On November 16, 2016, the Center hosted a Starr Forum on “Trump’s Victory: What Does It Mean for You?” Kenneth Oye, who holds a joint MIT appointment in the Department of Political Science and the Institute for Data Systems and Society, and directs the Center’s Program on Emerging Technologies, moderated the discussion. Below is an excerpt from his talk. The other speakers included: Heather Hendershot, professor, MIT Comparative Media Studies; Nadeem Mazen, member, Cambridge City Council; and Lourdes Melgar, CIS Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow. The event is available for viewing here.
IN THE AFTERMATH of the election, op-ed pages, airwaves, and twitter feeds are saturated with predictions of what President-elect Trump will do. My comments are less predictions than conjectures on points of tension across elements of Trump's policies that seem likely to emerge. Let us go through some good news which is bad news and some bad news which is really bad news. First the good news that is bad news. Trump’s policies are exceptionally incoherent. Because of their incoherence, we’re in a position where we’re waiting for cabinet appointments. We’re also waiting to see how the Republican Party pushes back as tradeoffs and difficulties emerge.
For an example of incoherence, consider any aspect of his economic policy. What does it add up to? Trump is going to cut taxes, increase spending on infrastructure, increase spending for defense, and reduce deficits. Guess what? It doesn’t add up. And those tradeoffs across elements of economic policy are something that other Republican administrations have confronted before. When the numbers do not add up, they typically allow deficits to increase and use rising deficits to justify cuts in social programs. We shall see.
Or consider health care policies. Trump has stated that he will preserve the Obamacare prohibition on using preexisting conditions to set rates and exclusions on medical insurance. He has also promised to get rid of the mandate requiring the purchase of insurance. This doesn’t add up. What it ends up with is something that economists call a market for lemons problem, as those with preexisting conditions purchase insurance while many of those without health concerns opt out. This selection effect would result in disruption of markets for insurance and increases in prices. But nothing has yet emerged on how he will handle this intrinsic contradiction in this position.
If we turn to foreign policy, I have never seen such an incoherent foreign policy. That’s the good news—sort of. On the one hand, he has been exceptionally clear in talking about his reaction to the excessive interventionism of previous administrations. On the other hand, he talks about sinking Iranian ships when Iranian sailors make insulting gestures, using nuclear weapons freely. He has even talked about torture, killing families of terrorists, and engaging in other actions that are war crimes. He has also talked about fundamentally restructuring our Alliance relations. Nobody can make sense of this mélange of impulses and turn it into a coherent foreign policy. It just doesn’t add up. So we have to wait and see who he’s going to appoint to Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor. And it is likely that the appointments to these key positions will mirror the incoherence of his initial policy positions. We don’t know how tradeoffs across these elements of foreign policy will be resolved.
With respect to trade, Trump is surfing off of a worldwide wave of reaction against neoliberalism and economic integration. Trump has promised to threaten to impose a 35% tariff as leverage to force US companies investing abroad to return to the US, to force China to revalue its currency, to force signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to accept imports of US agricultural products and manufactured goods, and to re-negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and World Trade Organization (WTO) to US advantage. But the neo-liberal Republican Party is likely to push back on those issues.
So much for incoherence. That is the good news. Trump positions on the environment, immigration and Supreme Court appointments are coherent and worrisome. On environment, Trump has talked about scrapping the Paris Agreement and eliminating domestic regulations on fossil fuels. Trump’s transition team for the EPA is led by a climate change denier. His vice president is a creationist who doesn’t believe in evolution. He has said that climate change is something that’s been made up by the Chinese. Chinese friends of mine are both mildly amused and appalled by this. Even though his positions on environment are coherent, what will happen as Trump seeks to act on those promises is unclear. Much of what has been done in this area has been by executive order, and Trump has the power to reverse many executive orders with great damage to the environment. But many existing executive orders are explicitly linked to statuatory requirements, and reversal of those orders will trigger challenges in the courts.
When we turn to the Supreme Court, there is bad news. The people that Trump is considering for appointment to the seat for which Merrick Garland was nominated may change the direction of the court. There is the possibility of long-lasting changes on the Supreme Court that will affect everything from campaign financing, to gay and transgender rights and voter suppression. There is no reason to believe that he won’t be able to act on his agenda to the detriment of at least those of us that care about those issues.
With respect to immigration, part of Trump has promised to do is what Obama has been doing. President Obama has been deporting undocumented convicted felons. This is not new. But Trump’s threats to act against children and against family members are a reversal of the most humane elements of Obama immigration policy. Furthermore, Trump’s statements about basing refugee and immigration policies on explicitly religious and ethnic criteria are something that we have not seen in some time. I say this as someone whose own parents were locked up in prison camps during World War II for four years on the basis of ancestry. If my father and mother were alive, they would be pained by what they would see now. The lesson that they taught their children was less centered on their experience than on the principle “do not let this happen to others.”
On some issues of policy, reasonable people may disagree. But on issues of labeling or registering Muslims or banning their entry, discrimination against transgender people, reliance on torture -- on issues like these it’s not a question of reasonable people may disagree. These are fundamental issues. The uncertainty in terms of policy rests in part on us and how we choose to react to bad things. My parents used to talk about how it was a great pity that others did not stand up when they were locked up, with the exception of the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a few Quakers. That will not happen if the worst of the things that we fear begin to materialize. That will not happen because we will not let it happen. We should be standing up. If there is a registration of Muslims, I will be registering with you.
The final threat is more subtle. The big threat that I see right now is the threat of a slow motion coup d’état with a series of changes in everything from voter registration requirements, early voting, non-enforcement of the civil rights and voting rights acts, districting, and reversal of campaign reform. We can expect a series of small actions that are almost invisible that may have the effect of taking what was a narrow Trump electoral victory—100,000 votes in swing states, a 2.5 million vote loss on the popular vote—and turning it into permanent electoral control. We need to be vigilant lest political processes, regulations, and standards be manipulated over the next four years. It is easier to be wary of a Muslim registration policy or the renewal of torture than it is to be tracking hundreds of little changes that may undermine the electoral process. Yet that subtle fight over small changes in registration, districting and voting is a fight over the preservation of democracy itself.