It was always going to be difficult for someone with no record of elected office to persuade the electorate that he could handle the presidency, but in the last few weeks Donald Trump’s behavior has sharply raised the general level of skepticism about his ability to do so. The Obama/Clinton record both domestically and internationally gives him an easy winning hand to play, yet he spends much of his time stumbling into issues where he can only lose.
His compulsion to settle scores with key members of his own party whose support is now indispensable to him raises the question whether he will be able to focus his mind sufficiently to separate what’s important from what isn’t. But it is perhaps his rambling comments on Vladimir Putin that have most raised concerns about what a Trump presidency would look like. Anyone who regularly reads a newspaper knows more than Trump seems to know about Putin, and about what is happening in Ukraine.
There is now probably only one way in which Trump could reassure people who want to vote for him to avoid the calamity of a Clinton presidency, but are thoroughly alarmed at the prospect of an incoherent and incompetent foreign policy: he could announce the key members of his cabinet now, and make it clear that as a newcomer to elected office he will be listening to them and relying heavily on their experience. Take one example: if Trump were to announce that John Bolton will be either his Secretary of State or his National Security Adviser, a sigh of relief would be audible. The worry about what a Trump presidency would look like would instantly be much reduced because we should already have a good sense of what it would be like in one key respect.
If Trump allows the choice for swing voters to look like one between Hillary’s mainstream leftism and his ignorant ramblings on Putin, he’ll lose. But he might still win if he can make that choice seem more like one between status quo doctrinaire leftism and a highly competent group of cabinet members driven to get things done by Trump’s uncompromising demand for results. Naming key cabinet members now will have other beneficial effects. It would cement his relationship with the Republican party as nothing else could do, and would likely win over many wavering members of the party. The fact that a number of major Republican figures were willing to commit publicly to him and his administration now would also raise the general level of confidence in his candidacy. But most importantly this move would drastically reduce the widespread fear that a Trump presidency would be completely unknown and potentially dangerous territory.
Trump needs to announce at least the half dozen critical cabinet members for both foreign and domestic policy now. To be sure, it may be difficult for a man with a Trump-sized ego to acknowledge that he desperately needs the help of people who are more experienced and politically competent than himself, and that he needs to get the focus to some extent off himself in this way. But the alternative is that he will wind up a loser, and nothing could be more damaging to Trump’s ego than that.
John M Ellis is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Chairman of the California Association of Scholars