Wait, What Would Happen if Donald Trump Actually Became President?
We talked to historian and political expert Brian Balogh to get his take.
Composite image via Smithsonian and Gage Skidmore
It's the morning of Friday, January 20, 2017, and it's Inauguration Day. Donald John Trump Sr. has his hand on a Bible, and America looks on, agape, as he swears to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."
How we got to this point isn't important. The question now is, what the fuck is about to happen?
To come up with even the vaguest answer, we have to look back at history. Because as British TV science guy James Burke once said, "Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look." If that sounds a little ominous, that's because we're talking about the presidential administration of the "You're fired" guy from TV.
University of Virginia historian Brian Balogh was game to talk to us about whether a Trump presidency is really the doomsday scenario it sounds like. Why should you listen to Balogh? Well, for one thing he's an expert in 20th-century American politics, and hosts a pretty popular radio show about history called Backstory With the American History Guys. And when I emailed him to set up an interview, he made a prediction about Trump that has already come true.
In an email on Friday, Balogh wrote that while the Donald's tendency to shoot his mouth off seemed to be working for him so far, "Trump would soon use it on a person or organization that the broad majority of the public admires, respects, [or] pities, and it would work against Trump."
The very next day, Trump went off the rails, disparaging Senator John McCain's war record during a speech at a Republican candidates forum in Iowa. "He's a war hero 'cause he was captured," Trump said of the former POW. "I like people that weren't captured, OK?" (McCain, as you may remember, was held captive in Vietnam for five years, refusing early release even after repeated torture and beatings.)
Predictably, the remark earned Trump some third -degree burns, including from Republicans, who had been reluctant to speak out against the party's clown candidate.
While it didn't take a psychic to know Trump's own gigantic mouth would be his biggest obstacle this election, Balogh's remarkably spot-on prediction suggested he was every bit the perspicacious historian I'd hoped he was. His thoughts on the topic might help us imagine what it'll be like in a couple years when we all live in Trump's America.
VICE: Pretend Trump is president. How might this hypothetically have happened?
Brian Balogh: I think Donald Trump—like conservative talk radio which exploded in the 1990s with Rush Limbaugh—reminds us that there is a solid percentage of Americans out there who feel utterly ignored and neglected by the candidates that both parties have put forward to date... But Republicans and Democrats alike would be making a mistake if they assumed that nobody was listening to a guy like Donald Trump, or [that] nobody was listening to Rush Limbaugh in the 1990s. These folks tap into a kind of frustration that comes back to a really basic question, which is: How can a country as militarily powerful and economically successful as the United States be in such a state? And then you can fill in the blank for what you think "such a state" is.
What would be in Trump's inaugural address?
First thing you [would] hear ironically is: "The nation needs to come together." He's gonna reach out to every American. I think that you're gonna hear that because—for one thing—I think that he will have reached out to more factions if he makes it to a general election, which he obviously would have to if he's [being] inaugurated.
I do think he will have toned down a lot of his divisive rhetoric. But I can't think of any inaugural speech, no matter how divisive the election—take a look at [George] W. Bush, obviously [that was] a bitterly fought election, one decided by the electoral college—and if you look at Bush's inaugural speech, it's all about being a president for all Americans.
Are you saying he'll reach across the aisle?
I think he's gonna have to do some of that. Specifically, he's going to have to win independents. There are just very few Democrats that I can imagine Trump winning over; so if he wins the election, he will have reached out to independents. A lot of those folks are moderate Republicans, moderate Democrats, and what they dislike the most is the partisan rancor and the divisiveness of politics.
So how exactly will he appeal to independents?
I think balancing the budget is one that he's already talking about in his campaign. I think a lot of independents are fiscal conservatives, although they're not necessarily social [conservatives]. So I think that balancing the budget, going after entitlements are the kinds of thing that could help him bring together different factions within the Republican Party—writing off, of course, lots of Democrats.
Do you think being a billionaire will have an effect?
Yeah, and it's not just being rich. It's his entrepreneurial bent, his deal-making, which usually entails what some people want [in a president]: driving hard bargains. The candidate—not a president, but a candidate—who came closest to being that entrepreneurial, surprisingly, was Mitt Romney. He also ran big organizations and that kind of thing. But, you know, Romney got in a lot of trouble for closing down American factories and laying off American workers as a result of his deal-making. That was the business that Romney was in, and what I'm suggesting is that there are very few entrepreneur deal-makers who haven't made the occasional deal that really skirts the edge of the law.
What will be some of the challenges for Trump when he tries to govern?
The place where I predict he'd have the most trouble, oddly enough, is with business. Business doesn't like presidents who are provocative and rile people up. I'm obviously grossly generalizing, [but] in general, big business likes predictability and stability. Wall Street, the stock market, they like to know where a [president] stands. I don't think any politician who is all over the place is going to be embraced by big business.
