In promoting the Carrier deal, both the President-elect and his running mate acted as if the Trump administration had already begun
Trump is the first President-elect to claim a policy achievement and throw himself a victory tour
Editor’s Note: Tim Naftali is a CNN presidential historian. He teaches history and public service at New York University and was the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. He is the co-author of “One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964” and “Khrushchev’s Cold War” and the author of “Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
In Cincinnati, Donald Trump said that others were comparing him to Andrew Jackson. Nearly two centuries ago, however, that same Andrew Jackson acknowledged that his famous self-confidence had limits. “A diffidence, perhaps too just, in my own qualifications,” he said in his first inaugural address, “will teach me to look with reverence to the examples of public virtue left by my illustrious predecessors.”
Neither diffidence nor reverence was much on display at the President-elect’s rally. “The bottom line is,” an exuberant Trump said to an equally exuberant crowd, “We won, we won big.”
Donald Trump is changing the rites and rituals of the presidential transition, almost as much as he changed those of the primary season and the general election campaign.
On Thursday, he traveled to the industrial Midwest to trumpet a deal made by the state of Indiana, still controlled by his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence, to exchange $7 million in state subsidies (or tax expenditures) to save Carrier jobs and lead a huge “USA Thank You 2016 Tour” rally in Cincinnati.
No winner of either party has ever done anything of this sort before. As he prepared to enter office during the Great Recession, Barack Obama sought to calm citizens and markets by speaking out more often than any president-elect had before him.
Until Obama, presidents-elect had traditionally refrained from saying much of consequence – besides announcing appointments – during their transition.
Indeed, even though he was entering during a period of even greater economic collapse in 1932 than faced by Obama seven decades later, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt turned down Herbert Hoover’s request, as described by historian William E. Leuchtenburg, “to collaborate on framing international economic policy” and said very little.
In 2008, President-elect Obama not only broke the mold by speaking publicly a lot during his transition (he even issued likely the first Thanksgiving statement as president-elect) but he was the first president-elect to introduce precise plans, including outlining what would roughly become the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – the stimulus package – almost two weeks before George W. Bush took his boots back to Texas.
But Trump’s event was something qualitatively different. And it was not just that it was a political rally.
In promoting the Carrier deal, both the President-elect and his running mate acted as if the Trump administration had already begun. Even though only he, Pence, had any legal authority to negotiate with Carrier, the dutiful running mate ascribed the deal to Trump. “Today in Indianapolis because of the bold leadership and vision of President-elect Donald Trump, a company that announced back in February that they were closing their doors and moving to Mexico, announced that now more than 1,100 jobs, good-paying jobs, will stay right here in America. And the President-elect made it happen.”
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The crowd went wild. And should the deal gain widespread public support, despite the costs to the Indiana Treasury, it is possible that this will not be the last deal made during the transition.
This rally was an historical outlier in other ways. Trump used it to remove any doubt that he has no intention of patching up his relationship with the country’s media. He seemed to delight in ridiculing journalists for not predicting his victory.
At no time did he suggest that pollsters may have made honest mistakes or that he himself might have been surprised by his success on November 8. Instead, he enchanted his audience by suggesting a grandiose disinformation campaign by the entire US media to deprive his people of the truth of the ultimate success of his movement.
As he implied this grand claim, he dismissively swept his hand while pointing at the members of the media, off-camera but in front of his podium, calling them all “dishonest.”
Equally unusual in a transition period was the reaction of the Ohio crowd, which roared as Trump threw them red meat. When one or more demonstrators started protesting Trump, like a Caesar deciding the fate of Christians in the forum, he signaled that they be ejected from the arena. “They don’t know that Hillary lost a couple of weeks ago,” Trump said, smiling as the audience screamed its approval of the action of the bouncers.
The first president-elect to claim a policy achievement and throw himself a victory tour; Trump became the first to smear the entire Fourth Estate, eject a dissenter and ridicule the supporters of his opponent: all in one evening. We are in new territory or, as Trump himself said in Cincinnati, “The script is not yet written; we do not know what the next page will read.”