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How Trump Could Change America

As Donald Trump prepares to take office this month as the 45th president, a look at six ways his policies and personality could reshape the nation

After one of the most bitter presidential elections in history, Americans are sharply divided as they await Donald Trump’s inauguration. 

Half the country thinks that Trump will finally fix what’s long been broken in Washington. The other half is deeply concerned that he’ll dismantle programs and policies that the U.S. and its allies depend on, and that he lacks the temperament to be president. The only thing everyone agrees on is that a lot of things are likely to change in the next four years, after President Obama leaves the White House. 

As Trump prepares to take office on January 20, the country is starting to get a glimpse of how he might govern. It’s often said that “politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose,” meaning that promises often give way to the realities of winning support for their proposals from lawmakers and the public. Trump has already softened several positions since the election, as winning candidates often do. 

One example is Trump’s evolving position on Obamacare, the healthcare law that’s considered Obama’s signature achievement. After months of promising to repeal it, Trump said after his victory that he’d consider keeping some of its most popular features: allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26 and guaranteeing that people with pre-existing medical conditions can’t be denied insurance. 

He could still change his mind and try to repeal the entire law. And in other areas, political analysts expect Trump to more clearly depart from Obama’s policies. Here’s a look at six ways Trump’s presidency could reshape the nation. 

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What will happen to Trump’s Twitter account?

CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times

Tweeter-in-Chief?

Presidential Communication

As a real estate tycoon and former reality TV star—as opposed to a career politician—Trump may change the way presidents communicate with the public. During his 17-month run for the presidency, Trump was famous for middle-of-the-night, off-the-cuff tweeting, often to attack his opponents. He’s sent more than 34,000 tweets, enabling him to bypass the mainstream media, which he distrusts, and speak directly to the American people. 

If this continues after Trump takes office, it would represent a massive shift in how the president communicates his policies and plans to the world. 

“Historically, great care has been taken to make sure that presidents don’t misspeak,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. That, she explains, is because “every presidential sentence is potentially consequential. Everyone is trying to read his words for clues: Congress, the press, the public, and especially world leaders.” 

Twitter plans to transfer @POTUS, the president’s official Twitter account, from Obama to Trump. It’s not clear what will happen to the president-elect’s current account, @realDonaldTrump, where he has almost 17 million followers. 

If Trump does continue to tweet from the White House, he would join presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, who each made use of a new technology to reach the public, says Lindsay Hoffman of the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware. 

“Much like with FDR and radio and JFK using televised press conferences as his medium for communicating with the public,” she says, “I think Trump’s use of Twitter is the next revolution in how presidents communicate with citizens.” 

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ISIS fighters in Iraq 

CREDIT: ABACAPRESS.COM/Newscom

‘America First’

The U.S. Role in the World

For much of the past century, the U.S. has been both a world leader and an international policeman, using its influence to nudge other nations toward democracy and its military might to intervene in conflicts around the globe. All that could change with Trump’s vow to put “America first.”  

By that he seems to mean that the U.S. needs to focus on its own issues and not spend so much time and money trying to fix other countries’ problems. Trump hasn’t fleshed out the details of his “America First” philosophy, but he’s offered some clues.

Trump has questioned the importance of longstanding military alliances like NATO.* He’s called the 2015 deal with Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons “one of the most incompetent deals of any kind” and promised to renegotiate it. Because the Iran deal is an executive agreement, not a formal treaty, Trump will have a lot of latitude to change it. 

Elsewhere in the Middle East, a region in which the U.S. has long been deeply involved, Trump says he’d love to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But mostly he’s focused on defeating ISIS (the Islamic State), so the terrorist group can’t carry out attacks in the U.S. from its base in Syria and Iraq. To do that, Trump has said he’ll abandon Obama’s policy of giving military aid to moderate rebels seeking to oust Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in a vicious civil war. Trump has said the U.S. would be better off working with Assad, and his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to vanquish ISIS. 

Assad is widely seen as responsible for the killing of close to 500,000 of his own people since the civil war started in 2011. “I’m not saying Assad is a good man, ’cause he’s not,” Trump said in March, “but our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.”

*NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is a military alliance of 26 European countries, plus the U.S. and Canada. It was formed in 1949.
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A Mexican boy looks into the U.S. from atop the border wall near Tijuana.

CREDIT: Karen Kasmauski/Getty Images

‘Those People Are Gone’

Illegal Immigration

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CREDIT: Jim McMahon

President Obama (and his Republican predecessor George W. Bush) wanted major immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally. Trump envisions a very different solution. His most famous campaign promises—repeated at many of his rallies—was to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it, and to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, most of whom are from Mexico.  

“We will begin moving them out Day 1,” Trump said in August. “My first hour in office, those people are gone.”

The president has a lot of flexibility to order more-aggressive deportations without congressional approval. But how closely Trump will try to follow through on that promise is unclear. In an interview with 60 Minutes after the election, Trump described many of those in the U.S. illegally as “terrific people” and said he’d focus deportation on those with criminal records—much as Obama has done. As for the wall, he said, “it could be some fencing.” 

