What’s going on out there? Are we living through epochal events, quite possibly a major upheaval, or are we merely attending a freak show soon to end, a bad dream forgotten upon awakening? Strong crosscurrents are operating; no clear outcome is yet in sight. Only by disentangling the various propellants in motion can we begin to speculate on what may come to pass. None of the following scenarios can be discounted:
• Donald Trump is unfit, unsuited, unhinged, deplorable, unfamiliar with and indifferent to what the presidential office requires and largely uninterested in learning or improving upon his performance. He is like a child at the controls of a complex mechanism, fascinated by the buttons and bells, but, unless closely supervised and restrained could wreck the entire system. He disdains reading, listens impatiently, pre-occupied, as he is with his own image, and with his need to “win.” He must be pampered, flattered, appeased. He demands absolute loyalty, but is quick to take offense. He flies into rages, remains obsessed with denigrating Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, sees critics and enemies all about and attacks them without restraint. He has no fixed beliefs, can be swayed easily by TV commentators or those who get his ear. Even when appearing to set a course, he’s likely to reverse direction without warning or explanation. This president is, in short, a complete misfit, a looming menace. Americans can, therefore, only tremble, hold their breath, and pray that the nation can tip toe through this dangerous minefield that is his administration and avoid destruction. Trump’s actions will surely test the proposition that God is looking out for the United States.
• Trump may be a dimwit and a clown, but then again he could be “crazy like a fox” as he succeeds in following through on many of his campaign promises. And he has charted a course very much in concert with the right wing, pushing its agenda himself or encouraging those he’s put in place to do so. He is stocking the judiciary with certified conservatives, justices, often relatively young, who will retain these influential positions for many years to come. With deregulation as his mantra, he has encouraged appointees to dismantle federal rules deemed restrictive, burdensome or costly, whether involving federal land, fracking, drilling, power plants, coal mining, banking, for-profit colleges, payday loans, gun controls, police procedures, health care mandates, etc. He has seen to the passage of tax legislation whose benefits, while spread about, have largely been lavished on the wealthy and on corporate America. Regarding immigration, he has steered a restrictionist course favoring a reduction in numbers, frowning upon diversity, stigmatizing Moslems as potential terrorists and condemning Mexicans as likely criminals, rapists and drug runners (whose invasion of the US should be blocked by a wall). Domestically he has wrapped himself in the flag, called for a spectacular military parade, “winked” at white nationalists, and refused to criticize or disown these hard liners. He has aligned with Evangelists and the Christian Right, supporting their stands on birth control, abortion, gay marriage, marijuana, religious education, and protections for religious freedom. Overseas he has praised Putin, Duerte Erdogan, Sisi, pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, trumpeted America first initiatives and questioned America’s globalist posture. It would be a severe challenge to discover a position espoused by Trump that Liberals could embrace. One can, therefore, in the years to come, if unchecked by Democratic majorities, expect the continued advance of the Conservative agenda.
• Those opposed to Trump are heartened, detecting a light at the end of the darkened tunnel because Congressional elections are less than a year off. Already there are whispers of a possible “wave” ahead with voters turning on the Republicans and putting Democrats back in charge of the Senate, possibly the House of Representatives as well. What is the basis of their optimism? Political parties out of power generally gain in midterm elections, especially when the sitting president is not riding high in the polls. And surely Trump, at present, is not, with the poorest approval numbers ever recorded for someone early in his presidential term. In addition recent by-elections have resulted in surprising victories by Democrats in districts considered safely Republican. Furthermore, Republican incumbents in the House are, in rapid order, declaring their intention to retire, based in part on calculations that they’ll likely face defeat in the fall. On the other hand, Democrats are engaged, upbeat about their chances of becoming the majority. A broad mobilization of women and the entry of female candidates into one race after another has generated widespread optimism. Were Democrats to capture one or both Houses, it would break the Republican grip in Washington. What happens then is hard to predict. Would Democrats move to impeach the President? Would he turn to his base and rally their support? We’d be treading in perilous waters were that to occur. Might Democrats, on the other hand, offer to work with a chastened president, suddenly open to bipartisan policy making?
A Democratic resurgence in 2018 is, however, not locked in. Should the economy remain strong and the initial experience with the tax cuts prove broadly favorable (more money in paychecks, whatever the amount, always plays well). Trump’s “favorables” could move up. If, and it’s a big “if,” Trump’s “normalizes” becomes less volatile and combative, the public could get accustomed to this “maverick” and regard him as sufficiently presidential. Democrats, moreover, have yet devised a coherent alternate vision beyond representing steadfast opposition to everything Trump. Also, add the fact that moneyed Republican donors will enter the fray, redistricting gamesmanship will continue as will voter suppression, so betting against the Republicans may not be wise. Then, too, the Russians, we’re warned, will be fishing once more in American election waters and, after 2016, expect them to be even more savvy and effective. And finally one can’t discount a “crisis,” whether engineered by Trump or not. Should that occur, rallying around the President and his party can be expected.
