U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for a roundtable meeting with labor leaders at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
To see Week One of the Trump administration clearly, you have to do two things.
First, put to one side the incendiary comments, which now feel like small and daily data points within a greater cloud of crazy. Put aside the president’s preoccupations with crowd size, popularity, illegal voters—all the things he says that hurt him and not his foes. For the first time we have a president of whom people ask, with equanimity, each night at dinner tables: “What nutty thing did he say today?” No one has to explain who “he” is. Amazingly, we’re getting used to this. So is the world. Everything has more give than we think.
Second, with all the fighting over what’s happening politically, and the bitter tensions that are not abating, there is a personal imperative for most of us: Maintain your composure—your political and personal composure, your journalistic composure. Do not let this time rob you of your peace. You’ll be no good for anything if it does, and you won’t see anything clearly.
Substantively, what we’ve seen the past week was daring and bold. The administration is taking shape before our eyes, with unusual speed. Normally it takes time for the ideological disposition of an administration to emerge. Normally presidents ease into the job, rejecting the dramatic: “Don’t frighten the horses.”
That’s not what’s happening.
What happened from day one was a dramatic, almost daily barrage of executive orders. Among them: reinstating the 1984 ban on U.S. taxpayer funding of groups that provide abortions overseas; declaring the intention to create a physical barrier to secure the border with Mexico; moving forward on construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines; relieving the burdens of ObamaCare; and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
All this marked more than the keeping of political promises, though that’s startling enough. It was a programmatic expression of the central assertion of President Trump’s inaugural address: I am a populist independent, allied not with the two major parties but with the working men and women of America. That it came like a barrage—Boom, pipeline! Boom, trade! Boom, abortion!—made it more unmistakable. But in case you missed his point, he told Maggie Haberman of the New York Times that yes, he’s chosen a presidential portrait to put in the Oval Office. It is fiery Andrew Jackson, tormentor of elites, champion of the 19th century’s deplorables.
The significance and velocity of the orders unnerved and upset Mr. Trump’s critics and took aback some of his friends. But those orders—even though their use makes the presidency more imperial, even though it’s no way to govern, even though Mr. Obama did it, too—will likely not be unpopular in the country. It actually looked as if someone wasdoing something.
More important than the orders were the White House meetings. One was a breakfast with a dozen major CEOs. They looked happy as frolicking puppies in the photo-op, and afterward talked about jobs. Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin said she was “encouraged by the president’s commitment to reduce barriers to job creation.” In a statement after the meeting, the glassmaker Corning, whose CEO attended, announced plans to expand its U.S. manufacturing base significantly over the next few years. Because I live in New York and work at the Journal, I see and talk to American CEOs. I’ve never heard them bang on about a need to boost American jobs and manufacturing, ever. They usually talk about targeted microloans in India, and robots.
More important still—the most important moment of the first week—was the meeting with union leaders. Mr. Trump gave them almost an hour and a half. “The president treated us with respect, not only our organization but our members,” said Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, by telephone. Liuna had not endorsed Trump in the campaign, but Mr. O’Sullivan saw the meeting’s timing as an expression of respect: “He’s inaugurated on Friday and we’re invited in Monday to have a substantial conversation.” The entire Trump top staff was there, including the vice president: “His whole team—we were very impressed.” They talked infrastructure, trade and energy. “The whole meeting was about middle class jobs, how do we create more?” Mr. O’Sullivan believes the Keystone pipeline will eventually generate more than 40,000 jobs. Mr. O’Sullivan said he hopes fixing “our crumbling transportation infrastructure” will be “the largest jobs program in the country.”
The new president gave them a tour of the Oval Office. Presidents tend to develop a line of patter about the rug, the color of the drapes. Did Mr. Trump direct things in that way? No. “He gave us free rein, to tell you the truth.”
The lengthy, public and early meeting with the union leaders was, among other things, first-class, primo political pocket-picking. The Trump White House was showing the Democratic Party that one of its traditional constituent groups is up for grabs and happy to do business with a new friend. It was also telling those Republicans too stupid to twig onto it yet that the GOP is going to be something it’s actually been within living memory: the party of working men and women, a friend of those who feel besieged.
It’s a mistake for observers in Washington and New York to fixate on Mr. Trump’s daily faux pas at the expense of the political meaning of what he’s doing. He’s changing the face of the GOP. It is a mistake, too, to see Mr. Trump’s tweet on how Chicago had better solve its problem with violent crime or he’ll “send in the Feds,” as merely stupid—just a tweet that raises the question “What does ‘send in the Feds’ mean?” If you’re a parent in a tough Chicago neighborhood, you’d be heartened to think the feds might help. You’d be happy the president noticed. You’d say, “Go, Trump!”
All week I thought of one of the best pieces on the meaning of Trumpism, from last May, by Joshua Green in Bloomberg Businessweek. Mr. Trump suggested to Mr. Green his stands were not as ad hoc and ideologically jumbled as they seemed, that they were in fact intentional. He was creating “a worker’s party,” a “party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years.” “Five, 10 years from now—different party,” he said of the GOP.
He’s trying to make it look different right now. Many Americans, and not only Trump supporters, will like this.
And here is the important political point: Democrats don’t have a playbook for this. They have a playbook to use against normal Republicans: You’re cold, greedy, racist, sexist elitists who hate the little guy.
They don’t have a playbook to use against a political figure like Mr. Trump yet, because he jumbles all the categories. Democrats will wobble around, see what works. For now they’ll stick with saying he’s scary, unstable, right-wing.
It’s going to take them a while to develop a playbook against an independent populist, some of whose advisers hate Republicans more than they do.