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Apocalypse Now

November 9, 2016

Donald Trump’s election to the presidency defied precedent – he will be our first president with utterly no government experience. And Trump’s election shredded American standards for presidential behavior – he expressed his positions, and more importantly his oppositions, in terms more vulgar than used in public by any previous presidential candidate.

Perhaps fittingly for a candidate with a deep disregard for fact-based argument, Trump’s election also defied the science of data-driven public opinion analysis. All of the reputable houses gave heavy odds to Hillary Clinton. The founding father of the science, Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight.com, gave Clinton better than two-to-one odds, and most of the others, like the Princeton Election Consortium, Upshot, and PredictWise, gave even better odds. Even the on-line betting markets heavily favored Clinton over Trump. With all of their sophisticated data mining and computer modeling, every single one of them missed the call – and none of them was even close.

But despite the shock of it, Trump’s election victory is a relatively ambiguous one. As of this writing, Trump is trailing Clinton in the popular vote. If roughly two out of three votes for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson came from Clinton, then Johnson’s candidacy cost her Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and the presidency.

Trump’s election did not bring Republicans any gains in Congress. Republicans definitely lost one Senate seat, in Illinois, and may have lost a second, in New Hampshire. (Technically, Louisiana’s Senate seat remains undecided. A runoff election will decide between the top two finishers in yesterday’s vote, one Democrat and one Republican.) Republicans lost at least five seats in the House of Representatives, with two California districts still too close to call.

Thus Trump is only the fourth incoming president to lose seats in both houses of Congress since popular election of Senators was mandated by the Seventeenth Amendment. In this respect, Trump fared about as badly as George W. Bush – the only other modern candidate who won the election while losing the popular vote. In the 2000 election, Republicans won the White House but lost four Senate and two House seats.

It’s too early to say much about state elections, although Republicans picked up governorships in Missouri, New Hampshire and Vermont, while Democrat Roy Cooper holds a small lead over incumbent Republican Pat McCrory in North Carolina. Democrats picked up some state houses, like the House in New Mexico and both chambers of the Nevada legislature. Republicans also picked up some state legislative houses, including the Kentucky House and the Iowa Senate. Maddeningly, Democrats made no headway in the New York Senate, where the small Independent Democratic Caucus has aligned with the Republican minority.

In normal times, this kind of deep ambiguity would persuade a newly elected president to govern cautiously, from the center. John Kennedy is a good example – his popular vote victory was narrow, and his party lost one Senate seat and 21 House seats in the election (although Democrats still commanded large majorities in both houses). Kennedy did not govern as if he had won in a landslide, as Lyndon Johnson did after him.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, won by a ten percent popular margin, with a ten-to-one electoral vote ratio, and his party added 12 Senators and 34 Representatives. Reagan, unlike Kennedy, governed as if he had won in a landslide – because he had.

But nothing we have seen of Candidate Trump suggests an ability to govern cautiously, or any interest in trying. Cautious government for Trump might mean sticking for his first two years largely to his proposals for corporate tax reform, deregulation, and infrastructure investment, and only marginally changing existing foreign policy, especially regarding Russia, China and the Middle East. Riskier government might include pursuit of Trump’s proposals to gut Obamacare, end legal immigration for Muslims, create a roving deportation force to deport millions of illegal immigrants, pull out of the Paris agreement on climate change, revoke the nuclear deal with Iran, bluster against our allies about paying for NATO and paying for border walls, and continued investigation or even prosecution of Hillary Clinton.

In the next couple of weeks, we will begin to get clues about Trump’s choice. If he cabinet selections include the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich, we’re in for a very bumpy ride.

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