The tone of Donald Trump's presidency has been set one week before he takes office: raucous, brawling, improvised, unpredictable, frenzied, entertaining, and more than a little weird. It's hard to keep track of all that is happening in Washington and New York: Russian hacks, salacious gossip, fake news, government ethics, the fate of Obamacare, cabinet and White House appointments, personal feuds, and confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, Elaine Chao, Mike Pompeo, Jim Mattis, and Ben Carson. Each day brings crazy revelations, rebuttals by the president elect and his team, congressional maneuvering, proclamations from Trump Tower, and media sniping. And Trump wouldn't have it any other way.
"I don't carry a briefcase," the president elect wrote 30 years ago in The Art of the Deal. "I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can't be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you've got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops." This improvisational style hasn't changed. The Trump campaign was an aggressive, freewheeling, bare-bones operation that maximized its candidate's political instincts and dramatic talent. There was no canned "message of the day," no rigorous coordination between candidate and surrogates, no deference to focus groups or outside consultants or Beltway convention or powerful donors. It was Trump who decided the message—you've heard it before—and established the style: media saturation, relentless activity, and fierce response to attack. "When people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me," he wrote long ago, "my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard."
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That's not often the case with politicians, whose tendency is to defer, pivot, accommodate, and ignore. No recent occupant of the Oval Office, and no other candidate for president in 2016, would have behaved like Trump did at his press conference this week. That's the point. The Trump constituency is devoted to their man not despite his dismissive attitude toward established practice in the nation's capital but because of it. The Trump vote is a rejection of Washington, of its practices, policies, and people. So divorced had the rich and smug capital city become from the realities of everyday life elsewhere in the country that only someone from outside the political system could change it. It's not a defeat but a victory for Trump when the New York Times, Politico, CNN, and other "nonpartisan" and "objective" institutions fly off the handle at his latest move.
Trump's predecessors assumed office with a narrow list of priorities. Bill Clinton wanted a jobs bill, a deficit reduction package, a crime bill, and health care. George W. Bush had a tax cut, No Child Left Behind, a faith-based initiative, and a prescription drug benefit. Barack Obama had the stimulus, health care, financial reform, and cap and trade. Here, too, Trump is an outlier. His model is more Newt Gingrich and Scott Walker than George Bush and Barack Obama. The breadth of the Trump domestic agenda is commensurate with the 1994 Contract with America: tax cuts, Obamacare repeal, border wall construction and interior enforcement, judicial nominations, infrastructure spending, protective tariffs, military buildup, financial deregulation, Common Core repeal, school choice initiatives, a New Deal for Black America, and ethics and lobbying reforms to "drain the swamp." And the speed with which Trump and the Republican leadership intend to pursue this agenda is similar to the flurry of activity during Scott Walker's first year in office.
More than 20 years ago, in an interview with Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, then-congressman Bill Paxon described the "Gingrich permanent-offense planning model." Permanent offense, Barnes said, was the attempt to dominate "the agenda with ideas, issues, and policy initiatives," leaving the opposition without time or space to respond. It didn't last long. The government shutdowns of '95 and '96 put the Republicans on defense. Now the concept has returned, with significant differences. The first is that there's a Republican president and Congress doesn't have to worry about the veto pen or the bully pulpit.
The second difference is Trump. He is unlike any leader in recent memory. He has more in common with a nineteenth-century president (Andrew Jackson) or an early twentieth-century president (Theodore Roosevelt) than a late-twentieth or twenty-first century one. He is wily, captivating, pugnacious, and dervish-like in his tenacity. I often compare him to the honey badger: He don't give a s—t what people think. And he doesn't need to, because of the fragmentation of the media and the revolt of the public against institutional authority. Gingrich was constrained not only by the presidency but also by the analog media that had tremendous power to marginalize and undermine conservatives. Today it is the D.C. press corps that is subverted by the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and other social media.
What might worry Trump and his advisers? Not the Democrats, still beholden to the shibboleths of multiculturalism and political correctness. Not the media, who seem not to understand that you cannot embarrass someone incapable of embarrassment. The biggest dangers for Trump, rather, are the same that felled Gingrich: the Senate and the culture of Washington. Most senators aren't recognized in their home states, but they are recognized in the capital. They will use the procedural tricks at their disposal to slow, stall, or defeat the president's agenda. And I'm not just talking about the Democrats. There are plenty of Republicans who view Trump as an imposter and the nationalism and populism that brought him to office as toxic, and who'd like to preserve the status they have cultivated within the Beltway.
As General Mattis put it during his confirmation hearing: "History is not a straitjacket, but I've never found a better guide for the way ahead than by studying history." The history of populist conservatism is a history of betrayal and rebuke at the hands of Republicans in the Eastern Establishment. By not taking cues from the president-elect on immigration, trade, and Obamacare, Republicans in Congress and the bureaucracy—and even some in the White House—may be the unwitting allies of Democrats who want to sever the connection between Trump and the white working class. If that were to happen, the energy behind the Republican agenda would dissipate. And the Trump blitzkrieg would screech to a halt.