On Friday, Donald Trump sat for an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Among the questions: Did he think the rhetoric he used on the campaign trail had gone too far?
“No,” Trump said. “I won.”
Trump did win, and he did it against all odds, in spite of all predictions, and by doing things everyone told him not to do. Reality has proven him, and his instincts, right. Imagine what that’s done to Trump’s already healthy ego, to his preexisting belief in his excellent judgment. The Electoral College proved the doubters wrong. Why would Trump change now?
This is the context for what we saw over the past few days. Despite hopes from some that Trump would prove a different man as president than as candidate, it looks like Donald Trump's presidency will be a whole lot like Donald Trump’s campaign. Same guy. Same staff. Same bizarre tweets. Same policies.
After all, he won.
The news that RNC Chair Reince Priebus will be President Trump’s chief of staff, and ex-Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon will be his chief strategist, has occasioned a rousing round of tea-leaf reading. Does Priebus’s appointment signal Trump is moving in a conventionally conservative direction? Does Bannon’s appointment mean the alt-right — and, particularly the white nationalist strain of it that Bannon represents — is taking over Trump’s administration?
The answer seems simpler. Having won the presidency, Trump is surrounding himself with the staffers, advisers, and advocates he grew comfortable with during the campaign. He isn’t reaching outside his circle for the best people, or even new people. He isn’t surrounding himself with political veterans who have the governing experience he doesn’t, as Barack Obama did when he unexpectedly chose Rahm Emanuel for chief of staff. Trump is sticking with the people he already knows.
Similarly, anyone hoping Trump would give up sending petty, false tweets now that he’s president-elect was sorely disappointed this weekend, as Trump tweeted out attacks on protestors and the New York Times.
Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2016
Wow, the @nytimes is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the "Trump phenomena"— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2016
Asked on 60 Minutes about his plans to keep tweeting as president, Trump gave his rationale. “I think I picked up yesterday 100,000 people,” he bragged. “I’m not saying I love it, but it does get the word out. When you give me a bad story or when you give me an inaccurate story or when somebody other than you and another network, or whatever, ’cause of course, CBS would never do a thing like that, right? I have a method of fighting back.”
That’s what Trump took from his Twitter use during the campaign — it’s a method of fighting back against a press he thinks is unfair to him. (Though another read of Trump’s campaign is that he did better whenever his staff took his phone away, as happened in the race’s final weeks.) And having won the fight that was his campaign, he’s going to keep using Twitter as president.
Nor did Trump’s policy statements give his critics much room for optimism. In that 60 Minutes interview, he doubled down on building a wall on the US-Mexico border, promised to deport millions of immigrants, and said he wanted Roe v. Wade overturned and didn’t care if that meant women had to drive from state to state searching for an abortion.
Oh, and it turned out that until Trump spoke with President Obama, he didn’t know he had to staff the West Wing.
Donald Trump has real political gifts. His instinct for intuiting and exploiting his opponents’ weaknesses is unparalleled. His ability to connect with a crowd’s primal passions is real. His command of media dynamics is impressive. His immunity to elite backlash lets him go where other politicians fear to tread.
But his weaknesses are real, too. He surrounds himself with sycophants and yes men. He ran a disorganized, fractious campaign. He is impulsive, thin-skinned, and easily fooled. His attention span is short, and his interest in the details of governance is lacking.
A wiser man than Trump would recognize his weaknesses, and then choose staffers and set up processes meant to combat them. Trump isn’t doing that, at least not yet. And that’s something he, and his allies, may come to regret. The history of presidential election is littered with big wins leading to dashed hopes. In 2008, the Obama coalition swept into power, only to be crushed in 2010. In 2004, George W. Bush won a resounding reelection, only to watch Republicans lose the House and Senate in the midterms and the presidency after that. In 1992, Bill Clinton meant to usher in a new era in American politics, and then his legislative agenda was crushed, and Democrats lost the House for the first time in 40 years.
Trump begins in worse shape than any of these leaders. The improbability of his victory is leading to its overestimation. He won the Electoral College, but he lost the popular vote. His party kept the House and the Senate but lost seats in both. He’ll take office with the lowest approval rating of any American president since the advent of polling.
And then he’ll actually have to govern the country, navigate the complex dynamics of the legislative process, manage international crises, calm an opposition that hates and fears him, negotiate with Republican “allies” who want to use his presidency as a vessel for their agenda, withstand scandals and investigations, and impress voters who believed him when he said he could make America great again and are now looking for results.
This is a tough charge no matter who is president, but Trump starts it with unusually severe political challenges and gaping personal weaknesses. It’s not at all clear he realizes how hard this is going to be, or how easily it can all go wrong.