Donald Trump as President on 9/11

Here’s a random and terrifying thought:

Back in 2000 Donald Trump flirted with the idea of running for president under Ross Perot’s Reform Party banner. Imagine if he had run for one of the two major party nominations instead and won. Donald Trump would have been president on the day of the biggest terrorist attack in American history.

Knowing what we do today about the shock and fear our country was in and the authoritarian instincts he has, the United States today could be a very different place.

Even then Republican voters would’ve been open to his message of today. However, in reality hating Muslims and Mexicans wasn’t enough to win at the time. 2016 Trump is basically 1996 Pat Buchanan with an orange tint. But the hateful shrew sitting in the Oval Office today didn’t line up with Donald Trump’s reputation at the time.

Under this scenario, would he even be a Republican? The 2000 GOP candidates George W. Bush and John McCain were popular at the time, and viewed by most voters to be moderates with crossover appeal (Ha!). The Democratic field was an uninspiring Al Gore and a bunch of nobodies (sorry Bill Bradley fans). Given that Trump has no consistent views other than what’s good for me, and he had donated to Democrats in the past and was supposedly pro-choice, he probably would’ve run for the Democratic nomination instead.

Could he have won? Probably not…the country was in midst of an economic boom and didn’t have quite as strong a “kick the bums out” mentality as they did last year. But Trump was relatively young and viewed as sane at the time. He was already a narcissist and we know today he’d already ripped off countless partners and contractors by this time. But he likely didn’t have whatever mental illnesses he demonstrates today on a daily basis and may have successfully pulled off an appealing front.

In the primaries, it’s not impossible to see Trump’s regular guy approach winning votes over “Gore the bore” and the professorial Bradley, and the pitch of a successful businessman running the government as a CEO would have had some appeal at that time as well. If you remember, the federal government actually ran a surplus during part of Clinton’s second term, so a mantra of “I can cut taxes and keep this surplus going” would’ve been believable to the same people who think he’s about to bring coal back.

Trump’s ability to connect with working class voters wins the Democratic nomination, and his claims of business savvy defeat Bush. (Let’s say he carries New Hampshire and wins the Electoral College even if he also loses Florida.)

So Donald Trump becomes president on January 20th, 2001. The economy is sputtering compared to the 90’s, but it’s early enough in his term to pass that blame onto Bill Clinton or say it’s a natural economic cycle, which has the added benefit of being true. He doesn’t pursue education reform with some version of No Child Left Behind, which upsets the Democratic base and gives his approval numbers a shorter than normal honeymoon period.

What does Trump do? Things that sound familiar today: he plays golf and uses the U.S. Treasury to enrich himself and his family and friends. He tries to play both sides of abortion and other social issues, since that’s not what he ran on and quite frankly he doesn’t care.

He uses the newfound flexibility of NAFTA to negotiate with Mexican and Canadian companies and wins “great deals for workers and taxpayers”. Economists agree these won’t live up to the hype he claims, but will still be a net positive. He gets a tax cut through Congress that’s milder than what some wanted, but it eliminates capital gains and that makes enough people happy.

Overall, the early arc of Donald Trump’s presidency is underwhelming and a little boring. He doesn’t like the give and take Congress demands of the executive branch, and there are growing questions about how his actions as leader of the government are affecting his businesses, but the media and American voters are more concerned about the recent stock market drop. If he can get that turned around everything else will get a pass.

Then September 11th happens. The Donald Trump who was unaccustomed to sharing power is suddenly faced with a terrified population and a complicit Congress. America will never be the same.

(I don’t believe for one second Trump would’ve stopped 9/11. While obviously younger than he is today, Trump was still in his 50’s. The American people didn’t have any reason to see it at the time, but the nepotism and laziness he exhibits now were still there. The White House would have been understaffed, the advice he received would have been lacking, and his willingness to pay attention and act on intelligence would have been inconsistent at best. It’s safe to say his authoritarian streak was already there and that’s what this story is really about.)

The shock and fear in the aftermath of 9/11 is impossible to convey through words. An enemy we didn’t understand had leveled an attack we thought was only possible in books and movies. The path forward was unclear, and while there were immediate appeals to the rule of law and our constitutional norms, the reality is people were open to consider ideas they hadn’t before.

Donald Trump would have thrived in this situation. Not in a healthy and noble “rose to the occasion” sort of way, but in an “I alone can fix this” way. Like any president, he would have demanded blank checks from Congress and got them. Also like all presidents, he would have increased the national security apparatus, and probably gone much farther and faster then W did. He may even have found someone from outside his administration — Dick Cheney? — who shared his goals of consolidating power and put them in charge of key administration strategy.

Imagine Donald Trump as president, with Dick Cheney in the Steve Bannon role and a nation reeling from an unprecedented attack. The consolidation of power and restricting of rights would have been swift…and “temporary” of course.

Interment camps for Muslims start springing up throughout the country. There are objections, but supporters in the government and media claim “It’s unfortunate this is necessary but it worked in WWII and this enemy is harder to spot”. Enough people buy into this line that opposing it becomes politically difficult. Plenty of Republicans like the message and plenty of Democrats want to give their party’s president the benefit of the doubt following such an extraordinary event.

The move divides the nation, but does happen legally. There’s an uptick in violence, and while it’s relatively small and isolated to a few pockets of the country, Trump federalizes National Guard units to patrol the streets. In a primetime speech, he uses much stronger language than ever before to attack the Muslim population, and says those protesting are “giving aid and comfort to our enemies”. (While the applause thunders back at him, he makes a mental note thank Cheney for the phrase). He pounds the podium and declares “I will spare no expense and no effort to keep you safe”.

The next day America doubles the amount of nuclear weapons she’s used in combat, as missiles from an off-shore submarine land in Kabul and a Taliban stronghold near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. The administration claims the bombs only killed “bad dudes” and civilian losses were minimal. When the BBC and other international media argue, they’re attacked by Fox News and kicked out of the White House press briefing. Two reporters from Reuters and a German newspaper are actually deported, with threats of more to come.

What’d happen next? I honestly don’t know. Would more attacks — real or imagined — lead to mass arrests and a curtailing of civil rights? Do voting rights get stripped from anyone arrested at a protest? Are free speech and assembly restricted? All seem possible, maybe even to be expected.

Do we station troops on every street corner in America? If that’s not enough manpower do we organize a “citizen army” whose commanders report directly to the White House?

These things sound crazy. But last year Donald Trump made his supporters raise their hands and pledge support at rallies. He and many of his supporters believe Congressmen and law enforcement are supposed to be loyal to him as an individual instead of the Constitution and American people. It’s difficult to say what’s on the table and what could never happen.