Disrupter-in-chief: How Trump has made us rethink everything

At every turn, Donald Trump is flouting convention. That can be jarring, but it’s not automatically a bad thing.

Andrew Harnik/AP
President-elect Donald Trump (center) at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla.

Human beings can be creatures of habit, and so when big change takes place, it can be jarring.

Enter Donald Trump, disrupter-in-chief, and in four weeks, president of the United States. Since the day Mr. Trump announced his campaign 18 months ago, he has flouted convention at nearly every turn – and so far, has come out ahead.

Release his tax returns? Trump delayed on that, and won the election anyway. Sit for near-daily intelligence briefings? That’s been the decades-long practice for presidents-elect, but Trump has opted out of most, raising questions about his interest in mastering complex global issues.

Trump’s unorthodox practices have raised so many questions, late-night comedian Stephen Colbert launched a new segment called “Norm or Law?” to help viewers understand what’s customary and what’s required. (Both examples above are norms, not laws.)

Trump’s business interests – and those of his children – are another matter, raising serious questions about conflicts of interest and what he must do under the Constitution. Trump’s situation is unprecedented – the wealthiest person ever to win the presidency, with a global business empire that’s virtually impossible to separate from his dealings as president, at least anytime soon.

Then there are the tweets, his unusual contacts with foreign leaders, and the parade of visitors – including Al Gore and Kanye West – to Trump Tower that have made for a presidential transition like no other. Still, it’s too soon to come to any firm conclusions about the Trump presidency.

“First of all, he’s not president yet,” says Steven Schier, political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “So the consequences of a lot of his actions and his talk and his tweets still aren’t the same as if he were in the White House making consequential decisions.”

(Speaking of the White House, it’s not even clear that Trump is going to live there full-time. But there’s no law on where the president lives.)

Soon, the transition will end, and Trump’s assertions and actions will be for keeps. It’s one thing for Trump to break the mold as a candidate or as president-elect, but quite another as leader of the free world. The questions are nearly endless, ranging from the seemingly stylistic to matters of profound global consequence. Will he keep tweeting with seeming abandon? Will he continue to show only limited interest in intelligence briefings? Will he maintain a private security force as president?  Is he really ready to risk a trade war with China? Is the world heading for a new arms race, in light of his pro-nuke tweet on Thursday? 

Anxiety and opportunity

Trump has said he likes to be unpredictable, and on that score, he has delivered. US allies are anxious about the coming Trump era, the former No. 2 official at NATO told reporters this week. 

“There’s just sort of a general anxiety about the unknown,” Alexander Vershbow told the Defense Writers Group. “His signals remain unclear.”

Still, Trump’s shakeup of past practices has a potential upside, analysts say.

Ambassador Vershbow noted that Trump’s comments aimed at getting NATO allies to raise defense spending and do more to fight terrorism could be beneficial. NATO could boost its force size, and its ability to deploy forces.

“I like to think that the questions being raised by the president-elect [are] an opportunity, not a threat,” Vershbow said.

Even some of Trump’s cabinet picks – people who would come in as apparent rivals to the departments they’re going to run – aren’t necessarily misguided, says Mr. Schier.

“There needs to be a rethinking throughout the executive branch, and some of that could be entirely healthy,” he says. “If you’re putting in people who the current bureaucracy likes, then you’re going to get more of the same. I think it’s pretty clear the public doesn’t want more of the same.”

Some of Trump’s more controversial nominations – including climate-change denier Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency, voucher advocate Betsy DeVos at the Education Department, and minimum-wage critic Andrew Puzder at the Labor Department – all promise a bracing change from the cabinet secretaries they will replace.

But even if disruption has a potential upside, too much disruption all at once could be, well, too much, says political scientist Cal Jillson.

“You have to think, is that going to be good over the long term, disrupting these sclerotic bureaucracies, or will it be tumult that no one can control, let alone Trump, because he’s got this thin base of knowledge?” asks Mr. Jillson. “It’s a very unusual time.”

The Pence factor

Jillson also finds it surprising that Trump has gone for such uniformly conservative nominees, despite the president-elect’s own political history – at various times identifying as a Democrat, an independent, and a Republican, and to this day, holding some socially liberal views, such as on gender issues.

Many of Trump’s cabinet choices suggest the influence of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was an early backer of the tea party movement, first as a member of Congress and then as governor of Indiana. If Mr. Pence continues to hold sway in Trump’s governing choices, and in working with the Republican-controlled Congress, as expected, he could be one of history’s more consequential vice presidents.

And if Trump continues to hold political rallies as president, as he has suggested, that points to a possible division of labor in which Trump is the pitchman and Pence is the nuts-and-bolts government guy.

Schier suggests continued rallying of Trump’s base may not be the wisest course. “The problem with rallies is they’re quite polarizing,” he says. “It’s him talking to his followers with rhetoric that isn’t very inclusive.”

And given the fact that Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes, and enters office with a low public approval rating, it may behoove him to reach out beyond his most loyal supporters. Schier notes that soon after Republican President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he returned to the Texas state capitol to honor a Democrat, the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. 

To those worried that Trump-the-disrupter may go too far, perhaps his most reassuring appointments are Reince Priebus as chief of staff and Sean Spicer as press secretary. Both come out of the Republican National Committee, and are experienced hands in party politics who play well with others and proved instrumental in Trump’s victory in November.

Ultimately, the Trump presidency is a grand experiment – the election of a larger-than-life character with a big megaphone and big promises but no experience in government. From beginning to end, it will be a presidency without precedent.

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