The American Century is Over

Like everybody else, I was stunned and horrified by the election of Mr. Trump. The polls had all been so certain that Ms. Clinton had a solid grip on victory that the voting results were shocking. I had never seriously considered the consequences of a President Trump, and so I have spent the day mulling over those consequences. These are the results of my considerations:

The Next Four Years
Mr. Trump’s presidency will be catastrophic for America, but the consequences will not be apparent for quite some time. Let’s consider each of the major policy areas in turn:

The Economy
Mr. Trump’s plans for the economy will prove disastrous. He will dramatically lower taxes, especially on the wealthy, reducing net revenues by several trillion dollars. Combined with his expansion of military spending, the net result will be a ballooning deficit. His trade policies will clobber the economy, costing millions of jobs. I don’t think that he’ll be bad enough to push us into a depression; indeed, the economic results of the first two years of an Administration are due entirely to the previous Administration. So we won’t suffer the economic consequences of his policies for the first few years. However, with the passage of time, economic growth will certainly slow and might well tip into recession late in his term. 

But more important, to me, will be the leap in the Gini Coefficient. This is a measure of economic inequality. It has been steadily rising since the 1970s and has now reached 0.45, an alarmingly high value. For purposes of comparison, most of the northern European countries have Gini Coefficient values of about 0.30. Two of the worst countries in the world are Brazil and Mexico, with Gini Coefficient values of between 0.50 and 0.60. As you can see, we are definitely pushing into a nasty realm; Mr. Trump will greatly accelerate this process. This in turn will exacerbate the social divisions that I think will ultimately be the undoing of the American Republic.

Civil Rights
Here we will start seeing the consequences of Mr. Trump’s election sooner. He will definitely push in a more authoritarian direction. In particular, his thin skin guarantees that he will use his powers to retaliate against those who criticize him. Expect to see a steady erosion of the safeguards that guarantee the political independence of Federal agencies such as the IRS and the FBI. Mr. Trump was always eager to use litigation to intimidate others; as President, he will not scruple to use the vastly greater power of the Presidency to exact vengeance upon those who anger him.

Moreover, Mr. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated disdain for the rule of law and the frustrating slowness of political processes. He will use public dissent as an excuse to trample on civil liberties. The investigative powers of police and security forces will be dramatically expanded and directed against anybody he considers disloyal to him. 

Foreign Policy
Here we will see the most immediate consequences of Mr. Trump’s policies. He is utterly unprepared for the complexities of international relations. Mr. Putin will flatter him and obtain his acquiescence to Russian aggressions in Eastern Europe. In particular, Mr. Putin will seize the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) under the guise of “restoring order” to countries that he himself will have destabilized. These are NATO countries, and NATO has pledged to defend them. Mr. Trump will refuse to take action against Mr. Putin, and NATO will collapse. The European Union will set up its own military force, but it is already facing serious internal fractures that might well tear it apart. If so, Mr. Putin will be free to re-establish Russian control over Eastern Europe and the Finlandization of Western Europe. 

These developments will move rather quickly, because Mr. Putin does not want to lose the opportunity given him by the four years that Mr. Trump will serve as President. He’ll spend the first year or two buttering up Mr. Trump, and will then make his move in 2018 or 2019. Russia will resume the superpower status that the Soviet Union had enjoyed.

But the more serious problem will arise with China. In Mr. Trump’s puerile perception, China is a “bad guy” who must be opposed. He has already promised to declare China a “currency manipulator”, which will subject China to trade penalties. China will of course retaliate, which in turn will anger Mr. Trump, causing him to escalate the confrontation. It will appear to be nothing more than a nasty trade dispute, but meanwhile, China will seize the opportunity to establish suzerainty over East Asia. Mr. Trump’s idiotic rhetoric about making allies pay for their defense will, of course, undermine their confidence in American security assurances. Already resistance is crumbling with the Philippine’s own version of Mr. Trump, Mr. Duterte, thinking that he’ll play off the USA and China against each other — which of course won’t happen. Instead, Mr. Duterte will end up a Chinese client. Vietnam will probably be the next nation to fold, trying to negotiate a favorable surrender to Chinese interests. After that, we’ll see Taiwan give in to Chinese suzerainty. Japan and Korea will try to hedge their bets by a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, they may well yield to Chinese demands that they ban American military facilities in their countries. But they might also seek to develop their own nuclear weapons. 

