Unless Donald Trump announces in the next few weeks that he is secretly a Muslim, gay, undocumented Mexican immigrant (and let's be honest, less likely things have happened in this election cycle), he's almost certainly going to be the Republican nominee for the presidency.
If he won, how much impact would President Trump likely have? Pretty much everyone watching this election is probably asking themselves that question right now, and it's exactly the sort of question my research answers. I studied every Presidential election in American history to better understand which leaders have outsized impact -- for good or ill.
In the course of my research, I concluded that presidents ultimately fall into one of two categories: "Filtered" -- the ones who gain power normally, by rising through the ranks of the political system, and "Unfiltered" -- those who gain power with little national political experience or over the opposition of political elites. "Unfiltered" presidents tend to have huge effects and end up remembered as either the best (e.g., Lincoln, FDR) or worse (e.g., Harding, Pierce). Trump, without a single day of experience as an elected official and actively opposed by the Republican establishment, would be the most unfiltered president in American history.
In my research, I discovered four warning signs that indicate an unfiltered leader is more likely to have an outsized negative impact -- and Trump, perhaps uniquely, has all four:
1) Unearned advantages. Sometimes the race for leadership can be short-circuited because one of the candidates has huge unearned advantages that make it an unfair competition. The classic example is George W. Bush, who surely would not have been a plausible candidate for governor of Texas if his last name were Smith. Trump -- despite his pretensions as a successful entrepreneur -- inherited $200 million dollars from his father, runs the company his father founded, was bailed out several times by his family, and made his career in his father's industry and using his family's connections. Inherited wealth, position, and connections are the quintessential example of an unearned advantage.
2) Personality disorders. Calling Trump a narcissist is an insult to ordinary garden-variety narcissists. Narcissism in leaders can have surprising and counterintuitive effects. Like many personality disorders, narcissism gives short-term benefits but imposes long-term costs. So narcissists make a powerfully positive first impression and are more likely to be chosen as leaders, but once they have power they are often disastrous failures. No President even vaguely approaches Trump's narcissism, but Jean-Marie Messier, the legendarily catastrophic CEO of Vivendi who would sometimes sign his name "Jean-Marie Messier myself master of the world" comes close.
3) Extreme ideologies. Power liberates leaders to follow their worst instincts -- like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. A leader who, even before he gets power, encourages violence towards his enemies, stokes racial hatred, engages in paranoid conspiracy theorizing, supports torture, and argues for the abrogation of treasured American ideals like freedom of speech -- and Trump has not just implied these positions, he has argued for them explicitly and repeatedly -- will likely use the power of the Presidency to act on those impulses.
4) Managerial incompetence. Trump's four bankruptcies are just the beginning. Trump Airlines (gone). The USFL (gone). Trump University (gone, with a fraud lawsuit). Even those barely scratch the surface. Trump's roster of failures -- including starting a mortgage company in 2006 -- may be the most impressive thing about him. He is without a doubt, a gifted publicist. But if all Trump had done was invested his $200 million in the S&P 500 in 1982 he'd have more than $7 billion now. That's at least $3 billion more than his actual wealth. So scamming his customers, hiring illegal immigrants, using his family's influence to get favors from the government -- all of those, mated to his supposed business skill, have destroyed about $3 billion dollars of his own wealth. That's pretty incompetent. Warren Harding, usually considered the worst-ever president, was so unable to fulfill the job's basic requirements that even he privately acknowledged it. Trump, who is basically a brand manager with an inherited bankroll, might not challenge Harding's record, but he'd likely be in the running.
Like most analysts, I think Trump would lose a general election. I'm not certain, though. Trump's campaign has already beaten every prediction, and his appeal to authoritarianism and white ethnocentrism is so unique (neither George Wallace nor Pat Buchanan, the modern candidates he most resembles, were nominated) that it might reconfigure the electorate. Most importantly, elections can be weird. They can be shifted by random events as diverse as: a third party candidate (1912 and 1992), a terrorist attack (1860), an assassination attempt (1912 again) and even the illness or death of the family member of a candidate (1892). So while I don't think Trump will win, we need to seriously consider the possibility of President Trump.
My research leaves me with an unambiguous -- and genuinely frightening -- conclusion: The nomination of Donald Trump will be the single most irresponsible act by an American political party in at least 150 years. Combine the real possibility of a Trump victory with his Unfiltered status and the four warning signs above, and it is not hyperbole to describe him as one of the most dangerous figures in American history. Given the stakes, blocking him from the Oval Office ought to be the overriding responsibility of everyone in politics, regardless of party. The only way someone like Trump should ever be allowed in the White House is on a tour.