The entire life of Donald J. Trump has been a study in shifting character — from the New York playboy and brash investor who rose to fame in the 1980s, to the wizened, demanding businessman who dominated The Apprentice, to the rabble-rousing ideologue who captured the Republican nomination.
Now that Trump has been elected President, said New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to a packed audience at Tulane on Wednesday night, no one really has any idea what kind of character he will assume next.
Dowd, who covered the White House during the George H.W. Bush administration, moved to the opinion desk in 1995 and won a Pulitzer in 1999 for her columns about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, said she has never viewed her work as an examination of policies or political philosophies. Instead, she said, she has always sought to describe political power itself, in an almost “Game of Thrones”-style approach to Washington that has kept her at odds with Republicans and the Clintons alike.
Along the way, she said, she has interacted with Trump personally a number of times. But watching him win the Presidency, she said, was “the most shocking night of my professional life” — and likely Trump’s as well.
“He is more shocked than anyone,” Dowd said.
The unbroken attention to the President naturally breeds narcissism inside the White House, but narcissism is already a defining characteristic of the incoming President. She asked him personally over the summer how he thought it would affect him, but he truly believes he can adapt himself to any situation.
When he met with the New York Times editorial board, Trump signaled that he would shift away from the stances he espoused during the Republican primary into a more pragmatic leader, even promising that he would be a President the New York Times would love, Dowd said. And by winning seemingly out of nowhere, seemingly without owing anyone his victory, he does have a sort of blank slate from which to build his Presidency.
“Nobody knows who he’s going to surround himself with,” Dowd said.
The first hints are in his first actual hires — conservative ideologue Mike Pence as his running mate, Republican workhorse Reince Priebus as his chief of staff, and alt-right bomb thrower Steve Bannon as his chief strategist. Not an ideologue himself, Trump may cede the most of his administration’s policy to them (as he is said to have offered Ohio Gov. John Kasich), while serving as a more ceremonial head of government himself.
“He’s going to slap his name on it, but somebody else is going to be doing the work,” Dowd said.
In that case, Dowd said, the direction he tries to lead the country will be more determined by who wins the power struggles he is establishing among his top subordinates. The concern, however, is Trump’s noted tendency to be swayed both by flattery and whomever gets the last word with him on an issue.
“I think the danger with Trump is going to be his susceptibility to flattery,” Dowd said, noting that the great literature of the world is rife with tragic examples of such easily-influenced leaders. She added, “If he’s completely malleable, it will be utter chaos.”
Dowd’s criticism of Trump contained no defense of Democrats, however. She rejected the audience questions suggesting that Hillary Clinton lost the election because of her gender (Michelle Obama, “the best politician in the country,” might have been able to beat him, Dowd said) or vote-suppression. Instead, the Democratic Party began by trying to suppress Bernie Sanders instead of understanding why he was connecting to voters.
The party failed to understand how little appetite the country had for another Clinton presidency, and Clinton made unforced errors by through her personal email servers and her top-dollar speeches to Wall Street banks. Her campaign painted Trump as a villain, not realizing that they were reinforcing his message that he would dramatically change Washington. Clinton’s own advisers, meanwhile, struggled to craft a core message for her beyond “It’s my turn, dammit,” and even brushed off Bill Clinton’s warnings about alienating blue-collar white men in the Midwest.
“Something has gone wrong with how the Democrats talk to the working class, and they’ve just got to fix that,” Dowd said.
While different news outlets covered Trump differently — TV news in particular was manipulated by him for too long — Dowd rejected the idea that the media is to blame for Trump’s election as well. They were slow on the uptake, perhaps, because no previous candidate was so adept in changing statements overnight, but ultimately held his feet to the fire on a whole host of issues.
Now, New York Times subscriptions have gone up dramatically since the election, Dowd said, heralding yet another turn in the complex dance between the media and the halls of power it covers.
“He is obsessively focused on us, and we are obsessively focused on him,” Dowd said, “so I think it’s going to be an interesting relationship.”
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