President-elect Donald Trump’s actions will likely be less extreme than his campaign language and tempered by conservative Republican advisors, says Jonathan D. Moreno, an ethics professor at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. In the first year, Trump will be unable to deliver on some of his promises, he adds. He spoke on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Donald Trump is president. How did that sound to you on Wednesday morning?
Jonathan D. Moreno: Well, my politics are no secret. I took a day to lick my wounds, and started writing about the implications in my particular area of interest, which is bioethics and health policy. I have a default position that I’ve developed in the last three hours.
The default position is, you have to look at the Trump administration, at baseline, as basically a conservative Republican administration, a pretty traditional one, with certain important deviations. So, for example, in terms of Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act of 2010), he will do what conservative Republicans have wanted to do, which is replace it with some kind of a voucher system, if he can. The technical aspect of that is going to be difficult. But their goal is going to be to replace it.
In terms of my field, bioethics, an interesting question is whether anybody in the Administration will care about those questions. I think the one person who will care is Dr. Ben Carson, who may be secretary of health and human services, because Dr. Carson was on President Bush’s Bioethics Council. I suspect that that’s an area, again, in which there will be a pretty traditional conservative Republican approach. If certain issues come up that interest them, for example, issues like gene editing and cloning and so forth, those cutting-edge laboratory science issues, they will attempt to insert themselves and take a position on federal funding, and maybe discourage private research that is beyond the reach of federal financing. So, that’s my default [position].
Remember, Trump is somebody who is not a career politician. He doesn’t really know how the system works in Washington, D.C. Who’s he going to turn to? I think he’s going to turn to his vice president, and he’s going to turn to conservative leadership in the House and the Senate. Perhaps six months or a year from now, much to the disappointment of many of his followers, he will not be able to deliver, at least in a precise way, on some of the things that he’s said over the last year and a half.
“The pace will be set by people like Newt Gingrich, Jeff Sessions, Chris Christie, if he does manage to stay out of trouble with the law, and Rudy Giuliani.”
Knowledge at Wharton: In order for him to be successful, the people he surrounds himself with are going to be maybe one of his most important decisions….
Moreno: That is very much true. Even for an old hand in government, like Hillary Clinton, there’s just too much to get your arms around. It’s so complicated. You have thousands of appointments happening in the first few months. There are so many issues around government, that you just have to rely on your upper-level managers to find mid-level political managers. They will have a big challenge in that respect. The pace will be set by people like Newt Gingrich, Jeff Sessions, Chris Christie, if he does manage to stay out of trouble with the law and end up in the Administration, and Rudy Giuliani. Those people, including Michael Flynn in the defense department, will be setting the pace.
This is a little bit out of my area. But I think on the immigration issue — for example, the Muslim ban — he’s going to either walk away from those as they already are, or he is going to find symbolic ways of building a wall and making the Mexicans pay for it, like modifying a payment of some kind, a fund transfer to the Mexican government from the U.S. government. There are various ways to make it look as though it was paid for. Frankly, most of the people who voted for him didn’t really care about the reality of that issue, so much as they did the rhetoric of it.
Knowledge at Wharton: It almost appears like from the Donald Trump that we saw during the run-up to the election, to the one we have seen at least in the first day or two, in terms of meeting with President Barack Obama and meeting with Speaker Paul Ryan, he has to change his mindset and his philosophy, almost doing a complete 180-degree turn in order to be a successful president.
Moreno: The kind of personality that you have to have, to expose yourself to the process that these people go through, is one in which at some level, you have to be pretty cynical about the process. In 1988, let’s remember, George H. W. Bush held his first press conference after he defeated Michael Dukakis. He was asked about some of the tough things he had said, like the Willie Horton “revolving door” [a convicted felon, William Horton committed more crimes after jumping a weekend furlough program that Dukakis supported], and so forth. And he said, “Well, that was the campaign. This is now.” And people were really taken aback by that.
But I’m thinking that Donald Trump is thinking – “Well, it’s a different ballgame now.” As he said, “I’m a negotiator. You take one position when you’re at the table. And then when you’re at another table, you take another position as needed.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You did write an interesting piece recently in The Huffington Post, wanting to look at Donald Trump’s brain.
Moreno: I said in that article that he is a role-player. He has developed a certain character. That character is one which, it turns out to his benefit, he couldn’t abandon during the campaign because let’s face it, it worked for him.
Now the question is, is he able to assume a new role and all the behavior that goes with it? Everybody’s going to be looking at that with great interest. Will he go off half-cocked the way he did on his Twitter feed, or before a large audience? I’m on the fence about that. I think we’ll just have to wait and see.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also brought something up in another piece called the Goldwater Rule.
