In fits and starts, the contours of the Trump administration will begin to take shape over the coming weeks. Like his campaign, the president-elect's transition is already shaping up to be a highly unconventional one: shortly after the election, Trump removed Chris Christie from a leadership post in his transition team.
At the nonprofit Brookings Institution, Darrell West, director of the think tank's Governance Studies program, has gamed out four possible scenarios for what four years of Donald Trump might look like.
The scenarios reflect a wide range of paths going forward, a testament to the president-elect's fundamental unpredictability. The ultimate trajectory of the Trump White House will be set, in part, by the choices his transition team makes in the weeks ahead.
Scenario 1: The traditional Republican
"Administratively, he could turn policymaking details over to Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus,” West writes. "In this situation, Pence would be the de facto prime minister of the government. The trio surely would move Trump policies much closer to traditional GOP preferences on many issues."
In this scenario, a President Trump might seek to smooth over fissures with the party establishment that he opened during the campaign. He might emphasize “the GOP orthodoxy of tax cuts, deregulation, and Obamacare,” while “downplaying his less conventional stances,” West writes.
The elevation of Reince Priebus to Trump's Chief of Staff would seem to be a nod toward governing in this fashion. House Speaker Paul Ryan seems to be keeping his fingers crossed for this approach, welcoming America today to “the dawn of a new unified Republican government.”
Scenario 2: The popular rogue
Trump could also govern as what West calls a "popular rogue," “someone who breaks the conventional rules but performs effectively.” Trump would continue to rail against the party establishment and cast himself as a champion of the little guy, or the “forgotten man,” as Trump backer Sean Hannity sees it.
This version of Trump could hand an olive branch to congressional Democrats by promising to protect popular programs like Medicare and Social Security, which the Ryan wing of the GOP has had its sights on for years.
“His relations with the GOP would be fraught with tension because some of these positions are anathema to it," West writes, “but ordinary people would appreciate that he was fighting for them. Overtime, he might remake the Republican coalition and make his party less beholden to large interests."
There's no doubt that Trump sees himself as something of a reformer in this mold. In his victory speech on election night, Trump said that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer," and that “every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential."
Skeptics will argue that Trump's business career was largely built on the backs of these same forgotten men and women. His history is riddled with allegations of unpaid bills, failed endeavors, numerous bankruptcies and vindictive crusades against “little guys" who crossed him.
Scenario three: The failed president
Trump's effort to be the champion of the common man could also be undone by scandal, corruption or even simple incompetence. In West's telling, the "failed presidency" narrative would start with the lack of a clear mandate from Trump's million-vote deficit in the popular vote last week. Trump's likely to walk into the White House with the lowest approval rating of any new president in history.
"In this situation, he likely will have no honeymoon and his popular support probably will fall during his term," West writes. All it could take is the whiff of scandal or impropriety — a bad outcome in the Trump University lawsuit, an abuse of presidential power, or a general aura of incompetence, to name just a few — to set Americans against their new president.
"Many ultra-rich leaders elected in other countries such as Silvio Berlusconi of Italy practice crony capitalism and see themselves as above the law, and ultimately suffer legal or political recriminations," West writes.
Trump relished his rally appearances during the campaign, citing his large crowds as proof he was on the right track in spite of the various controversies he found himself tangled in, from abrasive comments to allegations of sexual assault. He's indicated he'd like to continue holding massive rallies as president, perhaps using them to counter criticism as he did during the campaign.
Scenario 4: The authoritarian
That opens the door to West's final possibility for how the next four years might play out: we could get Trump the "authoritarian leader."
“Violent protests or urban riots could destabilize society and lead President Trump to militarize local police, crack down on the opposition, and make it easier to sue dissenting voices," West writes. “Rather than have Twitter outbursts, he could use law enforcement to get tough on protesters or have his White House chief strategist Steve Bannon orchestrate smear campaigns against opponents."
Trump revealed an appreciation for strongman tactics during the campaign. He repeatedly promised to jail his opponent Hillary Clinton, which “would violate long-established norms concerning peaceful transitions of power," West writes. On social media the president-elect seems disinterested in unifying messages and more concerned with re-litigating various disagreements and perceived slights.
The naming of former Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon as Trump's chief strategist has been met with outrage from critics concerned by his embrace of the so-called “alt-right" and the often racist and anti-Semitic stances adopted by Breitbart news while Bannon was at the helm.
Civil libertarians and criminal justice reformers are already concerned that Trump has surrounded himself with a coterie of “tough-on-crime" hard-liners throughout the campaign, including Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona and Sheriff David Clarke of Wisconsin.
How any of this will actually play out is anybody's guess. Trump has proven himself nothing if not unpredictable.