Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband Mitch McConnell check out the stage during preparation for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 17. President-elect Donald Trump has picked Elaine Chao to become his transportation secretary. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
The prevailing opinion on President-elect Donald Trump is that he’s unpredictable, a man of no fixed views who transcends traditional notions of right and left.
“Donald Trump is post-ideological,” Trump’s campaign pollster, Tony Fabrizio, said at a Harvard University conference last week.
With Trump, “you will have no idea each morning what’s going to happen,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said earlier, “because he will have no idea.”
Maybe. But if you watch what Trump does, not what he says — which at this point, mostly means the choices he makes for Cabinet positions — he doesn’t look unusual at all.
In Trump’s picks for economic and domestic policymaking jobs, there’s a consistent underlying thread. And no, it’s not that so many of them are billionaires.
It’s Republican orthodoxy. Trump’s choices have all been thoroughgoing conservatives who believe in the free market, deregulation and, wherever possible, privatization of government functions.
Most of them could have been nominated by any GOP nominee, including Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.
There’s nary a populist among them – not even the conservative kind.
“Conservatives are happy,” Scott Reed, a political advisor to the business-establishment U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told me. “It’s a mainstream conservative list of very competent people.”
Take a look at the names.
Steven Mnuchin, the choice for Treasury, is a billionaire who worked for Goldman Sachs before buying a bank of his own. (Like Trump, he was once a Democrat, but he’s a Republican now.) Mnuchin says his first priority is cutting taxes, especially corporate taxes.
Wilbur Ross, the Commerce secretary in waiting, is another billionaire investor. His main cause is negotiating better trade deals, but he also wants to dismantle most of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.
Tom Price, at Health and Human services, is a six-term GOP congressman who wants Medicare and Medicaid revamped and managed mostly by the private sector – once Obamacare is repealed, of course.
Betsy DeVos, the choice for Education, is a champion of privately run charter schools and voucher plans to help parents pay private school tuition. Before Trump, she supported Jeb Bush.
At Transportation, Elaine Chao spent eight years in George W. Bush’s Cabinet, and she’s married to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. It’s hard to get much more establishment than that.
Ben Carson, the former neurosurgeon, may add a dash of eccentricity at Housing and Urban Development — in part because he has no real experience in housing policy — but his views are pretty standard for the GOP. Carson once called fair housing a "failed socialist experiment" and told a television interviewer that “poverty is really more of a choice than anything else.”
There’s not a populist insurrectionist in the bunch.
“This is a business-friendly Cabinet of pragmatists,” a top corporate lobbyist in Washington told me, asking for anonymity to protect his multinational clients. “These are people orthodox Republicans can work with.”
What happened to all the populism in Trump’s platform that made him the champion of so many white working-class voters? It’s been quietly downsized since election day.
The wall Trump promised to build along the southern border is now a fence.
The trillion-dollar infrastructure program to build roads, bridges and airports has shrunk to $550 billion, and most of that — if Congress agrees — will be private sector investment, not government money.
“Drain the swamp?” Yes, there’s a rule barring lobbyists from serving in the transition — but they can get around it simply by revoking their lobbying registration.
Trump and Ross say they still plan to renegotiate NAFTA and other trade deals, but they plan to do it patiently, not abruptly. “Tariffs are the last thing,” Ross told CNBC last week. “Tariffs are part of the negotiation.”
That doesn’t mean Trump has forgotten his working-class voters.
He’s offered them a series of grand gestures. He’s renounced his salary as president. He’s said he’ll cancel the contract for a new Air Force One to save money. He jawboned Carrier into keeping 730 jobs in Indiana in exchange for $7 million in tax credits.
All brilliant marketing, and enough to launch a victory tour – rallies in Ohio last week, North Carolina Tuesday night, Iowa and Michigan next.
So far, in practice, Trumpism looks like mainstream conservatism plus tougher trade negotiations – and now, circuses. Just like the campaign.