Trump has also toned down his call to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Obama’s program that protects from deportation young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Trump recently told Time that he’d “work something out” for the 700,000-plus people covered under DACA.  

His other key campaign pledge concerns Muslims. At one point, he called for an outright ban on all foreign Muslims entering the U.S. to prevent Islamic terrorists from getting in. That shifted to a call for “extreme vetting” for immigrants from Muslim countries with terrorism problems. 

His proposals on immigration have made many Muslims and Latinos frightened about how their lives could change under Trump. 

“I’m worried for my family,” says Jhoan,* a 16-year-old student at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was brought to the U.S. illegally from Bolivia 10 years ago and now has DACA protections, but his parents don’t. “I’m worried that he’ll deport them even though they didn’t do anything bad,” Jhoan tells Upfront.

*Jhoan asked that only his first name be used to protect his family.

China and the Economy

Trade, Jobs, and Taxes

Like most of his predecessors, Obama has embraced the idea that the benefits of free trade outweigh its costs. Trump appears to believe the opposite. In fact, his presidential campaign was built on a promise to help struggling American workers who are frustrated by the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs and see themselves as victims of free trade. 

Trump blames trade deals like NAFTA** for encouraging many companies to move their factories to countries with lower labor costs. He’s vowed to renegotiate NAFTA so it’s more beneficial to American workers—or do away with it.

Trump blames China—and what he sees as unfair trade practices—for the loss of America’s economic clout. He’s promised to place tariffs (import taxes) as high as 35 percent on goods from China if it doesn’t make it easier for U.S. companies to do business there. Similarly, he’s threatened to slap tariffs on American companies that move jobs overseas. But those promises may be tough to keep: Tariffs require congressional approval, and the Constitution bars taxes or tariffs aimed at any single company. 

Should taxes be cut for the wealthy and companies?

Trump has also talked about a major investment in America’s deteriorating infrastructure—its roads, bridges, airports, and other public facilities. That idea, long popular with Democrats, could provide jobs and boost the economy. 

He’s also proposed tax cuts for individuals and for companies. Trump—and most Republicans—believe that lower taxes for businesses and wealthier Americans encourage them to invest more and create jobs. He’ll face opposition from most Democrats, who believe that wealthy Americans and big businesses should pay more of the nation’s tax bill, not less.

**NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is a trade deal between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that took effect in 1994 and eliminated tariffs between the three nations to promote trade.
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CREDIT: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

‘A Hoax’. . . or Not

Dealing With Climate Change

While President Obama made climate change a major priority, Trump called it “a hoax” during the campaign and vowed to undo Obama’s measures to address it. 

As a candidate, Trump also promised to pull the U.S. out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The pact commits more than 190 countries to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide, a gas that scientists say is causing the planet to heat up to dangerous levels. But this is another area in which Trump has moderated his position since his victory: In a post-election meeting with The New York Times, Trump said he would keep an “open mind” about the Paris climate deal and was “looking at it very closely.” 

How he acts could have enormous consequences. Experts in climate change policy warn that if Trump follows through on his campaign promises, there may be no way to avoid the most devastating effects of global warming, including rising sea levels, extreme droughts, and more-powerful floods and storms.

While the vast majority of climate scientists—97 percent, according to NASA—believe that climate change is real and a serious threat, there’s less consensus in the nation as a whole: 65 percent of Americans, in a recent Gallup poll, said they believe in human-caused climate change. 

The U.S. is the world’s second-largest producer (after China) of carbon emissions. Without American participation in the Paris climate deal, experts say reaching the global goals probably isn’t possible. 

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LEAN LEFT: Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan / LEAN RIGHT: Roberts, Thomas, Alito / SWING VOTE: Kennedy

CREDIT: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Seat-Filler

Supreme Court Vacancies

One of the most lasting impacts any president can have is his appointments to the Supreme Court. The Court’s nine justices have life tenure: They usually remain on the bench long after the president who appointed them is gone, continuing to sit in judgment of the nation’s laws for years or even decades. 

With Trump’s victory, the Court’s vacant seat—which has been open since Justice Antonin Scalia died last February—will almost certainly be filled by a conservative nominee. If that happens, the Court will continue to tilt right, as it has for decades.

Since Scalia’s death, Republican senators have refused to consider Obama’s nominee, saying the choice of a new justice should belong to the next president. They gambled that a Republican would win and appoint a justice more to their liking, and the bet has apparently paid off. 

Three current justices are in their 70s or 80s. 

The balance of power on the Court could truly shift if there’s a second vacancy while Trump is president. Two of the Court’s senior liberal justices are over 75: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83, and Stephen G. Breyer is 78. Anthony M. Kennedy, currently the Court’s swing vote, is 80. 

“It seems likely that if President Trump could make two nominations,” says Jeffrey Rosen, head of the National Constitution Center, “he’ll have the ability to solidify a conservative Supreme Court for decades to come.”

With reporting by David E. Sanger, Jonah Engel Bromwich, Michael D. Shear, Coral Davenport, and Adam Liptak of The New York Times.

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