American interregnums are often peculiar times, but none has ever been more peculiar than this one. As autumn subsides into winter, much of the country lies in the grip of a paralyzing chill. Democracy is under threat as never before. Each day brings a fresh report of a high-level nomination by the president-elect, and each new nomination strengthens the impression that Mr. Trump is determined to create a kakistocracy, a government of the worst.
Trump has yet to be sworn in, yet a train of fawning nominees, CEOs, and financiers are vying for the boss’s ear and eye as though auditioning for The Apprentice.
And the boss himself seems unable to tell the difference between the low-brow entertainment he used to peddle and the high-stakes arena in which he is now competing. Upon being elected president of the United States, an ordinary mortal might declare himself humbled by the magnitude of the job and eager to tap any source of wisdom available to him, but Mr. Trump, having declared himself to be “like, a smart person,” deems the job sufficiently undemanding that he sees no reason not to continue as executive producer of Celebrity Apprentice.
Trump voters may have marked their ballots under the illusion that they were electing a candidate who would “drain the swamp” of special interests seeking advantage for themselves at the expense of the public interest, but instead they have installed a cabinet whose first 17 picks have more wealth than the poorest third of all American families combined. It includes bankers from Goldman Sachs (which a Trump campaign ad claimed was part of a global conspiracy to tap the pockets of the American taxpayer) and the chief executive of Exxon Mobil (who has close ties to Vladimir Putin).
His attorney general, charged with protecting the civil rights of American citizens, is a senator who had no problem with the Ku Klux Klan until he discovered that some of its members smoked marijuana. His ambassador to Israel, known to the president-elect for his services as a bankruptcy lawyer, supports accelerated colonization of the West Bank. His national security advisor is the man who led delegates in chants of “Lock her up!” directed at Hillary Clinton during the Republican convention. He has called Islam “a political ideology” masquerading as a religion and falsely claimed that sharia law is spreading to the United States.
Trump’s nominee to head the labor department opposes any increase to the minimum wage. During the campaign he claimed that “big corporate interests” and “globalist companies” were supporting Hillary Clinton, yet he seems to have no problem with serving in the cabinet alongside investment bankers and oil magnates. The prospective secretary of the interior signed a 2010 letter alleging that global warming was “a threat multiplier for instability in the most volatile regions of the world” and “the clean energy and climate challenge is America's new space race.” But since he also believed that Hillary Clinton was “the anti-Christ,” he found it expedient to change his beliefs on climate change to the point where, as a congressman, he earned a 3 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters.
To head the Environmental Protection Agency Trump unsurprisingly chose a climate-change denier and enemy of pollution regulation. To run the Department of Education he chose a fellow billionaire with no experience in the field who sees her mission not as educating America’s children but as “advancing God’s kingdom.” And to lead the Department of Energy Trump chose a man who, as a presidential candidate, vowed to eliminate it—although he couldn’t remember its name in the midst of a presidential debate.
Meanwhile, Trump’s pick to head the Office of Management and Budget tried to shut down the government to prevent any lifting of the debt ceiling and attempted to scuttle aid for Hurricane Sandy victims unless all the emergency expenditure was compensated by spending cuts elsewhere (he lost only when Trump supporter and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie shamed him publicly). But when his own state of South Carolina was hit by floods after another storm, he had a sudden change of heart on the wisdom of federal spending: “There will be a time for a discussion about aid and how to pay for it, but that time is not now. The danger is still real, and it is immediate. Keeping folks safe is the priority right now.”
Such inconsistencies run through the president-elect’s cabinet as they have run through right-wing politics in the United States for the past 40 years. When Republicans are in opposition, for example, deficits are the bane of the republic and the road to serfdom, but once in office, “deficits don’t matter.” When President Obama pressed for a New Start treaty with Russia, Republicans opposed it because Vladimir Putin was untrustworthy. But the president-elect has no beef with Russia. When Democrats wanted to increase infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy after the Great Recession, Republicans resisted. But Donald Trump has promised to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure.
A diversity of viewpoints can be a valuable asset in government. President Obama, invoking the example of Lincoln, said he hoped his cabinet would be a “team of rivals” who would challenge his own views and through vigorous debate lead to wiser policy choices. But a team of rivals can function coherently only if there is an intellectually engaged leader at its center, prepared to weigh the contradictory views of his counselors against the evidence and to arrive at an independent judgment undistorted by the flattery and cajolery and manipulations of those offering him advice.
To say that Donald Trump does not meet this standard is an understatement. I have elsewhere expatiated on his contempt for truth. A thin-skinned narcissist, he has demonstrated hostility to critics and susceptibility to soft soap. His vain confidence in his superior mind has already led him to refuse intelligence briefings and reject the findings of the intelligence community concerning Russian meddling in the election. Apparently he thinks he can run the country as he ran his business, with blarney and bluster and plenty of time left over for palaver with Howard Stern about the relative endowments of supermodels. His success in selling a bill of goods to the American people has persuaded him that he can sell anything to anyone and therefore obtain from foreign powers and domestic corporations whatever he wants simply by throwing enough sweeteners into whatever deal he and his advisors concoct.
The alacrity with which high-tech executives came running when Trump beckoned might suggest that he has a point. Jeff Bezos, who in addition to heading Amazon owns The Washington Post, which Trump tried to ban from his campaign events as punishment for what he took to be unfavorable coverage, might have been expected to have spoken up for the freedom of the press, but instead he chose to tell the incoming chief executive that he was “super-excited” to work with him in furthering the cause of American “innovation.”
Indeed, Mr. Trump seems to conceive of the presidency as an extension of his work in reality television. His team of rivals will appear before him at an hour of his choosing, make their respective pitches, and await his supreme judgment, which he will base not on his knowledge of history, familiarity with the levers of bureaucracy, or mastery of dossiers laboriously generated by his staff but rather on his instinct. As on television, his hard stare, captured from a variety of camera angles, will quickly uncover the faltering confidence of this advisor, the brash presumptuousness of another, and the empty braggadocio of still a third. When he hangs a subordinate out to dry, he will arrange the cameras to magnify the humiliation, as on The Apprentice, and as at Jean Georges, the three-star restaurant where the president-elect staged the ritual humiliation of Mitt Romney, the man who had dared to call him a “phony” and “fraud” but whose lust for power led him nevertheless straight to the tyrant’s table and the all-too-predictable final degradation.
We can expect more of the same, as Donald Trump brings to the White House the genius for cruelty he has spent a lifetime cultivating. And as with The Apprentice, alas, there will likely be a large audience to delight in the spectacle.