Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency of the United States has been received with a mixture of incredulity and shock, followed by a very pronounced sense of unease and uncertainty about what this might entail. Simply put, we do not know, but the way his transition is being handled does little to assuage the serious list of concerns about his suitability for the office, things that were meant to have prevented him from getting this far.
Accompanying Trump’s remarkable rise from a curious oddity to a serious contender for the Republican ticket, and then an improbable presidential candidate and even more unlikely the victor, has been a steady stream of analysis. For op-ed writers, it presented a very obvious formula: “What would the election of Trump mean for [issue of choice]?” This gave media outlets the content they needed, the writers got another publication, and readers had another article to agree with and share or disagree with and ignore. But obviously we collectively missed something, as most of us were flatfooted when the election results arrived.
Much like Alice in “Through the Looking Glass,” it seems we have not had enough practice at believing in impossible things. Trump won, a black swan appeared once again. The immediate sense of confusion and alarm was soon replaced with another barrage of articles and posts now telling us why Trump won (but of course) and what this would mean for the U.S. economy, its place in the world or another issue of choice. One must wonder, however, about the ease with which the same pundits could resume their confident assertions, albeit now with a different starting point (President Trump).
While much is uncertain, what is clear is that Trump is different. He was not a normal candidate and now he is not a normal president-elect. There is an understandable need to come to terms with the reality of his election. In January he will be the president of the United States. The conciliatory tone of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton reflects their faith in one of the most fundamental tenets of democratic governance: the peaceful transfer of power. The hope is that he might moderate when he appreciates the gravitas of the office, or that his more inflammatory ideas will be curtailed by steadier and more experienced hands around him. Likewise, given how stale thinking inside the Washington Beltway has become, it is tempting to wish that his unorthodox ideas might have some benefit.
Such wishful thinking is not only misguided, it is dangerous, as it is greatly underestimates the significant risks that come with his presidency. To repeat: Trump is not a normal president-elect, and he should not be considered one. He is coming to power at a time when the international order that the U.S. has presided over since World War II is looking increasingly fragile. A thoughtful President Obama has struggled to chart a course for America having to manage an increasingly assertive China, a bullish Russia, a weak global economy, the complexities of the Arab Spring uprisings and subsequent fallout, the rise of Islamic State and the bloody mess of the Syrian conflict. This is a considerably abbreviated list of the challenges Obama has grappled with, and his temperament is much better suited for the job than that of his replacement.
In weighing up the likely dangers of Trump’s presidency, unfortunately we do not have to look very far. When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened, a new, inexperienced president was in power, someone who had surrounded himself with politically savvy operators with their own agenda.
The consequences of the path chosen by George W. Bush are well known to us: The world is still dealing with the fallout. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the other neoconservative ideologues leveraged the crisis to get their war with Iraq, but it did not turn out how they predicted. We can only hope that a crisis of a similar magnitude to 9/11 does not strike during the Trump presidency; and especially not during the first year when a very ill-prepared team will be learning on the job.
Another important lesson to take from the Bush era is that the sense of threat after 9/11 had a powerful chilling effect on political opposition and critical engagement in the country. This created an atmosphere in which politicians easily surrendered liberties (the Patriot Act), while the media failed in its role as watchdog as it parroted misinformation to justify the invasion of Iraq. We did not need hindsight to discover the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime would be a difficult and foolhardy endeavor.
While many correctly predicted in 2002 that it would go badly, few imagined how bad it would be, with the spectacle of IS emerging from the ashes of liberated Iraq. The fear of terrorism was used to convince Americans to attack Iraq, to forgo their values in widely using torture, and to accept the development of a massive system of surveillance. The experience of the Bush years suggests that the institutions of American democracy are not necessarily strong enough to prevent dangerous and reckless decisions being made. This does not bode well for a Trump presidency.
America’s central position in the postwar order and its unparalleled ability to cause damage means that the ramifications of the U.S. public’s decision will be felt well beyond its borders. The values that Trump represents and the politics he advances are deeply corrosive and threatening to core liberal values.
While we should avoid slipping into hyperbole, we also need to avoid simply presuming this is anomaly and hoping for the best. Remember, Trump was never supposed to get this far, but he did. More impossible things could be just over the horizon. Given this, we need to think more carefully about how this happened, what positive changes we can enact, and make sure to strongly reject and oppose racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry.
Christopher Hobson is an associate professor in the School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University.