Mistakes, He’s Made a Few Too Many Crisis will inevitably strike, so America needs stability and strength. Will Trump be ready?

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.

Too Many MistakesYou 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.

Reach Across the Aisle, Mr. President For health-care reform to succeed, it requires buy-in and compromise from both parties.

All the emphasis seems to be on cutting. We will cut CPB, NPR, NEA.

Why aren’t we talking about growing and building and knocking down barriers? Why aren’t we talking about jobs and a boom and reforming regulation and taxes so people can build and invest?

Is cutting the absolute No. 1 priority right now? In a country that is, in Pope Francis’ famous characterization of the modern world, “a field hospital after battle”? Is that what the Republican party wants to lead with? Why isn’t the priority unleashing, getting past limits, pushing toward dynamism and expansion?

All these old arguments—we have to have them now? Why? Because it’s important for a party to prove it doesn’t know what time it is?

How about a little prudence and patience? The priorities should be jobs, growth, social cohesion and an atmosphere, in Washington, of constructiveness. We don’t need any new culture wars—we’ve got enough, thanks! Is the worst thing that could happen in the world right now that a kid from New Jersey can come into Manhattan and see an off-Broadway show seeded with a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts? No, that’s not the worst thing that could happen!

Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi

President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi

The worst that could happen is that Congress is so exhausted as an institution, everyone’s ideologies so played out, that they’re all just playing a part, going through the motions, mindlessly replicating past battles in hope of some new reward.

Really, this week, that’s how it looks to me.

I am among those who think it absurd that Republicans on Capitol Hill decided to throw their initial attention on a hopelessly complex and convoluted health-care bill, and for procedural reasons so obscure they sound like Stockholm syndrome: “We must pay for the cuts or we blow up in reconciliation.” How can you expect people to follow you when they can’t even understand the marching orders, or why they should take the hill? And focusing on the replacement only highlighted party fissures.

The party leadership appears to have lost control of events. They view politics as the art of the possible, which it is, but they have a highly constricted sense of the possibilities. They put me in mind of the observation that a great leader has more in common with an artist than an economist. Economists drill deep in narrow fields, but the artist’s view is more expansive; he’s more able to grasp the big picture, and see how it is changing. The GOP leadership needs a greater artistic sense. Maybe they can put in for a grant from the NEA before it’s too late.

The leadership’s foes on the right comport themselves like the original uncompromised men. They are, to their credit, almost alone in their willingness to declare their philosophical predicates and resultant policy commitments. But they are supporting players in the drama, their numbers are not growing, and there’s something exhausted about them, too.

There is a third group emerging that doesn’t have a name. They see themselves not as philosophers or ideologues but as people who live in reality. Some are tough-eyed: Americans will never give up what they’ve come to see as an entitlement. Some look at the country around them and see crises—in employment, drug abuse, family formation, education. This is no time to make things harder for people, even for a while. Some are merely practical: ObamaCare helped some of their constituents and jerked others around with lost coverage and jacked-up deductibles. A fix can’t just spread the misery around in a new way.

So far they’re called moderates. I asked one of these, an officeholder who cares about mental-health needs and the opioid epidemic, if he was experiencing himself as a populist. He said he has in the past been called a “positive populist.” which he liked: It suggested a realistic yet generous assessment of the actual lives of his constituents, joined with “a can-do spirit that we can help each other individually and with the government.” But “negative populism,” carries the connotation of darkness and resentment: “Someone took something from me.” So he sticks with the label Republican.

President Trump should have been the leader of this group but threw his lot with the congressional leadership. That may be changing. Wednesday night he told Tucker Carlson on Fox News that the bill is “very preliminary” and can be “negotiated” down the road. “We will take care of our people or I’m not signing it, OK?” Which is interesting because it contradicted Speaker Paul Ryan, who said March 6: “It’s not that this is open for negotiation.”

The president should confound expectations, pivot, and turn to the Democrats for a bipartisan deal.

Here is the tradition. If you are Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 and you want to create Social Security—an act that affects Americans very personally—you get the other party in on it. You need them co-owning it, invested in it. You want the American people saying, “Congress did this,” not “the Democrats did this,” because if they say the latter the reform will always divide. FDR got 81 Republicans to vote for it in the House, and 284 Democrats. The same with Medicare in 1965: Lyndon Johnson did all he could to get the GOP on board. A majority of House Republicans supported it.

Barack Obama, full of himself after his 2008 victory and surrounded by triumphalist House Democrats, ignored the teaching of history and passed ObamaCare without a single Republican vote. The Democrats would get all the credit. In time they got all the blame. Republicans had no incentive to bail them out.

But the health-care system, as Ohio Gov. John Kasich has observed, is crucial. The Democrats must be in on the process to achieve “true and lasting reform.”

No doubt Democrats would clean up the program along more liberal lines than Republicans, which would please their progressive base. But it would also please many in Mr. Trump’s base.

If it worked, Mr. Trump would crow he’s made the first big bipartisan deal in a generation—it’s a new day. It might help on future bipartisan efforts, such as infrastructure spending. And he can make it up to Republicans with conservative regulatory and tax reform.

It would be no scandal if the president threw in with Democrats and moderate Republicans at the expense of Republican leadership. He’s always been philosophically unreliable, his commitments ever-changeable. Everyone knows this. The American people hired him knowing it.

His supporters would forgive a failed attempt to replace ObamaCare along Republican lines. But they wouldn’t forgive a bad bill that succeeds.

In a telephone interview Mr. Kasich said, “Ronald Reagan made deals with Tip O’Neill on Social Security.” All the big reforms of the past—of welfare, of the Pentagon—were bipartisan efforts. Progress will come when both parties end “the civil war” over health care. Bipartisanship must come back if things are to work.

As he spoke I thought: a bipartisan deal on health care would also be a boost to the national morale. It wouldn’t be about constricting and cutting. It would feel expansive, constructive, even hopeful.

House Republicans Repeat an Obama Error Like the Democrats in 2009, the majority party’s priorities aren’t responsive to the moment.

Washington

It is challenging for important Republicans on Capitol Hill now. They are leading their party at a time when it is changing and the country has changed. There are fissures in terms of what they believe and what they want. There is no shared, overarching sense of the meaning and purpose of the Republican Party, no agreed-upon blueprint from which to operate.

