The Game of Trump: Who Controls the Mad King
As I listen to political pundits I realize that, theoretically, Trump can control this country with an iron fist. This is because the constraints on the president is largely based on cultural norms, and Trump is the last person to abide by norms. Yes, there are checks and balances, yet de jure hurdles are either too high (e.g. impeachment needs 2/3 of senate) or compromised (e.g. federal judges are nominated by the president and Republicans have a majority in Congress). However, one may doubt Trump’s ability to become a despot of the world’s most powerful democracy and for good reason.
One significant reason why Trump’s ability to change the United States into an authoritarian country is questionable is because of Trump, himself. If one wanted to obtain complete control of the United States, one would have a hyper focused team, who knew the ins and outs of Washington, and who would also strategically undermine any public or private institution that dared question his authority. While such a highly efficient team is typical for a normal president, Trump is not a normal president and doesn’t have such a well oiled machine, but do not let this fool you.
Like everything Trump related, the simple story of a despot being elected as president appears to be filled with contradictions and half truths, yet as one dives deeper into Trump’s world, one finds an amazing amount of consistency. This consistency lays upon a cautiously willing Congress and a foreign/domestic time bomb waiting to go off. Trump has the recipe to make wild fire and become the Mad King. The question is whether Westeros is strong enough to stop him.
To understand what will happen during a Trump administration, one must first understand Trump.
The Pliable Trump
Trump is pliable. Just flatter him. The Washington Post explains how Steve Bannon has constantly praised Trump in order to persuade the new president elect into agreeing with Bannon’s talking points(1). Bannon gives leading questions to soften Trump’s edges and to guide Trump towards far right policy positions. This relationship has been very beneficial for the both of them and shows no signs of ending. However, one must keep in mind that Trump can never be coaxed into undermining his own ego. This fact is evident when Bannon fails to get Trump to soften against Ted Cruz.
Moreover, Bannon is not the only one using flattery. Mike Morrell, former CIA director, who backed Hillary, has stated that Trump is an “unwitting agent” for Vladimir Putin (2). Trump crystallized such an observation when he stated, “I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment.” After such remarks, there is no surprise when Trump returns the favor and advocates for leaving NATO, joining forces to fight ISIS, and ignoring the annexation of Crimea. Characterizing Trump as an unwitting agent is certainly apropos.
Let’s not forget about the quickly rising Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband. His influence has been felt suddenly. Kushner has dispatched of Christ Christie and two other senior members, affiliated with Christie, from the Trump team due to Christie’s involvement in placing Kushner’s father in prison (3). With such a show of force and being considered Trump’s “eyes and ears,” Kushner can ultimately play a large role in Trump’s administration, yet his desire to influence Trump may not be that grand (3, 4).
There are also many other individuals that can come to make a significant influence. Mike Pence, for example, being the Vice President and heading Trump’s transition team, can have substantial impact on the make-up of a Trump presidency, especially when his pro life stance aligns with Trump’s campaign promises. Another person who shown to be very influential is Michael Flynn, who is vice chair of the Trump transition team and Trump’s national security adviser. Some very concerning facts about Flynn is his support for Russia’s national security strategy and his is connection to Turkish lobbyist.
While pliability could distract President Trump, one must be aware that there is an alarming amount of consistency within his administration.
Tensions within Trump’s Camp?
The first possible conflict is between Jared Kushner and Stephen Bannon. Kushner is from Jewish descent and Bannon is a noted antisemite. Although, the significance of this fact is probably overblown. Malcolm Gladwell remarks on his podcast (episode entitled “The Lady Vanishes”) how individuals can come to accept and even revere a person from a group that they actively hate. The acceptance of this one person grants these individuals a clear conscience and a licence to express their bigoted views. This is a common practice and is called moral licensing. Gladwell , ironically, even discusses instances where antisemites made exceptions for extraordinary Jewish people. Could Bannon take the same path? It’s more than possible, and after such an election, no one should doubt the mental gymnastics a person can make.
Another possible point of contention involves Russia. Mike Pence famously expressed his lack of affinity for Putin, and Bannon has expressed that he wants a more aggressive stance towards Russia (6). This appears to be in clear opposition with Trump and Flynn’s stated positions. However, this is probably a small road block because Bannon and Russia have a common interest: the rise of the the far right in Europe. Bannon wants his Breitbart movement to be global and Russia is using this same movement to undermine western power (7, 8). It is an unlikely match made in heaven. Moreover, Pence’s sway within the administration has not yet been proven, so his opinion on this subject may not matter.
While Trump has surrounded himself with like minds, his extreme rhetoric and scorched earth policy, that scarred many Republicans, will leave many highly skilled and essential individuals reluctant to follow Trump’s lead. This fact and liberal opposition appear to be the only problem for a Trump administration.
What Does this All Mean?
At the moment, Trump has a cautious but willing Republican Party and an impotent but eager political opposition(anti-Trump protests and liberal leaning groups are sounding the alarm) that would make certain actions difficult, like undermining the media’s independence. Actions like this would be met with fierce opposition, which would mire any political momentum. However, this does not give an “all clear.”
There is political homogeneity among Trump’s team and Republicans, who control Congress, the judicial branch, and many state legislatures. This means that actions like deporting undocumented individuals or secretly increasing surveillance on vulnerable groups will largely go unopposed. As he continues to normalize far right ideology, he will be given more and more leeway to implement far right ideology. This alone should be worrying, but there is more.
Any significant political changes overseas can have huge implications domestically. A major conflict could give Trump an excuse to initiate a power grab. The same scenario can occur if, or more likely when, another domestic terrorist attack is executed. What do you think the average Trump voter will ask their new president? How many Republicans or Democrats will be willing to stand up to Trump if another “Pulse” attack happens or if a famous person is killed? The answers are chilling.
The future is unclear, and like the Game of Thrones, no one is certain whether good or evil will prevail. There is only one certainty: Winter is Coming.