Fears and Hopes for a President Trump

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Yes, Donald Trump has been elected as the 45th president of the United States.

First off, the polls were wrong -- not by a huge amount, but by about 3 percent or so (we won't have the final figure until votes from California and other mail-in states, most of which lean strongly to the Democrats, are counted over the next several days). And, yes, a lot of pundits and prognosticators and insiders were wrong, too.

I don't know why. Neither does anyone else. 

We don't know if the reason was the late-stage flare-up of the e-mail story, with FBI Director James Comey's action or the reaction of the media responsible for dooming Hillary Clinton. Or if it was her strategy: Did she contest the wrong states or otherwise misallocate her time and resources? Or maybe it was Trump's strategy.

We don't know if it was economic uncertainty or the third-party candidates. We don't know if it was a combined effect of Republican attacks on unions in Wisconsin and on black voting in North Carolina. No, we don't know if it was "racism." Yes, there were bigots for Trump, and they were vocal, but we don't even know if more of them went for Trump than voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney.

About the only thing I can argue at this point, and even it probably needs more research, is the uselessness of early spending on television ads. Clinton pounded Trump for months, and it's hard to believe this election would have been remotely close if those ads -- which seemed to be perfectly fine -- had much of an effect.

Beyond that? Understanding election results takes time. Don't believe those who think they already have the answers, whether they were correct coming in to the election or not.

One thing is certain. The election, with Republicans winning unified control of Congress and the White House, is a disaster for Democrats and all the policies they support. 

Is it a disaster for American democracy? That depends, above all, on the Republican Party. 

Trump remains a wild card. The truly frightening things about his candidacy -- bigotry, sexism, and what appeared to be authoritarianism -- might be a central part of his presidency. If they are, Democrats will oppose him (as they will oppose whatever "normal" Republican policies Trump and Republicans in Congress propose). But they won't have the ability to stop him.

Republicans will, and not just in Congress. Trump will need a White House staff, a cabinet and all the presidential nominees who fill the executive branch of the government. He will turn to Republicans to fill most of those positions, at least beyond the White House.

If those Republicans, and the Republicans in the House and Senate, support Trump in whatever he chooses to do, especially anything repressive to hurt Democrats and help Republicans in future elections, then the U.S. could be in a scary place. 

The presidency is the single most powerful position in the American government. But there's little he can do by himself. Will Republicans -- in Congress, in the executive-branch departments and agencies, even in the White House -- have the backbone to stand up to him?

I hope we never have to find out. I hope Trump's scarier talk turns out to be mostly bluster, and he'll be satisfied to strut around a little and otherwise stick to the norms and traditions of the republic. If there's one positive sign to cling to, it was his selection of a mainstream conservative governor as his running mate. Yes, Mike Pence is very conservative, but he is not one of Trump's more bombastic or irresponsible supporters. 

In addition to all of this, the apparent president-elect appears to know practically nothing about economics, foreign policy or really anything else. So even on his best behavior, he is going to be pressed to succeed. 

Yes. It seems a dangerous time for the United States and democracy. But in past elections it has always seemed most frightening for the losing side immediately after the election. In the long run, many of the scariest policies were never put in place, and the next elections turned things around. This is not to play down how disruptive and destructive the next years might be. So far, however, it's only a might. 

  1. And I was certainly one who erred badly in underestimating Trump during the nomination fight. And I didn't see the polling error coming in the general election.

  2. Yes, it was an attack on black voting. North Carolina Republicans responsible for making it harder to vote explicitly said that was their intent. We don't know yet if they were successful and, if so, how important it was.

  3. Don't jump to explanations based on exit polls, just seconds after finding out that pre-election polls were wrong. The exit polls will be adjusted further, and aren't all that reliable at their best.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net