• There is always the possibility that the 2018 election will be suspended on account of war or nuclear devastation. Trump’s tough talk against existing arrangements heightens anxieties, and increases insecurity. He has or threatened to disrupt TPP, the Paris Climate Accord, long-standing policies regarding Jerusalem, Pakistan, Iran, Mexico and Cuba, Great Britain, Palestinian refugees, etc. Of course the primary flash point at present is North Korea. He has repeatedly mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, bragged about the size of America’s nuclear button, seemed comfortable with the threat of military strikes against that nation, and rejected suggestions that a negotiated settlement can be reached. Trump will not, he declares, accept anything less than nuclear disarmament by the North Koreans. But that nation insists that it will never happen. Is it all bombast and bluster on both sides? Are serious backchannel talks underway? Can sanctions really work? And what about miscalculations and an accidental launch? How does one factor in two volatile, macho characters, both insistent upon “winning?” The 2018 elections could become an afterthought with a lethal war in progress.
• OK, forget impeachment, disregard war; assume that the US just scrapes along. We still have to consider the damage Trump has done and the toll imposed on our system (and, at a later date, the chances of recovery and how permanent the scars). Simply declaring that there’s never been a president like him reveals little. What he’s done is disregard and violate the established norms time and time again. He has hollowed out or undermined one federal agency after another, left many key management positions unfilled. He has willfully eroded public confidence in the FBI, the Justice Department and US intelligence agencies. He has installed family members in influential policy positions. He’s denied any conflicts of interest between his office and the properties and business interests that provide his income. A pre-occupation with TV viewing and twitter tapping consumes an inordinate amount of his daily activities. His White House staff appears pre-occupied with their own survival and are even willing, therefore, to “leak” information to reporters eager to publish every morsel. He has bullied individuals regularly, lashed out against critics. He has attacked the press mercilessly, lied incessantly, and countered those who differ with him as trafficking in “fake news,” thereby undermining standards of accuracy and truth, the essential bedrock of rational discussion and deliberation. And should evidence demonstrate that he or his representatives colluded with the Russians during the 2016 election season and obstructed efforts to investigate this and other possible wrongdoings, the damage to the office of the President will be monumental.
• Which brings us to the special counsel, Robert Mueller. One could sympathize with President Trump as he tries to function as president while recognizing that a super sleuth and his expert dedicated staff is engaged in what appears to be an open-ended inquiry going back years that could reveal the full range of Trump’s questionable activities. What is the extent of Trump’s business interests with Russians in the US and overseas? Is he in any way in their debt literally, or do they possess information about him that is both embarrassing and incriminating? Did he knowingly encourage and accept assistance from Russian operatives in the 2016 elections? To what extent has he attempted to conceal these activities by denying any involvement, covering his tracks, firing those intent on investigating the facts and pressuring others to back off such lines of inquiry? He has gained the support of most every Republican congressman to assist in these efforts, and has threatened to remove Mueller himself. The special counsel, however, appears dogged and determined and to date has revealed little of his hand. Should he, in the end, produce a convincing case of presidential wrongdoing on many fronts, expect all hell to break loose. Trump will rage and go to any length to discredit Mueller and the report. There will be large scale public mobilization and demands that the president step down or be removed. His supporters will rally to his side, insist the process has been rigged and flock to counter-demonstrations. Violence is not unlikely. What will Republican senators and congressmen do? Support Trump and they risk being swept aside in the up-coming elections. On the other hand, if he survives and they’ve opposed him, they may also suffer the same fate. Politics is not for the faint of heart.
• It is a cliche’ of long-standing that a buoyant economy benefits the party in power. And by many measures the America economy rests on firm ground. Employment and unemployment statistics are encouraging, business profits are robust, stock market values have swollen by many trillions of dollars. Meanwhile, the economies of most other nations are on the upsurge as well. Money talks and all this should spell good news for Republicans. And it just may be enough to get them over the finish line in November. On the other hand, betting on the economy to maintain steady growth (and not “overheat” and trigger inflation) is risky in view of the long upward flight path it has already enjoyed. Economies tend to be cyclical and an ill-timed downturn could well upset the apple cart. Furthermore, the current strong economy has yet to translate into strong support for the president.. Plus, with income inequality likely to become even more pronounced (the probable outcome of the recent tax “reform”) the economy’s glow may be notably subdued.
• But, wait a minute. It would be foolish to write off Trump. He’s been playing to his base on all fronts and it appears they are still with him, praise his actions, and offer their support against all those aligned against him. They applaud his standing up for America, his love of the flag, his speaking “truth” to a hostile press. He’s no ordinary politician, they proclaim. That could be why he’s followed through on so many of his campaign promises. He has eviscerated Obamacare, achieved tax reform, cracked down on immigration, appointed conservative judges, freed the economy from burdensome regulations, talked tough to North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and backed Israel and pulverized ISIS. Quite a record for just a year in office. He’s shaken everything up – that’s why the established media is out to get him. Good for him. Keep at it. He’ll get our vote again. With his base in place, combined with a strong economy, a more modulated tone from the president and some bipartisan initiatives, we could see rising poll numbers and a reasonably successful, if entirely unconventional, presidency.
• Which path will America follow? At this point it’s probably best to invoke Yogi Berra’s evasive recommendation that, “when you come to a fork in the road – take it.”