n the wake of the surprising November results, there is a rush to prejudgment of the Trump presidency. On the one side is the irrational, hysterical negativity that has turned much of the opinion elite into a torch-carrying mob of Transylvanian villagers threatening to storm Frankenstein Tower on Fifth Avenue. There are the continuing ugly declarations that Donald Trump is a fascist on the basis of pretty much nothing. There is the shrieking panic that the earth is going to melt because he failed to pick someone for the Environmental Protection Agency who marches in lockstep with the climate-change ideologues. There is the chin-pulling condescension that he is betraying his own voters by picking a labor secretary who opposes the minimum wage—as though there isn’t serious economic literature that demonstrates the highly problematic nature of the minimum wage.
These ludicrous overreactions, and dozens more like them, threaten to delegitimize the more serious concerns of the present moment—the president-elect’s conflict-of-interest problems and the nature of the Russian effort to penetrate the 2016 election. The inability of Trump’s accusers to separate what matters from what doesn’t, and to drop their sneering objections to him in order to focus on their more substantive ones, suggests they are going to have a difficult time opposing him effectively.
On the other side is the irrational exuberance. It comes in the form of viewing some good cabinet appointments as a sign of thrilling revolutionary change in a conservative direction. We have a market rally that seems to be pricing in a gigantic economic growth spurt before anyone actually has any idea what kind of moves President Trump is going to make in his first few months. Readers and friends who are excited by the events since November 8 are writing me complaining I cannot take yes for an answer and join in the celebration.
Right now, I don’t really think it matters what I think or what you think, though I certainly like taking a gander at my 401(k) numbers (despite the fact I won’t be accessing that account for years). What matters is what happens after January 20, 2017. Most often, presidencies stand or fall based on how the president and his men respond to adversities they could never have imagined, not how they execute the strategies they declare in advance they want to pursue. When you look back after a presidency is done, you see hinge moments that could never have been anticipated and that demand resources no one ever thought to expect from the president when he was a candidate.
What do you do when a nuclear power plant partially melts down? What do you do when an out-of-control senator from your own party extends his accusation about Communist infiltration to your State Department? What do you do when Iranians rise up after a stolen election? What do you do when your political strategy to wind down the war you started in Iraq melts down into civil war? What do you do when air-traffic controllers go out on strike in defiance of federal law?
The choices presidents make at these points and the way they react to them affect their immediate futures, the decisions they make afterward, and ultimately the judgment of voters and of history. This is one of the reasons character matters when voters go to the polls to select a president.
Of course Trump will realign American politics if he finds a way to accelerate economic growth no one else has tried, or if he empowers the white working class in a way that genuinely helps to alter the courses of their lives. But that’s like expecting miracles from him, and in suggesting that is what he’ll do, his own people are setting him up for failure. We’ll finally be in a position to judge Donald Trump as a leader when we see what he does after one of those Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns” comes along to challenge him as he’s never been challenged before.