Revisiting my Donald Trump predictions

Photo: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

On the day after Donald Trump was elected president, I made a set of predictions. Today I’ll revisit those predictions and grade what I got right and wrong.

The true analyst is always looking forward. Most of my friends were in despair on November 9, 2016. But I knew that Trump was a nontraditional candidate, and that meant we’d see things we hadn’t seen before — including, perhaps, things that were distinctly un-Republican. I wouldn’t say I was optimistic, but I tried to keep an open mind. The result was my sixth most popular post ever, with almost 18,000 views.

Analysts typically run away from their mistakes. I won’t. So let’s take a look back at what I expected and whether it happened. As you read these, try to remember how unsettled and unpredictable the world looked on the day after Trump got elected. None of these predictions were obvious.

Here’s my evaluation of “Strange potential consequences of a Donald Trump presidency.” For each prediction, I’ll post what I said, and then whether, in my judgment, it came to pass.

What I got mostly right

  • He and his working class followers will take over the Republican Party. Trump won with union members, rural voters, and white men, not with the moneyed patrician class. He is a protectionist against free trade. His support of social conservatism is opportunistic, not heartfelt. The new Republican party will be the party of disenfranchised workers, not business. Corporate interests will lose power because they will no longer have a party behind them.

On election day, it was clear that traditional Republicanism and Trumpism were at odds. Never-Trump Republicans like Jeff Flake seemed as if they might prevail in Congress. But by any reasonable measure, the Republican Party is now Trump’s party, with most Congressional Republicans having muted or changed their positions on issues like free trade and deficit reduction.

  • His chief of staff will be crucial. Trump’s people apparently told John Kasich that if he were VP, he’d end up in charge of “foreign and domestic policy.” Trump does not have the attention span to read position papers and make carefully considered decisions. He will set goals and make public statements, while the real work of understanding, deciding, and governing will fall to someone else. I don’t think Mike Pence is that trusted advisor. I don’t think Kellyanne Conway is up to the job. Unless there is a real heavyweight in that position, Trump will get nothing done. Whoever takes this job will be the most powerful man in the world.

I got this mostly right. Under Reince Priebus, the Trump presidency flailed. Under current chief of staff John F. Kelly, Trump has accomplished some of his goals, such as a summit with North Korea and a tax cut. I was partly right about “the real work of understanding, deciding, and governing” going to someone else — Trump appears to be deciding, others are governing, and no one appears to have a focus on actually understanding anything. John F. Kelly is indeed powerful, but if he’s manipulating Trump, it’s not visible.

  • He will set the environment back decades. He will pull out of climate deals. Pipelines and fracking will spread. Trump has said global warming is a hoax, and I think he believes that. This issue might well define the presidential campaign of 2020.

Trump and Scott Pruitt’s EPA have indeed rolled back dozens of environmental regulations, and Trump pulled out of the Paris accords, as I predicted. However, I doubt that this issue will dominate the politics of 2020, although perhaps it should.

  • Women candidates will eventually prevail. I think the election of 2016 was not about a man vs. a woman. It was about a man who connected effectively with his base and a woman who didn’t connect with hers as well as she needed to. In the end, more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Trump. America will elect a woman president within the next 12 years.

Hillary Clinton’s loss did not doom female candidates. Women made up 23% of the non-incumbents running for Congress in 2018, up from 16% in the previous two cycles, including the much-noted victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. We could very well have a female president in the next decade.

  • The press will prevail, too. The national press, from CNN to The New York Times, is doing some soul searching today. They know they played a huge role in electing Trump. I expect a vigorous and skeptical press in the Trump Administration. And Trump will find there is nothing he can do about it.

The press lost its footing after the 2016 election and had difficulty figuring out how to deal with an unconventional, anti-press President. But any objective observer would agree that the press is now effectively challenging Trump, even as he attempts to erode its standing with withering criticism.

What I got wrong

  • He could actually reform campaign finance. This is a “drain the swamp” issue that Congress will not lead on. It’s perfect for Trump to make his mark. Trump will appoint a Supreme Court Justice who will reverse “Citizens United.” He will take on Democrats and Republicans on this, which would be popular with everyone except lobbyists.

I was dreaming. Not a chance.

  • Racism and violence will not prevail. These were positions that energized Trump’s base. The deplorables rose up to smite Hillary Clinton. But while riots, racist slogans, and armed protests served candidate Trump, they’ll hurt President Trump. He is no longer against the establishment — he is at its head. Trump will repudiate the worst of his followers when and if they become a problem.

Trump’s repudiations of racism have been weak — remember his statement about violence “on many sides” after the Charlottesville march of the White Nationalists? Racists are now more out and visible in American politics than they have been in 50 years. So I was a sparkle-eyed optimist on this one. I could never have imagined that this would be happening in America in 2018.

  • War on gays and choice? I don’t think so. Trump’s embrace of social conservatism was always a pose. He can only get so much done. I don’t think he will push or even get behind new federal abortion laws, defunding Planned Parenthood, ending gay marriage, or bathroom rules. Trade and business is what he cares about. Except this: his Supreme Court Justices must pass a Republican Senate. So that is where the battle will be fought.

