What Would Change Your Mind About President Trump?

An exercise for his supporters and critics

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

If recent measures of public opinion hold, President Trump will enter office viewed unfavorably by 49 percent of Americans. 43 percent of Americans view him favorably. The deepest fears of his critics include the possibility of nuclear catastrophe. His most enthusiastic backers believe he’ll “make America great again.” Will either group prove able to judge the Trump Administration based on its performance in office rather than their prejudgments about the president’s fitness?

To discipline my own thinking, I’ve formulated markers that I will use to evaluate President Trump and the executive branch agencies that his appointees will soon lead.

If Trump governs without my fears coming to pass, his supporters can rightly cite this article as evidence that the president they championed wasn’t as bad as I imagined he might be. To discipline their thinking in turn, I would ask those who support Trump to lay down markers of their own prior to his inauguration. When judged against a governing record rather than an opponent, what must he do to keep earning their support? What broken promises, civil liberties abrogations, manners of corruption, or other failures in office would cause them to withdraw support?

My tentative markers are as follows:

International Affairs

  • Will the risk of nuclear annihilation increase during Donald Trump’s presidency? The president-elect recently told an unnerved cable television host, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” And he has repeatedly communicated about this most solemn of subjects with seeming flippancy. If his presidency leads to a nuclear exchange anywhere on earth, or an increase in nuclear proliferation attributable to his actions, he will have failed both the United States and all of human civilization.
  • Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump has suggested that he can renegotiate America’s trade deals in a manner that leaves the U.S. in a better position. I fear he is not nearly so successful at “the art of the deal” as he purports to be; that he will misplay his hand, as he has done so many times in the business world, and that, unable to declare bankruptcy as in his corporate concerns, the United States will wind up suffering financial consequences for years, perhaps as the result of a trade war that was avoidable. Even worse, economic conflict with China, a rising power with an interest in peace so long as it’s profitable, will lead to military conflict, especially if the president-elect continues to break with longstanding policy toward Taiwan.
  • While campaigning, Trump suggested he might order American troops to perpetrate war crimes––he specifically mentioned torturing people in a way that went far beyond waterboarding, killing the family members of terrorists, and bombing ISIS in a manner likely to produce massive civilian casualties.  
  • NATO has been a stabilizing force in world affairs, and while I have opposed its expansion in the past, I fear its dissolution would make a future war more likely. I fear Trump will weaken the most important alliance in U.S. foreign policy.

If Trump manages to avoid a more dangerous nuclear landscape, a trade war, a great powers conflict, ordering war crimes, weakening NATO, or otherwise blundering in foreign policy on the scale of the Iraq War, he will exceed my expectations.

If he even avoids doing marginal harm to American interests with undisciplined tweeting I will be shocked––the responsible, expectation-exceeding course would be to give up Twitter on inauguration day in recognition of his inability to control himself on the medium (a common affliction, but one a head of state can ill afford).

Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

  • The federal government is obligated to safeguard the Constitutional rights of every American. Among other things, that requires the Department of Justice to stop local police departments from perpetrating civil rights violations. Will more civil rights violations be tolerated under President Trump? Will the Trump Administration protect the voting rights of African Americans? Will federal law enforcement engage in profiling of Hispanics on his watch?
  • Will domestic surveillance grow more intrusive under President Trump, whether under the auspices of the NSA, the FBI, ATF, or other federal agencies?
  • Will Trump respect the Tenth Amendment’s explicit grant of rights to the states and the people, or attempt to assert the federal government unconstitutionally?
  • Will Trump appoint judges who uphold the Bill of Rights?


  • Will Trump attempt to use the Department of Justice, the IRS, or any other federal agency with a law enforcement arm to target personal or political enemies?
  • Will Trump try to use surveillance on his political enemies?
  • Will Trump attempt to intervene to stop investigations into criminality or corruption that concern his backers, business associates, friends, or family members?
  • Will Trump or his children profit from foreign governments while he is in office? Will Trump seek to profit personally in any way through his elected position?

If Trump and his appointees avoid these transgressions they will exceed my expectations.

Polarization and Balkanization

When explaining my vote against Trump, I wrote, “The most dangerous thing a leader can do in an ethnically diverse country is to stoke ethnic tensions to gain power. One needn’t invoke the Nazis to see that truth. Look to the former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda, Iraq, or Syria. America isn’t on the verge of civil war, but that’s in large part because, while the exploitation of ethnic grievances has always been part of our politics, our leaders have at least held themselves to a certain standard in their public statements. Trump kicked off his campaign by encouraging his followers to think of Mexican migrants as mostly rapists, attacked an American-born judge of Hispanic ancestry, repeatedly savaged Muslims, inspired multiple hate crimes against minorities, used his Twitter platform, with an audience of millions, to retweet and elevate anti-Semites, and inspired more energy and assertiveness from the white supremacist movement than I can ever recall.”

I fear Trump will continue to stoke ethnic tensions in ways calculated to shore up his support, and that fringe white supremacists and anti-Semites will continue to gain power during his tenure. If neither of these things happens he will exceed my expectations.

Personal Misconduct

  • More than ten women say that Donald Trump sexually assaulted them by kissing or groping them without their consent. As it happens, there is videotape of Trump bragging about how he kisses women and “grabs them by the pussy” without permission, something he calls “locker room talk.” (One wonders what the locker room at Mar-A-Lago is like.) I fear more accusers will emerge––and that we haven’t seen the last of footage in which Trump speaks in ways that demean women or minorities. If there are neither more credible accusations of sexual misconduct nor new footage wherein he slurs an identity group in ways that would get a CEO fired he’ll have exceeded my expectations.
  • Trump has been openly, deliberately, unapologetically cruel, even to members of his own family. I fear we’ll see more cruelty from him in coming years.

My fears about Trump are many. And I would be grateful to hear from readers about other markers that I might lay down on matters of importance that I have so far missed. But as I noted on election night, “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.”

For Trump supporters who believe that my fears are overblown, but share my convictions about the importance of a president who respects the Bill of Rights, eschews corruption, and otherwise avoids actions that harm the nation and its people, I would ask for emails sketching out behavior that would cause you to stop supporting Trump. My email is conor@theatlantic.com if there are any willing correspondents. Let’s flesh out what success or failure would mean before it’s time to judge it.