HOLED up in Trump Tower, the New York citadel he seems reluctant to leave, Donald Trump detected a tsunami of excitement in the national capital before his inauguration on January 20th. “People are pouring into Washington in record numbers,” he tweeted. In fact the mood in Washington, DC, where Mr Trump won 4% of the vote on November 8th, was more obviously one of apathy and disdain for his upcoming jamboree. Even the scalpers were unhappy, having reportedly overestimated people’s willingness to shell out to see Mr Trump sworn in as the 45th president. Some 200,000 protesters are expected to attend an anti-Trump march the day after the inauguration (see article).
Mr Trump’s post-election behaviour has been every bit as belligerent as it was during the campaign. In his victory speech he said it was time to “bind the wounds of division”; he has ever since been insulting and threatening people on Twitter, at a rate of roughly one attack every two days. His targets have included Meryl Streep, Boeing, a union boss in Indiana, “so-called A-list celebrities” who refused to perform at his inauguration, Toyota and the “distorted and inaccurate” media, whose job it will be to hold his administration to account.
He enters the White House as by far the most unpopular new president of recent times. It does not help that America’s intelligence agencies believe Russian hackers sought to bring about his victory over Hillary Clinton (though she won the popular vote by almost 3m ballots).
Yet amid the protests, the launch of a Senate investigation into Russia’s hacking and nerves jangling in the United States and elsewhere at the prospect of President Trump, the transition has been chugging along fairly smoothly. The markets have responded with a “Trump bump”, exploring record highs in expectation of tax cuts and deregulation.
Mr Trump has named most of his senior team, including cabinet secretaries and top White House aides, and their Senate confirmation hearings are well under way. These are even more of a formality than usual, thanks to a recent change to the Senate’s rules, instigated by a former Democratic senator, Harry Reid, which allows cabinet appointments to be approved by a simple majority. As the Republicans control both congressional houses, even Mr Trump’s most divisive nominees—such as Senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama, his choice for attorney-general, an immigration hawk dogged by historical allegations of racism—appear to be breezing through.
Tom Price, a doctor and congressman from Georgia who is Mr Trump’s pick for health secretary, is touted by Democrats as the likeliest faller; he is in trouble over legislation he proposed that would have benefited a medical-kit firm in which he owned shares. But as the Democrats mainly dislike Dr Price because he is the putative assassin of Barack Obama’s health-care reform, and Republicans like him for the same reason, he will probably get a pass. “There are two people responsible for the direction we are heading in,” says Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, approvingly. “Donald Trump, who won the election, and Harry Reid, for changing the Senate rule. This has allowed the president-elect to nominate patriots, not parrots.”
Indeed, Mr Trump’s cabinet picks have been solidly conservative, with a strong strain of small-governmentism. At least three of his nominees appear to have mixed feelings about whether their future departments should even exist.
Rick Perry, Mr Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Energy, pledged to abolish that agency when campaigning for the presidency in 2011. Ben Carson, a right-winger with little management experience, whom Mr Trump has chosen to head his Department of Housing and Urban Development, once wrote that “entrusting the government” to look after housing policy was “downright dangerous”. As attorney-general of Oklahoma Scott Pruitt, picked to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has sued the EPA 14 times, partly in an attempt to foil the Clean Power Plan, Mr Obama’s main effort to cut America’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
Climate of opinion
That all three are climate-change sceptics is no coincidence. So, to varying degrees, are almost all the politicians in Mr Trump’s administration (see graphic). Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, recently summarised his boss’s view of climate science as mostly “a bunch of bunk”. Mr Trump’s dishevelled chief strategist, Steve Bannon, a self-described nationalist populist, has similar views, with a twist. Mr Trump has described climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese; Mr Bannon blames a conspiracy of shadowy “globalists” for the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate, which Mr Trump has vowed to “cancel”. Plainly, Mr Pruitt’s brief will be to carry on doing what he was doing—with the power of the federal government behind him.
The disavowal of climate science reflects a wider disdain for expert opinion. A small illustration of this, with potentially large consequences for American children, is that Mr Trump has discussed appointing Robert F. Kennedy junior, a lawyer and proponent of a bogus theory linking vaccines and autism, to chair a vaccine-safety commission. A bigger illustration is that the one academic economist on Mr Trump’s senior economic team, Peter Navarro, is a protectionist with a maverick aversion to trade deficits (see article).
The team is dominated by bankers and businessmen, including two Goldman Sachs alumni, Steven Mnuchin, Mr Trump’s choice for treasury secretary, and Gary Cohn, the head of his National Economic Council. For his commerce secretary, Mr Trump has picked Wilbur Ross, a billionaire businessman who is also a protectionist, having made a fortune by buying and turning around stricken American steel and textiles mills, which he argues require stiffer protective tariffs.
