Here’ an alternate history of the Donald Trump years.
First, we begin with the facts. In his victory speech on election night 2016, Trump declared: “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none, and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
What if he had followed through on that? Consider what might have been:
Trump’s first big initiative wasn’t his chaotic travel ban, but a massive infrastructure plan. At first, both parties were hesitant, for different reasons. Republicans were wary of the cost; Democrats were wary of cooperating with a Republican president. In the end, though, enough Republicans rallied behind their party leader, and even the most liberal Democrats had to admit that rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure was a good thing.
Here in the real world, Trump’s approval rating, as measured by the Gallup Poll, never topped 49%. In our alternate history, the infrastructure plan — and the bipartisan way it came about — was so popular that Trump’s approval rating soared. Not only did that help Trump build up much-needed political capital after a contentious campaign in which he finished second in the popular vote, the infrastructure plan proved a gift that kept on giving. Through the rest of Trump’s first term, he could jet across the country to preside at groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings. Republican members of Congress liked that a lot, too, especially the ones in marginal districts as the midterm elections approached.
Flush with newfound support Trump turned his attention to health care. He had promised to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. Democrats howled, of course, at any changes to Barack Obama’s signature health care achievement, but Trump actually had a plan — and, thanks to his politically canny decision to start with infrastructure, the votes in Congress.
When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville in August 2017, Trump was quick to denounce them in forceful terms. To underscore his point, Trump paid a visit to Charlottesville to repeat his remarks — then made a surprise visit to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. “Our brave Bedford boys didn’t charge into Nazi guns on the beaches of Normandy only to see Nazis resurface here in America,” he declared. The despicable white nationalist movement withered.
Here in the real world, Trump’s “fine people on both sides” response to Charlottesville prompted Joe Biden to seek the presidency, and Trump’s obsession with Biden led to his phone call to the president of Ukraine which ultimately led to his impeachment. In our alternate scenario, none of that happened. Trump’s strong response to Charlottesville struck exactly the right presidential tone, Biden decided to stay in retirement and there was never any impeachment.
Still riding high in the polls, our alternate history Trump finally turned his attention to a favorite GOP issue — tax reform. Republicans were surprised, though, when Trump refused to go along with some of their plans, which he called a giveaway to Wall Street. Democrats may have liked that rhetoric, but so did many of Trump’s own supporters in rural America. Trump drew the line on the issue of “repatriation.” Many large corporations had parked their profits overseas, where they’d be subject to less taxation. Republicans wanted to offer tax breaks for them to bring that money home. Trump agreed — but with the proviso that companies had to invest it a certain amount in economically distressed parts of the United States. Some commentators point out that Trump was really stealing an idea from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., but Trump’s Twitter account was bigger than Warner’s. Trump got the credit whenever some tech company invested in places like Appalachia.
Some critics complained that Trump was far too transactional: His attacks on Amazon ceased, for instance, when the company announced it was splitting its HQ2 jobs between Northern Virginia and Indianapolis — in Vice President Mike Pence’s home state. But others cheered the fact that Trump had persuaded a giant tech company to put a significant number of jobs in the nation’s heartland. This goal to directly confront the “great divergence” of the American economy — with high-tech jobs concentrating in a handful of coastal cities — became a running theme of Trump’s presidency. He picked a fight with TikTok and demanded that its Chinese owners sell the popular social media app (that part is real). But he also insisted its new headquarters be somewhere other than one of the established high-tech capitals (that part isn’t). California’s Democratic governor complained that Trump was trying to steal jobs from the state — TikTok is headquartered in the suburbs of Los Angeles. But the deal went through (that part is true) and TikTok announced its new headquarters would be in Tulsa, Oklahoma (that part isn’t). Even some liberal commentators grudgingly praised Trump, saying what he was really doing was setting in motion something that liberals themselves ought to appreciate — a great redistribution of the wealth.
Trump was slow to warm to the potential of renewable energy. He had come into office declaring he’d “bring back King Coal.” However, when it became clear that market forces had other ideas, Trump adroitly switched gears. He leaned on tech companies to put their renewable energy projects in coal-mining regions — setting up the ironic sight of some liberals complaining that he was interfering with the free market. In the real world, Trump ridiculed self-driving cars; in our alternate history, he embraced their potential as part of an American manufacturing resurgence. When the pandemic hit, Trump relished his role as a wartime president. His campaign exploited the crisis by producing red “Make America Great Again” masks. Wearing one became a sign of patriotism among many Trump supporters — as the U.S. logged one of the lowest infection rates in the world.
Finally, in our alternate history, the president spent Jan. 6 not urging his supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the lawful certification of his Electoral College loss, but instead in behind-the-scenes meetings on his second-term agenda and Cabinet reshuffle with the Republican Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader as he prepared for his second inauguration Jan. 20.