Donald Trump has given people plenty to worry about in the early days of his transition to the presidency — especially anyone who thought all along he was unqualified for the job. It’s as if a bunch of people who never expected to win the White House have been suddenly asked to organize an actual administration. The result has been chaos, eccentric nominations (Jeff Sessions — really?) and Twitter outbursts from an unreformed president-elect.
But you can’t hit all your panic buttons simultaneously. So I thought it might be useful to do triage, sorting the biggest concerns from lesser ones. Call this a semi-optimistic guide for the seriously distressed.
Let’s start with issues we can put off worrying about for a while.
The economy is going to be fine for the short run. Financial markets didn’t crash when Trump won; they soared when investors figured out his plans to spend trillions on infrastructure, defense and tax cuts will add up to a giant economic stimulus. Although Republicans hated the idea of stimulus when it bore President Obama’s name, watch them hail Trump’s as an act of genius.
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Over time, all that stimulus is likely to boost inflation, just as conservatives warned in 2009. It may even lead to a recession in time to disrupt Trump’s re-election campaign.
Immigrants and their advocates are frantic over the prospect of mass deportations. This has been a central theme of anti-Trump marches in California. Last week, the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, in a message to Trump, tartly reaffirmed their commitment to keeping immigrant families intact.
Their alarm may be unnecessary. Trump has been pretty consistent: He wants to deport undocumented immigrants with criminal records immediately, but he’s willing to delay action on others until he builds a border wall and puts a comprehensive policy in place. His bark may prove worse than his bite.
On health care, the picture is also muddy. The Republican majority in Congress is most certainly going to repeal Obamacare — but that doesn’t mean they’ll dismantle it immediately. Congressional leaders may keep the program intact after it’s “repealed” while they work on the “something better” Trump keeps promising. Who knows? By the end of another long debate, more voters may demand a single-payer plan.
Race relations, law enforcement and civil liberties are more worrisome. The nomination of Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general, will force a serious debate on these issues, which were roiling even before Trump’s election unleashed a wave of ugliness. (It was good that the president-elect told his supporters, “Stop it.” He may need to say it more than once.) In 1986, the Senate rejected Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench after subordinates accused him of racist statements; he admitted calling the NAACP “un-American.”
It’s up to Trump to deliver on his promise to African-Americans to make their lives better. It’s up to local officials to make sure law enforcement isn’t abusive. And it’s up to the rest of us to make clear that racism and misogyny are what’s really un-American.
Equally serious: the environment. Trump has called human-caused climate change a “hoax.” He has promised to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change and scrap regulations on power plant emissions. But as George P. Shultz told me last week, climate change skeptics are “getting mugged by reality.” Trump need only ask the managers of his own Florida golf courses how soon they expect their greens to be under water.
It’s foreign policy, however, that worries me the most, because that is where the power of a president is nearly absolute.
Since World War II, the stability of international relations has rested on two pillars: security alliances, formalized in defense treaties like NATO, and global economic integration, embodied in financial institutions and trade agreements. The United States has worked hard to maintain that structure for 70 years.
But Trump doesn’t much like either pillar. Instead of seeing them as impressive if shaky structures, he views them as bad deals that cost too much.
So will he choose to contribute to stability — or disruption? Will he announce a drawdown of troops from NATO or a trade war with China? Will he try to renegotiate Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran carefully, or tear it up completely? Will he blunder into a shooting war in the South China Sea?
His appointment of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser isn’t reassuring. As California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff put it: “I’d be worried about an impulsive president with an impulsive national security adviser.”
Already, by putting U.S. commitments in question, Trump has prompted other countries to look for other, more reliable allies. Last week, Japan and Australia endorsed a new, Chinese-sponsored trade pact in Asia — one that doesn’t even include the United States.
I asked an eminent foreign policy scholar, Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University, what it all adds up to. Are we going to wind up in a 1930s scenario, in which no dominant power — or group of powers — can keep a lid on international conflicts? Mandelbaum smiled sadly. “We could,” he said. “It’s the end of the world.”
The end of the global order as we’ve known it, anyway. Trump, who cast himself as a candidate of renewed American strength, may lead us to a dangerous era of weakness instead.