Most of them know that something substantial happened in 2016, when half, and then considerably more than half, of the Republican base followed Donald Trump, along with a great many Democrats. But they are still uncertain of the meaning of the event. I suggested to a Capitol Hill figure last week that it was a populist wave and the future of the Republican Party is moderate populism. He answered that in fact the president, in his famous rallies, was often simply road-testing ideas and applause lines, adopting what got cheers and dropping what didn’t. He’d personally seen this. I thought: I’m sure you saw what you saw, but what you are noting is Mr. Trump’s cynicism when what matters is what the crowds agreed with—what they applauded. When he would say, seemingly in passing, that he won’t touch Medicare or Social Security, people are in enough trouble and a deal’s a deal, everyone—Republicans, Democrats—cheered. Because they are in financial trouble. And because they don’t trust Washington to be fair or wise in cutting or rejiggering essential programs.

Tucker Carlson interviewing House Speaker Paul Ryan

Tucker Carlson interviewing House Speaker Paul Ryan

But the Hill figure did not believe that 2016 marked a change in political direction, and I suppose that’s lucky for him, because if he followed the prompting of a Trumpian base, his donors would not like it.

Surely it is reasonable to conclude a big, burgeoning hunk of voters came forward in 2016 with a new definition of what popular, centrist GOP policies would look like—more economically nationalist and more socially and economically populist.

The GOP’s first big legislative endeavor, the repeal of ObamaCare, has been understood as a classic fight between party leadership and the more conservative and libertarian wings, and there’s truth in that. I wonder if it will not also become a struggle between the leadership and the Trumpian core.

The new bill lacks an air of appropriate crisis, a sense that it is responsive to this moment. I criticize it not from the right but I suppose the left: Eight years ago, I argued ObamaCare would be an unmitigated mess: “The system will be overwhelmed, the government won’t be able to execute, the costs will be huge.” I urged Mr. Obama to focus instead on Medicare; attack waste, fraud and abuse; come up with far-sighted cost saving measures—and, once this was accomplished with bipartisan support, make one little change: open the program to the uninsured under 65. Expensive? Yes. But simpler, cleaner, and better than destroying the health insurance system. The 2008 crash had occurred less than a year before. That was the moment American insecurity began to surge and reasonable pessimism take hold.

Is it so different now?

The two great sociocultural documents of this moment are by the political economist Nicholas Eberstadt and the journalist Christopher Caldwell .

Mr. Eberstadt, in a Commentary piece titled “Our Miserable 21st Century,” writes that the year 2000 marked a grim milestone: “The Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly.” He traces the economic factors, including dismal labor-force trends: “The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work.” The top is doing fine but not the bottom: “21st-century America has somehow managed to produce markedly more wealth for its wealth-holders even as it provided markedly less work for its workers.”

Physical health has deteriorated for a significant swath of white America, “thanks in large part to drug and alcohol abuse. All this sounds a little too close for comfort to the story of modern Russia, with its devastating vodka- and drug-binging health setbacks. Yes: It can happen here, and it has. Welcome to our new America.”

He quotes a 2016 study reporting that nearly half of all prime-working-age male labor-force dropouts—some seven million men—take pain medication daily. That “adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned.”

Mr. Caldwell, in First Things, focuses on the narcotics epidemic: “The scale of the present wave of heroin and opioid abuse is unprecedented. Fifty-two thousand Americans died of overdoses in 2015—about four times as many as died from gun homicides and half again as many as died in car accidents.” Salisbury, Mass., population 8,000, lost one resident in the Vietnam War. “It has lost fifteen to heroin in the last two years.” In four hours last summer 28 people in Huntington, W.Va., population 49,000, overdosed.

The death toll “far eclipses” that of every previous drug crisis. Mr. Trump’s willingness at least to speak of the crisis surely helped him win, Mr. Caldwell observes: “In his inaugural address, President Trump referred to the drug epidemic (among other problems) as ‘carnage.’ Those who call the word an irresponsible exaggeration are wrong.”

These two great pieces in great magazines deserve the deep, focused and alarmed attention of policy makers. We are in the midst of the kind of crises that can do nations in. It is pleasant to chirp, as Speaker Paul Ryan does, of “choice” and “competition” and an end to “paternalistic” thinking on health care. Is it responsive to the moment? Or does it sound like old lyrics from an old hymnal?

I close with Tucker Carlson’s Wednesday night Fox News interview with Mr. Ryan. It cut to the political heart of the matter.

Mr. Carlson questioned the new bill’s elimination of a tax on wealthy investors. “Looking at the last election, was the message of that election really, ‘We need to help investors?’ I mean, the Dow is over 20,000. Are they really the group that needs the help?”

Mr. Ryan answered that the tax had been imposed by ObamaCare. “The trillion-dollar tax cut that this bill represents—that is part of the trillion-dollar tax increase that was in ObamaCare to finance ObamaCare.” It deserves repeal: “It’s bad for economic growth.”

Mr. Carlson: “But the overview here is that all the wealth, basically, in the last 10 years, has stuck to the top end. That’s one of the reasons we’ve had all the political turmoil, as you know. And so, kind of a hard sell to say ‘Yeah, we’re gonna repeal ObamaCare, but we’re gonna send more money to the people who’ve already gotten the richest over the last 10 years.’ I mean, that’s what this does, no? I’m not a leftist, it’s just—that’s true.”

“I’m not that concerned about it,” Mr. Ryan replied. Republicans promised to repeal ObamaCare, and they are.

Maybe he should be concerned.

A Surprising Show of Confidence Trump’s speech was clear, plain, even warm at times. Could we be seeing a capacity to grow?

The president’s speech has been broadly, justly praised. Here, a look at particular aspects of the joint session address, and why it had power.

First, the baseline accomplishment. Much has been said in the press about the sin of normalizing Donald Trump, but with this speech—by being there at the podium in the august House chamber, and operating capably and within established traditions and boundaries—he normalized himself. He doesn’t need the favor anymore.

People watching would have had a better opinion of him by the end of the speech than when they began. And those who abhor Mr. Trump got a glimpse, for once, of what his supporters saw and see in him.

Donald J. TrumpOn CNN Van Jones said—acutely, bravely, yet I think incorrectly—that Mr. Trump became president during the speech. I think instead Mr. Trump was finally understood to be president during the speech—by everyone, even those who oppose him and call him illegitimate. That, for such a unique character, was achievement enough.