Reflecting Mr Trump’s outsider status, around half his appointees are non-politicians, including perhaps the most important, Mr Bannon and Mr Trump’s other main adviser, Jared Kushner, his 36-year-old son-in-law. A scion of a billionaire New York property developer, and a reformed metropolitan liberal, Mr Kushner is in some ways similar to Mr Trump. He is married to Mr Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who is expected to take on many of the usual duties of a White House consort, and is as ruthless as he is influential. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, whom Mr Kushner axed as head of the transition, can attest to that.
The fact that many of Mr Trump’s picks are plutocrats reflects his preference for pragmatists over pointy-heads, as well as his belief that moneymaking is a transferable skill. That was the underlying logic of his own candidacy. He also likes tough guys, ideally in uniform, hence his selection of three former generals: James Mattis and John Kelly, both former marines, at, respectively, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, and Michael Flynn, his national-security adviser. Mr Trump assured a crowd in Ohio that his cabinet would include the “greatest killers you’ve ever seen”.
His nominees’ ability to look the part, Hollywood-style, is indeed said to be an important consideration for Mr Trump. “He’s very aesthetic,” one of his advisers told the Washington Post. “You can come with somebody who is very qualified for the job, but if they don’t look the part, they’re not going anywhere.” In the case of the stern Mr Kelly and craggy-faced Mr Mattis—whose nickname, “Mad Dog”, Mr Trump enunciates with relish—this appears to have worked out well.
Divided and ruling
Mr Mattis owes his moniker to his combat record and fondness for scandalising civilians; it’s “fun to shoot some people”, he told a crowd in San Diego. Yet he owes his reputation as a commander to his thoughtfulness, interest in history and concern for his soldiers. “He’s perfect for Trump,” says Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who has worked closely with the general. “His toughness gets him through the door. But he’s actually an intellectual in Genghis Khan clothing.” Mr Kelly is also respected, including for the understanding of America’s southern neighbours he developed while heading the US Southern Command. That was apparent in his Senate hearing, in which he said the border wall that is Mr Trump’s signature promise would not alone be sufficient to block illegal immigration: a “physical barrier, in and of itself, will not do the job.”
In another transition, such an array of military men would have sparked concerns for the civil-military balance; Mr Mattis had to obtain a waiver of a rule restricting former soldiers from becoming defence secretary. That Messrs Mattis and Kelly have nonetheless been welcomed on Capitol Hill reflects a fear, among Republicans and Democrats, that it will take a tough guy to stand up to Mr Trump. “I firmly believe that those in power deserve full candour,” said Mr Kelly when asked for his assurance on this. The highest-ranking officer to have lost a child fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, he is unlikely to be bullied.
This also seems to be true of Mr Trump’s most intriguing cabinet appointment: Rex Tillerson, the former boss of Exxon Mobil, whom he has tapped to be secretary of state. This was at first denounced as further evidence of Mr Trump’s strange crush on Vladimir Putin’s regime, with which Mr Tillerson has done a lot of business, as well as his climate-change scepticism. That may be right on both counts. In his confirmation hearing, Mr Tillerson called for better relations with Russia and was, at best, vague about what steps he would take to counter global warming. Yet he appeared more measured in his view of the world than some of Mr Trump’s other advisers, including Mr Bannon and Mr Flynn, who want to forge an alliance with Russia to fight Islamist militancy.
Mr Tillerson denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an “illegal action”, spoke up for NATO and said he looked forward to working with the Senate “particularly on the construct of new sanctions” against Russian aggression. He even offered a dash of Wilsonian warmth: “We are the only global superpower with the means and moral compass capable of shaping the world for good.” Mr Tillerson appears to have the authority and judgment necessary to steer Mr Trump’s belligerent instincts into the realm of realism.
In short, this looks like a curate’s egg of an administration. In Messrs Cohn, Kelly, Mattis, Mnuchin, Perry and Tillerson, Mr Trump has assembled a group of successful people who appear to have at least some of the requisite qualities to run the government. That could also turn out to be true of Mr Trump’s choice for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican benefactor and advocate for school choice—though the results of her experiments in her native Michigan are not all that impressive. Mr Carson, Mr Pruitt and Mr Sessions look like awful appointments.
