or instead fulfill them with merely symbolic gestures?
Trump’s campaign was defined by policy pledges that were short on specifics but long on grandiosity. He never explained how he’d build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, or the logistics of his proposed shutdown of Muslim immigration. There have been many indicators that these promises were not meant literally. When Trump met with the president of Mexico, he did not raise the issue of payment for the wall, and he hinted to the New York Times editorial board that he’d be flexible on it. Similarly, after Trump’s election, the Muslim plan was removed and then restored from his web site.
So, will Trump actually move forward with his most incendiary ideas? Or will he instead offer token gestures–extend the current border fence for a few hundred feet, announce increased background checks for all immigrants of the sort that are already in place–and then declare victory?
Essentially, there is a best case and a worst case scenario for a Trump presidency.
Best case: Trump governs like a populist, hewing largely to public opinion, and delegating most governing tasks to semi-competent people, while he enjoys being a playboy potentate. His domestic promises are forgotten or fulfilled symbolically, and his foreign policy remains largely mainstream.
Worst case: Trump’s victory empowers periodic violent mobs to go after vulnerable minorities, provoking clashes with law enforcement (when they are not tacitly abetted by authorities looking the other way). Trump follows through on his pro-Russian/anti-NATO pledges, emboldening not only Vladimir Putin, but far-right parties across Europe who will set out to mimic Trump’s tactics. Back home, constant stress is placed on America’s democratic institutions by an overreaching and corrupt Trump administration’s attempts to use the machinery of government and mass surveillance to achieve its personal ends. Meanwhile, the economy craters due to poor protectionist policies.
In the end, we’re likely to get some of both scenarios, but which parts are anyone’s guess.