It could be worse

by Rob Tiller

On Saturday, still in shock from the election, I took a longish drive over to Hanging Rock State Park. It was sunny and brisk, and the last leg of the drive was hilly and twisty. At the park, the trail went upwards quickly. The trees were getting ready for winter. There were sweet waterfalls and cliffs, and sweeping vistas.

On the drive back, I listened to some Liszt, and continued to mull. How much should we be worried that the President-elect will keep his campaign promises?  Americans of color, immigrants, and Muslims are understandably uneasy, as are transgender people, gays, and women. Indeed, anyone with an interest in avoiding devastating climate change and nuclear catastrophe should be concerned. 

But with all those risks, there’s a strong mitigator. The President-elect is a man who has based his career on deceiving people and who is indifferent to ordinary standards of truth and honesty. There’s a long list of his victims – investors in his projects, ordinary contractors, students hoping to learn the secrets of his supposed success.

As despicable as his dishonesty is, we can now see an upside to it: his campaign promises can be significantly discounted.  For him, promises are simply words that are useful in manipulating people. He is unlikely to view any recent promises as binding. 

As to his deplorable racist language, as best we can tell, he is no ideologue. His primary driver is to be admired. He probably has no other agenda. Thus he is probably not determined to stop and frisk minorities, deport immigrants, and bar Muslims. He will probably not actively promote torturing those suspected of terrorism or killing their families. He doesn’t actually hate minorities, or care much about them one way or the other.

Of course, there are some of his supporters who are driven by hate. They are angry people. They’ll probably get angrier still when they realize that those promises that inspired them –- bringing back the good manufacturing jobs, more steel, more coal, and so forth – were just empty words, and he won’t be bringing back the jobs. His supporters could turn on him.

Same with the promises of populist change. Most likely, he’ll find the actual business of understanding government and making policy intolerably boring, and leave the real work to the traditional power elite — that is, establishment “conservatives” primarily concerned with not paying taxes and otherwise feathering their own nests, while hoping the base will be distracted by symbolic “conservative” social policies. In other words, the usual Republican playbook.

This is, to be sure, all very bad. Our structural economic problems, including inequality of opportunity, will not be addressed. Our systemic health care problems will probably get worse. Our education system problems will not be fixed. Our environmental problems will probably get worse. The threat of war, including cyber war, will increase. The existential threats from global warming – hurricanes, draughts, floods – will get worse, as will the existential threat of the nuclear holocaust hair-trigger – if we’re lucky.

But it could be worse. At the moment, the plumbing and electricity still work. There’s food in the stores and medicine in the hospitals. We’re not in a state of war, or a condition of near anarchy.

I don’t rule out the possibility that our traditional protections for free expression and limits on state power could go by the wayside. Thug paramilitaries could be unleashed, with dissidents disappearing, and ever more intrusive state surveillance.  We could become a kleptocratic thugocracy, like Russia, or some new species of fascism.  And then you and I would find out how much courage we really have.
But we’re not there yet, and we may not get there. In his latest NY Times column, David Brooks predicted that the President-elect would “probably resign or be impeached within a year.”

Anyhow, we survived the Reagan years (though we wreaked considerable havoc). We survived the George W. Bush years (though wreaking more havoc). We will probably survive the years (or months) of the Orange One.