Who is the #realDonaldTrump?
The total disparities in how Americans answer this question are as stunning as the results of the election. We might as well be talking about three different personas – call them the Three Faces of Donald Trump.
The first Donald, in the eyes of those who cast the largest share of the popular vote for president, is a divisive demagogue who threatens our democracy. He scolds our allies and praises our adversaries. Then there’s the second Donald, the one his fans view as a change agent who will bring back lost jobs and make America “great again.”
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But there is a third Donald – in theory at least – on whom nervous voters in both camps are desperately pinning their hopes: a cynical opportunist and former Democrat whose ugly slogans were just meant to garner votes. This Donald will now mellow and try to heal the nation (after all, he called President Obama a “good man” after a visit to the White House). On foreign policy, he will hire smart advisers who will compensate for his lack of experience – and his hot temper.
Count me a skeptic about Trump’s third persona. But which, if any, is the real face of the Donald will determine how America survives the next four years. It will also affect the stability of the world.
So let me suggest a few markers to look for in the coming weeks that will indicate which of these three Trumps is really running the show.
The first and most obvious: Trump’s picks for his closest advisers. I’m going to focus on foreign policy, but the first marker applies to domestic policy as well.
If he truly wants to pull the nation together he won’t appoint the folks who designed a campaign that expressly targeted racial and religious minorities. Prime among them is Steve Bannon, his campaign CEO, who is on leave as chairman of Breitbart, a website that is an online haven for anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and white supremacist provocateurs.
Trump has appointed Bannon chief strategist and senior counselor, reporting directly to the president. This could signal the third Donald’s kumbaya moment has ended before it began.
But beyond exacerbating America’s internal divides, the choice of Bannon will further besmirch our international standing. The campaign’s bitter ethnic and racial divisiveness – along with Trump’s slurs against women – astonished our allies and delighted our adversaries. It was cited by Russia and Iran as proof that American democracy was failing.
Tehran even broadcast the presidential debates live as proof of U.S. decadence and decline. As this narrative gains traction abroad, respect for our country shrinks ever further.
Our allies – shocked at the election of a populist who campaigned in full demagogue vein – are anxious for reassurance that he will adhere to democratic norms. So are many Americans. Appointing Bannon will only stoke their worst fears.
Another sign of which Donald is dominant will be his choice for secretary of state and national security adviser.
For State, there’s talk of Newt Gingrich, a longtime bloviator with no steady foreign-policy moorings. He backed the Iraq war and free trade until he joined the Trump campaign, then totally reversed positions. Gingrich wants to set up a new House Un-American Activities Committee to supposedly go after radical Islamists (and who knows what other Trump “enemies”). He would be the choice of the first, divisive Trump.
Of course, despite his lack of experience, Trump may not be willing to heed any foreign-policy advice, since he says he is his own best adviser.
But if Trump Three is open-minded, a better choice for secretary of state would be the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker. He at least knows something about the subject and seems to be levelheaded. This latter quality will be of prime importance, since Trump’s choice for national security adviser may be the hotheaded, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, his only senior national security aide on the campaign trail.
Flynn, who was forced out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency by President Obama, is an angry man. His new book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, reads like a prescription for all-out war against a long list of countries that he says support our terrorist enemies. Flynn’s coauthor, Michael Ledeen, has long lobbied for U.S. support for regime change in Iran.
With Flynn as key adviser, it’s hard to tell which Trump would be making foreign-policy decisions, the isolationist Donald or the one who wants to bomb terrorists into instant submission. Seems as if there would be little room for a third, more reasonable Donald, who used all tools in America’s arsenal before starting another war.
So Trump’s staffing will send a crucial signal. But, when it comes to foreign policy, here are a couple of other markers to watch for to glean whether a third Donald has emerged:
Will Trump continue to dis our NATO and Asian allies and to butter up Vladimir Putin? That path will push the alliances to crumble. It will also convince the Russian leader that Trump can be easily manipulated.
Will Trump push to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal entirely, as soon as he comes to office? That would free Tehran to fully restart its frozen nuclear program and march right up to bomb-making capability. That would leave us with the choice of accepting a nuclear Iran or starting another, much bigger Mideast war.
Or will the third Donald restrain his ego, reassure our allies, and refrain from any radical moves until he better understands the global situation? We’ll soon see if such a character sea change is possible.
But here is the real marker of whether a new Trump is emerging with a more measured, and more informed approach to the world. Will Trump stop his stream of outrageous tweets, which were still flowing as of the weekend? If those missives continue to insult minorities and foreign allies (and to call for jailing Hillary Clinton), you'll know the first Trump is the real one – and the third one is only a dream.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.