Moreno: During the campaign, one of my colleagues, the chair of psychology at Penn, and also the current president of the American Psychiatric Association, sent a memo to all members of the American Psychiatric Association. It reminded them that since hundreds of psychiatrists diagnosed Barry Goldwater in a pretty obscure magazine in 1964, there has been a rule that long-distance diagnosis should not be done of people you haven’t ever seen and who have never given you their permission to talk about their diagnosis.
You saw many people dancing around the Goldwater Rule — many psychiatrists and psychologists. By the way, psychiatrists were not prohibited by their organization from doing diagnosis. But you did see people averring to perhaps some kind of a narcissistic personality disorder.
What do those people say now? Nobody wants to be in the position of diagnosing a new president with a psychopathology. We all hope for his success, as President Obama said because his success will also be the country’s success. So we’re just going to have to bracket that. As George W. Bush said, that was the campaign. This is now.
Knowledge at Wharton: There have been many students at the University of Pennsylvania that have been very concerned about what could potentially be ahead for them and their families, especially ones that have relatives that are from other countries. It has taken on a unique dynamic on this college campus, and I’m sure on many college campuses across the United States.
Moreno: I was just near a metro station in Washington, D.C. and a parade of two-dozen high school kids went by me with placards. They’re on their way to the White House, to protest. You’ve never seen that before.
“For this devastated Democratic Party to rebuild, a very smart thing to do is reach out to younger voters and potential voters.”
I would not sugar-coat the problems that parents of small children have, in talking to them about things that the new President has said about human beings. But the most important question now is, how does he behave? Does he start to walk some of that back?
Look, we’re in a very emotional and angry time. We’re a deeply divided country. Already, there are some indications of attempts by his people to move away from that kind of language. But I can’t say it will be easily-forgotten. And actions will be more important than words, at this point.
Knowledge at Wharton: He obviously made, in his statement after receiving the concession call from Hillary Clinton, that one of his goals was to try and bring the country together. As you alluded to, it’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to do it. Obviously in this digital age that we live in, people have all kinds of videos, and remember very well some of the things that have been said over the last 18 months.
Moreno: Yes. Young people, especially, pay attention to those videos. For this devastated Democratic Party to rebuild, a very smart thing for them to do – which they did not do well in this campaign – is reach out to those younger voters and potential voters. Those people will be able to vote for the first time in 2018, when the Democrats are going to be defending a lot of seats in the Senate, for example. They need to reach out to those kids. They under-voted, as far as Democrats were concerned. But two-thirds of them voted for Hillary Clinton.
So, they need to reach out to people who are even younger than voting age. There is a dynamic there that they can call on. The problem is, they need to call on it without being divisive, and undermining an opportunity, as Hillary Clinton said, to give the President the benefit of the doubt.
Knowledge at Wharton: I will have you look at the crystal ball for a second. We’re looking at the first 100 days. What do you think will happen? What do you think needs to happen, for Donald Trump to get off on the right note?
Moreno: He’s going to have to nominate a Supreme Court justice. Judge [Merrick] Garland is not going to be the new member of the Supreme Court. … Chuck Schumer, the most powerful Democrat in the country now, is a brilliant parliamentarian. He will find ways, with his substantial minority in the Senate, to make it difficult for a very conservative judge to be appointed to the bench. But that will be a firestorm.
“Nobody wants to be in the position of diagnosing a new president with a psychopathology.”
They will have to do something about the border. Again, it will be largely symbolic and rhetorical. The Trans-Pacific Partnership — that’s finished. What they will do about the climate change treaty is a very interesting question. They may do less than people think on the other side of that question. On relations with Russia and with China, he’s going to be sending a lot of messages very quickly. He’s going to see, apparently, British Prime Minister Theresa May, very soon.
He will align himself to some extent with the anti-immigrant sentiment of Europe, but he will try to do that in a way that does not further inflame feelings at home.
Knowledge at Wharton: There is also his relationship with Canada and with Mexico, and the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) deal. That has been a point of emphasis by Trump in the run-up to the election. A lot of people are wondering, one, why would he want to do that, since they were talking about the two countries closest to us. But two, if he were to do that, how would he do that?
Moreno: Again, I think there’ll be more talk than action. I remember visiting Sweden in 1983 or 1984, well into President Ronald Reagan’s first term. A Swedish colleague expressed grave anxiety to me about the things that President Reagan had said about military conflict, and his very aggressive tone about foreign policy. I said, “Look. His bark is worse than his bite.” A few years later, only Reagan can make a deal with Gorbachev.
The human personality is infinitely complex. How skillful they are at sending different levels of messages will be very interesting. Again, their actions will be less extreme than the language.