The unthinkable — a Donald Trump presidency — is upon us. An urgent task is to examine how it is likely to unfold. By experience and temperament, Trump is unlike any previous occupant of the Oval Office, so projections are difficult. But we do know a great deal about the man. And we know a great deal about the office he will occupy. When the first is put inside the second, what is likely to happen?
Without any invidious intent, perhaps the most useful point of comparison is the Nixon presidency. Richard Nixon, as one scarcely needs to say, had a constellation of ugly qualities. He was morbidly sensitive to slights. His obsession with enemies verged on paranoia. He was prone to the abuse of power. He was vindictive, a score-settler who kept a grudge.
But weighing against those dark qualities, Nixon had tremendous strengths. He was whip smart. He knew his own mind. He was experienced. Having served as a congressman, a senator, and as vice president, he had a masterful command of domestic and foreign issues and the levers of the federal government. He had close allies in the Republican Party, both across the country and in Congress. He was one of the shrewdest politicians Washington has ever seen.
If we stack Donald Trump up next to Nixon, we see that he shares a number of Nixon’s undesirable qualities. He is morbidly sensitive to slights. He sees conspiracies where there are none. He is a score-setter to the point of boastful vindictiveness: “Anybody who hits me, we’re gonna hit them ten times harder” are his words.
But Trump has additional unattractive qualities which Nixon lacked. His conviction that he is a genius has only been strengthened by his astonishing electoral success. He has a severely limited attention span. He is impulsive, and cannot restrain himself even from self-damaging behavior, like tweeting in the middle of the night. He has trouble distinguishing fact from fiction, which leads him to spew falsehoods and to contradict himself with abandon.
Beyond those personal deficiencies, Trump has no experience in government, no knowledge of government (except as it pertains to real estate development), and no particular curiosity about government. He has no sense of the constitutional limitations of presidential power; the Constitution is not a document he appears to have ever read. He has few allies in Congress; even many Republicans who have endorsed him are known to think him a dangerous clown.
Nixon governed for five years, winning reelection, before his dark side brought him down, leading to his resignation in disgrace. With few to none of Nixon’s strengths and quite a few additional weaknesses, will Trump fare better in the Oval Office?
Putting aside the possibility of a foreign crisis that provokes Trump into war, managing the vast federal bureaucracy will be his greatest challenge. Even a normal president has trouble mastering its complexities and bringing it to heel. Trump is not exactly skilled at this kind of management. He ran through three managers in his small campaign organization within less than a year.
His closest advisers have been his children and their spouses. But they, he says, will be running his company. Vice-President Pence, Rudy Giuliani, Kellyanne Conway, Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, Corey Lewandowski and longtime associate Roger Stone are likely to be key players, but like Trump, they all lack experience at the enormous challenge of managing a White House, and the latter three are likely to feed Trump’s conspiratorial mode of thinking. Trump campaigned on a pledge to drain Washington’s swamp. Facing a hostile press, a wary Congress and public, and bureaucratic resistance from those running the permanent government, the swamp is far more likely to drain him.
In a spirit of goodwill, Trump’s opponents are calling for the country to unite around him. It’s a lovely and generous American sentiment. But the honeymoon will last a lot shorter than any of the new president’s marriages. Leaks will be the key instrument of his downfall. Trump loathes transparency, and has even floated the idea of forcing his White House staffers to sign non-disclosure agreements. That will not happen. What will happen is that within a short interval after inauguration day, if not before, the newspapers will be filled with stories of bungling, of mismanagement, of conflicts of interest and confusion.
As the flow intensifies, the thin-skinned Trump might attempt to fulfill his promise to go after the Washington Post and the New York Times, “to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” Or he might decide in the middle of the night to ring his Attorney General and order investigations into those doing the leaking. Alternatively, he might attempt to lash out against internal and external critics via some other official means. He might believe that the FBI, which helped to elect him, will prove compliant. Unaware of and indifferent to the limits of presidential power, Trump is almost certain to over-reach. He will put himself on the road to Watergate.
Barack Obama was right to call Trump “uniquely unsuited” for the presidency. His term in office will almost certainly end in an entirely predictable disaster for him and for the country. The only unanswerable question is how long his presidency will last.
Schoenfeld is author of, among other books, “The Return of Anti-Semitism.”