Which Trump will show up at the White House?
— We’ve seen two Donald Trumps in the past week. Which one will arrive at the White House on Inauguration Day?
The combative Trump who called President Obama “a disaster” and Hillary Clinton “a criminal,” or the gracious Trump who praised them after he won?
The vengeful Trump who vowed that Paul Ryan would pay if he didn’t support him fully, or the party-unifying Trump who met cordially with Ryan last week?
The prickly Trump who tweeted on Thursday about “professional protesters, incited by the media,” or the statesmanlike Trump who tweeted on Friday that he loved the demonstrators’ passion?
We won’t know for a while. It’s possible that Trump hasn’t decided yet.
More than most presidentselect, Trump is still something of a blank slate — despite the millions of words he has spoken over the last year. He’s never held public office. He’s still an outsider in his own party. His attachment to his purported policies is unclear and subject to constant revision.
Almost the only thing we know for certain about Trump is that he is driven by a boundless will to win whatever competition he’s in. “My life has been about winning,” he told an interviewer last year.
But “winning” was easy to define in the heat of a presidential campaign, with an election as its goal.
The test Trump faces now is an essay question, not a zero-sum contest: What will his definition of “winning” be once he’s president?
We’ll get an early clue from one of his first decisions: whom he names as White House chief of staff.
Trump aides last week said two of the leading candidates were Stephen K. Bannon, the chief strategist for his presidential campaign, and Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
They represent a clear choice between two versions of Republicanism in the new Trump era. Bannon, head of the Breitbart News organization, is an apostle of the downmarket, blue-collar populism that helped Trump win millions of votes in the Rust Belt — and a defender of the “alt-right” camp that attracted white nationalists to the campaign. Priebus, by contrast, is a more conventional conservative, a Wisconsin party operative who built an effective organization at the RNC. Bannon has suggested that Ryan should be ousted as speaker of the House; Priebus is a Ryan fan.
The divide is more than ideo-
logical. Bannon and Priebus represent competing definitions of what a Trump presidency would be about and how it would govern. Long before Trump, Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye argued that there are two kinds of presidencies: transformational and transactional. Transformational presidents seek to change the political landscape in fundamental ways; transactional presidents seek to manage the landscape pretty much as it is.
If Trump chooses Bannon, that will suggest that he wants to be a transformational president — that he wants to remake the Republican Party, and that he won’t hesitate to clash with Ryan and GOP congressional leaders if they get in his way (for example, by trying to rein in his plans for a big-spending infrastructure program).
If he chooses Priebus, that will suggest that he’s chosen a less disruptive transactional strategy, and that he’ll be willing to bargain with GOP leaders in Congress over priorities and spending levels. Indeed, some Republican establishment leaders are still hoping that Trump will subcontract much of his legislative agenda to Ryan and Senate leader Mitch McConnell.
Bannon would be a deeply polarizing figure; Democrats — and many Republicans — already think he’s an extremist. His appointment would launch the Trump administration into a virtual civil war within the GOP. By the end of last week, Republicans in Congress were lobbying against his selection, arguing that he’d mire the new president in a conflict he doesn’t need. (Indeed, one aide suggested to me that Bannon’s name had been leaked to make the eventual appointment of Preibus — or anyone else — more palatable.)
Trump was remarkably flexible during the campaign, even on issues at the core of his candidacy. His proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States turned into a milder suggestion for “extreme vetting.” His vow to deport millions of undocumented immigrants became a decision for “a later date.” His threat to withdraw U.S. troops from Europe, he said, was mostly a negotiating chip.
But in the weeks before his inauguration, he has to make real decisions that aren’t so easily undone: the appointments to his White House staff and other top jobs. An ancient rule in Washington holds that personnel is policy. Through his choices, we will soon discover what kind of president this chimerical man may turn out to be.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle. firstname.lastname@example.org