With less than a week to go until Election Day, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is surging in the polls. Whatever the reasons for this — an unexpected assist from the FBI’s director, James Comey; the media’s predictable lust for fake scandals; the electorate’s astonishing tolerance for sexual predation — the net result has been a collective freak-out among democrats, progressives and moderates.
The conventional wisdom on the left is that Trump would be an authoritarian president, a kind of American tyrant. After all, he has promised voters that he (and he alone) will be able to safeguard the homeland from the dark hordes massed along our borders and lurking within them, by any means necessary: mass deportation, torture, nukes.
This line of thinking dramatically (and dangerously) overestimates Trump’s ambitions and aptitudes. For all his strongman rhetoric, a President Trump would be much more likely to function as a figurehead.
He’s simply unequipped — intellectually and temperamentally — to be anything more. He has no clue how governance actually works, no interest in policy and no attention span. He doesn’t even have ideas. He has, at most, impulses.
The notion that Trump would play any serious role in formulating policy objectives or seeking to shepherd them through the legislative process is absurd.
This is why he purportedly told Ohio Gov. John Kasich that he could be in charge of domestic and foreign policy if only he would accept the vice presidential slot.
Trump is no more prepared to man the presidency than he was to run a real estate empire.
Students of history will recall that Trump, after a meteoric rise, quickly ran his businesses into bankruptcy and was forced by creditors to become the front man for the Trump brand. He’s essentially a promoter who plays a mogul on TV.
If he does make it to the White House, Trump will assume the role of a child king, allowed to dress up for state dinners, issue decrees and ogle the wives of foreign leaders.
The real power within his administration will reside in his court — the unelected advisers who surround him. They are the ones who will do the dirty work of governing.
Given the company he has kept on the campaign trail, this prospect should be terrifying to anyone with a functioning frontal lobe.
Consider where Trump gets much of his information: from the so-called alt-right, a loose-knit confederation of white nationalists and conspiracy theorists who used to occupy the ragged fringes of the conservative media.
Trump doesn’t just rely on these nuts for rally fodder. He’s hired one of them, Steve Bannon, as his campaign manager. They don’t just have his ear, in other words; they are his eyes.
Placed in a position of genuine power, alt-right advisers would push Trump to make good on his most jingoistic campaign promises: a Muslim registry, a ban on Muslim immigrants, a deportation squad and so on.
And just imagine, if you dare, the sort of executive orders they would draw up for Trump if there were a major terrorist attack in the United States carried out by Muslims — or even a lone gunman who went berserk at a mall.
Now consider the impact of the gun lobby and the nation’s various militia movements. These are the forces that would lay the groundwork for measures such as a nationwide legal carry law, increased militarization of the police and racial profiling and the arming of school officials.
Imagine the sort of heightened vigilantism that could arise along our southern border and within communities with large immigrant populations.
More terrifying is the question of who would be running the country’s foreign policy. Trump has already alarmed national security experts by mouthing off about nuclear weapons, stealing oil from sovereign nations and forcing NATO countries to pay the U.S. protection money.
Some poor lawyer would have to explain to Trump, gently, that he couldn’t actually do such things.
But what’s more likely to happen is that figures such as Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, would be delegated the power to formulate our foreign policy objectives.
Instead of appointing longtime public servants or foreign service officers, Trump will embrace private lobbyists with established loyalties to foreign governments, alleged anti-Semites and neophytes with little to no experience in foreign policy
It’s frightening enough to consider what a President Trump would do if a U.S. plane were shot down, say, over Syria — or a Navy ship fired upon in international waters.
Now think about what it would mean to have a proudly ignorant, impulsive president operating under the aegis of advisers with dangerously misguided agendas.
In fact, the thought experiment shouldn’t be too hard to conduct. Just think back a few years to the second Bush administration, which featured — wait for it — a proudly ignorant and impulsive president who operated under the aegis of advisers with dangerously misguided agendas.
Bush’s most disastrous decisions — the invasion of Iraq, the use of extraordinary rendition and torture, domestic surveillance — were all engineered by the men around him. All involved the selective use of intelligence and sustained efforts to mislead the American people.
But Dubya and his coterie of neocons made at least some effort to abide by the norms of diplomacy and statecraft.
During his months on the campaign trail, Trump has shown no signs that he understands the rudiments of either or that he plans to recruit seasoned veterans to guide him. Why should he, when he can consult his own good brain — a brain that knows more than the generals?
Ultimately, Trump represents the most perilous qualities one can imagine in a potential leader: sloth, grandiosity, ignorance and a towering arrogance that allows him to indulge in childish cruelties.
Trump will not learn on the job or grow into it. He will remain a blustering adolescent, incapable of moral reasoning, of discerning between his feelings and the facts.
His election will not bring power to the Oval Office but a power vacuum, one destined to be filled by shadowy figures whose agendas — paranoid, violent, and ultimately unknowable — could permanently disfigure American democracy.