We are all in transition these days. Washington is getting used to the idea of a new and very different president, who is getting used to the idea of Washington.
One thing we are learning about the mind of President-elect Donald Trump is that his train of thought rarely runs on a single track.
Consider the Cabinet announcements this week, dramatically at odds with those of the previous week. Trump named South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as United Nations ambassador and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.
Critics will no doubt dissect these choices, including the curious fit between the resumes and the new duties of Haley and Ben Carson, who has been discussed as secretary of housing and urban development. DeVos will displease teacher unions, among others. But all are mainstream GOP picks who might have been named by any new Republican president, or by the party’s national chairman, Reince Priebus, who happens to be the new White House chief of staff.
And all stand in contrast to the hardcore crew that emerged in Trump’s first week of cabinetmaking.
The biggest waves followed the emergence of former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon as the president’s senior adviser. But Bannon, who had been CEO of the Trump campaign since August, was soon followed by Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, former Gen. Mike Flynn as national security adviser and Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo as director of the CIA. Trump also introduced his old pal Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, as a potential secretary of state.
Many noticed that these early picks were all white males, but the selections also shared an early and constant faith in Trump’s candidacy and a deep animosity toward the administration of President Obama — especially his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
Bannon and Breitbart have made a crusade of prosecuting Clinton, and Giuliani has been on the anti-Clinton bus for many years. Sessions was not only Trump’s first (and almost only) backer in the Senate, he has been a Clinton antagonist from the 1990s on. Pompeo was one of two Republicans who refused to accept the report of the special congressional probe into the 2012 Benghazi tragedy because its scathing report was not critical enough of Hillary Clinton.
Beyond the Cabinet picks there were the media stories about alt-right white nationalists rallying near the White House and giving Nazi salutes for the cameras. Trump himself got into the act, as usual via Twitter, denouncing the cast of Hamilton for sending a message from the stage to Vice President-elect Mike Pence and snarling at a parody of himself on Saturday Night Live.
For a few days, exultation ruled on the right, while more traditional conservatives shuddered. And of course everyone who thought Trump could never be president in the first place was simply in shock.
But just as this narrative sank in, Trump switched to diversity and moderation in the second wave of Cabinet choices. Even more jarring was the reversal on the media front. On Monday, Trump and Priebus arranged a sit-down with The New York Times.
If not quite the nemesis of candidate Trump, the Times has surely been one of his most strident critics. The editors and writers who attended the meeting showed no sign of repentance, yet also seemed open to the new reality. The man they said could not be president is going to be president.
For his part, Trump offered up several gestures of accommodation. In addition to admitting he reads the Times (voraciously, by some accounts), he called it “a great, great American jewel, a world jewel” as though he had not called it “the failing NYTimes” on Twitter that very morning.
Telling the journalists “I hope we can all get along,” Trump seemed to have forgotten the Times editorial board called him “the worst [presidential] nominee put forward by a major party in modern American history.”
The Times‘ coverage of the confab spoke of “hope” and “signs of moderation.” Trump said he was keeping “an open mind” about climate change, had turned against the idea of torturing terror suspects and no longer wished to pursue the criminal prosecution of Hillary Clinton as he had promised to do in their second debate.
So when people talk about the presidential transition period, is it Trump going through a transition or is it the rest of us?
For many who had thought they knew what to expect — either from the election itself or from a prospective Trump presidency — this is a time of transition to reality. He may not be the deranged demagogue feared by his opponents, or the agent of the right’s revenge — and least of all the populist hero of forgotten America.
What is necessary now is a profound change of perspective for the vast majority of us who have gazed upon the Trump phenomenon all year with disbelief. That includes those who thought he could never be nominated, or never make it through a fall campaign, or accumulate enough votes in the Electoral College. It also includes those who thought they knew what a Trump presidency would look like, because that is still a work very much in progress.
Some therapists speak of “radical acceptance.” Oversimplified, the phrase implies a rigorous mental determination to meet head on the most powerful negatives in our lives: grief, loss, disease, disappointment. All of us experience these emotions, in varying degrees at various times. But for many, they are a continuing, even lifelong challenge. Attempting to deny that something has happened, or to find some exemption from the consequences, only prolongs the worst phase of the struggle.
There seemed to be something of that at work in Trump’s meeting at the Times. How that specific relationship develops may be an indicator of Trump’s acceptance by the media and of the media. But ultimately, the more important determination will take place among the voters — including those who voted for Trump as well as those who did not.