By William Hausdorff
I’m not yet sure who won the elections. It’s true that I’m a bit hazy due to sleep deprivation after having stayed up all night to watch the returns. I’m also dazed to realize that obsessive, daily scrutinizing of the state-by-state polls on the 538 website, cross-referenced with a few other prominent polling sites, appears to have been a complete waste of time.
But let me rephrase that: I do know who won the House and Senate elections. This was the Republican Party in its Tea Party incarnation, the same that has been in control of Congress the past several years, the one that is intrinsically opposed to the concept of compromise, to any abortion rights for women, the one that likes to flirt with shutting down the government and/or defaulting on the national debt if it doesn’t get what it wants. A Congress whose sole goal was to block whatever Obama and the Democrats might propose, regardless of its merits even by previous Republican standards, and to embarrass him wherever possible.
And I recognize that Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senators ultimately won their bet in successfully blocking a Democratic President from filling the Scalia Supreme Court vacancy. No doubt the Trump nominee, who will be rapidly confirmed, will be “really, really bad.”
However, I’m unclear exactly who won the Presidential race. It is tempting to assume that it is the openly racist, misogynist, bullying, reckless, vindictive Breitbartian candidate that channeled much of the underlying anger fueling the Tea/Republican Party for the past 20 years.
But before leaping to that conclusion—which may very well be right—I keep thinking about what I’ve heard or read from numerous Trump supporters, sometimes in angry responses to my essays. Namely, that Trump is NOT the Republican Party, that he is something different, as evidenced by the number of classical Republicans, though few current politicians, that distanced themselves from him.
And in fairness, there have always been aspects of Trump the candidate that haven’t neatly dovetailed with the standard Republican positions. Let’s start with a theme that he has loudly trumpeted throughout his campaign: investing in infrastructure. Spending large amounts of money to improve roads, bridges, airports, hospitals, perhaps even mass transportation has long been anathema to the Republican Party.
Yet if Trump is anything, he is a builder and developer. While his preference appears to be for casinos and luxury hotels and golf courses with a propensity to go bankrupt a few years later, he does like to build. Will this really be a major priority, as he reiterated in his acceptance speech, that the Republican Congress will feel obliged to pass? If so, will it actually address real needs and not luxury needs? It’s worth reminding ourselves that there is no way a Hillary Clinton administration could have gotten something like that through Congress simply by virtue of having originated it.
Another ambiguous theme on the domestic front is healthcare. Trump has repeatedly declared that repealing Obamacare is also a top priority, but at the same time has also repeatedly said that everyone should be covered by health insurance—the latter clearly not a priority of the Republicans. While he likely has the votes in Congress to repeal it, its disappearance can’t happen overnight. Is it possible that what he really wants is a major reshaping of the current plan that nonetheless preserves its essential features and which would allow it to be called “Trumpcare”? Even Congressional Republicans may be loath to strip 20 million people of their coverage without some kind of replacement.
A third area is abortion. On the one hand, barely eight weeks ago Trump explicitly committed himself to “defunding Planned Parenthood” and a host of other activities, including naming “pro-life” Supreme Court Justices. Yet years ago Trump was pro-choice, and earlier this year during the primary debates he openly and surprisingly praised Planned Parenthood’s work on women’s health, something he had no obvious political motive to do and which no other Republican candidate would even go near. How important would this be to him, perhaps due to the influence of his daughter or sister, and might it affect the litmus test he applies to his choice of Supreme Court nominations?
Another aspect where I’m unclear who won is on foreign policy. Trump is infamously thin-skinned, and during the campaign was apt to call for muscular and clearly dangerous responses to perceived slights and signs of disrespect by world leaders as a way to attack Obama and Clinton. Most of the other Republican Presidential candidates and leaders have harped on the same theme. But the same Trump has consistently decried American military interventions around the world and the concept of being the global policeman, to the extent of blatantly lying about his early support for the Bush Jr’s Iraq invasion. But not cozying up to the Henry Kissinger school of foreign policy, as Hillary Clinton appeared to be doing, is actually a good thing in my book.
On Iran, while Trump has recently talked about “repealing” the nuclear treaty, at other times he has explicitly said he would keep it but try to modify it. Although this is very difficult to imagine, based on his business history and the title of his book, The Art of the Deal, it does appear that Trump’s predilection is for “deal making.” That is definitely not something that the current Republican Party is inclined towards.
Might that also go for the global warming agreement, despite Trump’s braindead comment that “it is all a Chinese hoax”? Not that he would openly support it, but rather that it might not be a priority to withdraw from it? Unfortunately, initial news reports suggest just the contrary.
Trump has also challenged the current fad to demonize Russia and Putin, to the ridiculous point of even denying Russian military activities in Ukraine, and highlighted his interest in trying to work with Putin. He has also questioned unconditional US support for NATO. Yet there is a good argument to be made (by others much more knowledgeable about this area) for rethinking NATO’s current strategic orientation, which after all was designed to help “contain” the long gone Soviet Union.
The list goes on, in part because it is not clear that Trump has any real core positions or values, and he has said many things to many people. What is clear, however, is that he has not been a straight Tea Party zealot, unlike a Ted Cruz or, for that matter, the new Vice President-elect.
I make no predictions here. Trump has said so many crazy, provocative, nasty things on other fronts that it is not possible to even imagine a decent presidency. Furthermore, it is easy to argue that all of this is academic, that even if Trump seriously cares about any of the above—which is highly debatable -- as President he will be so beholden to the new Congress and Republican leaders to get anything through that his program will essentially reflect their priorities. I recall, all too well, Bush Jr being elected in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative” with a history of working with Democrats in the Texas State House, and then surrounding himself with the likes of Ashcroft, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. We know how that turned out.
We’ll get clues soon when we see whom Trump decides to put in his key positions. Look at the bright side: at least we won’t be confronted with the dreary specter of non-stop impeachment hearings beginning the day after Hillary Clinton is inaugurated, with absolutely no chance of passing any legislation for four years.