Trump's Achilles Heel: Historians, Not His Fans, Will Have The Last Word

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks briefly to reporters between meetings at the Mar-a-lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida,
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks briefly to reporters between meetings at the Mar-a-lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S. December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Donald Trump's craving for approbation is boundless. His sensitivity to any slight is manifested in both Twitter rants and ubiquitous hollow threats to sue those who publicly accused him of the nefarious things he has done. But, though attacks and ridicule enrage him, they seem unlikely to alter his actions or policies. His base loves him, the GOP-controlled Congress will enable him -- through either shared conviction or fear of retaliation -- and, as President, he will exercise enormous power.

But one day he won't be President. There is certainly a chance many of those who supported him, a minority of voters even at his moment of triumph in November 2016, will have become disillusioned by then. He will be unable to fulfill promises to those who wished to turn the clock back to the 1950s -- undisputed white supremacy, plentiful well-paid manufacturing jobs, a radical Christian version of Sharia law to limit women's rights, censor the arts and penalize sexual freedom. His foreign policy will be unable to control events abroad, or prevent occasional lone-wolf terror attacks at home. His ties to Vladimir Putin will make him appear more and more like a "useful idiot," a puppet, or even a Manchurian Candidate to those apparently large segments of the population susceptible to fantastical conspiracy theories. The blows to Trump's ego will be hard to contain and he will no longer be able to retaliate, except to a diminishing number of Twitter followers, who will still believe the @realDonaldTrump is not a fake, an incompetent, a traitor, or all the above.

On the other hand, Richard Nixon, who bore some resemblance to Trump in terms of character, and George W. Bush, who came closest to him in ignorance and intellectual laziness, both presided over disastrous wars and yet were re-elected. Trump could be too, especially if he creates Potemkin Village "accomplishments" and corresponding faux "evidence" amplified by Fox, Breitbart, Drudge, fake news sites and a gullible mainstream media which rarely subjects presidential claims to excessive scrutiny. Short of a major recession and an almost hard to imagine scandal that could fatally hurt his image -- none have before -- re-election can hardly be ruled out.

But, come what may, unless the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution is repealed, Trump will be out of office by January 2025, at the latest. The historians will then begin their work and, given the overwhelming liberal political leanings of the profession, as well as the consequences of his policies and the undoubted legions of "insiders" willing to speak about the lunacy of what likely was happening "backstage," Trump will almost surely be savaged for posterity.

This fact, above all others, if he understood it, might make him think twice about continuing to mollify his bigoted base and enact the Ayn Rand-inspired legislative program of Republicans in the Senate and House, who wish to roll back much of the past century's liberal social legislation. If Trump can think beyond the next five minutes, he might recognize his best chance for a positive report card by those who will fill it out for the ages will entail turning his back on everything he promised during his campaign, except for a massive New Deal-style infrastructure program. Is this possible?

Although very few septuagenarians change their nature, Trump has been ideologically inconsistent on many issues. In the past he has supported abortion, gun control, universal healthcare, and tax increases on the wealthy. He once believed in climate change and thought the economy did better when Democrats were in office. He also has a long history of egotism and personal betrayal without guilt; narcissism and psychopathy can produce a radical about-face in what he chooses to do. Already he has said that one of the things he promised over and over -- sending Hillary Clinton to jail -- was just "campaign rhetoric". So, might have been climate change denial, denunciations of mainstream media, promises of mass deportations and banning all Muslims from coming here. Even building The Wall.

There is even an imperfect historical precedent for a "liberal to proto-fascist to liberal" politician's evolution: George Wallace. Wallace's ardent embrace of racial segregation was a departure from his earlier views and largely opportunistic. In later years, he sincerely repented. Trump would never do that and his returning to even moderate liberalism would be entirely cynical.

A 180-degree turn would certainly be a long shot, especially since those he took to the dance will be needed for re-election. Trump might be reluctant to cross the base and the 90 percent of Republican voters who supported him, at least until a second term. His coterie of advisers now, like his cabinet selections, are virtually all from the far-right (secular and religious), with more than a few prone to conspiracy theories. It's hard to know what to make of it, except for ruling out his embracing the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun-Tzu's dictum, popularly attributed to Don Corleone in The Godfather: "Keep your friend's close, but your enemies closer." Only slightly more likely is a late stage ideological conversion. More plausible motivations are paying "debts" to those who stood by him (except for Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie), or unwittingly employing the ancient proverb, which can be traced to a 4th century B.C. Sanskrit treatise on statecraft, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend.," to express his anger at liberals and Establishment Republicans who scorned him.

But, if some Democrat who has his ear, especially President Obama -- who the President-elect seems delighted to talk to for the moment -- induces him to ponder if he wants "trump" to become a reviled synonym for political evil, like "quisling" was after Minister-President Vidkun Quisling's collaboration with the Nazi occupiers of Norway, there might be some surprises. Trump may start to do the right things for the wrong reasons if he could imagine and suddenly care about, despite routinely falsifying his own past, the judgment of history. His fans and entourage may applaud his deeds as President, but it will be historians writing about them, and it is ultimately by their work that Trump's will be forever measured.