Friday, November 11, 2016

Normalizing the Trump Presidency

Stephen Griffin

Can the Trump presidency be normalized?  Up to a point the media are treating the Trump presidency as any other, even as they acknowledge that we are in unknown territory.  Normal means focusing on the transition of power, the usual issues of staffing the White House and Cabinet, what will happen in the first 100 days, first looks and meetings, the relationship between the new president and Congress, the likely policy shifts.  There’s plenty of normal to go around.

Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that there are certain, possibly unique, abnormal elements to the Trump presidency now hovering like a dark cloud over Washington.  They have to do with who Trump is, his personality, how he got to the White House.  For me, these yield some very tentative intuitions.

One obvious (but not discussed in the election cycle!) abnormal feature is Trump’s enormous potential conflicts of interest.  This issue is being raised only now, but these conflicts are difficult to assess in historical terms because they have no parallel.  In addition, gauging them properly depends on knowledge no one has except the Trumps.  If you wanted the third world, the prospect of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton (which I don’t expect) could pale beside the scandals that could be in the offing if Trump does not somehow disentangle himself from his private enterprises.

My intuitions about Trump’s personality (roughly – it’s similar to Nixon’s!) suggests two possible nightmare scenarios.  First, the Trump presidency could lead to a deep poisoning of the public sphere.  This might occur through a more systematic construction than we’ve seen previously of an alternate political reality to reinforce and perpetuate his public support.  Perhaps the White House would link itself ever more closely to compliant media outlets, producing a public/private combine, an “official” Trump/White House media group.  This group would overhang longstanding news organizations, crowding them out, given its de facto special access to the White House and administration.  This group would then freeze out the standard media, directing a constant stream of criticism against their version of reality, while also generating a flow of success stories.  In other words, we could see the creation of a much more effective White House propaganda machine.

But there are always independent voices and leaks in Washington, aren’t there?  Which brings me to my final intuition, the dark possibility of what I will call a disruptive presidency.  As Trump encounters unwelcome opposition, such as dissenting voices in Congress and the bureaucracy, the White House might retaliate by targeting its enemies – but indirectly, perhaps through political cyber war.  It could run a back channel to groups of domestic digital trolls, perhaps also developing close links to Russian hackers to conceal its involvement to expose embarrassing secrets about opponents, reading their email, and generally mess with their lives.

Let me give you one further scenario along these lines.  Suppose Trump and his supporters get mad at universities for their political correctness and apparent unrelenting opposition to his presidency.  What could happen in terms of the cyber war I’ve suggested?  Well, were the emails of the Clinton campaign secure?  I think that one answers itself. Everyone has to think differently about the security of information entrusted to institutions after this campaign.

These obviously could be idle speculations.  But I think we need to keep our eyes open for the black swan.

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