While Donald Trump certainly had a momentous first full week on the job, none of it really should have been all that surprising. Plenty of people were downright outraged by his first actions as president, but few should have been as shocked as they seemed to be. It’s finally sinking in, to put this slightly differently, that there simply will never be a “pivot” to some different, more presidential Trump. The Trump you see is the Trump you get.
The pivot theory was espoused by many (trapped inside their Beltway-centric thinking) at various points over the past two years. Trump would surely pivot when he began leading in the polls. Or winning primaries. Or during debates. Or ― surely ― after he won the nomination and had to run a general election campaign. Since the election, this theory should have been buried beyond all resuscitation, but even then there were those who kept pathetically insisting that “as president-elect, he’ll surely now pivot” or even “after he is sworn in, he’ll have to act more presidential.” Last week proved this is never going to happen, and those who are still hoping for it should now be looked at with loving pity, as you would an adult who insisted the Easter Bunny was real. Delusional, but largely harmless to others, in other words.
What worries me most about Trump (to get back on subject), though, is not what he’s been doing last week, nor what he’s got planned for this week. Because almost without exception Trump has only been doing what he said he’d do while campaigning. While I certainly don’t condone much (if anything) that Trump is now doing, I’ve been expecting it ever since he got elected. His big signing ceremonies have been teed up for him for his first few weeks in office, so he can take care of the “low-hanging fruit” of his campaign promises. His executive orders and memoranda may not all ever take place (for instance: he can sign a piece of paper saying we’re going to immediately start building a wall, but until Congress provides money it won’t happen), but he has already scored big political points with his base just by signing affirmations of what he promised them he would do as president. If it doesn’t come to pass at a later date, he can just conveniently blame Congress, the courts, the media, or “the swamp” of Washington.
Trump said he’d build a wall. He said he’d ban Muslims and institute “extreme vetting.” He said he’d crack down on sanctuary cities. He said he’d restart the pipeline projects. He said he’d withdraw from the T.P.P. trade agreement. He said he’d dismantle Obamacare. On all of these items (and many others) Trump is merely doing exactly what he promised he’d do. He’s trying to build up credibility with his base that his administration will be nothing but “winning” ― so endlessly that people would actually get tired of winning, as he told us all on the campaign trail.
So I haven’t exactly been surprised at his initial actions. This week (and possibly next week as well), I expect we’ll have another slew of executive order signings and proclamations at least giving lip service to fulfilling his campaign promises. This is all what might be called the expected Trump. At this point, it wouldn’t even surprise me if he ordered Rosie O’Donnell sent to Gitmo to be waterboarded. Well, maybe that’s a wee exaggeration, but what I’m saying is that the expected Trump isn’t what really scares me. It’s the unexpected Trump that does.
No matter how long his initial agenda rollout period lasts (two weeks? three?), at some point the “easy stuff” will all be done. Trump will have checked off all the boxes on his list, at least in his own mind. You can picture him kicking back and telling himself: “This presidenting thing is easy!” But at some point, external events are going to intrude on his complacency. That’s when things could get truly frightening.
This could take a number of different forms, but the common thread would be something happening which Trump is completely unprepared to deal with. The most obvious might be titled “the swamp fights back” ― either the federal courts or Congress refuses to go along with some Trump policy. We’re already seeing the beginnings of this on Trump’s new Muslim ban, as federal judges issue stays on implementing the policy. When actual court rulings (instead of just stays) start to go against him, how will Trump react? Will he personally vilify the federal judges involved? Go on a Twitter rant? What happens if he starts losing key votes in Congress (which could only happen if a group of Republicans decided that Trump had gone too far)? Will Trump start attacking sitting Republican congressmen personally for their votes? The swamp of Washington is permanent (Washington, historically, was actually built on a swamp), and it has many ways of fighting back. Trump can’t stand such challenges to his authority, so how he will react is a very large and open question.
The second form it could take is an unexpected domestic problem: some police shooting (either direction) in an inner city, a major economic downturn, continued massive anti-Trump demonstrations outside his window, some “sovereign citizen” showdown out West, whatever. Presidents can never see these things coming (for the most part) and are expected to react appropriately when they pop up. Will Trump’s propensity for knee-jerk action lead him to do something wildly inappropriate (and wildly unpopular), when taking the time to get everyone’s counsel would have prevented such a ham-fisted mistake? Without knowing the details of the unexpected event, it’s impossible to predict exactly how Trump would react, but at this point it’s pretty easy to predict that he might make what would (to most people) be a regrettable decision in haste, without anyone around to talk him down from flying off the handle. The potential for escalation is the most worrisome aspect, though, because Trump doesn’t regret much that he does and he has a propensity to double down no matter how untenable his position may be. This could cause a spiral of more and more out-of-control decisions in quick order, in an attempt to salvage the initial bad call.
There’s one danger that Trump will likely just brush off, if past is any prologue. If one of Trump’s bright ideas backfires in spectacular fashion in some way (the possibilities are endless, really), Trump will not be taking any blame himself ― you can count on that. He’ll explain the failure away as somebody else’s failure, since he (by definition, in his own mind) cannot fail, at anything. So it’ll be inept federal workers who botched the implementation of his wondrous plan, it’ll be a cabinet secretary who has to fall on his or her sword, it’ll be Democrats’ (somehow) or even Barack Obama’s fault, it’ll be those dastardly liberal judges, it’ll be any number of scapegoats who bear the blame rather than Donald Trump. So if reality ever proves his agenda items to be woefully misguided and counterproductive, it certainly won’t be his fault ― that, at least, we can all count on him telling us.
However, the final danger is the most frightening (at least to me, personally). What happens when President Trump is faced with a dicey foreign policy crisis? This could be anything from getting in a war with (take your choice) Iran, China, North Korea, or Russia. Or it could just be the scenario that currently worries me the most. What would Trump do if one of his namesake properties worldwide were to be the target of a terrorist attack? This seems to be a pretty obvious danger, since Trump’s name is emblazoned on golf courses, hotels, and any number of other projects worldwide. Some of these are going to start looking like pretty soft targets to terrorist groups, since a terrorist attack on some random hotel in a foreign capital might be a big propaganda victory for them ― but an attack on a Trump hotel would be orders of magnitude more impactful on the world stage.
If a Trump property is attacked, Donald Trump may take it very personally. Who wouldn’t, with your name in big gold letters, out front? Will Trump react disproportionately if he feels himself personally under attack? It’s hard to see any other reaction possible, really. He’ll instantly claim that because Trump is president and the president represents the country, an attack on a Middle East golf course with his name on it is the equivalent of attacking a U.S. embassy. At this point, Trump could do just about anything in response. Which, as I said, is what worries me the most.
The expected Trump ― all the executive orders of the past week, his Supreme Court justice pick tomorrow, and all the upcoming rollout events of the next few weeks ― is bad enough. But we’ve had months and months to prepare ourselves for this part of his presidency, so little of it should have been all that surprising. What concerned me most about the Muslim ban rollout this weekend, though, is how it showed that Trump doesn’t bother much with what members of his own administration think about things. The order was reportedly hastily implemented, without any time for feedback from important cabinet members or federal departments ― including those who were tasked with carrying the new policy out. Maybe it was just a rookie mistake, and maybe Trump will improve on this over time. But that sounds an awful lot like wishing for the pivot that’s never going to take place. If the Trump administration can stumble this badly on a policy that they’ve been preparing for quite some time, then the frightening thing to contemplate is what they’ll do when a surprise crisis hits and there are only hours to react. The unexpected Trump could be a lot more dangerous than the expected Trump, that’s for sure.
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