WASHINGTON – The idea that Donald Trump might be a good president seems as unlikely as the idea that he would win the election. Yet, as we see, strange things sometimes happen.
Actually I wasn’t as stunned by his win as many other observers. If he proves to be a good president, that will surprise me more. One always comes back to his character. What happens when such a vain, impulsive, bullying and proudly ignorant man meets resistance, or has to deal with a crisis? That’s certain to happen. The risk with such a leader isn’t so much that he will be a routinely disappointing president, but that he might be a disastrous one.
Nonetheless he has one or two things going for him. The first is expectations. His supporters are said to be in for a colossal disappointment. Yet they might be less crestfallen than you’d think. After all, how many will really be surprised that Trump can’t and won’t keep his promises to them? For many of his supporters, the biggest benefit of electing Trump has already been banked: They told Washington what they think.
His critics, on the other hand, have been so harsh that it won’t be difficult for Trump to prove them wrong. Respectable opinion has declared itself so violently against Trump that he’ll be held to a very low standard. Small acts of civility and moderation will seem like remarkable achievements. The view that he’s a far-right racist zealot, a 21st-century Hitler, shouldn’t be hard to refute: He just needs to avoid dressing his supporters in paramilitary uniforms, declaring martial law in the inner cities, and building a network of concentration camps.
President Obama and Hillary Clinton tapered their denunciations of Trump once he was elected, choosing to be gracious and open-minded. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both said that, much as they detest Trump, they’ll work with him if he comes forward with policies to advance the people’s interests. Of course they’re right to do so — but only because a lot of what they said about Trump before was over the top. If they were right last month about the evil Trump is bent upon, what they’re saying now would be wrong.
In that respect, I have to give credit to Slate’s Jamelle Bouie. He wrote recently that all Trump supporters (not just half of them) are just plain bad people, because they’ve put an irredeemably evil man in power. And he says Sanders and Warren shouldn’t do business with Trump, issue by issue, because this will help him advance his vile white-supremacist purposes. Bouie is the crazy zealot here, obviously — but at least he’s consistent. If Trump were indeed a Hitler for our times, you would be right to refuse any and all cooperation, and to stop him by any means necessary. It makes no sense to call him evil and then start making deals, as some Democrats now propose.
The question is whether these deals will be any good. It’s possible — because, again, the orthodox line of attack on Trump is wrong. He isn’t “far-right.” In the agreements he’ll aim to reach with Republicans in Congress, he’ll often be a moderating influence, pulling to the left. “Congressional Democrats,” writes the New York Times, “divided and struggling for a path from the electoral wilderness, are constructing an agenda to align with many proposals of President-elect Trump that put him at odds with his own party.”
Trump has said he wants to cut taxes and increase spending on infrastructure. A big fiscal stimulus is exactly what many liberal economists have been calling for these past several years. Today, as you might expect, they’re no longer so sure. Some damn-the-torpedoes Keynesians now see the merit in fiscal conservatism. They’re right about the need to make fiscal policy sustainable and get value for public money in infrastructure programs, points not hitherto emphasized. In the short run, though, a Trump presidency could give them a macroeconomic policy that’s closer to the one they’ve been advocating than anything they’ve seen so far. And in the short run, it would boost growth.
In economic policy, the biggest danger is that Trump’s idiotic views on trade will start a cycle of protection and retaliation, maybe even a full-scale trade war. (I’ll be interested to see whether Trump’s victory produces an adjustment in expert opinion like the one we’re seeing on fiscal policy — from “We’re all trade skeptics now” to “Liberal trade is vital for our prosperity.”) Yet trade, so central in his campaign, is apparently not among the three things he wants to address right away. Those would be tax reform, immigration and health care. In each case, to be sure, a Trump administration could easily do more harm than good. We’ll see.
On all these matters, bear one more thing in mind. It will help that Trump has no ideology. This could be his biggest asset. His views, expressed with total conviction, are lightly held, insofar as they even exist. His goal isn’t to drive through, at any cost, some radical transformation of America’s society and economy, or to reorder international relations and remake the world. It’s to prove his critics wrong, and keep on winning.
I’m betting he won’t. For the reasons I mentioned, I’m worried he’ll fail spectacularly. But you never know.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist who often writes on politics.
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