Psychiatrists use the Rorschach test to plumb the depths of a person's character. They show the patient a large, irregular ink blot and ask the patient what it represents. But the image is just an abstraction, a picture of nothing in particular, and everyone imagines something different in it. One person might see a butterfly, another a burning tree, and a third might see a small child dragged off by flying monkeys.
For many Americans, the rapidly approaching Trump administration is a Rorschach blot – an ambiguous image that each of us interprets according to our own hopes and fears. What kind of president will Trump turn out to be? Three main possibilities stand out.
Trump Number One is the populist who campaigned for election. This Trump will build a wall to keep Mexicans out, tear up NAFTA and punish companies that export jobs. He'll shred Obamacare, but he'll keep the protection for people with children under 26 and those with pre-existing conditions. He will protect Social Security and Medicare. He will reinstate a version of the Glass-Steagall law to limit the power of big banks. He will invest a trillion dollars in infrastructure to create millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs in the American heartland. Trump One could govern somewhat in the spirit of FDR – a member of the wealthy elite who could beat other members because he knew how to play the game. That's what most of the people who elected him hope for.
But then there's Trump Number Two. Trump Two has nominated people to Cabinet posts and other government positions who are not remotely populist. Under Trump Two, workers will be paid less, not more. Trump will cut the minimum wage, as advised by Andrew Pudzer, his nominee for secretary of labor. Meanwhile, Tom Price, Trump's nominee for Health and Human Services will dismantle Obamacare without an alternative for people with pre-existing conditions. Price intends to scale back Medicare as well. And under the influence of Goldman-Sachs insiders, Trump Two will weaken rather than strengthen Dodd-Frank and other laws that regulate the finance industry. This will leave ordinary Americans more vulnerable to illegal foreclosures and other predatory banking practices.
Many liberals fear that Trump Number Two will turn out to be the real Trump. Many conservatives fervently hope that he is. Perhaps they are both right. Or perhaps Trump is just nominating people to honor promises he made in the course of his campaign, and he plans to ignore the views of his nominees once he takes office. He has shown great ability to keep his own counsel and dismiss those who disagree.
Then there's Trump Number Three. Trump Three is the international businessman whose highest priority is to position his properties and corporations for maximum success. Trump Three has extensive business dealings with Russian oligarchs. He will guide U.S.-Russian diplomacy to protect those interests. He'll cut business taxes deeply, regardless of the deficits they cause. Trump Three won't divest his major assets, won't put them in trust, won't reveal his tax returns and won't draw hard lines between his children who are running his business and top secret diplomatic matters that could affect those businesses.
We won't know which President Trump we have elected until after inauguration – and even then it might not be clear. Trump negotiates brilliantly and keeps others in the dark as to what he really wants. Like a boxer, he feints and dodges. Like an actor, he can make a big show of things that matter little. For example, his confrontation with Carrier captured headlines for days, yet it saves at most a few hundred jobs. It gives encouragement to those who want to see Trump Number One enter the White House but is small enough in scale that it doesn't scare those who prefer Trump Number Two. Meanwhile journalists run giddily from one distraction to the next, unable to describe the theatrics for what they really are.
Perhaps there won't be a clear winner between Trump One, Two or Three. Perhaps our next president will be all three of those, moving between one version and another of his persona according to his own inner logic or the political opportunities and challenges of the day.
The Greek philosopher Socrates said, "The only thing I know is that I know nothing." Perhaps that is all we can safely say for now about the agenda of our next president.
Everyone who has ridden a roller-coaster understands the suspense of those first few moments as our car cranks slowly up a steep incline before cresting, accelerating and spiraling downward. We'll reach the summit on Jan. 20. Buckle up.
David Brodwin is a co-founder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. This blog is adapted from a column recently published in U.S. News & World Report December 16, 2016.