Opinion writer

Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

“Donald Trump is not a Republican. He’s a pragmatic populist.”

With those words, Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, momentarily lifted the pall that has come over me since the historic election that has given us President-elect Donald Trump. Perhaps the man who ran a racist, xenophobic and misogynistic campaign that freely dabbled in lies won’t actually govern that way.


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“He’s not tied down to a party,” Steele said in the first of two post-election episodes of Cape Up. “He is the freest president we’ve had in a generation, at least a generation, who is not beholden to the agenda of an establishment party.” Using talk of an infrastructure bill in the next Congress, Steele said that means if he can’t get a deal with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Trump would have no problem going to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Wait, that sounds like governing. That hasn’t happened in Washington in ages.

In the very first episode of Cape Up, in August, Steele said the Republican Party needed Trump’s presidential nomination — that by nominating him, the GOP would be forced to have some uncomfortable intraparty conversations. Trump’s victory last week has not changed that assessment. “We don’t know, in all honesty,” Steele told me, “what the hell Donald Trump is gonna do.”

Steele in the studio with Jonathan Capehart. (Carol Alderman/The Washington Post)

And then Steele said this about how the weight of the responsibilities of the presidency were already apparent after Trump met with President Obama in the Oval Office.

And watching him, I couldn’t help but think, Donald Trump probably in that moment was realizing, “I didn’t have to run the kind of campaign I ran. I didn’t have to go to those darker crevices, because there is something aspirational about this place that I could have spoken to.” … And I just watched him walk in the halls; the demeanor, the seriousness on his face, the way he approached the press tells me that he now is beginning to realize he’s gotta try to figure out how to put that genie, that ugly genie, that underbelly genie, back in the bottle some kind of way. Or at least control it, because governing is going to require him to govern from a place of aspiration, not division, not misogyny, not xenophobia, not racism.

Now, about that lift I mentioned at the outset. It was momentary, because in the time between Steele issuing that hopeful assessment above and now, Trump named Stephen K. Bannon as senior strategist. Having a leader of the alt-right (read: white supremacist) movement literally a few steps from the Oval Office is a disturbing signal of what could come.

[Michael Steele: The GOP needed Trump’s nomination]

Listen to the podcast to hear what more Steele has to say about the impending Trump presidency and what it means for the GOP.  In fact, the conversation was so good that I have broken it into two parts. Next week will look at the role of key voting blocs in the presidential election.

Cape Up is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever else you listen to podcasts.