Second, it was a good speech. It was clear and plain and at points had a surprising sweetness. He stuck to his usual policy sternness and yet added rhetorical warmth. There was a lot of braggadocio—“A new national pride is sweeping across our nation”—but there was also something more important. To get to it I mention something that is misunderstood about Ronald Reagan.

The cliché is that Reagan’s power was his optimism—he walked into the room with the sun’s rays dancing on his shoulders, and that made everything better. That’s not true. Reagan wasn’t precisely an optimist. He didn’t assume history unspooled each day in the direction of improvement; he didn’t necessarily think the best thing would happen. What was true was that Reagan was confident—in his own powers and those of the American people. He was confident we could make the right decisions and turn things around. People saw that confidence, and it allowed them to feel optimistic.

Confidence, in a president, is important. Mr. Trump’s speech was confident. He rose politically by painting an America in bleak decline, but here he insisted our problems are not irreversible. “Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. . . . The challenges we face as a nation are great. But our people are even greater.”

It showed something like faith, and was powerful. This is one of the things people need, the sense that if we hold together and back the right plans we can get the arrows on the graph going upward again.

There was a heartening plainness. Mr. Trump told a story of meeting with officials and workers from Harley-Davidson. “They proudly displayed five of their magnificent motorcycles, made in the USA, on the front lawn of the White House.” He asked them how they were doing. “They told me—without even complaining, because they have been so mistreated for so long that they’ve become used to it—that it’s very hard to do business with other countries, because they tax our goods at such a high rate.” One country, they said, taxed their motorcycles at 100%. “They weren’t even asking for a change. But I am. . . . I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer.”

Mr. Trump recast his second, forthcoming executive order on immigration as motivated by prudence and a desire to protect: “It is not compassionate but reckless to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.” He spoke of “our friends and allies in the Muslim world.” If he’d spoken this way early on, the first order would not have caused the uproar it did.

On ObamaCare’s repeal and replacement, the key phrase was “stable transition.” That appears to mean: If you now have coverage and previously lacked it, or if you’ve been forced onto a new plan and fear losing it, we’re going to spend the money it takes to protect you.

This will not be unpopular. The American people have watched for a generation as their federal government half-ruined the American health-care system. They won’t find it unjust that the government gives the victims of its efforts a break.

It was good that the president began the speech damning bigotry of all kinds: “We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.” This is not a hard thing to do rhetorically, yet is always important and necessary, because it reminds everyone in this fractious, bubbling, stressed and many-cultured country that we owe each other respect and regard, not only tolerance but affection. We won’t continue as a people unless we get this right.

The president has taken to doing this lately. Why did he resist so long? Maybe in part because a man who believes himself unbiased will find it grating that others insist he personally, publicly, repeatedly oppose the ugly isms. Maybe he feels he has nothing to prove and suspects bowing to the demand is tantamount to conceding that he does. But Mr. Trump did have things to prove, because of the views of a highly vocal sliver of his supporters. In any case, presidents should say the right things.

There is something the leaders of populist, nationalist movements here and in Europe do not understand. They are not powerful, because they are perceived, on some level, by some people, to be racist or narrow or anti-Semitic. They fail to win power—they have low electoral ceilings, or fail to win half the votes—because of this perception. It doesn’t help them, it kills them. Because the majority of people don’t like the smell of sulfur.

Nationalists should actively and publicly reject and rebuke the forces of darkness. “We need them to win”? No, they’re the reason you lose. They’re not numerous, they’re only loud. Draw a line between them and you, raise your ceiling, get yourself a chance at winning. Which, if you are serious about your programs, vision and philosophy, is the point.

Mr. Trump took a lot of steam out of the Democrats. By the time he movingly lauded the beautiful young widow of a Navy SEAL, the faces of the Democrats on the floor had turned glum and grim. They were sinking in their seats. Politicians know when a politician has scored.

Republicans, on the other hand, were buoyed. As they came to understand the speech was not a disaster but a triumph, they got more enthusiastic and happy-looking. As desperate as they are not to do anything, because to decide is to divide, they are also desperate to do something. Maybe they can with Chief Crazy Horse. All the polls will show a bump for the president. They’ll see it as a bump for the party.

It marks, if not a new chapter, a turning of the page. It suggests Mr. Trump may have a capacity to grow into the office, which is so surprising to me as a thought that I hardly want to commit it to paper. But here it is, in the paper.

Washington Still Reels From the Quake of 2016 From the White House’s empty offices to overly giddy CPAC, everyone seems a little lost.

Washington

If Democrats have a brain in their head, they’ll let Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch sail through the Senate. He’s too attractive. He has been frank and respectful in his meetings with them. He’s been candid about the man who nominated him, Donald Trump, to the reported irritation of the president. He is a thinker of clear conservative leanings who cannot be painted as radical because he’s radical as warm milk. His decisions tend to be plain, direct yet highly literate; in one he diagramed a sentence. He’s a friendly persuader with a serious intellectual background (Marshall Scholar at Oxford) and personal dignity.

Sharp and uniform opposition to him would look radical.

Democrats should make critical or reserved speeches at the confirmation hearings next month and then softly vote yes. They should make a show of their desire to be fair, impartial, Constitution-minded. Then they should try to kill the next nomination as a bridge too far, while hiding behind the good faith they showed in accepting Judge Gorsuch.

Do Senate Democrats have a brain in their heads? They do.

It’s good to be Judge Gorsuch. It’s going to be bad to be the man or woman who follows him.

*   *   *

DC EarthquakeEveryone in journalism has tried to sum up the first month of Donald Trump. The problem for all of us is that the act of defining tends to impose form on what is by nature formless. New administrations always are. This one is different only in the difficulty of getting its nominees through, and getting others to join them. Two weeks ago, walking around the Old Executive Office Building, all I could think was how empty and quiet the place seemed. My old office was shut with a big weird lock. The office across the hall had the door open and was brightly lit but was also apparently unoccupied. My impression after an afternoon in the White House complex: The lights are on but nobody’s home.

It can be said of many if not most in Washington that they still have a concussed look. They’re like people after an earthquake. At some point you go out looking for water and provisions and you wind up getting lost because the ground around you has been torn up and old markers flattened.

