In last Sunday’s column, I wrote about the dangers that a Hillary Clinton presidency poses for the country. Since this is the final week for Hillary skeptics to agonize over whether to cast a vote for Donald Trump, it seems appropriate to outline why the risks of Trump are so distinctive as to throw the perils of a Clinton presidency into relative eclipse.
This is a challenging thing to explain because Trump is, among recent U.S. politicians, sui generis. The mistakes and blunders that an establishment liberal like Clinton is likely to make can be envisioned by looking at peers like Angela Merkel, at recent occupants of the White House, at Hillary’s own record. But there are no obvious analogues for a President Trump; all the comparables, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Silvio Berlusconi, only reflect part of what we would get with the Republican nominee as a superpower’s president.
So considering the dangers of Trump requires a grounded speculation, which is what I'll attempt here. These are not my worst-case scenarios: They do not involve Trump making baldly authoritarian moves or accidentally touching off nuclear war. Rather, they’re three baseline dangers for a Trump administration, three perils that we would very likely face.
The first is sustained market jitters, leading to an economic slump. Trump’s election alone would probably induce a Brexit-esque stock market dip, but the real problem would be what happened next. Instead of Theresa May’s steadiness inspiring a return to fundamentals, you would have the spectacle – and it will be a spectacle – of the same Trump team that drop-kicked its policy shop and barely organized a national campaign trying to staff up an administration. Even without his promised pivot to mercantilism and trade war, a White House run as a Trump production is likely to mainline anxiety into the economy, sidelining capital, discouraging hiring and shaving points off the GDP.
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The second peril is major civil unrest. Some of Trump’s supporters imagine that his election would be a blow to left-wing activists, that his administration would swiftly reverse the post-Ferguson crime increase. This is a bit like imagining that a President George Wallace would have been good for late-1960s civil peace. In reality, Trump’s election would be a gift to bad cops and riot-ready radicals in equal measure, and his every intervention would pour gasoline on campuses and cities – not least because as soon as any protest movement had a face or leader, Trump would be on cable bellowing ad hominems at them.
The third likely highly plausible peril, and by far the most serious, is a rapid escalation of risk in every geopolitical theater. It’s probably true that Trump, given his pro-Russia line, would be somewhat less likely than Clinton to immediately stumble into confrontation with Vladimir Putin over Syria. But it’s silly to imagine Moscow slipping into a comfortable détente with a President Trump; Putin is more likely to pocket concessions and keep pushing, testing the orange-haired dealmaker at every opportunity and leaving Trump poised, very dangerously, between overreaction and his least-favorite position – looking weak.
That’s just Russia: From the Pacific Rim to the Middle East, revisionist powers will set out to test Trump’s capacity to handle surprise, hostile actors will seek to exploit the undoubted chaos of his White House, and our allies will build U.S. fecklessness into their strategic plans. And again, all of this is likely to happen without Trump doing the wilder things he’s kind-of sort-of pledged to do – demanding tribute from allies, trying to “take the oil,” etc. He need only be himself in order to bring an extended period of risk upon the world.
The history of geopolitics before the Pax Americana is rife with examples of why this sort of testing should be feared. Overall, Trump’s foreign policy hazing, his rough introduction to machtpolitik, promises more danger for global stability – still a real and valuable thing, recent crises notwithstanding – than the risks incurred by George W. Bush’s interventionism, Barack Obama’s attempt at offshore balancing, or (yes) Hillary Clinton’s possible exposure of classified material to the Chinese, the Russians and Anthony Weiner’s sexting partners.
There is no algorithm that can precisely calibrate how to weigh global instability against the reasons that remain for conservatives to vote for Trump. No mathematical proof can demonstrate that the chance of a solidly conservative Supreme Court justice isn’t worth a scaled-up risk of great power conflict.
But I think that reluctant Trump supporters are overestimating the systemic durability of the U.S.-led order and underestimating the extent to which a basic level of presidential competence and self-control is itself a matter of life and death – for Americans and for human beings the world over.
I may be wrong. But none of my fears (and I have many) of what a Hillary Clinton presidency will bring are strong enough to make me want to run the risk of being proved right.