Let me begin by making this one thing clear: if I was an American, I would have voted for Clinton. But I would have had to have held my nose when doing so. I would have had to have looked past her as a person, such as her links to Wall Street Plutocrats and all that, and toward the values her campaign represented. For me, these were and are incomparably superior to those on offer from her rival. So Wednesday morning here in the UK was a disappointment.
That said, just three days on, I am beginning to feel enervated by the shrill apocalyptic predictions about Trump’s presidency. This is not out of a Pollyannish complacency, a psychological defence mechanism against an intractable reality over which I have no influence. I find myself irritated at commentators’ lack of humility. So many predictions about the fate of Trump’s campaign have been so wrong. Yet, cocksure predictions are flying thick and fast, as if the prophets of doom memories extend no further back than last Wednesday.
This is not to say that the doomsayers will be wrong. They may well be right. But is anyone assessing the degree to which their predictions are well founded? Dire predictions are made on the basis of what Trump has said rather than what he has done. Of course, he has never held public office so he has no track record. There are many blanks to fill. But why fill them with the most lurid scares stories? It is true that he ran a divisive campaign, and he himself bears the blame for his opponents reading the worst into his character and motivation. But this alone gives us no clue as to what he is going to do.
So what is Trump going to do? Answer: despite all the bluster, no one really knows. Are there good reasons for thinking that? Surely there are. First, no one is really able to fathom who the real Donald Trump is. It was said of Clinton that despite decades spent in the public eye, no one really got a sense of who she is. The same might just as well be said for Trump. On any given hot button issue, like abortion or gay marriage, no one can say emphatically what his position is, on the basis of his public utterances alone. And, despite his celebrity status, no one seems able to offer any insight into his motivation or core values. No one seems to know him – not even his own children who, when they talk about him, seem at a loss to offer any insight into their father’s personality.
Since this morning, there is an even better reason for caution when it comes to making predictions as to what he is going to do: his unexpected shift on the issue of Obamacare. On this issue, his public position seemed to be clear. He was going to replace it root and branch. It would be easy, he claimed, while on the campaign stump. Yet now, he is prepared to consider retaining key aspects of it. What is the significance of this? I am going to venture some suggestions. Not predictions -but limited conjectures, based on a recognition that my answers are based on a background of ignorance, the lack of any conclusive clues about the man’s character and motivation.
We will take the cynical explanations first. Perhaps this is a smokescreen, a kind of chaff to confuse opponents’ radar and conceal his own position and direction of travel. Perhaps this is just spectacle, with no real motivation other than to confound the pundits and keep people guessing. Perhaps it was an off-the-cuff, unscripted remark and he just was not thinking things through. He said it on a whim. If any of these explanations are true, then we can expect him to pivot back back to the Republican mainstream. It’s nothing more than a blip. It’s insignificant.
But what if he is serious? This should not be dismissed out of hand. For one thing, it is inconceivable that any other Republican president-elect would have stated, three days after winning the election, that he would have been prepared to reconsider his root and branch opposition to Obamacare. This is totemic issue for Republicans – on the same level as rolling back abortion rights and opposing gun control. They hate Obamacare and have used all means – fair and foul – to undermine it. Congressional Republicans have voted 50 times to undo the law.
During Trump’s bid for the candidacy, the Republican mainstream liked to present themselves as men of reason and moderation, and made a show of deploring Trump’s brash, vulgar populism. But on Obamacare, the respectable Republican mainstream is out of step with public opinion. Key aspects of Obamacare test well, in surveys of public opinion, as shown in this table taken from Nate Silver’s 538
|Extension of dependent coverage to age 26||80%|
|Close Medicare “doughnut hole”||79|
|Subsidies for low- and middle-income people to buy insurance||77|
|Eliminate out-of-pocket costs for preventive services||77|
|Insurers can’t discriminate based on pre-existing health conditions||70|
|Medical loss ratio||62|
|Increase Medicare payroll tax on people who make more money||56|
|Requiring most people to have insurance or be fined||35|
Perhaps this table gives a clue to Trump’s motivation. Perhaps his political instincts may be sounder than many of the pundits make out. If the public does not share the Republicans’ Maoist fevour to eradicate 8 years of Obama’s Presidency, starting with a demolition of Obama care, then his shift makes sense. He can count on public support and use that to overcome opposition from his own party. His timing is certainly right. Change course now, while he still enjoys the authority and prestige his victory has conferred. Do it while the voices of naysayers in the Republican establishment – who never believed he could pull it off – are stilled in the wake of his victory.
On one view, if power is all that matters to him, then he will simply fall into line with his party because to do that is the route of least resistance. He has plenty of opponents as it is. He won’t want to cultivate more within his own camp. On the other hand, if power is what matters to him, then a pragmatic course might be the best option to pursue, if it is in line with what the majority of the public thinks. We should not assume that because a man wants power, then this must mean that the only option to retain it is to cleave to hard-right position. He can earn credit and kudos by showing he is own man and a not a tool of the Republican party machine. Perhaps his shift is cynical but that does not mean that cynical motivations have unhappy consequences.
So is the shift a feint or it may it represent a genuine change of heart? On the basis of what we know about Trump – or rather what we don’t know – both possibilities are just as likely. As far as making predictions is concerned, all that can safely be said is that we should expect the unexpected. Prepare to be surprised.
Update, 14 March 2017. “Prepare to be surprised”, I said. Yes, Trump actually means what he says. As far as his conciliatory tone on healthcare is concerned, this article lends support to my revised view that Trump’s supposedly big heart on keeping the most popular aspects of Obamacare was down to awareness of procedure:
“True, the public supports the provisions of the health law that allow adult children to stay on their parents’ health plans until they turn 26 and that prohibit insurers from rejecting or charging more to people with preexisting health conditions. Those things remain in the GOP bill.
But even if Republicans had wanted to get rid of those provisions, they likely could not. That’s because the budget rules Congress is using to avert a filibuster in the Senate forbid them from repealing much of the ACA that does not affect government spending.”
This dimension Nate Silver left out. Now that I have become aware of it, my view has turned decidedly more pessimistic.
On other matters, cited by the optimists as signs that Trump mellowed when elected, such as his decision to drop the threat of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton, the reason is probably down to procedural and process. Separation of powers means he does not have the right to appoint a special prosecutor, to confirm a verdict he has already determined before the investigation, to lock Clinton up. As the examples of the travel ban and the border wall show, where procedure is not such an obstacle, Trump means to do as he said.