Among the lost: the American Conservative Union, whose annual Conservative Political Action Conference used to be too sober and now is too giddy.

Hapless congressmen and senators being yelled at in town halls.

And Speaker Paul Ryan, who Wednesday rode a horse along the Rio Grande. He meant to show skeptical conservatives he means it about border security, but he looked like someone on his way to club the serfs.

CPAC, in its famous Milo invitation, was trying to be inclusive and trying to be cool. Inclusive is good, especially toward those who’ve been told, or concluded on their own, that they’re not all that welcome. But you can’t include those who speak sweetly of child sexual abuse. You don’t want them in your tent. As for trying to be cool, conservatives are not cool, that’s what’s cool about them. It’s their job to be serious, thoughtful, mature in their judgment—mature, period. It was excellent, however, on Thursday to see Dan Schneider, the ACU’s executive director, do what the president should have done long ago and go after the so-called alt-right, scoring them as racist, anti-Semitic whack-jobs: “This group,” he said, “they are not us. The alt-right ain’t right at all.”

Well done, mature grown-up. That was cool.

*   *   *

An odd thing about the president—and this has contributed to the general lostness of Washington—is that he doesn’t perform a primary and obvious function of presidents, which is to argue for things. You make a decision, unveil a program, and make a case for its excellence. The other side then argues back. In the ensuing back-and-forth, voters get the contours of what’s being proposed.

This president doesn’t argue, he only announces. He asserts. Previous presidents in their early speeches were always making the case for a certain advancement. Not to do so is a waste of the biggest mic in the world.

The populists or economic nationalists of the Trump administration have, on some level and at the moment, swept the party. Now they’re trying to own it. But you don’t hear from them much about the meaning and content of their endeavor. And the symbolism that keeps cropping up around the White House, or rather Mar-a-Lago, is odd. In Palm Beach, Fla., cabinet members and top administration officials swept into the birthday party of Steve Schwarzman, chairman of the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum. It was black tie, lavish, with trapeze artists and “a massive fireworks display on the Intracoastal Waterway,” as Town & Country reported. Mr. Schwarzman has been admired in this space for his great generosity to Catholic education. And it’s his money, as they say. But it is odd to see such un-self-conscious excess when you’re thinking Populist New Wave.

Early word on the president’s budgetary framework is also startling, and adds to the confusion. He’ll cut waste, he says. Good. Beyond that, his plans sound pretty standard Republican. But Mr. Trump didn’t campaign as a standard Republican. He didn’t stress slashing funding or forcing down the debt. It is legitimate to wonder if Republicans in Congress are trying to tug the White House more toward what used to be called green-eyeshade Republicanism—“we’re just a bunch of accountants and bean-counters”—and away from more Trumpian campaign vows such as infrastructure spending.

This week Mike Allen, in his morning Axios newsletter, reported Capitol Hill is currently overstuffed with legislation, and GOP strategists say there’s a new plan to roll out a big program to rebuild roads and airports. They’ll push it off until next year. The thinking is that Democrats are likelier to back such a costly scheme closer to the midterm elections.

That struck me as exactly wrong. The first year’s legislative agenda defines a new administration. Early programs stand out before everything, in the following three years, becomes a blur. Infrastructure is part of why Donald Trump was hired—he’s the builder, the magnate. It was for his supporters not a secondary but a primary issue—build something, do something. The unions and trade organizations back it, as would Americans who are nervous now whenever they go through a tunnel. Big endeavors can be promising in ways that aren’t always calculable. You can add a mentoring program to get teenagers, especially boys, off their couches and into the world of workers, especially men, who know how to do something and can teach it. That would be valuable to our culture.

The Democrats will have a hard time opposing such a bill in 2018? They’ll have a hard time opposing it now. And constituents aren’t stupid. They’ll remember in ’18 what a congressman didn’t do in ’17.

Anyway, one wonders if the White House is getting snookered by longtime Hill urchins, or snookering itself.

Twenty-sixteen was an earthquake. The ground beneath Washington’s feet shifted. People here need to get over their shock and start recognizing the new lay of the land.

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The White House Needs an Injection of Calm Trump is an unusual character. He’d benefit if his staff included some conventional ones.

Most people don’t live near Washington. They’re not connected to it. They see a new White House on screens—computer, TV. They don’t listen to all the chatter but sometimes turn the sound up.

Over weeks you get a general picture. It yields an impression. The impression lasts.

One month in, what impression would people be getting of the Trump administration? Early dynamism followed by mess. Good executive orders followed by bad, the choice of Neil Gorsuch for the high court followed by the departure of Michael Flynn from the National Security Council.

Nothing about the story of Mr. Flynn is satisfyingly clear. Most people would say discussing the views of the incoming administration with the Russian ambassador would be an anodyne act—harmless, maybe even helpful. But few know exactly what was said. That he misled the vice president about discussing sanctions is bad. That the vice president later vouched for him is embarrassing. That Mr. Flynn’s phone conversations were subject to surveillance is strange. That information about the call or calls was leaked to the press is unprecedented.

Two mysteries need to be solved, and if it takes a formal congressional investigation, then so be it. The first is whether there were indeed unusual Russian contacts with the Trump campaign and transition, and whether they suggest an unhealthy relationship between the president and Russia. The second is: Who is listening to, and leaking information to the press about, not only Mr. Flynn’s conversations but the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders? And what is their motive?

James Baker III, Ed Meese and Michael Deaver

Reagan staff members James Baker III, Ed Meese and Michael Deaver at the White House in 1981.

Is this, as some suggest, “deep state” revenge for the haughty, dismissive way Donald Trump spoke of the U.S. intelligence community during and after the campaign? Is it driven by sincere and legitimate anxieties that the new White House has an unknown relationship with Vladimir Putin’s government that potentially compromises U.S. security, independence of judgment and freedom of action? Is it driven by the antipathy of the permanent government toward Mr. Putin, and a desire to bring down those, like Mr. Trump, who hope for closer relations with Russia? Is it that they’ve seen—and listened to—enough of Mr. Trump to think he’s a screwball, period, and a threat to the republic?

It is a terrible thing if suddenly, in America, there is a government within the government that hates the elected government—and that secretly, silently, and with no accountability, acts on it.

The president complains about leaks in angry tweets. They look weak, as if he’s saying: Hey, America, you better solve this problem!

