Will: The waterbeetle of American politics
He flabbergasts the Human Race
By gliding on the water's face
With ease, celerity and grace;
But if he ever stopped to think
Of how he did it, he would sink.
— Hilaire Belloc, on the waterbeetle
WASHINGTON – Leaving aside the missing element of grace and the improbability of his ever stopping to think, Donald Trump is the waterbeetle of politics. His feral cunning in manipulating the masses and the media is, like the waterbeetle's facility, instinctive. The 72 days of transition demonstrated a stylistic seamlessness with his 511 days of campaigning, which indicates that the 1,461 days of his term that begins Friday will be as novel as his campaign was.
Its theme was often a pronoun without an antecedent, his admirers explaining their admiration by saying that "he tells it like it is." Fortunately, a theme of his transition has been a verbal shrug: "Oh, never mind."
He won by stoking resentments that his blue-collar base harbors about the felt condescension of elites. He has, however, transitioned with ease and celerity away from the most vivid commitments that made his crowds roar (prosecuting Hillary Clinton, making Mexico pay for the wall, banning Muslims from entering the country, deporting 11 million illegal immigrants within two years, restoring torture because "it works" but even "if it doesn't work," etc.). He shows an interesting disinclination to disguise his condescension toward those he effortlessly caused to roar by giving verbal prompts that he has now abandoned.
Candidate Trump intimated a foreign policy less reliant on military measures than the policies of some recent presidential predecessors. But the most riveting moment of the transition received less attention than did Trump's tweet snit about Meryl Streep. The moment was when Rex Tillerson, Trump's designated secretary of state, told the Senate that China's policy of building and militarizing islands in the South China Sea is "akin to Russia's taking of Crimea" and that America should tell China that "your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed." China might not quietly accept this U.S. Navy blockading of the islands.
Tillerson might be right: China is directly challenging the fundamental U.S. interest in freedom of the seas. And Lord Curzon's reported axiom for diplomacy is often correct: Know your own mind and make sure the other fellow knows it, too. But combined with Trump's tweeted promise to prevent North Korea from making good on its vow to test a ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States ("It won't happen!"), Tillerson's statement indicates that the Trump administration might soon be militarily active.
A Trump campaign pledge that has survived the transition is his promise to revive manufacturing by imposing protectionism. Michael Froman, Barack Obama's trade representative, notes that "95 percent of consumers, 80 percent of purchasing power and the fastest growing markets for our products are outside the United States," so if other nations reciprocate U.S. protectionist measures, there could be "an outflow of manufacturing from the U.S."
The World Economic Forum that convenes every winter in Davos, Switzerland, will conclude Friday just as the Trump presidency begins. It has been well-said that Davos is where billionaires tell millionaires what the middle class feels. Chinese President Xi Jinping attended. He is advocating a Chinese alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.S. initiative that probably was dying before Trump's election killed it. The Communist leader offered an almost Thatcherite defense of free trade, which America's president-elect opposes.
The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney reports that Trump's choice to be secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, who was a registered Democrat until nine days into the transition, has praised China's central direction of its economy using five-year plans. Ross favors a U.S. "industrial policy" whereby government would "decide which industries are we going to really promote — the so-called industries of the future." Ross' confidence in government's clairvoyance and planning dexterity might reflect the fact that, as Carney reports, he has done well by buying steel and textile companies which then profited from tariffs on steel imports and from textile import quotas. Perhaps these views are not shared by Trump's choice to be director of the National Economic Council — Gary Cohn, another Democrat — or by Trump's choice to be treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, whose party affiliation is not publicly known.
As transitioning gives way to governing, Trump will continue to flabbergast. The past really is prologue, so we have been warned.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.