Un uncertain start

Buenos Aires Herald. 30 de diciembre de 2016.

On January 20, 2017 Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the president of the United States. What will his presidency mean for that country and for the world? The projections we can make at this stage vary widely depending on the indicators analyzed, especially the President Elect’s announcements about his personnel picks, societal trends, and the personality of Trump himself.

If we consider the people Trump is talking about appointing to certain positions, it looks like a conservative Republican administration is taking shape, typical in some ways but with greater private-sector influence, and a few wildcards. Even if the conventional Republic beliefs are not consistent in all respects with Trump´s own views, the people running the policy are likely to have an important effect. For example, the supposed nominee for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, would be likely to favor a traditional “law & order” approach and oppose the incremental winding down of the drug war that occurred during the administration of Barack Obama. The presumed nominees in Energy (former Texas Governor Rick Perry) and Environment (Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt) generally favor the reduction of governmental red tape and regulations and are skeptical about policies to reduce or adapt to climate change. Also among the conventional Republican choices we have Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus mentioned for White House chief of staff, former labor secretary Elaine Chao for head of the Transportation Department, Representative Tom Price to lead health and human services. The choice of General James Mattis for Defense Secretary is not atypical.

With other appointments, particularly the choice of ExxonMobile Chief Executive Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, we see the preference for business.

The wildcards include indicates the president may make risky decisions in some arenas. He may rely upon Silicon Valley mogul Peter Thiel for advice about how to radically shift science and technology policy. The choice of media executive Stephen Bannon for chief strategist is cause for the most concern. Bannon openly flirts with ideas more associated with the extreme right European parties than with mainstream US Republicanism.

If we turn our gaze from political elites to society, we see an angry and intensely polarized public, with little trust in traditional institutions. However, despite the political rhetoric, most Americans don’t want a revolution.

The personality of the President-Elect might be less rational than the public. Although he certainly has displayed sharp political instincts, he has projected, alternately, recklessness, vindictiveness, and a distinct disregard for consistency or truth-telling.

Of course, the makeup of the administration, public opinion, and the president’s personality will all matter. How will they clash or combine?

Trump´s impulse will be to negotiate directly with business leaders. This could result in pragmatic, result-oriented policies, but is more likely to produce crony capitalism (a case in point is the recent Carrier deal to keep manufacturing jobs in the state of Indiana). At some point, traditional conservatism will almost certainly class with the swashbuckling business style, and conflicts of interest will abound. However, Republican elites are likely to keep quiet as long as Trump has public approval.

The President Elect’s communication style is helping him link up with the public in new ways. He will certainly use this advantage to appeal straight to the people, bypassing other political leaders and institutions and the press. It could be that if Trump realizes his aggression or impulsiveness with foreign leaders frightens the public he will limit his Tweets. On the other hand, the President Elect could conceivably foment a cult of personality, appealing to the public´s worst and basest fears, encouraged by advisors like Bannon.

Members of the losing side often make apocalyptic statements about the disasters their opponents will cause in office: now, the chances that some of those dire predictions might come to pass are higher than usual. At a minimum, US policy, national and foreign, will be less predictable.