No, buddy, you solve it.

The Trump administration should shock everyone by demanding a major congressional investigation into the whole dangerous mess. The White House ought to welcome the opportunity to clear the air on the first question and get to the bottom of—and stop—the second.

Back to the screens.

There’s a lot going against the new White House—the mainstream media, the spies, the antic nature of the president himself, the ambivalence of his own party, the rise of the passionate left.

And another thing: the president’s band of exotics.

Mr. Trump is an unusual character and it’s no surprise he surrounded himself with unusual characters. They’re a band of outsiders with an eye to the historical chance. They’re a highly individualistic, highly idiosyncratic crew.

They’re dressed like Supergirl at a party; they glower around in skinny ties and skinny suits with skinny sideburns; they’re telling reporters to please quote them when they say “Shut up and listen.” They are spoofed on TV because they’re so easily spoofable.

And we see a lot of them. Sometimes they are explaining away their boss’s faux pas. Sometimes they’re explaining their own. We see them in fiery, confrontational interviews. They speak quickly, dramatically, vividly.

They aren’t calming things down and inspiring trust and confidence.

In fairness, they’re working in a White House in which they cannot confidently predict their own president’s views, actions and statements. They don’t necessarily know where they stand, long term, with him or one another. (He apparently likes things loosey-goosey. He’s got what he wanted.) They’re under heavy pressure. And like their boss, they’ve never been there before.

But it may mean something that the other night in a speech in Trump-loving Oklahoma, I said of the president’s colorful aides, “They should get off TV,” and the room burst into applause.

They should go and sit in their offices and plan something. White Houses, which are always dramatic places that deal with daily crises, don’t need more drama. They need systems, order, process, calm. They need clear lines of authority and responsibility.

Let the cabinet members, now that they’re confirmed and so officially exist, advance policy and explain thinking. Let the president and the vice president do the asserting and context-giving.

I used to think White Houses needed more independent, brilliant people. This one needs more shy, quiet, process people.

Give more attention to planning than promotion and marketing. If you plan better, you’ll need fewer cleanup crews.

Sit down and have a cup of coffee. Handle the incoming. There’s always enough.

Since the president likes to be compared to Ronald Reagan, and since Reagan had the last unambiguously successful modern presidency, it would be a good investment of time to look at the process by which he accomplished it. Start with Michael Deaver’s memoir, “A Different Drummer.” Deaver, along with Ed Meese and James Baker, was one of the famous troika that ran things. His central insight: He was staff. His job was putting out fires, not starting them.

Mr. Baker, in his memoir, “Work Hard, Study . . . and Keep Out of Politics!,” literally offers a step-by-step guide in how to invent and organize a functioning White House. He knew it was a dramatic moment in history and his president had been painted as a dramatic figure—Hollywood actor turned nuclear cowboy who’ll start a war. So he kept the public part of the White House low-key, organized and focused. Not every pot had to be kept on full boil.

The key decision that kept everything working was that the first year would be devoted to a single issue, the economy, starting with tax cuts. If you turn the economy around, the president thought, everything else becomes possible.

Mr. Baker spent most of his time with the president or in his own office, at his desk or on his couch. There, about once a week, he spoke on background to reporters from the big news organizations. He was giving them insight into what they were seeing. He was usually candid and always candid-seeming. What he was giving them was not dumb, vulgar spin but insight. He didn’t constantly do TV, so interviewers came to see him as a catch and treated him with respect.

That was good for the administration: Important journalists started to understand what it was doing and why. And it was good for Jim Baker. In the ideological abattoir that was the Reagan White House it wasn’t usually his blood that was on the floor.

I know, different world. But some things about that world are worth revisiting, and can be modified to fit the screen.

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What Comes After Acheson’s Creation? He was present at the outset of the old order. His insights could help our leaders develop a new one.

Let’s step back from the daily chaos and look at a big, pressing question. Last fall at a defense forum a significant military figure was asked: If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one big thing you’d give the U.S. military right now?

We’d all been talking about the effects of the sequester and reform of the procurement system and I expected an answer along those lines. Instead he said: We need to know what the U.S. government wants from us. We need to know the overarching plan because if there’s no higher plan we can’t make plans to meet the plan.

This was freshly, bluntly put, and his answer came immediately, without pause.

The world is in crisis. The old order that more or less governed things after World War II has been swept away. The changed world that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall is also over.

We’ve been absorbing this for a while, since at least 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. But what plan are we developing to approach the world as it is now?

Harry Truman with Dean Acheson

Harry Truman with Dean Acheson

I always notice that a day after a terrible tornado hits the Midwest the television crews swarm in and film the victims picking through what’s left. People literally stand where their house was, their neighborhood was. In shock, they point at some flattened debris and say, “That was our living room.” They rummage around, find a photo. “This was my son’s wedding.”

That’s sort of what a lot of those interested in foreign policy have been doing in recent years—staring in shock at the wreckage.

But something has to be rebuilt. Everyone now has to be an architect, or a cement-pourer, or a master craftsman carpenter.

It’s been instructive the past week to reread a small classic of statecraft, “Present at the Creation” by Dean Acheson, published in 1969. As undersecretary and then secretary of state he was involved in the creation of the postwar order.

After the war the world was in crisis, much of it in collapse. “The period was marked by the disappearance of world powers and empires, or their reduction to medium-sized states, and from this wreckage emerged a multiplicity of states . . . all of them largely undeveloped politically and economically. Overshadowing all loomed two dangers to all—the Soviet Union’s new-found power and expansive imperialism, and the development of nuclear weapons.” The Cold War had begun. China was in civil war, about to fall to communism. Europe’s economy had been destroyed. Europe and Asia were “in a state of utter exhaustion and economic dislocation.” The entire world seemed to be “disintegrating.”

What came after the crisis was the Marshall Plan, in which the U.S., itself exhausted by the war, helped its allies, and enemies, survive and resist communism. The objective, as the Truman administration declared it, was not relief but revival—spending American money to bring back agriculture, industry and trade. New financing was needed from Congress, in amounts then thought impossible—hundreds of millions that became billions.

It was an effort appropriate to its time. Apart from its essential good—millions didn’t die of starvation, nations such as Greece did not fall to communism—it brought America more than half a century of the world’s sometimes grudging but mostly enthusiastic admiration. They now knew we were not only a powerful nation but a great people. This was not unhelpful in times of crisis down the road.

