When faced with highly uncertain conditions, military units and major corporations sometimes use an exercise called scenario planning. The idea is to consider a broad range of possibilities for how the future might unfold to help guide long-term planning and preparation. The goal is not necessarily to assess the relative likelihood of each scenario so much as to keep an open mind so you’re not so surprised when events don’t develop quite as you’d expected.
This technique might be useful in the case of President Trump. He’s made so much news in his first two weeks that it feels as though he’s been president for two months — or two years. I worry that we, the community of Trump-watchers, may be making too many extrapolations from this small sample of data and have become too narrow-minded in our efforts to imagine what might come next. Play with a few variables — such as Trump’s relationship with Republicans in Congress, his approval ratings, and whether he’s a real authoritarian or just sort of a troll — and you’ll soon find yourself wandering down some interesting paths in which Trump’s presidency is variously a stunning success or a threat to the future of the American Republic — or both at once.
Take David Frum’s recent article at The Atlantic (“How to Build an Autocracy”) about one possible future Trump could build, for instance. Frum doesn’t rely on a straight-line extrapolation of what we’ve seen from Trump so far. Instead, he imagines a scenario in which Trump crosses Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and shifts toward a more populist economic program, with lots of spending on infrastructure and social welfare. Using that fairly popular agenda, Trump wins re-election. But Trump wouldn’t be some sort of Bloombergian center-left technocrat, Frum says. There would still be plenty of nationalism and social populism mixed in with his economic populism. He’d also continue to defy and disrespect democratic norms and institutions, using the presidency as a platform to bully the opposition and enrich himself. It’s a kinder, gentler, more insidious, more media-savvy form of authoritarianism: “a mix that’s worked well for authoritarians in places like Poland,” as Frum notes.
No, things probably won’t unfold in exactly this way. The point is that it’s a plausible outcome. If the past year and a half has taught us nothing else, it’s that things in American politics often aren’t as certain as people assume, especially when it comes to Trump.
Here, then, is a list of 14 plausible futures for Trump, grouped into a few broad categories. Some of them are mutually exclusive while others can be mixed and matched. And there are undoubtedly many possible futures that I haven’t considered.1 But I hope that these make for a reasonably representative range of possibilities. If you find yourself feeling a strong urge to rule some of them out, ask yourself whether there’s really enough evidence to do that given that we’re just 1 percent of the way through Trump’s first term.
Group I: Extrapolations from the status quo.
This first group of scenarios involve Trump not changing his behavior very much. But the public reaction to him varies, following a steady course in Scenario 1, a downward trajectory in Scenario 2, and an upward trajectory in Scenario 3.
1. Trump keeps on Trumpin’ and the country remains evenly divided. In this scenario, Trump continues to implement his campaign-trail agenda. He still rants on Twitter every morning and picks unnecessary fights, although (perhaps it’s already too late for this?) he mostly avoids major entanglements with foreign leaders that could really get him into trouble. And it … sort of works. The press regularly predicts Trump’s demise, but difficult periods are followed by comparatively successful ones and he benefits from relatively low expectations. At the same time, he doesn’t win over many new converts. Still, Trump’s base of 40 to 45 percent of the country sticks with him. Given Republicans’ geographic advantages in Congress and the Electoral College, that makes for a very competitive 2018 and 2020.
2. Trump gradually (or not-so-gradually) enters a death spiral. Liberals and other Trump adversaries might overrate the likelihood of this scenario. There were many moments during the campaign where the conventional wisdom was that Trump was doomed, only for the narrative to flip once the news cycle turned over. There have also already been a couple of these moments during his first two weeks in the White House: Consider the intense criticism of Trump’s executive order on refugees this weekend, followed by the largely positive reception Trump got on Tuesday for his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
At the same time, we don’t yet know very much about how sustainable Trump’s schtick will be as president, so it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that he’s in over his head and never really recovers. Trump is fighting a lot of battles at once without much of a support structure around him. Moreover, his problems could be self-reinforcing as issues pile on top of one another and public opinion turns against him, especially if the more coolheaded and competent advisers and Cabinet members flee the White House as Trump begins to falter. In this scenario, Trump’s approval ratings wouldn’t necessarily fall off a cliff — his base would give him a mulligan or two — but they would move slowly and inexorably downward, as happened to George W. Bush during his last two years in office. Although a desperate and deeply unpopular Trump could pose some risks to American institutions, the general idea here is that Trump would become too ineffectual too quickly to cause all that much lasting damage. Impeachment and resignation are plausible endgames in this scenario.
