Who Defines President Trump?

Can he possibly maintain the independent streak that propelled him to victory?
01/27/2017 03:47 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2017
Alex Wong via Getty Images

Donald Trump is plunging America into an alternate reality, where “truth” is transitory and subjective. Collectively, Trump and his spokespeople evoke Saddam Hussein’s propagandist Baghdad Bob, who once denied the presence of American tanks so close to him that their sound could be heard as he spoke. But the grave difference between a comical flak and an American president is dangerous to our civic sanity — no one is laughing, and too many believe.

But beneath this damage lurks the reality of what policies Trump will pursue. Here the apt analogy is to the “pushmi-pullyu,” the mythic animal from “Dr. Doolittle” whose two heads faced in opposite directions. The question for Trump is whothe GOP, its donors and elected officials, or the advisors who encourage him to follow the populist precepts of his campaign.

In terms of domestic policy, his cabinet picks seem to have leapt from the mind of Ted Cruz — or, more precisely, that of the intellectually insular provincial conservative who is Trump’s vice president. The president-elect who came to Washington knowing virtually nothing knew almost no one. Mike Pence knew a great many people and, as head of Trump’s transition, could help populate the new administration with choices pleasing to congressional conservatives.

Some are congenial enough to Trump — they will help secure the loyalty of the Republican right in the House, and more or less reflect casual utterances he made during the campaign. The EPA nominee, Scott Pruitt, is a climate denier with a record of servitude to the petroleum industry. Tom Price, slated for HHS, is an ardent critic of Obamacare and also Medicare and Medicaid. At the Department of Labor is Andrew Puzder, a fast food magnate opposed to raising the minimum wage. Other selections seem to reflect departments to which Trump is indifferent: for education, Betsy DeVos, a policy illiterate with a distaste for public education; Rick Perry, who misconceived the function of the Department of Energy, an agency he once proposed to abolish could he but remember its name. But at least one, putative budget director Mick Mulvaney, is a member of the Freedom Caucus, whose opposition to federal spending is so visceral that it seems inimical to some of Trump’s bigger ideas.

It is quite possible that Trump beat Clinton because he was the only Republican contestant who was not, in fact, a Republican.

Among those appointees Trump knew well, Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions is an ardent loyalist certain to support voter suppression laws consistent with Trump’s fantasies of massive voter fraud — an obsession which also pleases the base while serving the interests of elected Republicans. But three others — Steve Mnuchin at Treasury, Wilbur Ross at Commerce, and Gary Cohen as chief economic advisor, are plutocrats, not populists, whose background contradicts Trump’s sustained critique of Wall Street. With the partial exception of Sessions, not one of these many appointees is identified with the populist positions which helped define Trumpism — rebuilding our infrastructure, reviving the economy by embracing protectionism, defending Social Security and Medicare, and offering tax relief to the middle class.

Overall, this is a cabinet a President Pence could embrace. So, too, Mitch McConnell, friend to Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, and Republican donors everywhere. Or Paul Ryan, a devotee of Ayn Rand enamored of free trade, entitlement reforms that emphasize privatization, and tax cuts for the wealthy.

That is what is so striking about these appointments — they have so little to do with so much of what Trump said to his base. But Hillary Clinton would have beaten Mike Pence easily: his social conservatism and right-wing nostrums would not have expanded the Republican electorate — in fact, before Trump rescued him, he was in danger of losing reelection as governor in the red state of Indiana. Ditto Ryan. It is fair to say that the blue-collar workers who rallied to Trump do not spend their leisure hours reading “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s turgid call to free the wealthy to do whatever they will. It is well remembered that, as Romney’s running mate, Ryan lost Wisconsin decisively — Trump’s base voters are not the heroes of Rand’s novels.

Indeed, it is quite possible that Trump beat Clinton because he was the only Republican contestant who was not, in fact, a Republican. In the immediate wake of Trump’s victory, Ryan and his ideological allies imagined Trump as Queen Elizabeth, a ceremonial monarch content to preside over their agenda. But even a casual student of narcissism would have realized that Trump’s idea of himself transcends the ceremonial. And the viability of Trump’s presidency depends on fulfilling, or at least appearing to fulfill, his promises.

Here will lie much of the fascination of Trump’s first year in office. Will he maintain sufficient popular support among the Republican base to compel Republicans in Congress, whatever their predilections, to follow his lead? Or will clever tacticians like McConnell and Ryan reduce his agenda to legislative fig leaves designed to salve his ego and cover their dominance? Much of the answer depends on where Trump’s personal psychology takes him, and whether he will do the work to secure political victory, or be content simply to declare it.

Richard North Patterson is the author of 22 books. His latest is “Fever Swamp,’’ a narrative of the 2016 presidential campaign.

This piece first appeared in the Boston Globe.

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