Mr Flynn may be worse. A gifted intelligence officer, with a flair for institutional reform, he was sacked as head of the Defence Intelligence Agency in 2014, allegedly for poor management skills. Already critical of the president’s approach to fighting Islamist militancy, Mr Flynn proceeded to get mad. He horrified former comrades last year by launching several eye-poppingly partisan and Islamophobic—or as Colin Powell put it, “right-wing nutty”—attacks on Mr Obama, Mrs Clinton and Muslims. Even if paired with a more emotionally stable commander-in-chief, Mr Flynn would be a concern.
Yet the biggest uncertainty surrounding Mr Trump’s cabinet concerns less the calibre of its members than the agenda they will pursue. It is hard to exaggerate how divided his team is on the big policy questions. Some members of the economic team, including Mr Mnuchin, who will be primarily busy with Mr Trump’s promised tax cuts, and Mr Cohn, who will play a co-ordinating and shaping role, are broadly in favour of free trade. Yet the likeliest architects of Mr Trump’s trade policy, Mr Ross, Mr Bannon and Mr Navarro, are economic nationalists.
Similarly, Mr Mattis and Mr Tillerson appear to hold mainstream conservative views; both say it behoves the United States to uphold international rules, ideally by working through traditional alliances such as NATO. Mr Trump, however, has suggested that NATO could be “obsolete”. Mr Tillerson also said that America should not quit the UN’s Paris accord on climate change; Mr Trump has both vowed to “cancel” the agreement and said that he was “open-minded” about whether to honour it or not.
Mr Trump acknowledged the conflict in a tweet: “All my cabinet nominee[s] are looking good…I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!” Was he suggesting his nominees’ views matter more than his own? Does he envisage them capably governing while he, Mr Kushner and Mr Bannon set about making the great changes Mr Trump has promised? Or will this be a squabbling talking-shop of a government, over which Mr Trump will preside watchfully, before swooping down on one side of an argument or another? That is how he has managed his business; it is also the role he played in “The Apprentice”.
Even those familiar with Mr Trump’s thinking cannot say how he means to govern. “Trump is a wildcard, a political black swan, we don’t know how pragmatic he’ll be or how dogmatic,” says Stephen Moore, who helped write his economic policy. Yet some of his team’s current preoccupations offer early clues.
One is a House Republican tax proposal that could indicate how protectionist Mr Trump is. Known as “border adjustability”, it is central to an ambitious House Republican tax plan and is intended to boost exports by scrapping tax on foreign sales, even as firms would lose the right to deduct the cost of imports from their profits. An additional advantage, some of its proponents suggest, is that border adjustability could look sufficiently like an import tariff for Mr Trump to claim that he had executed his threat to slap a tariff on American outsourcers, without causing anything like the same economic damage. Yet it seems Mr Trump’s protectionist rhetoric is in earnest. “Anytime I hear border adjustment, I don’t love it,” Mr Trump told the Wall Street Journal on January 13th.
After tax cuts and new trade terms, Mr Trump’s biggest economic promise is deregulation. He should find quick wins in finance and energy. But his pledge to scrap and replace Obamacare, with the many rules attached to it, will be a more daunting test of his political skills. Because Democratic senators could filibuster away any bill to repeal the health-care programme, the Republicans plan to starve it of money until the insurance markets that underpin it collapse. Many think that, presented with a fait accompli, the Democrats would grudgingly support whatever alternative scheme they are offered. But Mr Trump appears unconvinced by this, and he is probably right to be.
Slow starvation of Obamacare would ensure many hard-luck stories, for which the Republicans would be blamed. An alternative ploy would be to make relatively footling changes to Obamacare and declare victory. It would be hard to persuade the Republicans in Congress to swallow that. But as Mr Trump claimed on January 14th to be putting the final touches to a plan that would involve “insurance for everybody”, somewhat like Obamacare, and unlike any Republican proposal, perhaps this is what he has in mind.
Deal or no deal?
Besides the small matter of whether Mr Trump means to launch a trade war, a pressing foreign-policy question concerns Russia. Mr Trump, Mr Bannon and Mr Flynn want a better relationship with Mr Putin. “But what will they give up for it?” asks Nicholas Burns, a former American ambassador to NATO. Mr Trump has signalled that he might drop some of the sanctions Mr Obama placed on Russia after its intervention in Ukraine. Perhaps he would also consider scrapping American troop deployments to Poland and the Baltic states. Either step would be viewed by NATO’s European members as evidence that Mr Trump’s apparent disdain for the alliance is for real.
This need not go badly. Mr Trump could back-pedal on protectionism, ignore or somehow improve Obamacare and maintain America’s watchfully adversarial footing with Russia. His administration could turn out as well as the markets seem to expect. But that would be largely down to Mr Trump himself; it will not be, as some have fancifully hoped, because his administration has been saved by the better angels in his cabinet.