3. Trump keeps rewriting the political rules and gradually becomes more popular. Trump won the presidency despite being fairly unpopular, and he remains fairly unpopular now. Nonetheless, what he’s accomplished is impressive, especially given the long odds that many people (including yours truly) gave Trump at the start. Maybe the guy is pretty good at politics? One can imagine various scenarios where Trump’s default approach to politics turns out to be a winning one over the long run, even if it leads to its fair share of rocky moments. One possible mechanism for this is that by constantly pushing the boundaries of conduct and discourse, Trump shifts the Overton Window (the range of policies and behaviors that are considered politically acceptable) in his direction. In that sense, he’s always playing a home game, since he’s redefined politics on his own terms while others — especially the mainstream media — are struggling to catch up. During the late stages of the Republican nomination race, Trump’s adversaries decided it was easier to join him than to beat him, and voters who were on the fence about him came along. It’s possible that something similar could eventually happen with the general electorate.
Group II: Trump changes direction.
These scenarios imagine that Trump shifts his approach, whether because what he was doing before just wasn’t working or because the challenges of the presidency reshape his habits.
4. Trump mellows out, slightly. This is the mildest course change. In this case, after an up-and-down first three to six months, Trump gradually gets better at the job of being president, not necessarily because of a concerted effort to pivot but because he learns through trial and error that he needs to pick his battles. Steve Bannon and other more incendiary advisers lose stature, and Trump’s bonds with Republican leaders in Congress strengthen as he somewhat faithfully carries out their agenda. There are still many profoundly weird moments, but Trump gradually comes to govern more like a conventional Republican. Like most first-term incumbents, he enters 2020 as a slight favorite for re-election.
5. Trump cedes authority. I rarely see this possibility discussed, but it has several historical precedents among presidents who found the job mentally or physically overwhelming. The key aspect is that within a year or two, Trump would have effectively relinquished day-to-day control of the government to Vice President Mike Pence and to his Cabinet, instead focusing on the more ceremonial aspects of the presidency and perhaps exploiting it for personal enrichment. There are several variations on this scenario, which range from Trump being surprisingly popular as a sort of celebrity-in-chief to Trump largely withdrawing from the public spotlight.
6. Trump successfully pivots to the populist center (but with plenty of authoritarianism too). This is Frum’s scenario. To recap, it involves Trump becoming more of a true populist, remaining hard-line on immigration and trade but calling for significant infrastructure and social welfare spending. His new direction earns plaudits from the media, which is eager to tell a “pivot” story, and is genuinely popular with independents and Rust Belt Democrats. At the same time, Trump continues to erode the rule of law by using strong-arm tactics with the media, the judiciary and private business, and he collaborates with Republicans to restrict voting rights. Trump’s presidency is fairly successful as far as it goes, but he moves the country in the direction of being an illiberal democracy.
7. Trump flails around aimlessly after an unsuccessful attempt to pivot. In this scenario, Trump is like George Steinbrenner running the 1980s New York Yankees, firing his managers and changing course all the time without ever really getting anywhere. Instead, he churns through advisers and alienates allies faster than he makes new ones. In one version of the scenario, Trump attempts a Frum-ian pivot to the center but it fails — Congressional Republicans don’t go along with with the program, and it costs him credibility with his base more quickly than it wins him new converts. By early 2019, there are impeachment proceedings against Trump, and several Republicans are considering challenging him for the 2020 nomination. Trump winds up being something of a lame duck despite being in his first term, drawing comparisons to Jimmy Carter.
Group III: The three horsemen of the presidential apocalypse: war, recession, scandal.
When presidencies fail, it’s usually for one of three reasons — because of an economic downturn, an unpopular war, or a major scandal. So we should consider how these might play out for President Trump. Of the three, war is the most uncertain case, as armed conflicts can sometimes produce an initial boost to a president’s popularity.
8. Trump is consumed by scandal. On the one hand, the threshold for what it takes to make the public truly outraged about Trump is likely to be higher than it would be for almost any other politician.2 On the other hand, perhaps no president has had such high potential for scandal. Between his business dealings (and potential conflicts of interest), his treatment of women, and his long tenure in the public spotlight, Trump is a target-rich environment, and news organizations are ramping up their investigative teams in hopes of breaking a story.
9. Trump is undermined by a failure to deliver jobs. Although the U.S. economic outlook is fairly bright in the near term, macroeconomic conditions are largely unpredictable more than about six months in advance.3 Some of Trump’s economic policies, such as imposing tariffs, could also contribute to the likelihood of an economic downturn. Presidents usually see their popularity suffer amidst a declining economy, and Trump could be especially vulnerable after having promised to create so many jobs.