There will be much danger during this transitional phase. My fear is that Mr. Trump will figure out — too late — that he has been taken for a chump, and react with his typical temper tantrum. He’ll shove an American aircraft carrier group right into the middle of the South China Sea, the Chinese will nuke it, and then he might well launch an all-out nuclear war. 

I do not consider this catastrophic scenario to be likely, but I am certain that it is entirely plausible. 

The Long Term
Believe it or not, the short-term consequences I list above (including a nuclear war) are not the worst outcome. What causes me to despair for my country is the inevitability of a long-term collapse of the American Republic.

Compromise is the lifeblood of democracy. The many competing factions must learn to work out their differences to get the job of governance done. They wrangle, they argue, they give, they take, and ultimately they come up with a compromise that everybody thinks is odiferous, yet most people can live with. That’s what makes democracy tick.

But Mr. Trump is not the compromising sort, and with control of both houses of Congress, he doesn’t need to compromise. He and the Republicans will gleefully cram their radical schemes down the throats of the Left, laughing at the impotent fury of the Democrats. “Elections have consequences!” they will exult as they ban abortion, gut social programs, reduce educational opportunity, unleash the dogs of environmental destruction on the world, and trash the health care system. To them it will be sweet revenge, and they’ll savor it.

But the problem here is that more Americans voted for Ms. Clinton than voted for Mr. Trump. All those Americans will respond to his radical agenda with increasing anger. The hotter heads will launch protest movements and will savagely pillory Mr. Trump in public. Mr. Trump will not treat these acts as the normal response of a healthy democracy; he will consider them to be insolent assaults on his character. He will react with the aforementioned assaults on civil liberties. He will send armed troops with loaded weapons to counter the demonstrations. An escalatory sequence will ensue, with Mr. Trump clamping down ever more harshly, inciting even more desperate demonstrations, and so on. 

I do not believe that we will reach the stage of Brownshirts marching down Main Street, shouting “Heil Trump!” Nor do I believe that Mr. Trump will end up imposing martial law on the country. It will take too long for that process to develop to maturity during his four years in office. No, the poison will be more subtle than that. This country is now fissioning into two mutually antagonistic factions. The Trump faction wants to return us to the 1950s; the opposing faction wants to adapt to the 21st Century. What’s important is that, from here on, the gloves are off. Mr. Trump will not be conciliatory; he will not attempt to unite the country. In so doing, he will cement forever the antagonism between the two sides. They will never be able to work together again. They will never share a common vision of the future. They will never again have any bonds of loyalty to each other.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. We are now divided against ourselves. Collapse is now inevitable.

Geographical considerations
The deep divisions within the country have geographic expressions. The coasts are blue and the interior is red. This makes it easier for the two factions to organize themselves regionally. California itself is especially well favored to utilize its geographical isolation from the rest of the country to repudiate Trump’s policies. When — not if, when — the divisions between the two factions create unresolvable disputes, it would be a simple matter for the country to disintegrate into three units: West, East, and Middle.

What might save us?
Most Trump supporters reject this depressing prognostication by claiming that Mr. Trump will be reined in by his advisors. Surely they won’t allow him to run wild with his crazy ideas, they say. 

Read your history. That is exactly what Germans said about Mr. Hitler. Surely, they told themselves, his rhetoric is just dramatic hyperbole; surely he won’t actually do all those things. They were wrong. 

