Opinion

The good, the bad, and the ugly: 3 possible outcomes of a Trump presidency

Best-case scenario? A hands-off president. Worst-case scenario? Things could get very ugly.

Donald Trump is officially the president of the United States. Now that it's finally said and done, let's try to figure out what a Trump administration might actually mean.

Of course, this is harder than it looks, because Trump's personal style makes him unpredictable — and he likes it that way. According to the writer and Cold War-era spy Vladimir Volkoff, when the KGB planned a clandestine operation, the person in charge would have to write three memos to the higher ups: one outlining the probable case scenario, one for the best-case scenario, and one for the worst-case scenario. Using KGB methodology to ascertain a Trump administration seems somehow fitting, so let's try to do that. We'll call it: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good: The best-case scenario for a Trump administration would be one where Trump stays mostly removed from everyday policymaking, and at the same time uses his often uncanny instincts for political opportunity to shape outcomes in key ways.

On the domestic policy front, this would mean legislation that is mostly driven from Congress but shaped in a way to avoid Trump's veto pen. Tax reform would include the requisite Republican wish list of corporate tax cuts and tax rate flattening, but also a significant piece of pro-family tax reform and wage subsidies to boost working-class families and working-class employment. Instead of repealing ObamaCare and then sort-of-maybe hoping one day to get around to a reform of their own, Republicans would unite around a package that would cover everyone, while relaxing some of the most egregious regulations that have caused ObamaCare's tailspin.

On the foreign policy front, a realpolitik retrenchment would enable the Syrian conflict to simmer down, with Assad holding on to most of Syria, and ISIS getting smothered by an international coalition. Ukraine would remain in Russia's sphere of influence, but NATO wouldn't unravel. China would come to realize that the gravy train is over, and that calling for "free trade" while enforcing rigorous capital controls and subsidizing its export sector in scores of different ways is not sustainable, and would offer some concessions, but we wouldn't get a full-blown trade war (or a war at all).

The bad: The main reason to believe we shouldn't expect a "good" scenario — or a particularly "ugly" scenario either — is that Trump is simply too chaotic. The president's main job is to referee between competing staffers, each representing competing visions and stakeholders (or stakeholder coalitions), and Trump simply hasn't shown the level of sustained attention required for that. Say of him what you will, but at least George W. Bush was "The Decider." And "No Drama Obama" liked to engage in academic jibber-jabber. Republicans have reportedly already started to pretty much ignore Trump because of the chaotic nature of his interventions in public debate.

In this scenario, the Trump administration, such as it is, would mostly be taken up by bureaucratic knife-fights between various clans: Trumpists (presumably under Steve Bannon), traditional conservatives (presumably under Mike Pence), and various cadres of opportunists.

ObamaCare would get "repealed" under reconciliation rules, but at the same time, Congressional Republicans would postpone getting behind an actual reform, meaning that ObamaCare would limp along in all but name. Some form of tax cut would probably get passed, but without any meaningful tax reform.

On the foreign policy front, America's position in the world would keep slowly eroding as it has under Obama, but without any catastrophe. Russia's influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East would grow. Trade deals would fail to materialize. The Democrats would win the 2018 midterm elections, further cementing Washington gridlock, and Cory Booker would get elected president in 2020.

The ugly: The real problem with Trump is not so much his incompetency. It's that he significantly increases the risk of "black swan" events that would precipitate truly serious crises. Here are a few off the top of my head. By the way, none of these are mutually exclusive.

NATO finally collapses. Ukraine is small-ball. What Putin really wants is all of Eastern Europe. The Baltic States are defended by NATO, which really is only as good as America's word. And Trump has already said that America's word with regard to its allies might be up for grabs. Of course, Putin is never going to straight-up invade. However, "insurgencies" might cause "pro-Russian" governments to sprout up in those countries. In the face of American inaction, more and more countries leave NATO and go under the Russian umbrella.

China strikes preemptively. Trump has certainly made it clear that he wants to take a confrontational stance towards China, and that — unprecedentedly — he wants to put the United States' acquiescence to Beijing's "One China" policy on the table to get concessions on trade. Trump calculates that this will cause China to compromise. But China's leadership might draw an opposite conclusion: that with the United States set for confrontation anyway, it might be worth striking preemptively; especially if the United States has shown a lack of appetite for defending its international commitments. China could easily pull off a fait accompli and invade Taiwan. What happens then? Well, either World War III or the collapse of America as a superpower and the collapse of the post-War, post-Cold War international order (probably followed by World War III anyway).

Creeping authoritarianism. We live in the realm of three felonies a day. That makes the attorney general of the United States perhaps the most powerful man in the country. What will press coverage look like when owners of the press are, each in turn, threatened with invasive prosecution and discovery? If President Trump starts passing executive orders that go even beyond Obama's turn towards Caesarism, is a Republican Congress really going to stand athwart history yelling stop, when it has thus far shown practically zero appetite for curbing executive branch authoritarianism? Again, it is probably Trump's own incompetence that most likely stands between us and creeping fascism. In one way it is a formidable obstacle; in another, it is a remarkably flimsy one.

Inflamed racial conflict. Black lives matter! No, blue lives matter! Wait, since when are those in conflict? The problem with viewing social conflicts as racial conflicts is that these prophecies have a way to become self-fulfilling. Too many white cops might feel that the election of Trump amounts to a blank check to do whatever they want in minority neighborhoods — and given the importance of prosecutorial discretion, and given the priorities of some in the Trump orbit, they may end up proven right. Meanwhile, while protests against racially biased police conduct have been mostly peaceful, it's inarguable that this movement also has a violent fringe. Violence begets violence, and it's not hard to imagine a scenario where another Ferguson-like incident leads to a much fiercer backlash, which leads to a much more violent crackdown, and on and on, in an already polarized environment.

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