It is exciting at a time like this to read of the development of a successful foreign-policy effort from conception to execution. And—how to say it?—Acheson’s first-rate second-rateness is inspiring. This was not a deeply brilliant man, not a grand strategist, but more a manager who was a good judge of others’ concepts. He could see facts—he had sturdy sight—and spy implications. He had the gift of natural confidence. He could also be clueless: One of his most respected aides was the Soviet spy Alger Hiss.

But Acheson was gutsy, willing to throw the long ball, and a first-rate appreciator of the gifts of others. He thought George Marshall, who preceded him as secretary of state, the greatest American military figure since George Washington. He is moving on the subject of Harry Truman. You are lucky if you can love a president you serve, and he did. Unlike FDR, Truman was not devious but plain in his dealings; also unlike FDR, he was not cold at the core but available. After Truman left office, a friend of Acheson’s, visiting the new White House, was told as a man went into the Oval Office: “Oh, he’s going in to cheer up the president.” Acheson’s friend replied, “That’s funny, in our day the president used to cheer us up.”

Acheson: “Harry S. Truman was two men. One was the public figure—peppery, sometimes belligerent, often didactic, the ‘give-’em-hell’ Harry. The other was the patient, modest, considerate and appreciative boss, helpful and understanding in all official matters, affectionate in any private worry or sorrow.” Truman “learned from mistakes (though he seldom admitted them), and did not waste time bemoaning them.”

What is inspiring about Acheson’s first-rate second-rateness is that he’s like a lot of those we have developing foreign policy right now.

Acheson, though he did not present it this way, provides useful lessons for future diplomats in future crises.

Everyone’s in the dark looking for the switch. When you’re in the middle of history the meaning of things is usually unclear. “We all had far more than the familiar difficulty of determining the capabilities and intentions of those who inhabit the planet with us.” In real time most things are obscure. “We groped after interpretations of [events], sometimes reversed lines of action based on earlier views, and hesitated before grasping what now seems obvious.” “Only slowly did it dawn upon us that the whole world structure and order that we had inherited from the nineteenth century was gone.”

Don’t mess things up at the beginning. Acheson’s insight was that it wouldn’t work to put forward the Marshall Plan and then try to sell it to the public. The way to go was to explain to Congress and the public the exact nature of the crisis. This, he believed, would shock both into facing facts. While they were doing that, a plan to deal with the crisis was being developed. “We could not afford a false start.”

Be able to see your work soberly. Keep notes so history will know what happened. “Our efforts for the most part left conditions better than we found them,” Acheson says. Especially in Europe, which was dying and went on to live.

Cheer up. Good things can come of bad times, great things from fiercely imperfect individuals.

Even though you’ll wind up disappointed. All diplomats in the end feel frustrated over missed opportunities and achievements that slipped away. “Alas, that is life. We cannot live our dreams.”

Still to be answered: What is America’s strategy now—our overarching vision, our big theme and intent? What are the priorities? How, now, to navigate the world?

That soldier needs an answer to his question: What do you need from us? What’s the plan?

In Trump’s Washington, Nothing Feels Stable He has overloaded all circuits. Everything is too charged, with sparks and small shocks all over.

Washington

This week in Trump:

We are living through big history and no one here knows where it’s going or how this period ends. Everyone, left, right and center, feels the earth is unsteady under their feet. Too much is happening. Democratic senators boycott confirmation hearings, Iran tests ballistic missiles, President Trump has testy phone calls with prime ministers and it’s quickly leaked to the press, the president tells Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to “go nuclear”—meaning use the so-called nuclear option to get the new Supreme Court nominee through. (No president, ever, should use those words in public; the Senate should ban that hideous, he-man, drama queen of a phrase.) Everyone’s political views are now emotions and everyone now wears their emotions on their faces. People are speaking more loudly and quickly than usual. At parties, dinners and gatherings the decibel level hits the ceiling right away and stays there. No one can hear anything. It somehow seemed right that a 25-pound bobcat escaped from the National Zoo; a Washington Post columnist speculated it fled to Canada. With his usual sense of occasion, the president asked the National Prayer Breakfast to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose ratings on “The Celebrity Apprentice” are “right down the tubes.”

Asylum InmatesMr. Trump has overloaded all circuits. Everything is too charged, with sparks and small shocks all over. “Nothing feels stable,” I mused to a longtime Washington media figure at a dinner the night before the Prayer Breakfast. “Nothing is stable,” she replied. Earlier, on the Hill, a veteran conservative member of Congress, speaking of the president, got a puzzled look: “There’s no calming with him. It’s ‘Look what I can do now!’ ”

Battle lines are sharply drawn and no one is especially interested in understanding the other side. The Trump White House is viewed from the outside as heady and triumphalist. Inside they feel up against it, with the Democrats and the press arrayed against them, half their party’s leaders wishing they’d go away, and with a highly distinctive, not-fully-known quantity as president.

Last week’s executive order on immigration continues to reverberate. There was no Republican in Washington—not one, on the Hill or within the party structure—who did not privately call the order a disaster. Its public defenders argue it put force and focus on efforts to make America safer, that it was long-promised, that it’s a pause, not a ban, and one of relatively narrow scope. But it could have been done without such expense if it had been done without surprise and with coordination. You have to help your allies in the agencies and on the Hill know, understand and be able to defend what you’re doing. Instead, they were ignored, especially lawmakers. The Congress of the United States is not composed of meek and modest human beings. They were not amused to spend the days after the order taking phone calls from frightened, angry constituents and donors. (A senator, on its suddenness and the anguish at the airports: “They couldn’t do a three-day grace period?”)
Illustration: Martin Kozlowski

What went wrong has been fully adjudicated in the press. But this should be said: The president and his advisers are confusing boldness with aggression. They mean to make breakthroughs and instead cause breakdowns. The overcharged circuits are leaving them singed, too. People don’t respect you when you create chaos. Prudence is not weakness, and carefulness is a virtue, not a vice.

The handling of the order allowed the organized left to show its might, igniting big demonstrations throughout major cities. And not only downtown—they had to make it out to the airport to give the media the pictures, and they did. In Washington I witnessed a demonstration of many thousands of people carrying individualized, hand-lettered signs.

