Trump, unchecked: The president-elect tilts hard right as his elevation to office approaches

December 17, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 17, 2016

On Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, unless something unprecedented occurs, the electoral college will officially designate Donald Trump Sr. the winner of the 2016 United States presidential election.

I expect this to happen, although it should be noted that an incredible number of things about this election have been unprecedented. For instance, Hillary Clinton was the first female presidential candidate to be nominated by a major American political party, and Trump was the candidate with the thinnest (read: a nonexistent) record of public or military service.

I’ve experienced a number of emotions since Trump’s election, including disbelief, disappointment, anger, resignation and sorrow. I also felt, for a time, something unexpected: hope.

Trump’s victory speech was unexpectedly magnanimous, given the harsh nature of his campaign. The man who during the second presidential debate had threatened to jail his opponent over missing emails from her tenure as secretary of state struck a gracious note early in the address that he delivered around 3 a.m. on the East Coast on Nov. 9:

Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country. I mean that very sincerely.

Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time.

I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.

The rest of the speech was similarly optimistic. Trump said that, among other things, that

every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

We will also finally take care of our great veterans…

(One jarring note was the man in the audience who shouted either “Jail Obama” or “Kill Obama” around the 8:38 mark in this video, right after Trump mentioned infrastructure.)

I was also encouraged by the comments Trump made after his first-ever face-to-face meeting with the outgoing commander-in-chief. Trump had once told a television reporter that Barack Hussein Obama would “probably go down as the worst president in the history of our country, he’s been a total disaster.” (Similarly, Obama had leveled some very harsh criticisms of the Republican nominee.)

But after a 90-minute get-together at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Nov. 10, the men could hardly have been more cordial with one another. “Mr. President, it was a great honor being with you, and I look forward to being with you many, many more times in the future,” Trump said during some brief remarks that the men exchanged in front of photographers in the Oval Office. The president-elect also suggested that he would be seeking Obama’s advice in the future.

This gracious, conciliatory politician was very different from the authoritarian showman who had once boasted he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. It was hard to believe that the tactful, diplomatic and evidently sincere Donald Trump we saw in the days after the election was the same person who had smugly talked about how he would just mention building a wall on the southern border of the United States whenever crowds at his rallies seemed to get restless. Was the Donald Trump who now talked about unifying and improving America the same person who during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention had pompously proclaimed, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it”?

Maybe there had been a change of heart, I thought. Maybe Trump was shedding his entertainer persona as he prepared to become leader of the free world. After all, when New York Times reporters and editors pressed Trump in a Nov. 22 meeting on whether he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate his former opponent, Trump said that he didn’t “feel very strongly” about doing so. He added, “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t. She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways.”

During the primary campaign, I’d thought that in some ways Trump would make the most palatable president out of all the Republican candidates. After all, he was a wheeler-dealer, not an ideologue; wouldn’t he reject the policies of the hard-line reactionaries at the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and their fellow travelers? For a few days in November, it appeared that might be the case

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the developments at Trump Tower are dispiriting. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee who, it was rumored, the president-elect might choose as his secretary of state, and who seemed like a decent fit for the job, met with Trump. Eventually, however, it emerged that Trump engaged in the exercise in order to humiliate Romney, who had delivered a sharply critical speech about the businessman back in March. Yes, the Trump camp declared that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has seemingly devolved into a Twitter egg, would not get a position in the incoming administration.

But that’s about it as far as the good news. Trump has chosen as his attorney general U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, whose history of racism led a Republican-controlled Senate committee to deny his appointment to the federal bench, and who is a fierce opponent of voting rights. He chose as his secretary of Health and Human Services U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-Georgia), whose proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act could force patients, especially those with lower incomes, to pay radically higher costs.

Trump chose as his secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a fierce advocate for privately run, profit-driven charter schools who, according to an editorial writer in her home state of Michigan, “has no relevant credentials or experience for a job setting standards and guiding dollars for the nation’s public schools.” He chose as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson, who had previously said he was unqualified to run a federal agency (despite having been a Republican candidate for president himself), and who has criticized HUD’s efforts to reduce housing discrimination.

Trump chose as his secretary of Labor Andrew Puzder, a fast-food magnate who opposes unions, the minimum wage and overtime regulations that protect workers, who has announced his desire to replace all of his employees with robots, and whose restaurants plaintiffs and regulators have accused of a wide variety of wage violations and other anti-labor practices. And he chose as his Environment Protection Agency chief administrator Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who has filed numerous lawsuits against the EPA that were literally written by oil companies, and who asserts that states should be able to pollute freely but prevented from legalizing marijuana.

That’s not even mentioning Stephen Bannon, the racist new-media executive whom Trump has installed as a chief strategist; or Michael Flynn, the former general who has a well-earned reputation as an Islamophobe, crackpot and promoter of conspiracy theories, whom Trump wants to make a key national security advisor; or Rick Perry, the former Texas governor perhaps most famous for forgetting about his intention to eliminate the Department of Energy, whom Trump wishes to appoint as secretary of the…Department of Energy.

In all of these cases, Trump has chosen administrators or advisers whose views either (a) conform with widely held, and yet still radical, conservative notions about the free market and government or (b) are more extreme than mainstream conservative thinking.

Oh, and I haven’t even mention two of Trump’s less charming continuing tendencies: That he warps the truth beyond all recognition and lashes out relentlessly at critics.

America — make that the world — is in for a rough few years.

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