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The Scariest Part of a Trump Presidency Would Be the Unknown

A Donald Trump administration probably wouldn’t be the end of the country as we know it, but that’s what’s terrifying: It’s impossible to know for sure

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A Donald Trump presidency probably, plausibly, maybe would not be a total catastrophe for the United States.

I know, I know — it doesn’t seem that way. We’ve been told that Tuesday brings the most important election of our lifetimes by everyone from Roger Angell, now 96, to George R.R. Martin; it is, we are told, a choice between “Trump or the Republic.” Documentarian Ken Burns has taken a stand, declaring that he no longer possessed “the luxury of neutrality or ‘balance’ or even of bemused disdain.” The global markets would collapse. The horrors of Trump’s character would be magnified: his easily incited rage, his inclination to spew violent rhetoric, his undeniably — and often undenied — wanton treatment of women and minorities. His presidency, we have been assured, would be a cataclysm, the end of this country as we know it.

Let’s consider, though, the likelier option if he were to be elected: something pretty boring. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias attempted to reason out what a Trump presidency would look like last week. Assuming Trump does not act on some of his wilder campaign promises, Yglesias wrote, a policy rollout would presumably look something like this:

Within days of taking office, a President Trump would be expected to embark on a project of carrying out key elements of his campaign platform, likely with the support of a Republican Congress; he might flex the power of the executive office by suspending the Syrian refugee program, for example, or by renouncing the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. These wouldn’t be small changes by any means, but they’d hardly be a radical departure from the policies favored by many other conservatives. Here’s what’s scary, though: Outside of a few oft-repeated promises — we are going to build a wall — Trump has offered little in the way of particulars. For all of the speculation that’s occurred over the past few months, his potential administration is a massive unknown.

“He has offered fewer policy specifics and been less consistent about what he would do as president than any candidate in recent memory,” said Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College and contributor to The Upshot. “Contrary to what people think, presidents actually typically try to follow through on most of their campaign promises. That’s usually the best guide to what people will do in office: what they say they will do.”

There are reasons to believe that Trump, at his core, may not be the far-right zealot he has portrayed himself as over the course of the election cycle. This, after all, is a man who has changed parties repeatedly, who wrote a cheery blog post on the occasion of Elton John’s 2005 marriage to David Furnish, decreeing that “if two people dig each other, they dig each other.” Bluster and weaponized bad publicity have formed the foundation of his career as much as any business acumen.

And however much presidential power has grown in recent decades, it bears repeating that the executive branch was explicitly designed to contain future despots.

“If Trump actually wins, he still faces Congress,” Erica Frantz, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University, wrote in an email. “And the same is true for [Hillary] Clinton. Whoever wins, the U.S. remains deeply divided and the victory of one candidate versus the other is not going to make that reality go away.”

(“The politics of dictatorships is my specialty,” Frantz added. “It has been crazy to have media requests about the U.S.”)

The declaration that a given election is the most important in a generation is such a common get-out-the-vote technique that it borders on cliché; it was also said in 2008 and 2012. In fact, Frantz argues that the 2004 election — whose result suggested that Americans were on board with George W. Bush’s foreign policy — was more consequential to the future of the country.

Which is all to say that if the polls should happen to be wrong — that if the tightening of the last several weeks really has been a harbinger of the end of Democratic hopes — and on Wednesday morning you walk down your driveway and unfurl a newspaper with Trump giving a thumbs up on the front page … well, it’ll probably be OK.

I say probably, though, because this is the thing: More so than perhaps any candidate in recent memory, it’s impossible to know what we would get.

“What’s concerning about this election is the way that Trump has called so many of the norms and practices of democratic elections into question, from saying he’d like to lock up his political opponent to suggesting he might refuse to acknowledge outcome of the election,” Nyhan said. “Trump has taken unprecedented steps to undermine the basic democratic compact that underlies the constitution. What he’d do in office? Who knows. But given the way he behaved during this election, there’s reason to worry about other kind of violations of norms or restrictions on power if he were to serve as president.”

So let’s return to Yglesias’s original caveat: What if Trump does follow through, or try to follow through, on his wildest and most inflammatory promises? The wall, the Muslim ban, the mass deportations, the lawsuits against the people and publications he feels have wronged him — let’s take him, for a moment, at his ever-changing word, and try to imagine what the United States would look like.

“People thought Trump would scale back his rhetoric and his more outrageous ideas when he became the Republican nominee,” Nyhan said, “and have been shocked to see how little he’s changed his approach and behavior.”

A Trump presidency probably wouldn’t be a disaster, but a disaster is possible. Heading into Tuesday, that’s enough.