As the incoming administration of Donald Trump assembles itself in the gold-plated suites atop Trump Tower, it's important to remember two components of his unlikely victory. The first is that Trump emerged from outside the Republican establishment structure. The second is that his campaign operated outside the party's normal rhetorical boundaries.
Those two things were mutually reinforcing. Trump could say things like Mexican immigrants are rapists and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) isn't a hero because he wasn't bound by what the establishment thought was appropriate. And because he said those things, his campaign's earliest advocates were more likely to come from the party's fringes.
On top of that we can layer one of Trump's personality traits: his demand for loyalty. Trump's transition team — the group tasked with guiding him from election to inauguration — is stocked with longtime allies who mostly climbed aboard the Trump Train while it was still building up speed. Trump's circles of trust are apparently few and tightly constrained: His children at the core, a few longtime allies a bit further out and his early political friends a bit further still. Trump clearly enjoys welcoming supplicants who once opposed him to Trump Tower, but for someone who values loyalty to the extent that Trump does, a bit of ring-kissing probably won't be enough.
Within that context, Trump's first apparent administration picks make perfect sense.
There's Michael Flynn, Trump's apparent pick for national security adviser. Flynn was ousted from his position at the helm of the Defense Intelligence Agency two years ago, kicking off an openly antagonistic relationship with the administration. His fervent support of Trump, including an aggressive speech at the Republican National Convention, was seen by his former colleagues as outside the norms of behavior for former generals.
Flynn's advocacy for Trump stems from and overlaps with his attitudes about the fight against terrorism in the Middle East. On Twitter, Flynn has repeatedly offered questionable opinions. Earlier this year, he declared that it is “rational” to fear Muslims — broadly, not just those who adhere to radical beliefs.
Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others: the truth fears no questions... https://t.co/NLIfKFD9lU
— General Flynn (@GenFlynn) February 27, 2016
Shortly before the election, he tweeted out a link to an obviously fake news story suggesting that the emails from Hillary Clinton being newly reviewed by the FBI showed evidence of serious, over-the-top crimes. In July, he retweeted an anti-Semitic tweet suggesting that Jewish people were trying to use the threat of Russian influence to distract from their own machinations.
That tweet also reinforced another concern for Flynn: that he might be unusually sympathetic to Russia. Flynn was paid to give a speech for the Russian state-backed RT network in the country. At the event, he was seated at a table with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (One retired general told The Post that Flynn's colleagues “thought it was so out of bounds, so unusual.”)
The same critique has been leveled against Trump, of course — that he is seen as having a soft spot for the country and its leader. The pick of Flynn heightens that concern, as well as concerns about Trump's attitudes toward American Muslims.
— Tierney Sneed (@Tierney_Megan) November 18, 2016
The apparent pick of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to serve as attorney general, meanwhile, sharply heightens concerns about Trump's attitudes toward the black community. Unlike Flynn, Sessions will need to be confirmed by the Senate, giving Republicans in that chamber ample opportunity to relitigate the concerns about race that sank Sessions's nomination to the federal bench three decades ago.
During his confirmation hearing for the position in 1986, former colleagues of Sessions described racially inappropriate behavior, including alleged use of the n-word, calling a black colleague “boy” and joking about how he thought the Klan was okay until he heard that some members smoked marijuana. As attorney general, Sessions would oversee the government's civil rights enforcement mechanisms.
Since winning his seat in the Senate, Sessions has been known for his hard-line position on immigration, which is largely how he and Trump found each other early in the campaign. He wasn't known as a leader in the Republican caucus, as we reported in July, but as a regular voice in the further-right conservative ecosystem.
Then there's Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart head who was selected as a chief strategist to Trump, making him one of the two most senior aides to the president-elect. His counterpart? Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. The Bannon-Priebus pairing is the Trump tension in a nutshell, with Priebus as the straight-laced embodiment of the Republican establishment that's trying to figure out its new leader and Bannon as the outside agitator — with his own serious baggage on issues of race and attitudes toward immigrants. (An effort to block Bannon from the White House has gained steam over the past week.)
What Trump seems to be doing as he assembles his leadership team is the same thing that he did during the campaign. Encouraged to reach out and broaden the coalition of support he enjoyed, Trump instead doubled down on the charged rhetoric and hostility that earned him his core base of support in the first place. As it turns out, that was enough to flip enough states to win the electoral vote — and Trump clearly thinks he has enough of a mandate to instantiate those positions in his leadership team.
These picks are early ones and are largely going to people who have been closest to him over the course of the campaign. That may expand outward as more positions are identified; the apparent nod to Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to head the CIA is one exception. But the Bannon-Flynn-Sessions triumvirate is a natural extension of the patterns that led Donald Trump to victory: People from outside the mainstream who reinforce and respond to Trump's more contentious political instincts.
For those nervous about Trump's tenure — inside and outside the GOP — that combination has proven to be disconcerting.