No one knows what a Trump presidency will be like.
Confucius said, “Look at the means a man employs, observe the path he takes and examine where he feels at home. In what way is a man’s true character hidden from view?”
Trump has given ample evidence of his character, but politically he is unproven. None of us has a clue how Trump will wield executive power, unless we choose to believe that being President of the United States is no different from being president of his own private conglomerate.
Some of Trump’s supporters claim he will do exactly what he has promised to do throughout the election campaign. Others believe that Trump’s grand promises and statements are more like the “opening gambit” in a negotiation, bound to soften and adapt pragmatically over time.
Trump has drawn support from optimistic conservatives, reluctantly (and not so reluctantly) from many Christians, and to his detriment even from the official newspaper of the KKK. But it’s the disenfranchised white working-class that has since been credited as the major voting bloc behind Trump’s historic victory.
Now that the election is over, we can analyse the new political landscape without the added complications of moral culpability and terrible voting options. Whether you voted for Trump or Clinton or a third party or didn’t vote at all, it’s now possible to stand back from the sweeping gloom and euphoria of Trump’s victory and try to work out what is going on.
There’s a Chinese proverb to the effect that “he who wins becomes king while he who loses becomes an outlaw.” Though Trump has suggested that this might literally be the case once he is inaugurated, what the saying really refers to is the historical Chinese concept of the “mandate of heaven.”
At various points in history, dynasties became corrupt, weak, unjust or ineffective and were overthrown. A successful rebellion was taken as evidence that the defeated regime had lost its way, effectively surrendering the right to rule through its own misdeeds and poor governance.
Thus the Shang dynasty was overthrown when its king “forgot his duty to his people and concentrated on gratifying his own desires.” After 800 years the Zhou dynasty was conquered as it became too decentralised and broke out in civil war. The grandiose and influential Qin dynasty lasted only 15 years, before it crumbled under popular revolt against its tyrannical practices.
As power changed hands, the mandate of heaven became a way of retaining theoretical continuity with the previous regime while lending legitimacy to the new one.
A modern democracy mirrors the mandate of heaven, but fixes authority in the “will of the people” instead. Fair and free elections allow for political transitions to occur without massive violence and disorder, and the victors typically pledge to unite the whole country, to work for the good of those who voted for them, as well as those who didn’t.
Before the vote, the conventional wisdom was that Trump didn’t stand a chance of victory. In the clarity of post-election hindsight everyone now agrees that the Democrats have failed their white working-class and rural constituents as globalisation and free trade undermined traditional blue-collar jobs.
But it’s not just a Democrat problem. The two-party duopolies common in Western democracies have grown stale in recent decades, and the appeal of a political outsider like Trump suggests that it is the old duopoly that lost the mandate, the “establishment” as a whole that lost the confidence of the people.
That’s why #DrainTheSwamp has become a rallying cry of the new regime, an idea that even the most reluctant and ambivalent Trump supporters can embrace with enthusiasm. So long as we focus on “out with the old” we don’t have to think too hard about what might or might not be coming in with the new.
Even as far away as Australia, people are getting caught up in the excitement of Trump’s victory. As ironic as it may seem in light of the many contrasts between Trump and his predecessor Obama, people genuinely feel the promise of hope and change under the forthcoming Trump regime.
Build a wall on the border and make Mexico pay for it. Deport illegal immigrants. Prevent Muslims from entering America. Impose extensive tariffs on Chinese imports. Trump’s claims were grandiose from the outset, but he laid out his plans with such casual confidence and bravado that a large segment of the American population believe he actually will do these things, or at the very least will try.
As President Obama said in 2008: “in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it.” He might as well have been speaking to Trump supporters in 2016, because although Trump’s implausible goals and his pledge to “make America great again” have a different audience, they appeal to the same basic emotions.
While Trump’s presidency remains an unknown, what matters is that he nonetheless gained the trust and confidence of such a large proportion of the American people. The pessimists among us warned that a demagogue will say anything to hold onto the public’s trust.
Yet it is possible that Trump himself will rise to the occasion, at least as far as seeking to remedy the defects of the outgoing regime, and hopefully far enough to curtail the racists, white-supremacists and others emboldened by Trump’s victory.
In the meantime, those tempted by fear would do well to remember that despite their misgivings no one knows what a Trump Presidency will look like.
At the same time, those sharing in the excitement of Trump’s supporters should take care not to mistake their temporary euphoria at the passing of the old regime with faith and trust in the righteousness of the new one.
Don’t forget this is President Lesser-Evil.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com.