Buenos Aires Herald, November 18, 2016
As US President-elect Donald Trump puts together the team he will bring to the White House, we can start making inferences about how his actions and decisions anticipate what kind of policies he will implement once in office.
Because candidate Trump said very different things to what President-elect Trump has said, it is wise not to take his words too literally. As a candidate, he said what his likely voters wanted to hear. As President-elect, he has repeated what the markets want to hear. In both cases, his statements have been worded to pander to the constituency he is seeking to please. Thus, we should bank neither on his being the radical demagogue he promised to be when running for president, nor on his pleasantly surprising statesman-like attributes displayed on his gracious speech on election night. For Trump, words are cheap talk, not firm commitments.
For that reason, we should look at the decisions he is making to anticipate what his administration will likely do. The choice of a vice-presidential candidate was his first firm signal as to what kind of government he would lead. It is true that — given the controversial and aggressive way in which he secured the Republican nomination — his options within his party to select a running-mate were limited. Yet, the decision to pick Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his VP candidate speaks volumes.
In choosing Pence, Trump wanted to reassure morally conservative voters that he would not budge on traditional Republican values. Pence’s strong stand against LGBT rights contrasts with Trump’s far more liberal past positions on gay and lesbian issues. As an economic conservative, Pence is also a budget balance zealot. Before becoming governor, Pence was elected to the House of Representatives, where he built an impressive fiscally conservative record. To be sure, in choosing Pence as his running-mate, Trump was also thinking about securing the support of Republican hardliners who were suspicious of the mogul’s recently acquired strong conservative values.
Now that he is President-elect, Trump is making decisions about what kind of legacy he will build during his four-year term in the White House. After having briefly charged New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to lead the transition team, Trump replaced him with Mike Pence. The extremely short tenure that Christie exercised as head of the transition team is reminiscent of the television show that made Trump famous around the world.
In The Apprentice, Trump would set the contestants difficult tests and would eliminate the worst-performing contestants with a famous phrase: “You’re fired.” The fact that Christie was fired so quickly signals that Trump is still very much concerned with keeping the public interested in what he does. By removing Christie, Trump wanted to show that he is ready to make difficult calls and tough decisions. An audience that expects President Trump to be different than his predecessors will be happy to cheer as the president of the United States fires cabinet ministers and key officials who do not live up to high standards — just as Trump did when he was the star of his television show.
However, in putting Pence in place of Christie, Trump is sending a different signal. Since the transition team will help fill many of the 4,000 key government positions that the new president must discretionally appoint, the arrival of Pence to that position makes it clear that Trump will govern with the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Pandering to different bases
In the few press interviews he has given since winning the election, Trump has continued to be unpredictable. In his victory speech, Trump was gracious and presidential. After meeting with Obama, he was respectful and optimistic. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he spoke in favour of some of the key features of the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare,” the healthcare system that he campaigned so strongly against. In a television interview on Sunday, he insisted he would build a wall (though he qualified the statement) and anticipated the deportation of three million undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
In all the interviews, Trump has sought to pander to one of his many different bases and has tried to reach out to groups that doubt his intentions. To be sure, though, he has also continued to alienate adversaries (including Mexico).
Above all, Trump has stayed on focus in terms of crafting a message that combines three elements. He needs to keep his conservative base loyal by signalling that he will deliver on some of the promises that he uttered to win the Republican Party nomination. He also needs to prevent the further alienation of many of his opponents. Since his detractors fear the worst, if he shows he is not as bad as they fear, he should be able to get by. Finally, he needs to keep the interest alive. After all, his ascension to power had a lot to do with his ability to be unpredictable and surprise his audience. As president-elect, he has continued to do that, even if the appointments he has begun to make start to delineate the kind of government the Trump White House will be.