As the results became clear on election night, I got a call from a friend whose 16-year-old daughter was sobbing.
“How can we have a president who says such terrible things about women?” the girl asked her mom through her tears. She said she’d just spoken to a classmate whose brother has muscular dystrophy and was deeply upset by the election. “Now everyone will make fun of me the way Trump made fun of that disabled reporter,” the boy cried.
Such is the character of the man who won the election with his promises to change America for the better.
Yes, Donald Trump will indeed bring change. But that change won’t usher in the economic nirvana Trump voters hope for. On the contrary, if the president-elect acts on a fraction of his half-baked proposals he could wreck our economy and destabilize the world.
So here is the question many nervous Americans now are asking (and remember, more voters cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton than for her opponent):
Is there a way to check Trump’s most reckless instincts? I’ll try to answer in a moment, but first let’s take a look at Trump’s ill-considered version of change.
Trump’s main economic planks call for junking trade agreements and slapping trade tariffs on China, while halting immigration. This is supposed to bring back 1960s era manufacturing jobs (a pipe dream), while doubling growth (another pipe dream). More likely, his policies would start draconian trade wars, which would slash growth and cost millions of jobs.
In some of his endless verbal grenades, Trump also threatened to default on the national debt and politicize the Fed, undermining America’s status as the world’s safest harbor for investment. No wonder his election has given stock markets the jitters all over the world.
Meantime, Trump’s version of foreign policy change is even more unnerving. It consists of threats to end America’s key alliances – while cozying up to nasty regimes.
The Russian media is cheering the Trump win while Western and Asian allies are panicking. The president-elect shows no interest in maintaining the post-WWII security structures that helped keep Americans safe.
Instead, he talks carelessly about using nuclear weapons, and encouraging more countries to get them. He veers erratically between an America First isolationism and using massive military force. The uncertainty this creates is likely to fuel more international conflicts as adversaries and terrorists move into the vacuum his policies create.
So Trump change promises an array of nasty surprises, not change Americans should believe in. The voters have been conned.
This bait and switch reminds me of the British campaign to leave the European Union, which I witnessed in London. British voters surprised the world in June by voting for a Brexit.
The very next day, Nigel Farrage, the leader of the Leave campaign, admitted his two key promises were fraudulent: it was untrue that leaving the European Union would provide a cash bonanza to the British health service and it was false that England could ban immigration while keeping favorable trade deals with Europe.
Everything the Leave campaign had pledged was a lie.
Yet Trump has compared his campaign to Brexit and even invited Farrage to join him on the hustings in August in Mississippi. A President Trump will never admit, postelection, that his promises are baloney – and are more likely to hurt Americans than to help.
Which brings me back to the question of whether there are any checks and balances to prevent some dreadful mistakes in the name of “change”?
Scary to say, it’s hard to see any such restraints.
Republicans now control both the House and the Senate, and Trump will expand conservative control of a now-politicized Supreme Court. So the normal institutional checks and balances of other governmental branches will have little impact. Nor can we expect much from more sober GOP legislators who once disavowed Trump as unfit for the office; they are unlikely to challenge him now that he’s won.
As for the Fourth Estate, Trump has proved he can ignore detailed media exposes of his wrongdoings – with taxes, schools, women, etc. – that would have sunk previous candidates.
He has managed to discredit serious media outlets by denouncing them on social media websites, and on cable networks like Fox that rev up his faithful. As he did in his campaign, Trump can blame America’s problems (and his own policy failures) on enemies like “international bankers” (code word for Jews). Those websites absolve him.
This strategy was cooked up by his campaign CEO Steve Bannon, who used to run Breitbart, a site favored by white supremacists who love Trump.
Might Trump surround himself with experienced staff who will compensate for his lack of experience? The president-elect has shown little interest in sage advice, and has acquired no bench of solid security experts. He says he knows “more than the generals,” whom he’s hinted he’d sack en masse, and that he only needs to consult himself on foreign policy.
Right now Trump looks immune to constitutional checks and balances. Yet somehow, I hope the system will prove more resilient. Perhaps movements for real change will bubble up from the state and local level.
Otherwise, the word change may come to be regarded as a curse.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.