Despite polls that consistently showed Donald Trump running a competitive race in 2016, his winning the presidency came as a shock to most of official Washington, the media, and other “sense-making” institutions in this country. The sight of such a norm-breaking figure taking the highest office in the land seemed to unscrew the loosest screws. Trump’s behavior — whether throwing a Starburst candy at Angela Merkel (“Don’t say I never give you anything”) or tweeting about how his nuclear “button” was “much bigger” than Kim Jong-un’s — drove some people genuinely insane and inspired outlandish conspiratorial thinking and behavior in opposition to him. It also degraded public discourse and the image of republican governance. The Trump presidency had high points — the roaring economy and rising wages of 2019 — and low points: the summer of riots and lockdowns. But the worst fears — the end of our democracy — turned out to be unfounded. Trump was an unpopular president with limited ability to command criminal fealty or organize a conspiracy that extended beyond a rabble. American institutions proved stronger than his egotism joined with QAnon’s muscle.

This limited ability for troublemaking may be why voters are thinking of taking a chance on him again. Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee, and in most polls, he is soundly beating incumbent Joe Biden. Therefore, it’s time to ask what we could expect from a second Trump presidency. There are four possible outcomes.

A Replay of the Limited Trump
The likeliest scenario is a replay of the first term, a kind of controlled chaos that fascinates, repulses, thrills, exhausts, and polarizes. After all, men don’t change, and Trump, after age 78, is the least likely of all men to change. So it’s worth remembering the cut of his first term and what it would portend for a second.

The fact is, there were strong limits on Trump’s presidency from the start. These included the Congress and the courts. In many ways, Trump had run against both parties. Even with a Republican majority, he found limited willingness to work for his priorities on the Hill. He ended up passing parts of an already existing Republican agenda of tax cuts and never got full funding for his border wall. The courts energetically — and sometimes dubiously — imposed limits on his executive orders, limits that his administration then respected.

Recognizing that there was not a deep bench of administrators entirely on board with his MAGA agenda, Trump built a cabinet that was simply dysfunctional. For example, he had campaigned as a severe critic of the bipartisan consensus around foreign policy, particularly of America’s direct involvement in the Middle East. And yet, when his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, gave his first big speech, it was a direct reading from the establishment hymnal on the Syrian civil war, according to which America could continue to pursue five or six difficult goals with a minimum commitment of resources. And many conservatives probably blanched when orthodox economic thinkers such as Larry Kudlow joined a Trump team committed to mercantilism. But in the end, their influence was decisive: Trump did not strongly deviate from standard Republican views on economics. His trade war with China amounted to a phony war. He called it off at the start of an election year and praised our great relations with Beijing, even though his concluding talks with the government there amounted to little more than begging Chairman Xi to buy more soybeans in swing states.

Trump was also limited by a lack of follow-through and backbone. He developed a reputation for listening only to the last person who had spoken to him before his retreats for hours of cable-news watching. This led to embarrassing competition and even skulduggery among senior officials. Trump’s former national-security adviser H. R. McMaster confirmed that Gary Cohn, Trump’s economic adviser had stolen documents from the president’s desk to prevent Trump from seeing them. An outgoing envoy to Syria, Jim Jeffrey, bragged in interviews that he simply hid from the president the number of U.S. troops in that country. This ended up scotching Trump’s announced plans to withdraw our troops from Syria, since the scale of such an operation would have been larger than anticipated. In the meantime, those in the administration hoping to reverse Trump’s intended withdrawal took advantage of the confusion and won the policy fight. In its worst forms, Trump’s lack of command seemed to manifest itself in the intelligence agencies’ open subversion of his presidency. In order to embarrass or bridle Trump when he wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, members of the intelligence community leaked bogus stories to the New York Times about Russian bounties on our troops. Ex–CIA director John Brennan told MSNBC earlier this spring that, during the 2024 race, the intelligence community would withhold information from Trump that was normally provided to other candidates.

Over and over again, Trump could easily accomplish things for which there was preexisting Republican and institutional support — tax cuts, a revolution on the judiciary — but that, where his agenda cut strongest against the consensus of official Washington, his accomplishments were shallow. This is not to say that his election had no effect. For the foreseeable future, the Republican Party will remain the party of a strong border. His success shifted from a weak Washington consensus in favor of cooperating with China to a stronger consensus in favor of competing with and containing it. And he occasionally managed to make political gains out of disasters. The Taliban found themselves in a position to exclude the Afghan national government from talks under Trump’s administration, but Trump’s deal with them had effectively set in motion a withdrawal that was popular with the public. But the predictable political blast from its ugly execution exploded in Joe Biden’s face.