But that might make him a maverick. Don't people like that?
However much of a maverick Trump might be, I assume he's going to be dealing with, if he wins, a Republican majority in Congress. The Republicans are gonna want to pursue a whole set of issues, not just pick and choose what Donald Trump wants; they're going to want to horse-trade.
Will Trump be able to make good on his tough talk about immigration?
Ultimately, real immigration reform—whether it's the Immigration Act of 1965, or the original immigration acts and restrictions going back to the 1920s, or Ronald Reagan's immigration reform in the 80s—real immigration reform has to happen in Congress. And, you know, I think Republicans during the primaries—and surely somebody like Hillary Clinton—are going to ask Donald Trump exactly how he plans to deal with Congress.
This might be a dumb question, but is there any possibility that voters might go easy on him?
If you are an extraordinarily unifying and popular figure, like FDR or Ronald Reagan, then they'll kind of give you a pass—they won't take you on initially. Obviously it's conceivable for me to imagine Trump being president, but it's hard to imagine him arriving in office with that kind of popularity.
Does President Trump have the biggest mouth out of all the presidents?
I think the closest we would get is the president who had some of the lowest approval ratings at the end of his presidency: Harry Truman. During his first term, nobody could believe he was going to get re-elected, and that's where we got the phrase "to err is Truman." So people hated him.
You said before that there were other parallels with Truman, right?
He's a guy who—in a way that is similar to Trump—knew who his constituency was, and he was re-elected by rallying that base. [Truman's] constituency was labor; it was middle-class, lower-middle-class ethnic groups. Of course, organized labor was much stronger in those days, but regardless, he's a guy who talked to his people. And that really was a little like Donald Trump when I think about it. He didn't care what wealthy Republicans in the boardroom thought about him, and, for that matter, he didn't care as much about the intellectual liberal Adlai Stevenson types in the Democratic party either.
So he pissed people off Trump-style?
No one is like Donald Trump when it comes to pissing people off, and that's because that is his modus operandi. That's why we're talking about him. We're not talking about him because of his accomplishments. We're not talking about him because he's demonstrated political skills or leadership, for that matter. We're talking about him because he knows how to get attention by saying outrageous things.
OK, so like with Truman, we've just endured four years of Trump and now...
Now you're gonna have me talk about his re-election campaign? [Laughs.]
Well, if it worked out for Truman...?
I was not going out on that limb with you. I was suggesting that Truman was talking to a base that happened to be in a general election campaign.
What kinds of presidents do "dealmakers" like Trump make? Being a tough negotiator could be good, right?
Well, I think a dealmaker is very personalized—it's a guy who holds all of the chips, quite literally, in his hands. He's going to sit down with another person and make a deal, let's say for a piece of real estate. He's got his lawyers and accountants, though, don't get me wrong. But he holds a lot of the resources, the assets needed to make that deal right in his hands. And presidents are rather famous for at least feeling like they hold very few assets in their hands.
What about "dealmakers" who lead other countries?
A lot of Americans admire Vladimir Putin because he gets things done. He gets things done because he controls all of those assets politically—totalitarian government under Stalin got a lot of things done too. That's what totalitarian government does. You know the phrase: "Mussolini made the trains run on time." Well, in the United States, at least so far, we would rather that the trains be a little later (in the case of Amtrak) than sacrifice having a say in government. Having a say means multiple players. You can put together coalitions and come up with agreements—don't get me wrong—but it's very different from the way businessmen think of making a deal.
We've had an actor president, but never anything like a reality TV star, right?
I thought about Huey Long, a very colorful governor of Louisiana who ran for president on a Share Our Wealth program. He had a very personalized approached to governing, and his positions were all over the place. You know, he was a staunch segregationist. He was a traditional Democrat in some ways, but he did advocate a kind of radical reform in the income tax in order to "Share Our Wealth." He was big, and part of his popularity in Louisiana was his road-building and what he did for the people.
George Washington had kind of a personality cult, didn't he?
He was on the tip of my tongue! And that was probably a good thing because he was able—at least in his first administration and for much of his eight years—he was able to stand above the fray as an admired war hero, a general leader. But there was a cult of personality for George Washington. That's a good comparison.
I just don't think the comparison to Washington tracks...
I don't think so either. I think the presidency is pretty different now. Back then, people deferred to George Washington—they didn't expect to be entertained by George Washington.
But even a Trump presidency could be boring, right?
Here's my one-liner on a Trump presidency: We should amend the Constitution to change the two-term limit to "canceling" the presidency. That's just because if there's a Trump presidency, people will get bored with it the way they get bored with a TV show. So why shouldn't we cancel it like a TV show? It'll be subject to ratings. Gallup and Nielsen can make a deal on what point the Trump presidency gets canceled. And trust me, it'll be real popular on re-runs. There'll be a real following.
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