Never known to mince his words, Donald Trump tweeted tetchily in spring that, “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!” He was referring to the state’s governor, a rising star in the Republican Party who had thrown her weight behind Marco Rubio, Trump’s rival for presidential nomination in the party primaries. Some time earlier, Trump had said on TV that Haley, who is of Indian-American descent, was “very weak on illegal immigration” and doubted if he could work with her.
A week is a long time in politics; half a year is nearly an eternity. Come winter and Haley finds herself among a host of former detractors and opponents whom Trump, now the president-elect, has tapped for his cabinet. Their ranks include Betsy DeVos, another woman and former Rubio supporter; Ben Carson, a rival whom Trump called names and accused of lying during the primaries; and, possibly, Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee whom Trump considered “one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics”. They join an array of long-time Trump loyalists expected to take up key positions in the upcoming administration, including Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, campaign manager Steve Bannon, retired Lt Gen Michael Flynn and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.
It’s a motley crowd of industrialists and ideologues, Beltway insiders and heavyweights from the states. At first glance, these early picks appear to be rather in line with Trump’s campaign style—impromptu, arbitrary and making no apparent sense. But just as his campaign had a method behind its ostensible madness—a successful one at that—so does the president-elect’s choice of cabinet colleagues and top-line White House staff. He is putting together a team that (a) comprises people he is comfortable in the company of, typically the filthy rich, and (b) balances his out-of-the-park ideological vision with political acumen.
Let’s start with the most surprising of choices: Haley and DeVos. Both are women whom Trump evidently doesn’t think very highly of, and Haley hails from immigrant stock to boot. Both sided with Rubio and chastised Trump—forcefully and frequently—during the primaries. However, both are also rich businesswomen with rigidly right-wing positions on all sorts of social and economic issues.
DeVos, appointed the new education secretary, has spent a lifetime campaigning against public education and advocating ‘school choice’, or programmes that offer parents alternatives to public schools. As chair of American Federation for Children, she has promoted charter schools and school vouchers, which divert tax dollars meant for public education into private schools. Randi Weingarten, a union leader and educator, called DeVos “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” in four decades. A meme lampooning her own lack of higher education and experience of working in the school environment, along with her advocacy of for-profit and Christian schools, went viral on social media after her appointment was announced. But Republicans of all hues have strongly supported her choice.
Haley, who once said Trump was “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president”, wasted little time in accepting the offer to become his UN envoy. Born as Namrata Randhawa to Sikh immigrants in Bamberg, South Carolina, she started her career in her family’s multimillion-dollar clothing business before turning to politics and becoming only the second Indian-American governor after Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. Along the way, she converted to Christianity and adopted a sharply anti-immigration stance. She is also anti-tax, anti-labour unions, anti-abortion and anti-gay rights. A state-level politician, she doesn’t have much foreign policy experience, but if her career thus far is any indication, she can be expected to espouse conveniently right-wing positions in General Assembly debates and Security Council deliberations, especially a strong support of Israel.
Ben Carson contested for Republican nomination and bickered bitterly with Trump before dropping out and endorsing him. An immensely successful Black neurosurgeon, Carson shot to political fame in 2013 after delivering a speech critical of President Barack Obama, who was attending the event. He quickly became a conservative icon as he joined the ranks of creationists and climate change deniers, despite his scientific background. Carson often expresses concerns about a leftist bias in US education and healthcare, and has also called fair housing schemes that help the poor to be ‘Communist’ in character. Trump has offered him the position of housing and urban development secretary.
Most other appointees named so far are Trump’s friends and loyalists. Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, who was Trump’s economic adviser during the campaign, is likely to be nominated as commerce secretary. Steve Bannon, the former executive of conservative media website Breitbart News, will be Trump’s chief strategist. Jeff Sessions, a senator from Alabama who is believed to be tough on crime and tougher on immigration—and was once denied a position as federal judge because he reportedly made racist comments—has been named the attorney-general. Michael Flynn, a divisive figure who often expresses Islamophobic sentiments, will be Trump’s national security adviser. Michael Pompeo, a former armyman who favours mass surveillance and black-site prisons, is tipped to be the next head of the Central Intelligence Agency. And David Clarke, sheriff of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County, who considers protesters to be terrorists and is facing investigation over the deaths of several prisoners in his jail, is reported to be Trump’s choice to head the Department of Homeland Security.
If these choices are any indication, the Trump administration will be uber-rich and ultra-conservative. Media reports calculated the collective net worth of its members to be $35 billion—more than the national wealth of a hundred countries. Obama, who has two Ivy League degrees, populated his inner circle with academics from various universities; Trump’s desire to keep billionaires like DeVos and Ross close by is not all that different.
But most of these appointments require senate confirmation. Even though the senate is controlled by Republicans, some names—such as Sessions and Clarke—could be a hard sell. That is where Trump’s choice of Reince Priebus as chief of staff could be crucial. Priebus is a long-time Washington insider, currently serving his third consecutive term as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Amidst the tumult that the Republican Party has witnessed over the past few years, Priebus has been a notable source of stability. Trump hopes he would be able to keep disconsolate elements among mainstream conservatives of the party in line.
Although this is not evident just yet, negotiating the tension between corporate honchos like Ross and ‘sons of the soil’ such as Clarke could prove to be an even bigger challenge for Trump in the coming months and years. Trump owes his electoral victory in large part to America’s angry rural poor: their alliance with white-collar investment bankers from big cities is tenuous at best. It sustained, even thrived, in the face of a mutual enemy—the immigrant-loving, welfare-doling liberals of the Democratic Party. But with that battle now won, these disparate constituencies of the Republican far-right—and their representatives in the cabinet—might struggle to find common cause.
By Saif Shahin in Ohio