WASHINGTON – Donald Trump is undergoing his own “extreme vetting.” And we are learning a great deal about the quality of his public pledges.
In no particular order, Trump has shifted his position on raising the federal minimum wage (against it, for it, get rid of it, leave it to the states, put it at $10 an hour); on fighting Islamic State (bomb the “hell out of them” and take the oil fields, let our regional allies take the lead, declare war and send in troops, let Russia take care of it ); on taxes for the wealthy (increase them, cut them dramatically, make the wealthy pay more, make everyone pay less); on his Muslim ban (exclude all Muslims, keep Muslims out except for members of the military and current residents, it was “just a suggestion,” ban Muslims from countries with a history of terrorism, impose “extreme vetting”); on the national debt (eliminate it in eight years, prioritize massive infrastructure spending, renegotiate debt with creditors, just “print the money”).
Now, concerning his defining promise to round up and deport 11 million undocumented men, women and children, Trump is undergoing a rapid, convulsive transition from Mr. Hyde into Dr. Jekyll. In the movies, this role would require hours in the chair of a highly skilled makeup artist. Trump has Sean Hannity.
For much of Trump’s fan base, these details couldn’t matter less. The Trump revolution is mainly a matter of personnel, not policy. Put the right man in charge who will hire the “best people” and fire all the corrupt, stupid failures. Trump’s primary appeal – and his main source of self-regard – is his skill as a negotiator, manager and talent scout.
Here we are also getting a good feel for the candidate. Trump’s campaign has been a roiling, noxious, dysfunctional mess from the start, characterized by public feuds, subject to sudden leadership changes and unable to fulfill key functions (like actually having a campaign apparatus in key states). And Trump’s personnel selections have been both instructive and disastrous.
Consider this list of Trump’s chosen: Former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had a brutal and demeaning style that resulted in a staff revolt, and his manhandling of a female reporter overshadowed the Trump campaign for weeks. Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was paid lucrative consulting fees by foreign interests, and resigned after reports that Ukraine anti-corruption investigators were scrutinizing millions in alleged payments there.
Longtime adviser Roger Stone is a crackpot conspiracy theorist who asserts that Bill and Hillary Clinton are “plausibly responsible” for the deaths of roughly 40 people and that Hillary Clinton should be “executed for murder.” Confidante Roger Ailes recently stepped down from his job at Fox under a cloud of sexual harassment claims. And Steve Bannon, Trump’s new campaign chief executive, is known for his bullying tactics and for running a website (Breitbart News) that flirts with white nationalism.
There are a few exceptions to this pattern – Kellyanne Conway and Mike Pence come to mind – but Trump has hired and elevated some of the very worst people in American politics, known for their cruelty, radicalism, prejudice and corruption.
What does all this say about Trump as a prospective president?
First, it means that the ideal of leadership Trump displayed as a reality television star is his actual view of leadership. It is not an act. In Trump’s view, leaders elevate themselves by belittling others. They yell and abuse and bully. And their most important quality is absolute loyalty to the great leader, the star of the show. This is a view of leadership that would make H.R. Haldeman cringe.
Second, Trump has managed to pick a team that directly undermines many of his campaign objectives. Need to appeal to women? Include a man in your inner circle accused by many of misogyny. Need to appeal to minorities? Elevate a figure associated with the racially divisive alt-right. Need to challenge the corrupt status quo in Washington? Hire a consultant for oppressive governments. Trump’s rhetoric is belied by his choice of friends and associates.
Finally, ideology doesn’t seem to be the main criteria in Trump’s selections. The hiring of Bannon does make Trump’s appeal to the alt-right explicit. But Breitbart is mainly known in this election for slavish devotion to the cult of Trump. This attribute may well guide most of Trump’s top-level personnel choices, including for the Supreme Court.
Trump, more than most, needs to surround himself with people who compensate for his alarming weaknesses. Instead, his choices demonstrate and amplify those weaknesses, becoming one more reason to utterly reject his leadership.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.