Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, like the business career that preceded it, was unpredictable, undisciplined and unreliable. Despite those qualities — or perhaps, in part, because of them — it was also successful.
So what should we expect from President-elect Trump, mindful that his path to the White House has defied expectations at every turn?
Some of Trump’s ambitions have been clearly telegraphed: He plans to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, deport millions of criminal immigrants, unwind trade deals dating back more than two decades and repeal Obamacare. He has also promised to cut taxes and eliminate numerous government regulations — including power plant rules designed to combat global warming.
With the presidential pen and a friendly Republican Congress, Trump should have little trouble delivering on those promises.
But Trump’s campaign never really revolved around specific policy prescriptions. His agenda is not anchored to ideology but rather shaped by instinct and expedience.
“Trump operates very much from his gut,” said David Cay Johnston, author of The Making of Donald Trump. “The guiding philosophy of Trump is whatever is in it for his interests at the moment.”
When his initial tax plan prompted sticker shock among fiscal watchdogs, Trump readily shaved trillions of dollars off the bottom line. (His new plan is still a budget buster, though.) His impulsive call to ban Muslim immigrants gradually morphed into a vague prescription for “extreme vetting.” And he hastily concocted a plan to help working parents only after his daughter trumpeted a vaporware version at the GOP convention.
That flexibility seems to be just fine with tens of millions of supporters who trust Trump’s instincts and assume his success will boost the country as a whole. The campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” which Trump trademarked just days after the 2012 election, is both vague and malleable enough to accommodate whatever nostalgic and aspirational vision his followers want to attach to it.
Supporters point to the way Trump rescued a New York skating rink that languished for years in the 1980s under city government supervision.
“What had taken the city over half a decade to botch, my father completed in less than six months, two months ahead of schedule and over a million dollars under budget,” Eric Trump told delegates at the Republican National Convention.
Backers hope the incoming president will bring similar accountability to the federal government.
One of Trump’s first tasks will be staffing up for a new administration. The celebrity businessman who turned “You’re fired!” into a catchphrase will soon be doing a lot of hiring.
“I will harness the creative talents of our people,” Trump told supporters at a victory party early Wednesday. “And we will call upon the best and brightest to leverage their tremendous talent for the benefit of all.”
Friends say assembling high-performing teams is one of the president-elect’s strengths.
“He pushes everybody around him, including you, through comfort barriers that they never thought they could ever shatter,” said Colony Capital CEO Tom Barrack, who delivered a testimonial for Trump at the party convention in July.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka told delegates her father has always promoted on the basis of merit.
“Competence in the building trades is easy to spot,” she said at the convention in July. “And incompetence is impossible to hide.”
In politics and in business, Trump has kept his organizations lean. He had only about one-tenth of the staff Hillary Clinton had, heading into the final months of the campaign.
Trump’s aides are often long on loyalty and short on formal credentials. Politico noted that the chief operating officer of the Trump Organization was initially hired to be a bodyguard, after Trump spotted him working security at the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
Trump may delegate, but there’s no doubt who’s in charge. Even if he fills his Cabinet with big personalities — Newt Gingrich has been floated for secretary of state and Rudy Giuliani for attorney general — Trump is not likely to share the spotlight.
“The only quote that matters is a quote from me!” Trump tweeted this summer, urging journalists to pay no attention to his subordinates. As late as Friday, he boasted that he didn’t need other celebrities to attract large crowds to his rallies.
“I didn’t have to bring JLo or Jay Z,” Trump said, mocking Hillary Clinton’s reliance on big-name warmup acts. “I am here all by myself.”
Trump, who prides himself on being a counter-puncher, can also be expected to use the levers of government to target his political rivals. He has already threatened on live television to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton.
“Trump’s philosophy, which he’s written and spoken about for many years, is to get revenge,” Johnston said.
Once Trump is in the White House, the news media will remain firmly focused on the new commander in chief.
“Donald is the most masterful manipulator of the conventions of journalism I’ve ever seen,” said Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for The New York Times.
Trump has long believed that even bad publicity is better than no publicity. Surprising and provocative statements are both a tool to keep the audience paying attention and a negotiating tactic.
“I always say we have to be unpredictable,” Trump told the Washington Post editorial board.
Everything for Trump is a negotiation. And much of his campaign was based on the idea that the U.S. has been getting a bad bargain.
“You look at what the world is doing to us at every level, whether it’s militarily or in trade or so many other levels, the world is taking advantage of the United States,” Trump told CNN. “And it’s driving us into literally being a third-world nation.”
As a businessman, Trump has a long history of using pressure tactics to drive hard bargains. USA Today found hundreds of examples in which employees and contractors accused Trump of not paying them for their work. They sometimes settled for less than they were owed, rather than face a lengthy legal battle against Trump and his deep pockets.
Similarly, Trump argues that if the U.S. puts pressure on other countries — by imposing import tariffs or demanding payment for military protection — they’ll quickly back down.
Some foreign policy scholars are not convinced this zero-sum mindset is appropriate.
“By threatening to drive harder bargains, he might manage to eke out a slightly larger share of the pie,” said Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “But he also threatens to blow up that pie in the process.”
The stock market has sent clear signals that investors are worried about the economic fallout from a Trump administration. According to one estimate, the S&P 500 index will be worth 12 percent less under Trump than it would have been had Clinton been elected.
Count on the president-elect to loudly hype any success while downplaying any setback. And if that requires bending the truth a bit, so be it.
“People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” Trump wrote in his best-selling 1987 book The Art of the Deal. “It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”
If history is any guide, the new Trump administration will not be overly constrained by facts.
“When you have a huge crowd, and Trump draws huge crowds, there’s no need to exaggerate,” Johnston said. “Except in Donald’s mind where big is never big enough.”
Don’t expect that to stop now that he has achieved the biggest and most powerful office in the land.