I was correct that Trump has not made social conservatism a crucial part of his message. Trade and business (and foreign relations) are indeed at the center of his focus. But it’s likely that the federal judges and Supreme Court Justices that he appoints will begin to dismantle abortion protections and L.G.B.T rights, which is one reason that Congressional Republicans still support him.

  • He could actually fix Obamacare. Republicans want to repeal Obamacare completely. That’s pretty unpopular with people with pre-existing conditions, 24-year old children, and serious and expensive medical problems. Obama would have liked to change the system — perhaps adding a public option — but never could with with Republicans running Congress. Trump has the opportunity to start with fresh thinking. Think about it: “repeal and replace” really just means “replace.” Since he is not beholden to insurance companies or healthcare lobbyists, Trump could potentially do anything to bring the cost increases into line. This is a complex issue that is beyond Trump’s understanding — beyond nearly everyone’s understanding — so a solution would depend on his attracting one of the “best people” to propose a fix. I suggest Clayton Christensen, dean of disruption and author of “The Innovator’s Prescription.”

A pipe dream. Trump’s rhetoric was not able to stand up to reality, so he’s settled for dismantling Obamacare bit-by-bit so it will fail more quickly. Replace it with something better? Unlikely.

  • [T]he legislative liaison [will be crucial]. Trump does not have the relationships in Congress to make stuff happen. Unless he gets someone who knows Capitol Hill, nothing will. Is this Newt Gingrich’s role?

Trump’s legislative liaison appears to Trump.

What we can’t tell yet

  • There will be a fail-safe between Trump and the nuclear button. Trump relinquished his Twitter in the final days of the election, because he knew it was in the best interests of the campaign. Will he do the same with the nuclear codes? Even if this happens, we’ll never know. But I don’t think Trump or his White House will make it easy for him to launch a nuke.

I have no idea if this true or not.

  • There will be no wall. The wall costs too much, is impractical because of the landowners near the border, and has dubious benefits. Things that cost money need legislative approval. Even with a Republican Senate and House, Trump won’t get this. He’ll scream and make the legislators pay a political price, but there will be no wall.

So far, no wall. But it could still get funded as part of an immigration deal.

  • Trump will not destroy the government. Our government is robust. It survived an ineffectual Jimmy Carter, a senile late Ronald Reagan, a philandering Bill Clinton, and a dopey George W. Bush. It will survive a volcanic Trump. Congress will not follow Trump over a cliff. Strangely, I think that Democrats and Republicans will find common ground in resisting the most irrational impulses of this president, to preserve their own power as well as preserving the union. The Supreme Court will not do his bidding. Ask those who lived through Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California. Governments move slowly, and Trump will not be able to change that.

Too soon to tell. Democrats and Republicans could find common ground to stop Trump’s most autocratic tendencies (like pardoning himself), but they won’t necessarily. Terrifyingly, the match between our democratic institutions and Trump’s desire to get what he wants at all costs is too close to call.

Final tally: a draw

Analysts are often wrong, because they don’t predict the obvious. In this case, I got five right, five wrong, and three still unknown.

I intend to continue looking forward. Being wrong sometimes doesn’t deter a true analyst.

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  1. A few observations:
    I believe that you wrong on the media: Every day I see more headlines attacking Trump from major media outlets. Many of these attacks are founded on the general concept of anything that he supports is bad. Some people on the left are embracing topics that many centrists will find distasteful, such as stating that MS13 gang members are okay and that no borders at all should be the national policy. Hollywood with the whole “F Trump” is only encouraging voters to turn out.
    I believe you were right on women, but for the wrong reason: Too many people disliked Hillary Clinton as a politician, and for her assumption that it was simply her turn to be president. I believe that her arrogance was her downfall, not her gender. Listen to her comments during and after the election, and you might agree. The citizens of this nation seem to be more than willing to have a female president, but we would need a centrist.
    I enjoyed the article, thanks!

    1. Regarding media:

      – Don’t confuse traditional media (e.g. daily newspapers) with red-meat websites and papers.

      – Don’t confuse op-eds and editorials with news. There have always been op-eds attacking the president, no matter who the president is.

      – The media has a responsibility to challenge the president’s actions, or the truth of his statements, regardless of who the president is.

      So, regarding your comment, I believe the traditional media is doing what it should be doing. As for what “the left” is doing, that wasn’t part of the post, and as far as I can see, there is no “left,” insofar as it is supposed to be some monolithic group of people with one voice.

      I reject generalized attacks on any group, media or “the left” included. Your comment lacks any specifics or links.

      1. Well said, Josh. I like how you cut the others’ bullshit. Just because Fox refuses to “challenge the president’s actions, or the truth of his statements” doesn’t mean that all media outlets won’t. Kudos to those that do what they should.

        “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this commonwealth.”
        —John Adams, Samuel Adams, James Bowdoin (1780). Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Commonwealth of Massachusetts.