In mid-December, Donald Trump tweeted the following: “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of the water in an unpresidented act.”
This hasty composition with the humorous misspelling actually suggests a crucial question: How unpresidented will Trump’s service in the White House turn out to be?
The question actually has two meanings. In proper spelling, what will be unprecedented about the Trump presidency and in Trump’s spelling, how “unpresidented” — that is unpresidential — will his White House tenure prove to be?
Let’s consider the unprecedented aspects of Trump’s ascension to the executive mansion.
First, no one in modern electoral history (since 1876) has lost the popular vote by such a margin — over 2.8 million votes or 2.1 percent — and won the election. No one has been outspent by an opponent by 2 to 1 and prevailed on Election Day. No incoming president in U.S. history has had less military or governing experience, or greater personal wealth, or more complex financial arrangements, or such indiscriminate tweets, or such polarizing postelection campaign rallies or such a conservative (for their time) set of Cabinet appointees. That’s a lot of unprecedentedness, some of it dubious.
As for unpresidential? The dismissal of daily intelligence briefings, polarizing rallies rather than inclusive rhetoric, both intemperate policy pronouncements and “punching down” at inconsequential opponents in tweets, important transition and policy authority given to family members. Quite the “new normal” for an incoming president.
For all his bluster, Trump is politically on thin ice. First, because of his loss in the popular vote, he is president thanks to just 76,600 votes that narrowly won him Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in the Electoral College. Second, Trump’s approval ratings in his transition period are substantially below those of other recent president elects.
This means Trump needs to gain additional public support if he is to enjoy adequate job approval to promote his policy agenda during his term. He could do this through survey research that identifies those who are open to his presidency but did not vote for him and then reaching them via proper media channels with effective messaging. So far, Trump has done none of this and seems disinclined to do so. The political costs of his low popularity will probably grow over time.
Trump’s Cabinet appointments are reliably conservative, suggesting that a rightist policy revolution is in the works. Trump has indicated that he wants to disrupt established Washington, to “drain the swamp.” Vice President-elect Mike Pence is already emerging as Trump’s “prime minister,” scoring several of his recommended Cabinet nominees and working closely with the GOP congressional leadership on an administration legislative agenda.
Trump now has an initially supportive GOP Congress and will be able to achieve some legislative successes early in his term. Recall, however, the fate of recent presidents who came into office with partisan control of Congress. They were rebuked in midterm elections two years later. Bill Clinton in 1994 suffered a GOP takeover of Congress. George W. Bush saw Democrats sweep to Congressional control in 2006. Barack Obama lost his Democratic Congress in the GOP wave of 2010.
Can Trump fare better in 2018? He benefits from very favorable U.S. Senate electoral terrain in his first midterm, with 25 Democratic seats at risk compared to only eight for the GOP. Republicans have 241 US House seats and would have to lose 24 to fall into minority status.
Though these numbers favor the GOP, much will depend on Trump’s public popularity as well. That may be a big problem for the president’s party
Trump has chosen several Cabinet appointees who plan to challenge, disrupt and reduce the role of their department’s bureaucracies. These include Rick Perry for Energy, Betsy DeVos for Education, Tom Price for Health and Human Services and Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development. Can they transform their departments? That will be hard work and there is no indication that Trump will be personally involved in helping them win their bureaucratic battles.
Foreign policy? That is perhaps the biggest unknown concerning a Trump presidency. So far he has made friendly noises about the authoritarian Vladimir Putin and has chosen a secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, in good graces with Putin. Trump has tweeted belligerently about ISIS and China.
His international moves may depend on his appointees. James Mattis, his secretary of defense nominee, is widely praised, but Michael Flynn, his pick for national security adviser, has a history of rash pronouncements. Trump’s trade policies, the subject of much extravagant campaign rhetoric, have yet to be fully formulated.
So here’s perhaps the most optimistic scenario for those who back Trump. Trump remains incurious and uninterested in both domestic and foreign policy details, leading him to delegate authority extensively. This results in Vice President Pence ably steering a course with a GOP Congress that yields some legislative successes for Trump.
The preponderance of ex-generals in key foreign policy positions in the administration helps to keep Trump from rashly using military force. Generals know the costs of such battles and may well in practice adopt the “Colin Powell doctrine” that restricts the use of force to situations involving a clear objective, limited time frame and sound exit strategy.
Trump’s trade stance may become more nuanced as he confronts the complexity of the topic and the domestic economic costs of trade restrictions — and Congress fails to grant him his proposed big tariffs against China and other nations.
The result is coherent if conservative government. Given Trump’s behavior so far, that’s a lot for Trump supporters to hope for — perhaps akin to wishing for an inside straight in a hand of poker. Now is the season of hope, however implausible.
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.