Finally, the fact that he was the most unpopular presidential nominee in American history — and remained historically unpopular throughout his term — put limits on what Trump could do. While his respect for institutional limits is low, he is unlikely ever to achieve the popularity or command of the legislature that would allow him to stage a Viktor Orbán–like campaign of constitutional reforms.

So, in matters of policy, we should expect that a still-limited Trump would be able to reinstitute the suite of executive orders that brought some control to the border. There are fewer off-the-shelf policy agendas floating around Congress than in days past, but it’s possible that if he were gifted with a Republican majority in the House and Senate, Trump could pass a version of Senator Rubio and Senator Lee’s child tax credit or even Mitt Romney’s child-benefit proposal. If faced with a mixed Congress, Trump might take the only tax cuts available to him, which would be a partial or full reintroduction of the SALT deductions for affluent blue-state taxpayers. If thwarted by a firmly Democratic Congress, he might try to build a legacy with offbeat policy items such as reviving Ivanka Trump’s ideas on paid maternity leave. Trump might run into serious fiscal limits on policy as well. Would America’s debt continue to be bought up at rates that allowed Washington to postpone restructuring Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid?

The way that debates about aid to Ukraine have proceeded — and how Russia’s war on Ukraine has updated battlefield assumptions about the amount of artillery modern armies use — means there will likely be a majority for investing more in America’s defense industry, replenishing depleted stockpiles, or expanding capabilities in the Pacific. A second Trump administration would face challenges from a China that seeks to improve its geostrategic position while staring down demographic implosion, a quickly aging society, and a shrinking workforce. China could threaten war in Taiwan, a continuing increase in our cost of living, or both.

The Full Trump
A less likely scenario, but one that we shouldn’t discount entirely, is that Trump has learned a few things from his first term and will find staff members who execute his decisions. Trump’s probable difficulty in hiring like-minded staff to fill a second administration is a problem that many groups on the right are working on. The Heritage Foundation, American Moment, and the America First Policy Institute are all elbowing their way forward with a suite of policy ideas and young political actors who want to populate a Trump administration’s second- and third-tier positions. If Trump were to be a success, these minds would be seen as having provided the generational and ideological turnover that is necessary for healthy republics.

The cabinet positions would still present challenges. But by now, some capable senators, such as Tom Cotton, have moved in Trump’s direction on foreign-policy issues. Others, such as J. D. Vance, would positively relish the chance to push a full-throated MAGA agenda. Foreign-policy experts, such as Strategy of Denial author Elbridge Colby, who share Trump’s belief that Europe needs to pull its own weight on defense while America focuses all its spare attention on the Pacific theater, would be capable in office and easily approved.

A successful Trump administration would be, like the successful Trump campaign itself, partly a matter of global trends working together in its favor. Populist and nationalist themes re-emerged across Western politics and beyond in the last decade for completely legible reasons — as reactions by those who felt they had lost out on the previous Clintonian/Blairite consensus politics and the institutions through which it exercised power.

If Trump built a border wall, it would fit a global trend of hardening borders with physical infrastructure. If Trump turned the economy in a more mercantilist direction, he would be following other actors, including Chairman Xi, who has doubled down on exports after the failure of China’s real-estate booms. If America’s economy succeeded more than others in this era of nearshoring, reshoring, and industrial policy, it would be a continuation of another trend already under way, in which global capital is looking back to the United States as a safe haven with reliable institutions and a brighter demographic future.

Trump might also be buoyed by the continuing backlash against the “woke” ideology that is evident everywhere in the culture now. His proposals for spending 2026 in a twelve-month-long, 50-state-wide 250th-birthday celebration for our nation, complete with new museums and monuments, would, by itself, be evidence of a profound majoritarian rebuke to the “America was never great” style of scholarship and literature that flourished among progressives during the first Trump presidency. The proposal, as it stands, would require working with all 50 state governments and so would have the potential to achieve some level of political depolarization if blue-state governors decided to play along.