If all this was spontaneous, the left is strong indeed. If it was a matter of superior organization, that’s impressive too.

You should never let your enemy know its own strength. They discovered it in the Women’s March, know it more deeply now, and demonstrated it to Democrats on the Hill. It was after the demonstrations that Democratic senators started boycotting the confirmation hearings. They now have their own tea party to push them around.

The handling of the order further legitimized the desire of many congressional Republicans to distance themselves from the president, something they feel they’ll eventually have to do anyway because they know how to evaluate political horse flesh, and when they look at him they see Chief Crazy Horse.

The furtiveness and timing of the order opened the administration to charges of smallness and bigotry and obscured a widening of the government’s lens on refugees—the welcome and justified prioritizing of persecuted religious minorities, including the Christians and Yazidis of Syria.

It has seemed to me the administration is engaged in a populist correction that springs in part from the insight that America at this point in its political history—after the crash of ’08 and the long foreign and internal cultural wars, and in the age of terror—is going to go in either of two directions, a moderate-populist one or a socialist one, and the former is vastly preferable. But the administration must become careful never to allow its populism to be turned into something that looks dark, as if it’s not aimed at helping the ignored but at hurting various enemy groups. Of all political tendencies populism can never allow itself to appear dark, because its roots are in part emotional and because it depends on public esteem. Americans want an America that looks after itself, but they don’t admire bigotry or respect prejudice. They’re embarrassed by it.

The announcement of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch seemed to me both horrifying and wonderfully effective. A jubilant, partisan-seeming rally in the august East Room is lowering, undignified, not right. It is also true it was a total hit, with a highly sane speech by the president that had a rather stirring ending: “Judge Gorsuch, the podium, sir, is yours.”

Gorsuch: Jimmy Stewart. His spoken thoughts were modest, impressive: “When we judges don our black robes, it doesn’t make us any smarter, but it does serve as a reminder of what’s expected of us: impartiality and independence, collegiality and courage.” When Mr. Trump shook his hand in a way that seemed intended to tug Gorsuch toward him, Gorsuch literally stood his ground, kept his right arm fully extended, and did not come closer.

No one is going to take this guy down.

Judge Gorsuch reads Dickens; he quoted “Bleak House” in a 2009 decision. He writes clearly, a former clerk told me, because his grounding in legal philosophy allows him to proceed with simplicity. You don’t have to get fancy when you know what you’re doing. He loved Antonin Scalia but unlike Scalia “there is no acid in his pen.” He is a respectful persuader. It is reported that upon being nominated his first phone call was to Merrick Garland. If that is true the Court is about to get classier.

Democrats leveled the usual precooked, reheatable criticisms—he is for corporations and against women—and looked dopey and unusually insincere. They’re going to lose on this one and on some level probably know they should.

Trump Tries to Build a ‘Different Party’ The Democrats have no playbook for dealing with a Republican who’s a populist.

To see Week One of the Trump administration clearly, you have to do two things.

First, put to one side the incendiary comments, which now feel like small and daily data points within a greater cloud of crazy. Put aside the president’s preoccupations with crowd size, popularity, illegal voters—all the things he says that hurt him and not his foes. For the first time we have a president of whom people ask, with equanimity, each night at dinner tables: “What nutty thing did he say today?” No one has to explain who “he” is. Amazingly, we’re getting used to this. So is the world. Everything has more give than we think.

Meeting with the International Brotherhood of Carpenters

Meeting with the International Brotherhood of Carpenters

Second, with all the fighting over what’s happening politically, and the bitter tensions that are not abating, there is a personal imperative for most of us: Maintain your composure—your political and personal composure, your journalistic composure. Do not let this time rob you of your peace. You’ll be no good for anything if it does, and you won’t see anything clearly.

Substantively, what we’ve seen the past week was daring and bold. The administration is taking shape before our eyes, with unusual speed. Normally it takes time for the ideological disposition of an administration to emerge. Normally presidents ease into the job, rejecting the dramatic: “Don’t frighten the horses.”

What happened from day one was a dramatic, almost daily barrage of executive orders. Among them: reinstating the 1984 ban on U.S. taxpayer funding of groups that provide abortions overseas; declaring the intention to create a physical barrier to secure the border with Mexico; moving forward on construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines; relieving the burdens of ObamaCare; and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

All this marked more than the keeping of political promises, though that’s startling enough. It was a programmatic expression of the central assertion of President Trump’s inaugural address: I am a populist independent, allied not with the two major parties but with the working men and women of America. That it came like a barrage—Boom, pipeline! Boom, trade! Boom, abortion!—made it more unmistakable. But in case you missed his point, he told Maggie Haberman of the New York Times that yes, he’s chosen a presidential portrait to put in the Oval Office. It is fiery Andrew Jackson, tormentor of elites, champion of the 19th century’s deplorables.

The significance and velocity of the orders unnerved and upset Mr. Trump’s critics and took aback some of his friends. But those orders—even though their use makes the presidency more imperial, even though it’s no way to govern, even though Mr. Obama did it, too—will likely not be unpopular in the country. It actually looked as if someone was doing something.

More important than the orders were the White House meetings. One was a breakfast with a dozen major CEOs. They looked happy as frolicking puppies in the photo-op, and afterward talked about jobs. Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin said she was “encouraged by the president’s commitment to reduce barriers to job creation.” In a statement after the meeting, the glassmaker Corning, whose CEO attended, announced plans to expand its U.S. manufacturing base significantly over the next few years. Because I live in New York and work at the Journal, I see and talk to American CEOs. I’ve never heard them bang on about a need to boost American jobs and manufacturing, ever. They usually talk about targeted microloans in India, and robots.

More important still—the most important moment of the first week—was the meeting with union leaders. Mr. Trump gave them almost an hour and a half. “The president treated us with respect, not only our organization but our members,” said Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, by telephone. Liuna had not endorsed Trump in the campaign, but Mr. O’Sullivan saw the meeting’s timing as an expression of respect: “He’s inaugurated on Friday and we’re invited in Monday to have a substantial conversation.” The entire Trump top staff was there, including the vice president: “His whole team—we were very impressed.” They talked infrastructure, trade and energy. “The whole meeting was about middle class jobs, how do we create more?” Mr. O’Sullivan believes the Keystone pipeline will eventually generate more than 40,000 jobs. Mr. O’Sullivan said he hopes fixing “our crumbling transportation infrastructure” will be “the largest jobs program in the country.”