Of course, the public institutions of the Weimar Republic were much weaker than our own institutions, and that gives us some reason for hope. But look at Mr. Trump’s past behavior: when has he ever been constrained by the advice of his subordinates? He has declared many times that he trusts his gut feelings more than the words of his advisors. He famously exulted after the last debate that he was unshackled and now Trump could be Trump. No, Mr. Trump will not be constrained by advisors. Any advisor who objects too loudly will be told “You’re fired!”

How about a military coup? Mr. Trump, I’m sure, does not appreciate just how seriously the officers of the American military take their oath of loyalty to the Constitution. He could well order them to carry out some obviously disastrous action, at which point they might well arrest him and take control of the government. I am confident that they will quickly return control to civilians. However, Mr. Trump need not go that far to germinate the seeds of our destruction.

Nor can we place any hope in reconciliation between the two factions. Mr. Obama tried hard to reconcile Democrats with Republicans, and Republicans refused to compromise. They tried to shut down the government several times. They publically declared that they would not cooperate with Mr. Obama. Even if a Democrat replaces Mr. Trump in 2020, Democrats will be in no mood to compromise with Republicans. They will cram their policies down the throats as enthusiastically as the Republicans did to them. 

Likely outcomes
Here are my conclusions as to likely outcomes:

1. Nuclear war in 2018 or 2019. Unlikely, but plausible.

2. Internal unrest turning violent and leading to an authoritarian government. Unlikely in the near term. Possible during the 2020s.

3. Violent breakup of the country. States would offer increasing resistance to federal policies; this could eventually lead to the use of the military to enforce federal rule. The military would fall apart as soldiers refuse to shoot fellow Americans (This is a common problem for all dictators.)

4. Nonviolent breakup of the country. This is my most optimistic scenario. Faced with the prospect of civil war, politicians balk and agree to split the country up between the two implacable factions. 

The central idea here is that the American body politic has now split into two mutually antagonistic factions. Henceforth there will be no cooperation between blues and reds; there will be only furious battles for power. This will inevitably lead to the collapse of the American Republic. I don’t see this happening in the next ten years; I think we’ll see the collapse come in the late 2020s or 2030s. 

A Final Thought
Americans have been living cushy lives for too long. The people who remember our last serious crisis — the Depression followed by World War II — are too old and too few to warn us of just how bad things can get. The generations since World War II have enjoyed peace and prosperity for so long that they take it for granted. They don’t have the deepset fear of conflict that the Europeans and Japanese have. Once again, they will have to learn that lesson from the harsh hand of Reality. 

Post Scriptum
Several people have pointed out that I have overlooked a major factor: the role played by hotheads. Both sides have their hotheads. On the left, we have hotheads threatening violence; on the right, we have hotheads already proposing violence in retaliation. Hotheads are a major problem in any historical analysis. A great example is Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, triggering World War I. It is entirely conceivable that Europe could have muddled its way through that tense period without resorting to war, in which case both World War I and World War II would have been averted. Of course, one could argue that it was a good thing that these major convulsions knocked some sense into people at that time; had they been deferred for just five years, Germany would have had a nuclear weapon.

Hotheads have always played a prominent role in every revolution. Look how the Boston Tea Party triggered heavy-handed British responses that in turn goaded the Americans into ever-greater resistance. The French Revolution started off as a sincere effort at reforming the monarchy, but that effort was overtaken by a number of small incidents that mushroomed into a bloody revolution. The Russian Revolution was actually a double revolution: the February revolution installed a moderate government under Kerensky; the November revolution replaced the moderate government with the Reds. 

Hotheads could play an even larger role in the coming American unraveling. The Internet allows a few hotheads to spread their poison widely, and it fosters an escalatory sequence in which hotheads on one side whip hotheads on the other side to ever-greater frenzies of anger. It also allows coordination of efforts, a major problem for radicals in previous revolutions. 

It is impossible to predict how the hotheads will influence developments. They could end up doing nothing of significance; they could trigger a violent civil war within just a few years. They’re the wild card in this calculation.