(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Although it is hard to avoid fixating on the day-to-day of the Trump administration, much of the world is already asking, “What comes next?” It seems to me that a lot of President Donald Trump’s policies, especially abroad, are likely to last longer than his critics wish to admit.
While it can be debated how popular Trump is with voters, the real question for potential presidential candidates is how popular he would be if he abandoned some of his least popular material. No attempt at parent-child separation at the border, for example, no push to weaken EPA standards, no racism, a more female-friendly style, and less overt corruption, to name a few items that spring all too rapidly to mind. You could keep the Twitter account and much of the provocative tone, aimed in somewhat different directions.
I think such an imaginary Trump could be very popular. Not only is the economy strong, but nationalism sells. And I write as a longstanding multilateralist and free trader, disappointed but not entirely shocked by this shift in public opinion.
The U.S. government’s promotion of an anti-immigration viewpoint, combined with highly visible official acts against immigrants, is unlikely to survive the next Democratic president. But much U.S. policy on the border probably will. The U.S. is unlikely to resume accepting as many refugees as it did during the Obama administration, for instance. Governments around the world, including left-wing governments, increasingly see refugee admissions as politically risky.
There is evidence that American attitudes toward immigrants are growing more positive. There is also evidence that simply thinking about immigrants makes Americans less likely to support them, so Democrats may decide to de-emphasize the issue. The intensity of anti-immigration sentiment has helped Republicans take control of all three branches of the federal government, and Democrats would probably prefer for the next big set of political debates to be about health-care policy and additional benefits for women. The American public actually trusts Trump more than congressional Democrats to deal with border security.
As for free trade and protectionism, the Democrats have been against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and skeptical of NAFTA for some time. They will have no trouble stepping into America’s newly found protectionist shoes. Keeping this stance will help them with organized labor and in key Midwestern battleground states, and Democrats will also claim that their version of protectionism is smarter and more sophisticated.
What about tax reform? Maybe the corporate rate will inch back up toward 30 percent. But most of the key elements of Trump’s tax legacy are likely to remain and be silently tolerated. Since voters don’t seem to care about deficits, why bother raising taxes again?
On foreign policy, the experts have continued to lose status, a steady trend since the second Iraq war and Afghanistan. Trump’s North Korean diplomacy, even if it fails, is unlikely to reverse this trend; though the mainstream consensus was against his summit with Kim Jong Un, most Americans thought the idea had promise. Don’t be surprised if the next president goes with his or her “gut” on foreign policy issues, just as Trump is fond of doing.
I don’t expect the trans-Atlantic alliance to totally collapse under Trump’s watch, but neither will it see a major revival afterwards. It’s already the case that many in both parties don’t see France and Germany as important foreign policy partners. Once trust is broken or damaged, it is hard to reestablish it once again, no matter what the intentions.
In the Middle East, Syria is already wrecked, the U.S. embassy won’t be moved back to Tel Aviv, and there will be no reason to reverse the closer ties with the Saudis, at least so long as the regime remains relatively stable.
China is a rising power, and the U.S. had been engaging in passive-aggressive avoidance of this issue for too long anyway. That era is over, and the next president is likely to confront China a lot too, albeit with a different rhetorical style.
As for Russia, I’m not sure we know yet exactly what the current policy is. But that is one foreign policy area where the next president could possibly bring a major change.
If the next president is a Democrat, you can expect very different Supreme Court picks, a big investment in making Obamacare work, a push for more child-care benefits, and an end to the deregulatory push of the Trump administration. But don’t be surprised if you hear about these initiatives on Twitter first.
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