The new president gave them a tour of the Oval Office. Presidents tend to develop a line of patter about the rug, the color of the drapes. Did Mr. Trump direct things in that way? No. “He gave us free rein, to tell you the truth.”

The lengthy, public and early meeting with the union leaders was, among other things, first-class, primo political pocket-picking. The Trump White House was showing the Democratic Party that one of its traditional constituent groups is up for grabs and happy to do business with a new friend. It was also telling those Republicans too stupid to twig onto it yet that the GOP is going to be something it’s actually been within living memory: the party of working men and women, a friend of those who feel besieged.

It’s a mistake for observers in Washington and New York to fixate on Mr. Trump’s daily faux pas at the expense of the political meaning of what he’s doing. He’s changing the face of the GOP. It is a mistake, too, to see Mr. Trump’s tweet on how Chicago had better solve its problem with violent crime or he’ll “send in the Feds,” as merely stupid—just a tweet that raises the question “What does ‘send in the Feds’ mean?” If you’re a parent in a tough Chicago neighborhood, you’d be heartened to think the feds might help. You’d be happy the president noticed. You’d say, “Go, Trump!”

All week I thought of one of the best pieces on the meaning of Trumpism, from last May, by Joshua Green in Bloomberg Businessweek. Mr. Trump suggested to Mr. Green his stands were not as ad hoc and ideologically jumbled as they seemed, that they were in fact intentional. He was creating “a worker’s party,” a “party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years.” “Five, 10 years from now—different party,” he said of the GOP.

He’s trying to make it look different right now. Many Americans, and not only Trump supporters, will like this.

And here is the important political point: Democrats don’t have a playbook for this. They have a playbook to use against normal Republicans: You’re cold, greedy, racist, sexist elitists who hate the little guy.

They don’t have a playbook to use against a political figure like Mr. Trump yet, because he jumbles all the categories. Democrats will wobble around, see what works. For now they’ll stick with saying he’s scary, unstable, right-wing.

It’s going to take them a while to develop a playbook against an independent populist, some of whose advisers hate Republicans more than they do.

Trump’s Herky-Jerky First Week It takes a while for any administration to settle down. But this one is off to an unusually awkward start.

Last week’s column was on the inauguration. This week’s, up tomorrow night, will be a look at President Trump’s first days in office. Here I mention smaller things I saw or thought in Washington last week, as the Trump administration geared up to begin.

Every new administration begins awkwardly. New White Houses are always herky-jerky, always on some level a months-long calamity, and each administration tries to hide its particular level of chaos from the press. (The Obama administration pretty much succeeded here; the Clinton administration did not.) But the Trump Hundred Days looks to be more awkward than usual.

Congressional leaders at the White House

Congressional leaders at the White House

There are many reasons. A lot of Trump aides and staffers in the White House are new to government. Because they’re not veterans they have to learn the basics—what WHO is, what OPL is, how the staffing system works. Not all jobs are filled. Not all lines of authority are clear. Not everyone understands that old ways and systems exist for a reason. Getting your information together for the FBI field investigation, getting your temporary pass—everyone’s drinking from a fire hose.

It takes a while for any administration to settle down.

Then there are the facts specific and unique to this administration. The talk in Washington all last week among experienced and mostly skeptical observers, some of whom had helped in the transition, was that there are too many individual power centers around Donald Trump with too many significant players who have their own small armies of loyalists.

It was said that Reince Priebus, the new chief of staff, will never be able to herd these cats. It was said the cats will use him as a scratching post.

Among Republicans who remember these things, there was talk of the spokes-of-the-wheel White House management style, with the president as the hub, and the old Jim Baker model, which was occasionally awkward and guaranteed a certain amount of jockeying and mischief—but worked. That was the Reagan White House troika, in which Mike Deaver was in charge of public presentation, Ed Meese in charge of domestic policy development and Mr. Baker, the chief of staff, in charge of coordinating everything and essentially running the joint. He took final problems to the president; he executed decisions; he spoke for the administration in friendly, off the record meetings with the press.

Those who observed the transition say Mr. Trump will, inevitably and due to nature and habit, be a spokes-of-the-wheel chief executive, when he’d be better off with a strong chief of staff and clear lines.

We’ll see. So will he. White House management styles evolve, usually as early trouble develops.

And there is the unusual nature of Mr. Trump himself. There is a dynamic that is continuing with Mr. Trump as president that has been true of him since he announced for the presidency 19 months ago. It is that he makes it hard for potential allies to come to his side. There are men and women on the Hill who’d back him more colorfully and forcefully but they know the minute they do he’ll do something that embarrasses them—launch a tirade, send a tweet, say something awful—and that they’ll have to defend. They don’t understand why he harms himself, and they don’t wish the harm to wash over them. They keep a discreet distance in case they’ll some day have to run for their lives.

He could make it so much easier for them, but he can’t.

His relationship with Republicans on the Hill remains tentative and provisional. There are many reasons for this, not only his personality. What will nudge them more firmly into his corner will be his ability to develop broad popularity within the country. If Mr. Trump can, over the next few weeks and months, get his approval ratings going up, and then up substantially, that will make a big difference. His personality isn’t going to be what wins over Americans. He doesn’t have to go on “Between Two Ferns” or “Ellen.” Right now for him it will all come down to policy decisions. If those decisions garner support it will show up in the polls. (More on that tomorrow.) A good number of senators and congressmen on the GOP side, maybe most, can’t tell what’s popular anymore, but they can read a poll. If they start to hear, when they’re home, “Be good to my guy Donald,” that will make a difference, too.

A note on how tentative is President Trump’s support among Washington Republicans, especially senators, congressmen and members of the political and journalistic class. I witnessed again and again last week what I now think of as the Trump do-si-do.

Two men who are acquainted bump into each other at a social gathering. “So!” says the first man. “Yup!” says the second. They stand looking for clues in the eyes, the face. A shrug means one thing, a grin means something else.

“We feeling good?”

“I am!” If they’re both happy they mind-meld on hopes, if they’re unhappy they mind-meld on fears. If one is happy and the other not, they pat each other’s arms and part with a pleasantry as they slide by. I saw this over and over.