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Crisis analysis: How much damage can Trump do? (A lot)

Thomas Homer-Dixon is the CIGI chair of global systems in the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo.

"Okay, here's what happened," wrote an American friend after the U.S. election. "Someone threw a switch, and now we're living in an alternative universe."

The big problem with alternative universes is that we don't know how they work. The assumptions, intuitions and rules of thumb we've previously used to anticipate events, and guide our navigation, suddenly don't apply. So we face an exploding range of possible futures, including many that once seemed crazy.

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U.S. President Donald Trump's psychological characteristics make such uncertainty acute. It's clear, for instance, that Mr. Trump's lying is less a calculated political strategy than a reflection of his deep inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. He creates a make-believe world for himself and surrounds himself with people who, to advance their narrow ends, help him sustain that world. When Mr. Trump appears to be lying, he's simply reporting what he sees in his own alternative world, where fantasy and reality mush together.

As Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted on March 6: "We must accept possibility that POTUS does not know fact from fiction, right from wrong. That wild claims are not strategic, but worse."

The entirely predictable chaos of the new administration's first weeks has many liberals fantasizing that Mr. Trump will be removed from office before his term finishes. But we've seen enough of him to know he's unlikely to leave willingly through any legitimate and lawful political mechanism, like impeachment. Instead, if Mr. Trump feels cornered, he'll declare that his enemies are conspiring against him and call his supporters – many of whom are heavily armed – to come to his aid.

It's also possible that Mr. Trump will find his groove, allowing things to settle down. Yet his performance so far suggests his administration will instead lurch from crisis to crisis. To make some sense of these outcomes, I've charted the most likely crisis types. Drawing on analysis by a wide range of scholars, I've also estimated the probabilities of each type at one, two, and five years into a Trump administration (the latter timeline assumes that Trump is re-elected in 2020).

There are four principal types, I'd argue: financial crisis, civil violence, authoritarianism, and war. Each crisis type then has various possible levels of intensity. "Moderate" authoritarianism could involve, for instance, use of federal resources to intimidate or constrain journalists and judges; substantially increased application of force to track, detain and deport immigrants; and criminalization of protest. Mr. Trump, or in the case of criminalization of protest, his acolytes at the state level are already checking some of these boxes, so I estimate the probability of this degree of authoritarianism in the administration's first year to be 70 per cent. "Severe" authoritarianism would involve actions like a declaration of a state of emergency, federalization of the National Guard, or suspension of key civil liberties. This outcome is much less likely; even after five years, I don't think it's higher than 30 per cent.

A "moderate" war crisis, by my definition, would include any regional conflict between the United States and an intermediate power like Iran, or a great power like China, say in the South China Sea. "Severe" war would involve use of massed military force against a great power like Russia. The category would also include any conflict, for instance, with North Korea, that carries a substantial risk of nuclear escalation. In part, because of Mr. Trump's expressed hostility towards Iran and China, and his tendency to see all international relations in zero-sum terms, I estimate the five-year probability of a "moderate" war crisis to be high, at 60 per cent.

The four crisis types are likely to be causally linked. In particular, civil violence or war could create conditions that Mr. Trump might use to justify an authoritarian crackdown. Financial crisis could also be a consequence of war. The administration's decision-making incompetence increases the risk of financial crisis, civil violence, and war. For instance, Mr. Trump's team of advisers contains little high-level economic expertise, so his administration could be out of its depth should serious trouble develop in financial systems overseas, say in China or Europe.

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The specific probabilities that one plugs into this model are not entirely speculative. Experts can argue about the details, but they're largely in agreement that, for instance, the risk of nuclear war has jumped, which is why The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved the minute-hand of its doomsday clock closer to midnight.

Yet the specific probabilities are less important than the overall analytical exercise of categorizing the types of crisis Mr. Trump might create and the causal pathways that might lead to them. It helps us see possible futures more clearly. In Mr. Trump's alternative universe, we need all the help we can get.

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