A Trump Presidency: Bracing for the Unknown

Americans have no choice but to hope for the best from the president-elect—and to prepare for the worst by reviving the constitutional system’s checks and balances.

Andrew Kelly / Reuters

When Donald Trump takes office on January 20, 2017, he will arguably present more unknowns than anyone who has ever been elected to lead the executive branch and serve as commander in chief of the United States military. He has no previous experience in government. His relationship to the Republican Party is complicated, his stated positions on any number of policy issues are extremely vague, and he has shown over the course of this election that he is unconstrained by many norms that every major-party nominee in my lifetime have accepted as a matter of course.

His most fervent supporters believe this makes him uniquely positioned to “Make America Great Again,” a message emblazoned on the red hats of his supporters early Wednesday as Trump took the stage to deliver his victory speech. “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans,” he said, adding that he would reach out to Americans who opposed him for their advice and help. The speech was pitch-perfect––easily the classiest moment of his campaign.

Hopefully, Trump will surprise his detractors and behave better in the White House than he has in the 2016 campaign, his business career, and his personal life. For the sake of the nation and the world, I hope he rises to the occasion, and that he respects the civil liberties of every American regardless of their identity. In any project that benefits the nation while safeguarding civil rights and liberal norms, I wish him success.

And for my part, as a frequent critic of the president elect, any new criticism of Trump will spring from what he does going forward, not backward-looking resentment at a campaign I hated. I want Trump to have every incentive to serve honorably.

Still, I worry that the worst sides of Trump will resurface.

For critics, the risk he represents to the United States was summed up months ago by Josh Barro, who described Trump as a tail-risk candidate. "The most likely outcome is that Trump would be neither good nor disastrous as president, but simply bad," Barro wrote. "For example, he might mismanage the country's finances, needlessly inflame racial tensions, undermine the rule of law, confuse and antagonize our allies, and hurt the economy through erratic policies that punish and reward investors based on his political whims. This is the most likely outcome, and an undesirable one, but not the most important one to consider. America has survived bad presidents before, and we could survive a bad Trump presidency along these lines."

Though unlikely, tail-risk scenarios scared him more.

What if President Trump starts behaving like one of the several authoritarian leaders who he has repeatedly praised, or starts using federal law enforcement to target Hispanics, Muslims, or any other group he dislikes, or even starts a nuclear war?

The Constitution is meant to provide protections even if a man unfit for the presidency wins it.  Congress and the Supreme Court are co-equal branches, even if they're not always treated that way by the Washington establishment and the media. The American system vests significant power in the states and the people, though less today than at the time of the Founders, for better in some ways and worse in others. And the character of the employees who staff the bureaucracy matters, too.

Would the American republic stand up to a stress test?

For years, I have been urging President Obama and Congress to tyrant-proof the executive branch as best they can, before it’s too late. With an unknown quantity headed for the Oval Office, that project is more vital than ever. Current precedents give Trump the ability to wage war under an Authorization to Use Military Force that’s been stretched to cover half the globe; to order drone killings in a dozen countries; to preside over mass surveillance on American citizens; to indefinitely detain human beings without trail at Guantanamo Bay; and much more.

Many Democrats ignored these dangers when they controlled the White House and the Senate. Even as Trump won the Republican nomination they showed little concern. Now they will more pay attention, as they did when George W. Bush was president, but probably won’t have the power in Congress to stop Trump alone.

That’s why Americans should start thinking about how to thwart attempts at misbehavior by President Trump, whether they find the prospect likely or unlikely.

We’ve just never seen him serve in government before.

This is a good time to write congressional representatives to remind them that, regardless of their partisan affiliations, they have a constitutional responsibility to check the executive branch. It is a good time to donate to organizations like the ACLU that fight to safeguard the civil liberties of all Americans, regardless of background or ideology. It is a good time to remember that the excesses of a Trump presidency could be mitigated, in a way that spares countless people injustice, if citizens who worry about such things are especially active this next four years, rather than so horrified by this cycle's results that they retreat away from politics. The most vulnerable Americans need them engaged and trying to win converts.

The most important project in American politics for the next four years is safeguarding the rights conferred by the Constitution and the norms of a liberal society.The effort expended by ordinary citizens will determine the odds of that project’s success.

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