10. Trump’s law-and-order agenda is bolstered by an international incident or terrorist attack. It’s all too easy to envision this scenario, since the tactics Trump might use if this happened are similar to the ones he used on the campaign trail. A terrorist attack or an international conflagration initially boosts Trump’s popularity because of the so-called rally-’round-the-flag effect, which we saw with Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. Trump uses his popularity boost to promote nationalism, curtail civil liberties, erode the rule of law and demonize minority groups such as Muslims. The long-term effects of are less certain: The public is more war-weary than it was in 2001, and initially-popular wars can turn into quagmires. And if Trump is too clumsy in seeming to exploit the incident for political gain, the public could turn on him quickly. Still, many aspiring authoritarians (see scenario No. 11 below) have used war as a pretext to expand their powers.
Group IV: Things fall apart.
Here are what most of us would consider the worst-case scenarios — or at least the worst cases short of Trump starting a nuclear war.
11. Trump plunges America into outright authoritarianism. While Frum imagines a gradual eight-year drift toward authoritarianism, there are other precedents (such as in Turkey and Russia) for a more abrupt shock to the system. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, spoke in 2013 of wanting to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” If Trump feels the same way, he could decide that there are lots of advantages to moving quickly while his opponents are still disoriented, and while he has a Republican Congress that has not yet shown much appetite to resist him. How many indicators of authoritarian and anti-democratic behavior has Trump checked off so far? In our opinion, this is a hard question to answer because Trump hasn’t been on the job for very long. But if you started out with the view that Trump represented an existential threat to American democracy, there hasn’t been a lot to reassure you so far.
12. Resistance to Trump from elsewhere in the government undermines his authority but prompts a constitutional crisis. Have you ever heard talk about the “deep state” or the “military-industrial complex”? We may soon see how much power it actually has. Traditionally, we think of Congress and the judiciary as providing a check on the president’s powers. But there are lots of people within the executive branch (including the military and the federal bureaucracy) who have the potential to stymie Trump, whether by expressly refusing to carry out his orders or by what amounts to sabotage (i.e. by leaking to the press, foot-dragging, etc). We’ve already seen several examples of this, such as Acting Attorney General Sally Yates (a holdover appointee from President Obama) declining to defend Trump’s executive order on immigration and then being fired by Trump. State and local governments could also challenge federal authority.
I often see liberals rooting for outcomes like these — and they might, in fact, be effective in subverting Trump. But in this case, people should be careful what they wish for. It’s one thing if people in the chain of command are nobly refusing to obey illegal or unconstitutional orders, or are serving as whistle-blowers against a corrupt administration — it’s quite another if they are behaving extralegally against a democratically elected president.
Group V: Trump Makes America Great Again.
By “Makes America Great Again,” I don’t merely mean that Trump is an effectual president, in the sense of becoming fairly popular or achieving most of his goals. I mean that he actually becomes a great president and is regarded as such by a broad range of historians. Intellectual humility demands that we consider this possibility. So how might it happen?
13. Trump becomes Governor Schwarzenegger. Trump may be feuding with former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Schwarzenegger is one of the better precedents for Trump. (To a person in 2002, the phrase “Governor Schwarzenegger” would have seemed every bit as surprising as “President Trump.”) After a rough first couple of years on the job, Schwarzenegger dropped his tough-guy act and shifted significantly to the center, winning re-election in a landslide in 2006. Could Trump do something similar? As Frum notes, Trump doesn’t have a longstanding commitment to the GOP platform; in fact, he embraced a very different set of policies — including a single-payer health care program — when he considered making a presidential bid with the Reform Party in 1999. Meanwhile, he has bent the Republican Party to his will to a certain extent. (Could Trump persuade Republicans to go along with a more centrist agenda? I have no idea. But he’d have a better chance of it than Obama ever did.) Unlike in Frum’s scenario, however, Trump wouldn’t necessarily be looking to pivot to the center as a cover for authoritarian impulses. Instead, one can imagine him becoming obsessed with his approval ratings and deciding fairly early in his term that a bipartisan approach would be the best way to improve them. The desire to be popular can do unexpected things to even the most stubborn-seeming politicians.
14. Trump’s button-mashing works because the system really is broken. Another possibility is that it turns out that the elite consensus is in fact wrong in many areas — on the economic benefits of free trade and open borders, for instance. In that case, Trump does fairly well with a somewhat contrarian approach that “shakes up the system.” It’s not that all of his ideas are brilliant, necessarily, it’s just that deviating from the status quo is a good default because the status quo isn’t working very well. Many voters supported Trump for something like this reason; he defeated Clinton 82-14 among voters who said bringing about change was the quality that mattered most to them in a candidate. Can the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump be wrong? Well, sure. You can poke all sorts of holes in this argument4 (for instance: that 66 million Americans voted for Clinton), but let’s at least allow for the possibility that they were onto something.