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The Gamble of Trump

Posted by hkarner - 6. November 2016

Date: 05-11-2016
Source: The Wall Street Journal

The hope of better policies comes with his manifest personal flaws.

The case for Donald Trump is political disruption. A broken Washington needs to be shaken up and refocused on the public good, and who better to do it than an outsider beholden to neither political party? If only that reform possibility didn’t arrive as a flawed personality who has few convictions and knows little about the world.
The best hope for a Trump Presidency is that he has aligned himself with enough sound policy impulses that he could liberate the U.S. economy to grow faster again. He would stop the crush of new regulation, restore a freer market for health insurance, unleash U.S. energy production, and reform the tax code. His default priority would be growth, which the U.S. desperately needs after a decade of progressive focus on income redistribution and the worst economic recovery in 70 years.

Assuming Republicans hold Congress, the House GOP has already put many of these reforms in legislative language. Mr. Trump could adopt them as his own reform agenda and get a fast start on governing. With a GOP Senate he could fill Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court with someone from the fine list of candidates he has publicly released. For many voters, the future of the Court is by itself enough reason to support Mr. Trump.

Yet while this could be a 1980-like moment of economic renewal, Mr. Trump is no Ronald Reagan. The Gipper came to office with a coherent and firmly held world view formed by decades of reading and experience as a Governor. It isn’t obvious that Mr. Trump reads anything at all. He absorbs what he knows through conversation and watching TV, and he has no consistent philosophy.

This makes it hard to predict how he would respond to the shocks and surprises that buffet any President. His firmest policy conviction seems to be that trade is a zero-sum game and that America is losing from global commerce. But if he follows through on his vow to withdraw from trade pacts, impose tariffs on imports and punish U.S. companies that invest abroad, he could cause a recession. The main economic battle in a Trump Administration would be between his pro-growth domestic reforms and his anti-growth trade policy.

The strongest argument against Mr. Trump, as Hillary Clinton has recognized, concerns his temperament and political character. His politics is almost entirely personal, not ideological. He overreacts to criticism and luxuriates in personal feuds.

President Obama’s greatest failure has been to govern in a deliberately polarizing fashion, and Mr. Trump’s response has been to campaign the same way. If the businessman loses a race that Republicans should win this year, one reason will be that his often harsh rhetoric has repelled women, minorities and younger voters. He ignores or twists inconvenient facts, and even when he has a good point his exaggerations make it harder to persuade the public. Yet a President needs the power to persuade.

The least convincing Never Trump argument is that he would rampage through government as an authoritarian. That ignores the checks and balances in Washington that constrain GOP Presidents in particular. If Mr. Trump wins, the media would awaken from their Obama-era slumbers and dog his Administration with a vengeance. The permanent bureaucracy would resist his political appointees, working with the media to build public opposition.

The more realistic concern, especially for conservatives, is that Mr. Trump would be as haphazard in office as he has been as a candidate and thus fail to change Washington as he has promised. Mr. Trump would start out with more than half the country disliking him, and most of his advisers lack government experience. Too many blunders or an early recession could cause voters to sweep out the GOP Congress in 2018, setting up a return to an all-progressive government in 2020.

Another risk comes from the negative impulses on the political right that Mr. Trump’s meanest rhetoric has awakened. Populism has its uses, and the media stereotypes of Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t capture their variety and general goodwill. But populism becomes dangerous when it is rooted too much in ethnicity or class.

Mr. Trump’s Breitbart posse has a vendetta against Republicans on Capitol Hill and is motivated by brooding resentments that too often veer into white-identity politics. If Mr. Trump indulged these sentiments as President, he would further polarize the country and alienate non-whites for a generation.

Then there is the biggest Trump gamble of all—foreign and security policy. The good news is that Mr. Trump wants to rebuild U.S. defenses that have eroded on Mr. Obama’s watch. He would be more candid about, and more aggressive against, the Islamist terror threat.

Yet the irony is that Mr. Trump shares Mr. Obama’s desire to have America retreat from world leadership. Beyond “bombing the hell out of ISIS” and “taking the oil,” it isn’t clear the Republican has any idea what to do in the Middle East. As a rookie in world affairs, he would be unusually dependent on his advisers—if he listened to them.

His seeming bromance with Vladimir Putin is especially troubling given the Russian’s aggression in the Middle East, Europe and cyberspace. Presidents Bush and Obama also underestimated Mr. Putin’s revanchism, but Mr. Trump has been all too nonchalant as Russia presses ahead. His instincts to retreat to a Fortress America could invite more aggression from Russia, China and Iran.

The Wall Street Journal hasn’t endorsed a presidential candidate since 1928, and if we didn’t endorse Ronald Reagan we aren’t about to revive the practice for Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump. Yet one of them will be the next President. The choice comes down to the very high if relatively predictable costs of four more years of brute progressive government under Hillary Clinton versus a gamble on the political unknown of Donald Trump.


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