There is also the possibility that Trump would continue to strengthen conservatives’ new hold on the judiciary. A second presidency would almost surely find Trump replacing Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. But he might also replace Chief Justice John Roberts and potentially a Democratic appointee (Justice Sonia Sotomayor has health challenges and may have miscalculated her future ability to serve on the Court). In such a scenario, Trump’s historic stamp on the courts would be comparable only to FDR’s.

I would rate this possibility fairly unlikely, in part because Trump has shown little ability to increase his popularity. Further, it is far-fetched that the progressive citadels of power in American political life would allow him to mollify and charm the public for long. Progressives now exercise an outsized influence on Democratic politics, but if Trump were to have broad success, it would necessarily mean that most Democrats had begun distancing themselves from the progressive line, leaving this highly credentialed class as a defunct elite. 

A Four-Year Siege
While the first two broad scenarios — controlled chaos and propitious success — depend largely on Trump’s behavior and favorable political weather, the final two depend on his opponents, who would, of course, have their say. The second-most-likely outcome of a second Trump administration would be a feeling of American life under siege. Much as during the Trump campaign now and the Trump administration in the doldrums of summer 2020, we might see a “Resistance” whose legal, moral, and political brinkmanship presents as many threats to American institutions as, or even more than, Trump himself.

While Republicans view the first term’s “Russiagate” as a hoax that exploded in Democrats’ faces, many Democrats may remember it as a thrilling time in which lurid attacks on Trump helped drive his popularity down further with swing voters. A Democratic House will find every chance to investigate Trump a worthwhile one. They could try to pick up where other criminal investigations have failed — returning to the events of January 6 or to Trump’s mishandling of classified documents in the first term.

Symbolic point-scoring would count for a great deal. At a minimum, we might see a Democratic House refuse to invite Trump to deliver a State of the Union address. Even as a minority, Democratic lawmakers might try stunts like those pioneered in the Tennessee legislature in recent years, tasking a handful of lawmakers with making it impossible to do the business of the House and daring the Republican leadership to arrest them.

Just as wokeness flourished under the first Trump administration, radicalizing people in institutions where offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion had only recently come into being, we would see an instant antibody-like reaction to Trump’s second presidency. Most unfortunately, it would take as a given that Trump authentically represents America, and that the entire American tradition is a tree that produces bad fruit.

In the worst moments of 2020, Trump found himself totally overwhelmed, even a bit player in a larger drama. The anti-Trump revolution was taking the center of political life away from him. He was blamed for riots across America that blue-state governors and mayors either failed to stop or openly encouraged. Uncertain about his own governing instincts on Covid, he allowed people who plainly despised him and wanted him to lose reelection to set the terms on which Americans lived throughout that year. Having shown these weaknesses before, he has already given his opponents a playbook to undermine him again.

Trump Aborted
There is another, hopefully very remote, possibility. I hesitate to bring it up the same way I hesitate to talk to everyone about the weird buzzy feeling in my hand after I put my cellphone down. But it’s possible that Trump will be elected and never take office. Ahead of the 2020 election, liberal columnists at the Atlantic gave lots of ominous warnings. Ronald Brownstein: “If Trump wins a second term — especially if that victory relies on another rural surge to overcome massive opposition across the big metros — the chaos in Portland might look like only the preliminary skirmish for an even more incendiary collision to come.” In other words, the Left would foment widespread violence in the cities to punish nonviolent voters. Also in 2020, Franklin Foer analogized liberals’ likely resistance to a Trump reelection victory to the Euromaidan revolution that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin government. The model for such a revolution is to simply gather a destabilizing mob in the capital city, mobilize global opinion, and then use any resulting instance of violence as an occasion on which to declare the elected government illegitimate and lawless, with the goal of sending its members fleeing for their lives. Recently in the Atlantic, Russell Berman boldly reviewed Democrats’ options for holding that Trump is ineligible to run for president and refusing to certify a Trump victory on January 6, 2025. Insurrection for me, not for thee.

Chillingly, the argument closed this way:

The scholars [who described the Democrats’ options] also warned that serious political instability and violence could ensue. That possibility was on [Representative Jamie] Raskin’s mind, too. He conceded that the threat of violence could influence what Democrats do if Trump wins. But, Raskin added, it wouldn’t necessarily stop them from trying to disqualify him. “We might just decide that’s something we need to prepare for.” 

Again, I suspect public opinion and the desire for continuing constitutional government would restrain Democrats tempted by such a gamble. But the one thing we can count on in the Trump era of American politics is that surprises are around every corner. It can always get worse.

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