The liberal fantasy that our president-elect would somehow unify the country has gone down in flames. With most of the cabinet and White House senior staff nominees in place, it’s clear that President-elect Trump will not buck his more rabid campaign promises and allegiance to the Republican Party. Any progressive or moderate who pleaded to give Trump a chance can bury that thought.
Quite simply, appointments drive policy, and Mr. Trump–never exactly a master of policy consistency, let alone intricacy–has turned over the keys of government to a radically right-wing, plutocratic bunch overrepresented by his own campaign donors. Anyone who buys the president-elect’s claims on the Today show that he has done nothing to divide the country isn’t paying attention or is in denial.
I’m not talking about rhetoric, trustworthiness, experience, and principles, the standard yardsticks of presidential material. Many others have capably addressed these topics in the 18 months since the Trump campaign commenced. I’m talking purely about policy signaling. The astonishing flood of campaign trail promises and boasts to “make America great again” have heretofore been largely unmoored from consistent ideology and policies. This lack of substance has allowed both supporters and opponents to project their hopes onto Mr. Trump. Furthermore, he executed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, complete with palace coup overturning the elites. Unbound by their orthodoxy, Mr. Trump created a strategic opening to align himself with the political center or even the left, as he has on trade and foreign entanglements. On top of this, many observers, knowing his willingness to turn on a dime, reasoned that under President Trump, no policy or decision is ever irreversible.
Except when the decisions are made by cabinet secretaries who are unlikely to be removed or resign anytime soon (presuming they are confirmed), and will be supported by a hard-right Congress. And, make no mistake, Trump’s cabinet appointees embody the most rabid possible opposition to policies and positions of President Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. A unifier Mr. Trump is not.
A recent New York Times feature makes clear how far President-elect Trump’s nominees are from the political mainstream on their prospective agencies’ signature issues. Nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is against legal abortion in most cases, unlike 64 percent of Americans, and favors complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder, a fast-food mogul, is against raising the minimum wage, a position supported by 60 percent of Americans and 80 percent of Democrats. Attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions is prepared to round up illegal immigrants for deportation, and clamp down on press freedom. Education secretary designee Betsy DeVos is a die-hard supporter of school vouchers and charter schools over public schools, unlike 71 percent of Democrats, and Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator nominee, is a climate change denier and shill for the fossil fuel industry who has sued the EPA to challenge pollution regulations multiple times. His most recent suit is to overturn the Clean Power Plan, the popular regulatory policy to reduce carbon emissions from power plants supported by 63 percent of Americans and 74 percent of Democrats. The ex-military crew of national security nominees–Generals Mattis, Flynn and Kelly, and West Pointer Pompeo–will form a hawkish phalanx around the president-elect that gives no voice to doves, unorthodox thinkers, or civil rights defenders on military and security matters, categories that includes many Democrats. Rumored Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, to many progressives represents the worst in corporate villainy; the company has long dragged its feet on addressing climate change, and is currently under investigation by a number of state attorneys general for hiding its in-house climate science for decades.
It’s hard to find a single issue Mr. Trump’s nominees represent that could be construed as an olive branch to Democrats. Reasonable people can disagree over whether Trump and his coterie of advisers, rather than the broader public or mainstream Democrats, are right on the issues, and over the wisdom of kowtowing to the hard-right and pro-business wings of the Republican Party. But what’s hard to contest is that President-elect Trump is doing virtually everything possible to alienate the Democratic Party and left-leaning politicians, institutions and voters. His plausible narrative as a post-partisan leader has evaporated within one month of the election.
The ramifications of this will quickly become clear. By embracing extreme-right stances on each of Democrats’ key issues–labor, immigration, climate change, reproductive rights, health care, education, and human rights– Mr. Trump has virtually ensured he will get little to no support from Democrats in Congress. After the election, President Obama and Hillary Clinton pleaded to Democrats to give President-elect a chance to lead, and Bernie Sanders outlined areas of potential collaboration. Now, Mr. Trump has foreclosed upon his own ability to lure them to his side with compromises on policy, and has ensured their enmity. “Give Trump a chance” will quickly be replaced by implacable opposition.
Though he may not care now, this is a short-sighted stance because Mr. Trump will soon need all the friends he can find. Allies in Washington can ensure not only that key priorities get through Congress, but also serve as defenders in case of catastrophic ruptures of ethics or performance that many fear and predict. Despite President Obama’s reputation as an executive-order president, most of his signature achievements– ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank financial reform, creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the 2009 financial stimulus and recovery act to curb the Great Recession–were built on Congressional action. And few reminders are needed of what happens when a Congress out for blood finds ethical lapses in the executive. It remains to be seen whether the shaky alliance between the president-elect and Congressional Republicans will last. Mr. Trump has a well-established predilection to pick fights with Republicans. If Mr. Trump’s détente with the Republican Party comes to an end, the Democrats will not care to bail him out.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.