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Ten reasons campaign rhetoric will not be the same as reality

My Times column on Trump’s electoral triumph (originally published 14 November):

Years of compensating for the media’s tendency to look on the dark side of everything has taught me that it generally pays to seek silver linings. It’s possible of course that Donald Trump will start a culture war, a trade war and a nuclear war, but it’s also just possible that, while behaving like an oaf, he will preside over a competent administration. So here, after a few days of talking to people in America’s two biggest economies, California and Texas, are ten reasons why I think a Trump presidency may not be as awful as many think, even if, like me, you heard the news of his victory with a sinking feeling.

1 Just as after Brexit, the markets went up, not down. Virtually all analysts agreed that if Mr Trump won the stock market would fall — most estimates ranged from 2 per cent to 7 per cent. Instead the S&P 500 was up 3.8 per cent by the end of last week. The markets are betting that financial deregulation will encourage growth.

2 He is already watering down his more outlandish threats. As Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder and Trump supporter, perceptively put it before the election, the media took Mr Trump literally but not seriously, whereas the public took him seriously but not literally. When he said he would build a wall and get the Mexicans to pay for it, people heard “he’ll get tough on illegal immigration”.


He has already said he will keep some parts of Obamacare. He has stopped talking about imposing a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports. He’s not likely to try to jail Hillary Clinton. These are screeching U-turns that show him to be a hypocrite, if you like, but are welcome ones as far as moderates are concerned.

3 The presidency is nothing like as powerful a job as it seems. Although Barack Obama has set a dangerous precedent by vastly expanding the use of the president’s executive authority since he lost control of both houses of Congress, much of what Mr Trump wants to achieve will require legislation. Congress is not about to lie down. The Republican majority in the Senate is wafer thin and includes people, such as John McCain, who cannot stand Mr Trump and owe him no favours. The House speaker, Paul Ryan, is a formidable figure who will now effectively decide how much of Mr Trump’s programme will happen.

4 The Democratic Party will soon be back and hounding Mr Trump, if only in the courts. Admittedly, Mr Obama’s tenure has eviscerated the party: he lost as many Senate, House, governor and state-legislature seats as any postwar president, giving the Republicans a dominance they last had in the 1920s. But pendulums swing; it may even sink in with Democrats that populism is popular.

5 Mr Trump is already surrounding himself with reasonably sensible people; many who shunned him during the campaign are suddenly fired with ambition to serve him. The chairman and director of his transition team are vice-president-elect Mike Pence and Rick Dearborn, the chief of staff to Senator Jeff Sessions — Washington insiders both. Mr Pence is a creationist and religious conservative, which is not my cup of tea, but he is at least an experienced congressman and governor who knows how to cut deals in Washington. Rudy Giuliani was a good mayor of New York. Newt Gingrich is an intellectual and political heavyweight. Steven Mnuchin, the likely Treasury secretary, is from Goldman Sachs, for goodness sake. These are not flaky folk: they are from the very establishment Mr Trump campaigned against. Again, ironic but reassuring.

6 Some of his policies are not so bad. If he and Mr Ryan can reform taxes by abolishing loopholes and deductions, while cutting rates, as happened in 1986, then he could make the whole system more progressive, because it is the rich who benefit most from tax breaks. As he said in a debate with Hillary Clinton, she was in the Senate passing the laws that allowed him to avoid taxes. And America’s 35 per cent corporation tax is now way out of line with other countries.

7 His adviser on climate and energy, Myron Ebell, whom I know (not to brag, but we are both among the top ten climate “deniers” according to the website of Leonardo DiCaprio’s film Before the Flood), is right that climate change policy has become a gravy train for the rich that hurts the poor. Mr Obama’s “clean power plan” and opposition to oil pipelines were not going to cut emissions much if at all, but were going to push up energy prices at the expense of manufacturing jobs. If Mr Trump unleashes more gas production, that will cut emissions and drive out coal faster than renewable energy ever could.

8 The promised “swamp draining” — in the unlikely event Mr Trump pulls it off — will be cathartic. He has promised term limits on Congress, a five-year ban on public servants becoming lobbyists and a total ban on White House officials becoming lobbyists for foreign governments. Plus a hiring freeze and a one-in-two-out rule for new regulations. This is just the sort of diet Leviathan needs to go on.

9 His reprehensible attitude to women, minorities and the disabled, though setting a terrible example, is fortunately unlikely to result in actual persecution by the government. The presidency is not where these things are decided, and the media will be vigilant. Compared with many Republicans, Mr Trump is positively liberal on matters such as abortion and religion.

10 The idea that this is the end of democracy or the start of fascism, as some hyperventilating luvvies are saying, is nonsense. A disorganised campaign outspent by its opponents, derided by most of the establishment and hated by most of the media, without a ground game, just won a democratic election. If Mr Trump makes a mess of things he will be gone in four years — or sooner.

Admittedly there are some horrendous policy promises, of which trade protectionism is the most worrying. If he really does kill the North American Free Trade Agreement as well as the transpacific and transatlantic trade treaties, and imposes tariffs, he will assuredly cause a recession that hurts blue-collar workers in the rust belt more than free trade ever did. And he might crash the world economy. I can see few silver linings there.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times