In two days, our president-elect will don his overcoat, step onto a dais in front of the Capitol building, raise his right hand and recite the presidential oath of office. That man, impossibly, unbelievably, will be Donald J. Trump.
Nobody ever thought Trump’s Orange Revolution would succeed. Even against the most anemic Democratic presidential candidate since Michael Dukakis, the political class still assured us that a Trump loss was imminent. (I claim no special clairvoyance here: the best I mustered up was a column a few days before the election warning of the possibility that Trump could win, though I hastened to add that Hillary Clinton was still the far more likely victor.) The same caste of pundits that haughtily claims insight into politics as its genetic inheritance missed the biggest political story of my lifetime.
Yet on they go. Here’s what baffling me now: those same commentators who got everything wrong about Trump’s candidacy now assert they know exactly what’s going to happen during Trump’s presidency.
The Internet has clanged recently with doomsday headlines. Trump is said to herald the end of the West, the end of Atlanticism, the end of low-sitting island nations endangered by climate change. NATO is under existential threat as never before—Trump offered some mild critiques of the alliance, after all, which must mean he intends to scrap it entirely. Foreign policy writing intones that Trump has already realigned the United States with Russia, hemming in the European Union and leaving Angela Merkel as the “last liberal standing,” the “global savior.” Trump as Putin patsy is taken as a given, despite his advisors’ notable hostility to Russia in their confirmation hearings last week.
One leftist commentator pompously crowns himself leader of “The Resistance,” evoking the slightly hyperbolic analogy to the French under Nazi occupation. Another declares that Trump will bring a “global recession,” a prediction he only somewhat retracted much later. A third, responding to a perfectly levelheaded plea to keep an open mind about Trump’s presidency, retorts on Twitter, “He’s already demonstrated what it will be like. Emphatically and repeatedly. There are no mysteries here.” Try him, convict him and lop off his head.
In fact, mysteries abound with Trump. The man is no Thomas Jefferson, but he is a more verbose American sphinx. He views everything as a negotiation and intentionally takes extreme positions from the outset so he can moderate them later in the pursuit of compromise. His two most notorious campaign promises, The Wall and the deportation of all illegal aliens—themselves a flip-flop from 2012 when he declared that Mitt Romney’s malice towards immigrants lost Republicans the election—have already been abandoned in one form or another. As for abortion, well, who the hell knows?
It was true during the campaign and it remains true today: we have no clue what Donald Trump will do once he’s ensconced in the Oval Office. He could prove to be a policy authoritarian, micromanaging America’s approach to the world according to his whims and vanities. He could end up bored with the business of governance and spend all his time tub-thumping across the country while Mike Pence governs in his stead. He could align the United States with Moscow; he could turn the United States away from Moscow, perhaps after an accidental slight by Vladimir Putin permeates his pregnable ego.
Who knows? Trump betokens little except the unknown.
That enigma is reason enough for concern—Americans should never find themselves in a position where their top elected official, the man pocketing their nuclear codes, is so volatile that they have no idea what he’s going to do. It is possible that hard times lie ahead, that the crisis of American liberalism forewarned by so many observers really is upon us. But those same pundits do themselves no favors by prematurely overselling their case. Donald Trump isn’t even in office yet; let’s stop pretending that we already live under Russian occupation.