The Radical Unpredictability of Donald Trump

Which Donald Trump will preside over America at any given moment? Nobody knows for sure. Photo: Getty Images

Presidential transitions are always a time for guessing games, with the precise shape and direction of the new administration invariably subject to doubt and debate. Would Bill Clinton really govern as a “different kind of Democrat” or as a conventional liberal? Was George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” just a shuck? How serious was Barack Obama about transcending partisanship, and if he was deadly serious, would Republicans give him a chance to show it?

But compared to the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming administration of the 45th president of the United States, these recent transitions have been easy to understand, practically coming with paint-by-numbers instructions. At this point, we do not know if the Trump presidency will become a vehicle for the achievement of the conservative movement’s longstanding dreams dating back to Barry Goldwater, a strange hybrid of left and right impulses, or something entirely unprecedented, at least in this country. We also don’t know for sure if the Republican politicians in Congress, who are presumably putting together a 2017 legislative agenda they hope Donald Trump will sign into law, are working hand-in-glove with Trump’s people or are in the dark like the rest of us.

Sorting through the possible range of actions, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat tries to impose order on our shaky expectations, which he validates by arguing that anyone who is certain they know what Trump will do “is either bluffing or a fool.”

What we can do, for now, is set up a matrix to help assess the Trump era as it proceeds, in which each appointment and policy move gets plotted along two axes. The first axis, the X-axis, represents possibilities for Trumpist policy, the second, the Y-axis, scenarios for Trump’s approach to governance.
The policy axis runs from full populism at one end to predictable conservative orthodoxy on the other […]
The second axis, the possibilities for how Trump governs, runs from ruthless authoritarianism at one end to utter chaos at the other.

As Douthat acknowledges, Trump’s appointments and signals so far are all over the place from the perspective of both policy and governance. Looking at his cabinet and White House staff from one perspective, it’s the most rigidly ideological and plutocratic crowd (e.g., Puzder, Mnuchin, DeVos, Pruitt) since at least the Harding administration. But from another perspective, there are people (e.g., Bannon, Flynn, Friedman, maybe Tollerson and Ross) no respectable conservative administration would allow past the White House security gate. The different impressions of what the Trump administration will actually be like extend to governance issues as well. The tweeter-in-chief often makes authoritarian noises while also giving the impression he is totally winging it.

And so, we could wind up with very, very different scenarios.

A populist-authoritarian combination might seem natural, with Trump using high-profile deviations from conservative orthodoxy to boost his popularity even as he runs roughshod over republican norms.
But you could also imagine an authoritarian-orthodox conservative combination, in which Congressional Republicans accept the most imperial of presidencies because it’s granting them tax rates and entitlement reforms they have long desired.
Or you could imagine a totally incompetent populism, in which Trump flies around the country holding rallies while absolutely nothing in Washington gets done … or a totally incompetent populism that ultimately empowers conventional conservatism, because Trump decides that governing isn’t worth it and just lets Paul Ryan run the country.

But you have to “imagine” all these trajectories because the evidence is so mixed, and thus Douthat throws up his hands and makes no predictions at all other than the likelihood of extremism in some form.

There is one other possibility that Douthat does not quite address, but that Hungarian writer Miklós Haraszti deals with in a meditation for the Washington Post based on observations of his own country’s right-wing populist Viktor Orbán, along with Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan, and now Trump: Unpredictability is what we can expect from now on.

Call me a typical Hungarian pessimist, but I think hope can be damaging when dealing with populists. For instance, hoping that unprincipled populism is unable to govern. Hoping that Trumpism is self-deceiving, or self-revealing, or self-defeating. Hoping to find out if the president-elect will have a line or a core, or if he is driven by beliefs or by interests. Or there’s the Kremlinology-type hope that Trump’s party, swept to out-and-out power by his charms, could turn against him. Or hope extracted, oddly, from the very fact that he often disavows his previous commitments.

If you recognize among Haraszti’s false hopes for putting a populist leader in a box some of the standard ways of explaining Trump, raise your hand. I see: Everybody’s raising their hands! If these efforts to figure out such leaders are all off-base, then what’s the real key? The terrifying possibility is that there isn’t one.

Populists govern by swapping issues, as opposed to resolving them. Purposeful randomness, constant ambush, relentless slaloming and red herrings dropped all around are the new normal.

If that is true with respect to Trump — and it is very consistent with his much-stated principle of remaining unpredictable in foreign policy — that should make for an interesting few years, not just for journalists trying to get a fix on this strange man voters have elevated to the presidency, but for his ostensible allies and enemies. What will it be like to be a conservative Republican member of Congress, with a decade’s worth of detailed plans for shifting power and money from the takers to the makers, knowing that it could all be blown up by a sudden tweet? Or a Democrat trying to anticipate the administration’s next steps to counter them and realizing there’s no way to figure out where they lead? Or most terrifyingly, a top military officer or diplomat with no idea what the next call or cable might portend?

Haraszti suggests the one thing you can always count on with a right-wing populist is corruption.

It is the public’s moral indignation over nepotism that has proved to be the nemesis of illiberal regimes. Personal and family greed, cronyism, thievery combined with hypocrisy are in the genes of illiberal autocracy; and in many countries betrayed expectations of a selfless strongman have led to a civic awakening.

That sure sounds like a good tip.

Being rational creatures who desire stability for ourselves and our country, most of us will hold out hope that Trump’s unpredictability will prove to be a temporary illusion, and that he will quickly expose himself as occupying some fixed point in Douthat’s matrix. I’m personally still expecting him to be the authoritarian-but-otherwise-orthodox conservative who rewards Republican constituencies with reactionary economic and cultural policies in close cooperation with GOP leaders in Congress. But I don’t even pretend to know where Trump’s Jacksonian instincts — themselves a reflection of conflicting impulses toward a self-absorbed peace and insanely destructive war — will take us. And if I were a card-carrying member of Trump’s own party, I’d stop endlessly chortling over the discomfiture and fear Trump has inspired among liberals and become a bit uncomfortably fearful myself. No one knows for sure what comes next.

The Radical Unpredictability of Donald Trump