During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump showed himself to be a thin-skinned narcissist with little or no understanding of the demands of the presidency or the challenges he would face if elected. Some saw his comments and behavior as reminiscent of fascist leaders of the past. Others noted his tolerance for, if not active encouragement of, supporters who were racist, misogynist, and xenophobic. Rather than someone who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, Trump gave every indication of not caring what he doesn’t know.
Many people have spent time since the election passing through the various stages of grief as well as trying to understand what factors led to the outcome. Wherever those assessments lead, the reality remains that on January 20, 2017, Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.
If words like “surrealistic”, “unprecedented” and “scary” were used to describe his campaign, those impressions have all been reinforced and underscored by his activities during this transition period. The hope that he would become more “presidential” after the election and that the impending responsibilities of the office would moderate his behavior have proved illusory up to now.
The most significant lesson so far is that Trump’s words can’t be taken literally. Many of his senior advisors have criticized the press for reporting his words directly when he “clearly” meant them figuratively. Trump gives every indication that he doesn’t feel bound by anything that he said during the campaign. Moreover, as with the campaign speech about making sure the Carrier plant in Indiana wouldn’t move to Mexico, he feels free to deny ever having said that.
How well that will play with the large crowds at his rallies who heard him talk about bringing back manufacturing jobs and the coal industry remains to be seen. Perhaps the opportunity to shout “Build the wall” and “Lock her up” was all they wanted out of the campaign. Frankly, however, that won’t be just their problem. It will also be the problem of all those working class whites who will make up the bulk of the military if Trump or one of his belligerent generals involves us in a war in the Middle East or elsewhere just to show how tough they are.
As to Trump’s words during the transition and once he takes office, I hope the press and the public will remember the lesson that we can’t take anything he says literally. As Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell said during the Watergate hearings, watch what they do, not what they say.
There are at least three other patterns from the campaign that have reemerged during the transition. First, and it should surprise no one, Trump is continuing to tweet at all hours and primarily on subjects that annoy him personally. It’s astonishing that the incoming leader of the free world feels the need to critique Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on Saturday Night Live. Did I mention thin-skinned? I actually wonder how stable the man is. Unfortunately, we may not find out for sure until he has created incredible damage somewhere.
The second issue with his tweets is what it shows about his values. Has he tweeted about the right-wing group that shouted “Heil Trump” at a meeting in Washington? Has he weighed in on the upsurge in hate acts aimed at minorities and Muslims? No, but he did get upset about the cast of Hamilton offering a plea for tolerance to Mike Pence after a performance.
Trump has bragged in the past about not reading books. Apparently his short attention span and impatience apply to sitting through briefings as well. However big he thinks his brain is, there are lots of important subjects about which he knows almost nothing. In skipping briefings from American intelligence agencies, he is demonstrating a level of either arrogance or indifference that jeopardizes his ability to do the job for which he was elected.
This pattern has already had adverse consequences. It was troubling when, during the campaign, Trump diminished the importance of America’s alliances with other nations. Now, however, he seems intent on treating long-time friends like Britain and Germany with disdain and indifference. Whether he is aware of the potential impact of his amateurish actions is besides the point; he is running the risk of undermining the international security system that has served the United States incredibly well since the end of World War II.
Conducting telephone calls with foreign leaders without bothering to learn about and understand the intricacies of the relationships with their countries is fundamentally an act of gross irresponsibility. Conversations with the leaders of Pakistan and Taiwan have already caused unnecessary confusion. Trump may look upon himself as a deal maker, but he certainly is no diplomat.
Once he becomes president, his tendency to act without thinking and preparation, to react to the moment, to want to make whoever he’s talking to happy raise gigantic risks for American national interests and for world stability. Trump the businessman sees every relationship as a transaction. In diplomacy, being able to think and act for long-term goals is essential, but it’s increasingly questionable whether he is capable of taking that perspective.
The third pattern of the Trump transition, the one that has received by far the most attention, is his appointments to key positions. During the campaign, he went through three campaign managers, had a constant swirl of people trying to influence him and brought into his closest circle individuals from the extreme fringes of US politics. As a candidate, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington and end politics as usual. He also strongly criticized Wall Street for its influence on policy makers.
However, some of his initial appointees looks like those of a very traditional Republican. A Treasury Secretary from Goldman Sachs. A Transportation Secretary who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. A Chief of Staff who headed the Republican National Committee. That looks more like bringing additional alligators to the swamp than draining it.
Many of the others are even more controversial and raise serious questions about the direction of a Trump Administration. Senator Jeff Sessions, who was turned down for a federal judgeship in the 1980s because of his racist connections, will head the Department of Justice. It’s hard to think of a worse choice short of picking David Duke.
One of my biggest concerns is that Trump will not be interested enough to pay attention to what Sessions does as Attorney General and will give him almost unlimited latitude. In many respects, Sessions may well be the most dangerous person so far named to the new administration.
Given the overt attacks on voting rights in many states even before this and in light of the dreadful Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, Sessions could do great harm to what should be a constitutionally sacred right. Stopping him will take concerted efforts by the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, other groups and concerned citizens.
The national security team is not yet in place. Whoever is selected to be Secretary of State may well play a pivotal role given the current configuration. Mike Flynn, the National Security Advisor, has a history of erratic and confrontational behavior and will certainly not be a brake on any rash tendencies that Trump may bring to the Oval Office.
By all accounts, James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense designee, is a thoughtful, well-read strategic thinker who could be a counter-weight to the tendency to precipitous action. The announcement by some Congressional Democrats of their intention to fight the waiver that Mattis needs to take the job looks like it’s picking the wrong guy to fight.
I haven’t yet mentioned Steve Bannon in part because it’s not at all clear what his job is. Chief strategist could mean anything. His history in the alt.right movement is deeply disturbing, however, and should make all of us very wary of whatever role he plays.
The upshot of these observations is that, at this point, President-elect Trump looks an awful lot like candidate Trump. It’s hard to see any mellowing, any willingness to be more reflective, any instinct to broaden his circle of advisors. Worse, he is still resisting guidance from individuals with any experience in government. Unless we see a real change after January 20, we are in for a very dark period in this country.