President Donald Trump is not going to make life easy for anyone, not you, not me, not the people who voted for him and not the folks running the Congress. Its not in his nature to make anything easy for anyone.
This is evident in how he is staffing his cabinet.
Donald Trump named Reince Priebus to be his new chief of staff and Steve Bannon, the Trump campaign CEO and executive chairman of Breitbart News, as chief strategist and senior counselor. This should tell us something right away. And the message isn’t that the GOP has become the new Breitbart or that Trump is a masterful tactical guy.
This speaks to Trump’s brutally Darwinian chaos management style. A model for it exists among the communities that work with adult children of alcoholics. It’s pretty simple and it goes like this.
Alcoholic parents seek to avoid being held accountable for their addiction by being mercurial, emotionally manipulative and unpredictable, handing out equal doses of rage and affection. They insure their position of power by never fully investing autonomy or authority in any other family member. And here’s the central part: they make their children fight for their attention and approval. The long term impact on families is devastating.
“You’re fired,” is Trump’s brand. It is no accident that Trump’s popular show centered around his absolute authority and contestants’ frantic efforts to be awarded his approval. He loves that dysfunctional model. It protects him from all the things he fears: accountability, responsibility, consistency, compassion.
Trump has placed Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon at the top of his administration. Priebus represents the GOP status quo. Bannon represents the angry white supremacist movement that is roiling the American right wing. At Vice President, we have Mike Pence, who represents the third leg of the stool (pardon my pun). Pence is the voice of the religious right, another group not known for political flexibility. Pence will likely serve a strong bureaucratic role while Trump enjoys a George W. Bush style vacation schedule. Both Trump and Bush are not fans of “the details.”
Unlike Bush, Trump will not cede his authority to his V. P., regardless of whether he likes governing or not. Unlike Bush, who was happy to cede his authority to Cheney, Trump’s ego won’t allow Pence the authority he will need to marry policy with effective execution. Trump will play Pence off against Priebus and Bannon in order to insure his own authority goes unchallenged.
Paul Ryan and the GOP elites, the Alt Right, the Tea Party and the Religious Right are all groups what are highly invested in their own self interest. These are groups that are in pursuit of absolute political power. What they are least able to do is to accept compromise. Which means, every step of the way, somebody is going to be the loser.
In addition to Priebus, Bannon and Pence, the Trump administration will include some kind of roles for Rudy Gulianni, Chris Christie, and Newt Gingrich who served as prominent surrogates for the campaign and have earned Trump’s assumption of loyalty. These men were, up until recently, B-list GOP personalities and likely have laundry lists of grudges against A-list leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
Add to that a whole host of other demagogues are now under consideration for Trump’s cabinet. John Bolton, General Michael T. Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Jan Brewer, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Rick Scott, Joe Arpaio and list goes on.
It is instructive to return to the subject of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Cheney ruled the White House, with influence above that even of Bush’s Chiefs of Staff, Andrew Card and Josh Bolton and Cheney ruled it with an iron fist. It was he who ultimately determined the actions of the administration. His personal authority (and ego) far outstripped that of others. He was the enforcer. He was the stabilizing influence. The rest of the White House staff, aside from a few exceptions like Karl Rove were relative betas.
Reince Priebus, Trump’s Chief of Staff, will not likely play a role as enforcer. He will not rise to the role of gate keeper for access to Trump. Trump has already shown contempt for protocol. Priebus will more likely serve as a bridge between the Trump Administration’s more incendiary personalities and the GOP mainstream (such as it is). I suspect he will be the first to find himself fired. But only after a painful nine months of ugly administration infighting.
The bottom line? If the Trump Administration fails to pass significant legislation in the first 100 days, major infighting will ensue. With every failure, Trump’s tea party rock stars will be eyeing the door. Trying to balance their self interest against the successes or failures of the administration. When Trump’s base gets restless, people like Palin, whether inside or outside the administration, will go off script and attack the administration’s strategy and leadership. Demanding absolute loyalty from all, Trump will go on the attack against dissenting voices.
Even as he seeks to deregulate banks and cut taxes for the richest Americans, Trump will need to show that he is still anti-status quo. Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, old school and status quo, are going to get thrown under the bus weekly. This political blood letting will not sit well with the 50% of GOP elected officials who failed to support him whole heartedly during the election season. People will expect Democrats to oppose him, but Republicans who don’t support Trump will become piñatas for Bannon’s Breitbart network.
And then there is Trump’s base. Donald Trump made promises. His base is neither patient nor nuanced in their views of governance. Trump has already indicated that Obamacare will be modified, not repealed. He is already softening his position of bringing back “big coal”. He is backing off on mass deportations. The wall is becoming a metaphor.
What Trump will likely offer his base instead is a tolerant climate for bigotry and hate, but little else. What he will do, is work to eliminate (ie: privatize) Medicare, Social Security, the Affordable Care Act, the Veterans Administration and more. All programs that benefit his base. This will activate Democratic opposition, alienate less partisan Trump supporters, and eventually dismay the very people who are his core supporters. (When they finally notice the vast disparities between what Trump promised and what he is actually delivering.)
All this will take place against a backdrop of competition for attention and approval inside his administration. Trump’s Lord of the Flies management style would likely create huge operational challenges with a relatively low profile administration. With a group of highly opinionated and volatile personalities like Trump is assembling, the level of potential volatility is much greater. Think puddles of gasoline and playing with matches. If the opposition in Congress obstructs him long enough to exacerbate the already potent war of egos inside and outside his administration, the old school GOP operatives who are waiting in the wings will bring out the knives.
There are many ways in which the Trump Administration might avoid this kind of outcome. The likelihood of it taking place depends almost exclusively on the level of egos in play. But know this. Trump’s potent mix of distraction, lies and propaganda, may win elections, but governing is a whole different ball game.