It's hard not to see the obvious petulance in Trump's selection of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Barely a week of serious attention to his potential nomination, already raised red flags all over the place that Tillerson will face major hurdles just trying to get confirmed. (Then again, what is the forthcoming Trump presidency but one giant scarlet scarf waving in the wind?) Trump long ago ceased being anything but what he appears in the press, and "never back down" is clearly a big piece of his storyline.
So Tillerson it is.
There's plenty to fear, and loathe, in Trump's cabinet selection process, but what I find fascinating is Trump's apparent approach to his slogans of a "fresh start" and "draining the swamp." There's a sense in which it would be refreshing, challenging even, to approach the business of Washington by looking beyond the circle of "Old Washington Hands" - a circle that did seem, somehow, smaller and even more insular under President Obama, who was especially taken with "meritocracy" appointments, usually from the small collection of Ivy League grads and the similarly small group (MIT, Stanford, U of Chicago) of related top drawer schools. More than a few outsider observers of the Obama world pointed out that the President would benefit from shaking up his input and moving beyond a core group of especially loyal confidantes. It's also telling that, while he twice acknowledged the need to rethink his advisors after major electoral losses, he actually never did in any significant way.
It would be easier to feel good about Trump's choices as breaking a mold if his choices didn't move from the small insular world of DC insiders and like minded intellectuals to selections from even more insular worlds: the "C-Class" of boardroom magnates, along with top drawer Generals, and a loyalist coterie of highly wealthy members of the donor class. It belies Trump's own myopia in overvaluing family ties, personal discipline and sense of self made success, without showing a real awareness that really shaking things up would mean reaching beyond your own comfort zones. In that sense - and this will matter, I think, in many ways many people don't see - the built-in failures of Trump's coming Presidency won't be all that different from the "boomer generation" self centeredness of both George W Bush and Barack Obama. Trump's example is extreme, to be sure; but both Bush and Obama could have used more insight from outside their familiar circles, and Trump, surely, is making choices that make his circle even tighter.
Partly too, I suspect, the handwringing over Trump's choices as ethically dubious - along with the looming questions of his own ability to separate his business interests from his role as President - reflect the sunset of progress made since the presidency of Richard Nixon. Few people under the age of 50 will have any real recollection of life before or during Watergate, and how crucial it was to set higher and better standards of expectations in Presidents and those who serve them. A lot of what we're talking about as "concerns" with the cabinet or with Trump - the idea of having vested, material interests in the outcomes of various choices and and policies set by the President or the Executive Branch - seem quaint, really. We all know that businesses and lobbyists already have outsized influence in many areas; why does it matter, really, if the President owns a hotel operation in Kuala Lumpur (or more to the point, Manila)? Do we really care that the incoming Secretary of State has only dealt with foreign leaders, in the course of a near 50 year career at one company, in terms of that company's business goals?
Well... yes. And yes. The trouble is that these ethical issues don't resonate like they used to, when the President's reelection committee ran it's operations in a White House office and the President's top advisors were also his primary Bag Men for campaign tactics. We've had a generation plus to learn the right words, calm the right anxiousness, pretend we're all trying really hard to be scrupulously fair. It's not surprising, really, that we've forgotten, in many ways, why the need to be vigilant never goes away, why so many people just assume, blithely, that there must be an acceptable way for Trump to paper over his business issues or Rex Tillerson to simply set aside a lifetime of work for Exxon as little more than stock options on paper. We don't just think the rules matter; we believe, earnestly, that people understand why we have the rules.
That awakening is likely to be rude, and enormous ('Big League", that's the phrase, right?) and, I'm convinced, probably inevitable. Whether it's the naïveté of the "Let's give him a chance" crowd, the dithering of DC types trying to pretend that this just another regular transition, or the bully boys refusing to brook any dissent to the ascension of their awesome leader... all the pieces are in place for a massive failure of public trust. And I tend to think Cassandra like wails of impending doom just won't get the job done. If so many can't see the collapse awaiting us... then we may just need to accept that what's about to happen, much like this election, was simply the kind of bad turn we had to take to realize we should take bad turns.
Soon enough, we will not be re-litigating the events of this past year - Trump can't keep running against Hillary forever, no matter how he'd prefer it - and we will be full bore into what comes next. And Trump, it's worth remembering, isn't just a narcissist blowhard (as bad as that seems): he's also an inexperienced, in many ways inarticulate, newcomer to a job that is not generally forgiving to rookie mistakes. And, in his first set of major choices, Trump has put in place a large group of similarly inexperienced newcomers with little or no thought to explaining his thinking, or trying to win over his many skeptics. All of that matters.
There may be a case to be made for neophytes like Tillerson, or Betsy DeVos, or Seth Mnuchin; Trump hasn't made them. It may be that he doesn't realize that he's moved from one sales job into another, larger one; it may be that the kind of skills he needed to sell real estate don't actually translate well into the selling of public policy. I tend to think if Trump were more adaptable, more flexible, had more ease with changing up his approach, he could make the case for Rex, really sell it, get more people to buy the Sexy in Rexy. And the others. But he's not and he hasn't and it's a recipe, even now, that doesn't bode well for where all of this is headed, and I don't mean just Bad Things For Liberals To Disapprove.
We forget, in these changing times, that people dislike and fear change, especially change that is offered with no rationale or explanation. Trump is already laying the foundation for an Administration of wrenching change, and making no case for it that most Americans can or will sign on to support. I would at least think he knew enough to try and sell Change as the new Sexy. And instead... nothing.
Trump is, even now, deeply unpopular for a soon to be President. He starts, more than even George W Bush, with low approvals, half the country in no mood to even think about supporting him, and an electoral loss in the popular vote that calls his legitimacy in many ways into serious question. A savvy politician, really, would see that (a genuinely great politician would have never won in this manner to begin with). There are reasons to fear who Trump is and what he will yet do, but politically, I wouldn't overestimate him as a genius or capable of achieving the most modest of goals. All he's had to do over the past few weeks is sell the nation on the assembly of a team of advisors and department heads... and he can't even do that. That's not even the hard part. The hard part is what happens next. And I don't mean that in a sexy way at all.