Near the end of the campaign I wrote a column called “Imagine a Sane Donald Trump,” lamenting that I believed he was crazy, and too bad. Too bad because his broad policy assertions, or impulses, suggested he understood that 2008 and the years just after (the crash and the weak recovery) had changed everything in America, and that the country was going to choose, in coming decades, one of two paths—a moderate populism or socialism—and that the former was vastly to be preferred, for reasons of the nation’s health. A gifted politician could make his party the leader toward that path, which includes being supportive and encouraging of business but willing to harness government to alleviate the distress of the abandoned working class and the anxious middle class; strong on defense but neither aggressive nor dreamy in world affairs; realistic and nonradical on social issues while unmistakably committed to protecting the freedoms of the greatest cohering force in America, its churches; and aware that our nation’s immigration reality was a scandal created by both parties, and must be redressed.
You could discern, listening to his interviews and speeches, that this was more or less where Donald Trump stood. If a politician governed along those lines, he could help bring forward a politics more pertinent to the times, end brain-dead fixations, force both parties to question their ways of operating, and possibly push our national politics in a more productive direction. All this in my view would be good.
Undergirding my thinking is the sense that a big bad day is coming—that we have too many enemies, and some of them have the talent to hurt us, and one or more inevitably will. Whatever helps hold us together now will help hold us together then, when we’re under severe pressure.
Behind that thought is the observation that our country is stressed to the point of fracture culturally, economically, politically, spiritually. We find it hard to hold together on a peaceful day, never mind a violent one. And so right now we must institute as much good feeling and cooperation in Washington as we can. The nation longs for examples of constructiveness and capability. We’ve got to keep the long view in mind.
The priority is stabilizing and strengthening what we have, and encouraging wherever possible an atmosphere of peacefulness and respect.
That’s where I am, or rather what I think is politically desirable.
Looking at the administration 70 days in, things do not, in these areas, look promising. There’s too much gravitational pull to the president’s accumulated mistakes.
His stupid tweets have now resulted in the Russia probe. That will help opioid addicts in Ohio. This Thursday he may have launched a Republican civil war: The Freedom Caucus had better “get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & the Dems, in 2018!” That will help promote harmony. His staff has failed to absorb the obvious fact that Mr. Trump was so outsized, colorful, and freakish a character that their primary job, and an easy one it was, was to be the opposite—sober, low-key, reassuring. Instead they seemed to compete with him for outlandishness.
Whatever your feelings and views, whatever was said behind closed doors, in the photo-op the president of the United States must shake the German chancellor’s hand. Not only because you are a gentleman, not only because it is your job to represent America with grace, but because a baseline requirement of your office is to show public respect for a great nation with which we have a history, part of that history constituting a jewel in the crown of 20th-century world diplomacy.
It amazes me that in his dealings with the health-care bill Mr. Trump revealed that he has no deep knowledge of who his base is, who his people are. I’ve never seen that in politics. But Mr. Trump’s supporters didn’t like the bill. If they had wanted a Republican president who deals only with the right, to produce a rightist bill, they would have chosen Ted Cruz. Instead they chose someone outside conservatism who backed big-ticket spending on infrastructure and opposed cutting entitlements, which suggested he’d be working with Democrats, too.
A president dealing with a national issue that arouses anxieties has to take time and speak repeatedly on the plan and the goal, with the kind of specificity that encourages confidence. “You win the argument, then you win legislatively,” Newt Gingrich said in an interview this week, paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher.
And a president must always appear to be leading, not meekly tagging leaders within the Congress.
Seventy days is only 70 days. Mr. Trump’s supporters will give him time. During the campaign I spoke often to a friend in north Georgia, a Trump supporter who was a Democrat and voted for Barack Obama. She is unshaken. Mr. Trump is “making the kind of mistakes a new president makes,” she says now. “He’s having growing pains. Because he’s not a politician.”
He’s not. But he is the holder of the highest political office in the land, which requires some political discipline.
Whenever I used to have disagreements with passionate pro-Trump people, I’d hear their arguments, weigh their logic and grievances. I realized after a while that in every conversation we always brought different experiences to the table. I had worked in a White House. I had personally observed its deeper realities and requirements. Their sense of how a White House works came from news shows and reading, and also from TV shows such as “House of Cards” and “Scandal.” Those are dark, cynical shows that more or less suggest anyone can be president. I don’t mean that in the nice way. Those programs don’t convey how a White House is an organism demanding of true depth, of serious people, real professionals. A president has to be a serious person too, and not only an amusing or stimulating talker, or the object of a dream.
Robert Sherwood, the playwright who was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speechwriter throughout the war, saw him as subtle, high-minded, and one of the great “showmen” of presidential history. Sherwood’s biographer, Harriet Hyman Alonso, quotes Sherwood on how sometimes FDR spoke to him “as if he were an actor who had been reading my lines.” After a speech in Philadelphia, the president asked Sherwood if he thought the timing in a section of the speech was good. Sherwood called it perfect. Roosevelt then gave him “one of his sly looks and asked, ‘Do you think [Alfred] Lunt could have done it any better?’ ” Lunt was the great stage actor of the day.
That is the public part of the presidency, which we see so much now that we think it’s all there is. But there is a private presidency. It is in private that Mr. Trump does his tweeting. It is in private, in the office, that a crisis comes over the transom, and is announced by the national security adviser. Maybe the mad boy-king of North Korea will decide it’s a good day to see if his missiles can hit Los Angeles. Maybe a sleeper cell of terrorists will decide it’s a good day to show it’s woke.
Crisis reveals the character, the essential nature of a White House. Seventy days in, that is my worry.