WASHINGTON – This is not a city overflowing with the holiday spirit. As the U.S. Congress heads home for the holidays, there’s a sense that something ominous lies over the horizon. People might try to avoid discussing the pending inauguration, on Jan. 20, of President-elect Donald Trump, but the topic rarely stays out of conversations for long.
At last week’s White House Christmas party for the press, reporters speculated about whether this might be the last such party for years to come. It’s difficult to imagine that Trump, no fan of the press, would host such an event, much less stand stoically with his wife Melania greeting each individual guest, as Barack and Michelle Obama did for eight years. One reporter joked that the next press Christmas party would be held at the recently opened Trump International Hotel down the street from the White House, and there would be a cash bar.
Of course, if the press Christmas party was the only precedent Trump and his team broke, no one would be too distraught. But Trump has so far shown such indifference to rules and norms, such a disregard for limits, and such unpredictability, that the prevailing mood among Democrats and Republicans alike is one of uncertainty and unease. But the concern goes beyond Washington: Many ordinary citizens in the United States and elsewhere genuinely fear the consequences of a Trump administration.
Given Trump’s capriciousness, many are looking to his Cabinet for clues about the country’s direction over the next four years. The results thus far aren’t comforting, not least because he’s shown a predilection for choosing generals to run civilian agencies — three thus far — and even more so because several of Trump’s nominees will, if the Senate confirms them, be heading agencies whose missions they have opposed.
Trump’s choice for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is an ultra-wealthy heiress whose resume includes a disastrous effort to privatize Michigan’s schools. Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Andy Puzder, is a fast-food chain owner who opposes raising the minimum wage to livable levels or expanding overtime pay; indeed, his company has run afoul of overtime laws. Trump’s pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, cares little for civil-rights laws or immigration.
Then there is Trump’s choice to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ben Carson — the retired neurosurgeon who endorsed Trump after bowing out of the Republican primary — is no fan of social programs or fair-housing initiatives. Perhaps Trump thought that naming a black man to lead the dismantling of public housing, which largely supports African-Americans, would be good cover.
To lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has nominated Scott Pruitt — the attorney general of Oklahoma, an oil- and gas-producing state, and an avid climate-change denier, who has brought several suits against the EPA. Pruitt’s selection was announced soon after Trump’s transition team delivered a questionnaire to employees of the Department of Energy, asking whether they had attended meetings where climate change was discussed.
More recently came the stunning news that, after a protracted search, Trump has settled on Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, to serve as secretary of state. In his extensive international deal-making — which isn’t the same as diplomacy — Tillerson has developed a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, toward whom Trump has been notably soft. More worrying, the news of Trump’s intention to nominate Tillerson emerged on the same day that The Washington Post reported the CIA’s disturbing conclusion that Russia had interfered in the presidential election to help Trump win. Trump also looks likely to name John Bolton — a bombastic neoconservative who still defends the Iraq War and thinks the U.S. should bomb Iran — to be Tillerson’s deputy.
Trump’s highly conservative Cabinet choices — who include an uncommon number of billionaires — are not at all consonant with his campaign, during which he presented himself as the champion of blue-collar workers, the nonideological businessman who would make the government work. But his choices place him firmly in the camp of plutocrats with little concern for workers and the middle class.
Trump seems to think that if he offers enough bread and circuses, he can distract his supporters from the real direction his administration is taking. He’s taken time off from managing his transition to hold a few rallies — which he apparently enjoys more than the chores of governing — and to pull off stunts, such as lauding his deal with Carrier, which manufactures furnaces and air conditioners, to keep jobs in the U.S.
But it took only a couple of days for the public to learn that Trump had saved far fewer jobs than he had claimed. When the local United Steelworkers union president complained publicly, the famously thin-skinned Trump responded by getting into a Twitter spat, blaming the union president for the lost jobs. That sort of thing won’t go over well with many of the white blue-collar workers Trump so assiduously courted during his campaign. And his uncontrolled use of Twitter as his literal bully pulpit may wear thin.
Trump may also run up against more opposition than he expects in other areas. As his administration proceeds to dismantle environmental rules, he’s likely to find that there’s a much stronger constituency for clean air and clean water than he apparently thinks.
The Democrats, in the minority in the Senate, will give Trump’s Cabinet nominees a tough grilling, potentially defeating one or two. But the Republicans are the ones to watch. Leading Republicans have already dissented from Trump’s threats to start trade wars. If he pushes them too far, Trump may be a general with few troops.
Republicans’ disaffection could be enhanced if — as now appears likely — Trump’s private interests are not sufficiently disentangled from his public responsibilities, making him something of an embarrassment. There’s nothing like a good scandal or two to discourage already unenthusiastic followers. Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton should have taught him that.
Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.” © Project Syndicate, 2016
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.