Given the choice, which of the following would be the more unnerving prospect: That Donald Trump becomes president and effectively destroys the entire world order, or that Trump becomes president and does a perfectly decent job?
Over the past year, we Trump skeptics have spent so much time imagining the catastrophic consequences of a theoretical Trump presidency that it has barely crossed our minds that he just might be up to the task—or, more precisely, that our fears of what his leadership style would mean for the future have been unduly exaggerated. That upon becoming the most powerful person on Earth, Trump might finally come to his senses and behave in a more cautious, dignified manner on the world stage.
Admittedly, the reason none of us has entertained this notion is that everything Trump has ever said and done has indicated the exact opposite. Whether through his infantile personality, his lack of basic knowledge about policy or his propensity for flying into a tizzy whenever anyone calls him out—especially if that person is a woman—Trump has made it impossible for any reasonable observer to give him the benefit of the doubt: The preponderance of the evidence suggests a disaster in the making.
But what if we’re wrong? What if Trump surprises us by proving himself a competent, solid leader who manages America’s foreign and domestic affairs with grace, fortitude and good humor? What if he lays aside his rougher edges and characteristic bile and somehow wills himself into an able statesman?
Or—if that scenario seems too outlandish—suppose he abandons some of his baser instincts in the Oval Office and muddles through four years of minor accomplishments and periodic setbacks, amounting to a presidency that, while hardly great, is finally regarded as a respectable effort and a mere blip in the ongoing saga of republican governance?
Indeed, the prospect of a boring, so-so performance from this man seems to be the one eventuality that both Trump’s fans and haters neither want nor expect—perhaps because it simply doesn’t compute that such an explosive character could possibly be middling. In the hysterical environment in which we live, today’s electorate is convinced that a President Trump would be either a towering success or a catastrophic failure. (We should add that, given the differing values of these two camps, it’s possible that, four years hence, both will claim to have been correct.)
And yet, if history teaches us anything, it’s that the U.S. presidency is a fundamentally stable and moderating institution—strong enough to endure even the likes of one Donald Trump.
Taking a cursory view of all U.S. presidents to date, we find that a small handful were truly great, an equally small handful were truly terrible, while the remaining several dozen landed in the giant chasm in between.
What we find in all cases, however, is that not a single one of those 43 men has caused the American republic to collapse or the entire planet to explode—i.e. the two things that half the country more or less assumes will happen under a President Trump.
Whether the presiding administration engaged in open bribery (e.g. Grant and Harding), imperial overreach (Johnson and Bush), nuclear hot potato (Truman and Kennedy) or domestic genocide (Andrew effing Jackson), the country itself managed to endure—both while and after such dangerous men stood at the helm. To date, no chief executive (try as they might) has succeeded in fully negating the principles of the Constitution.
(For our purposes, we’ll allow that the Civil War—the closest America ever came to disintegrating—was the culmination of a 73-year-old argument as to what those principles actually were, and was not the fault of a single leader.)
The short explanation for our system’s remarkable buoyancy is that the Founding Fathers hit the jackpot by dividing the federal government into three equal branches, with a bicameral legislature and a Supreme Court acting as checks on executive power. This way, whenever the president does go too far, the remaining branches are empowered to rein him in and/or throw him out until Constitutional equilibrium is restored. While this arrangement has never operated flawlessly and the power of the presidency has grown with each passing administration, it has worked just well enough to keep things chugging along.
Now, it’s possible that the United States has merely experienced 229 consecutive years of dumb luck and that Trump is now the right guy at the right time to give the Constitution that one final nudge over the cliff. He certainly professes to care not a whit about the separation of powers, and we have every obligation to take him at his word.
Or rather, we don’t, because when has Trump’s word ever meant anything?
Don’t forget the one thing about Trump that we know for sure: Whatever he says today has no bearing on what he might say tomorrow. On matters related to policy and governing, he plainly doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about and, when asked a direct question, he reflexively spits out the first thought that pops into his head, no matter how incompatible it might be with all his previous statements on the issue—including, in some cases, what he said just a sentence or two earlier.
Nope. It’s like we’ve been saying for months now: Trump is the world’s most transparent con man whose only instinct is to say and do whatever he thinks will induce others to bend to his will. Like every avaricious, status-obsessed windbag before him, he cares nothing for the public good except for how it might enrich him personally.
But here’s the thing: Trump is not the first presidential candidate driven almost exclusively by narcissism and greed, nor would he be the first commander-in-chief bereft of a basic sense of right and wrong.
These are hardly attractive qualities in a leader of the free world, but they are not—in and of themselves—a hindrance to a competent and fruitful presidency, and even failed presidents can do genuinely good things. Consider, for instance, that although Richard Nixon gave the world Watergate and four decades of cynicism about public officials, he still found time to open China and establish the EPA. Or that while George W. Bush was unwittingly fostering a terrorist breeding ground in the Middle East, he was simultaneously funneling billions of dollars to diseased-ravaged countries in Africa, reportedly saving over one million lives and counting.
Long story short (too late?): Just as Trump himself should quit being so inanely confident about his ability to foster a magical new American Eden, so should we dial back our own assumptions that, if given the chance, he would fail in a million different ways—or worse, that he would “succeed” in the most frightening possible sense.
It’s not that Trump has shown any real propensity for intellectual growth (he hasn’t), or that his whole candidacy has been an elaborate performance masking a much more serious and learned man (if so, he hides it well).
Rather, it’s that the presidency—that most peculiar of institutions—has a way of scrambling the expectations of every person who enters into it and every citizen who observes the machinations therein. Like no other job on Earth, it has a way of turning great men into cowards and mediocrities into legends.
The truth is that we can’t know what kind of president someone will be until it’s too late to stop them. With Trump—arguably the most erratic person to have sought the job in any of our lifetimes—this uncomfortable fact becomes all the more self-evident. If we agree that he is inherently unpredictable, we must allow for the possibility that, once in office, he will do things that we have thus far failed to predict, and that we just might be pleasantly surprised by the results.