A lot of pundits got things wrong while covering this most disruptive of presidential elections. I know I did. But the most wrong of all may well turn out to be those members of the conservative movement who insisted through the entirety of the primary season and general election campaign that Donald Trump was a liberal in disguise who was likely to govern to the left of any true conservative.
On the basis of the president-elect's statements (especially his tweets) and early hires for his Cabinet and senior White House staff, this couldn't be further from the truth. Trump is putting together what will be easily the most right-wing administration in American history.
Let's take stock of where we are, three weeks after Trump's upset victory.
1. Tom Price
The six-term Georgia congressman, Trump's choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, is strident in his opposition to the Affordable Care Act. He's also eager to transform Medicaid into block grants to states and to privatize Medicare. Given these priorities, it's no surprise that House Speaker Paul Ryan calls Price "the absolute perfect choice" for HHS secretary.
2. Steve Bannon
The executive chair of Breitbart News will be Trump's senior counselor and strategist. As has been widely reported since the announcement, Bannon has described Breitbart as an online "platform for the alt-right." That isn't an empty boast. With its combination of hard-edged nationalism, anti-establishment sentiment, conspiracy mongering, and flirtation with outright racism and anti-Semitism, the website has helped to bring the alt-right into the political mainstream — an effort that Trump's presidential campaign greatly accelerated.
3. Michael Flynn
For national security adviser, Trump picked Flynn, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama. Since being forced out of the DIA in August 2014, Flynn's statements and behavior have revealed him to be a far-right critic of the Obama administration with stridently anti-Muslim views. He also delivered an angry diatribe of a speech at the Republican convention and has recently expressed admiration for far-right propagandist Dinesh D'Souza and alt-right bad boy Milo Yiannopoulos.
4. Jeff Sessions
Trump's choice of attorney general is equally right-wing. The Alabama senator has a long track record of opposition to immigration and rights for the disabled. He's also been dogged by accusations of racism for much of his career. (Such charges led the Senate to deny him a federal judgeship in 1986.) All of this raises reasonable worries about what AG Sessions would do with the Justice Department's civil rights division, especially with regard to voting rights.
5. Betsy DeVos
For education secretary, Trump has tapped billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos, an outspoken critic of teachers unions and advocate of school choice and voucher programs — both of which the right wing of the Republican Party has been loudly championing for more than two decades.
6. Mike Pompeo
Trump's pick for CIA director is a garden-variety right-wing House Republican, fond of railing against Hillary Clinton about Benghazi, promising to keep the detention center at Guantanamo Bay open indefinitely, and asserting that Barack Obama has an "affinity" for terrorists.
7. Ben Carson
Carson, who has reportedly been offered the job of secretary of Housing and Urban Development but has not yet officially accepted it, has described as "communist" an Obama-era amendment to the Fair Housing Act that seeks to strengthen its provisions covering fair housing practices. Carson opposes the new rule, along with other "mandated social-engineering schemes," because he considers them "failed socialist experiments" that have proven "downright dangerous" in the past.
Trump's remaining major picks — Reince Priebus for chief of staff, Nikki Haley for U.N. ambassador, Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary, Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary, and Elaine Chao for transportation secretary — don't stand out as especially polarizing choices. Only Haley is genuinely surprising, since one might have expected Trump to go with a fire-breather in that slot. Priebus' policy commitments are a mystery and, frankly, don't matter much for a position that amounts to the Grand Manager of the West Wing. Ross and Mnuchin are just your average run-of-the-mill fabulously wealthy Trump-supporting staunch Republicans. As for Chao, it makes sense for an executive department rarely enmeshed in ideological debates to be led by a figure firmly ensconced in the GOP's Washington establishment. As George W. Bush's former labor secretary and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), that's what Chao clearly is.
As for still-open important Cabinet positions — including secretary of state — the list of people under consideration includes several far-right options. We should learn within the coming days whether the president-elect will choose hotheads Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, or Putin-loving Rep. Dana Rohrabacher for state. And that's not even mentioning the possibility of Sarah Palin or Jan Brewer for interior, Sam Brownback for agriculture, Joe Arpaio or Kris Kobach for Homeland Security, and on and on and on.
Add to this the 21 staunchly conservative jurists and legal scholars included on the list of nominees for the Supreme Court that Trump released in September, and we have a remarkably clear and consistent picture of an incoming administration eager to prove its right-wing bona fides. That would certainly appear to be borne out by Trump's recent tweets attacking a CNN correspondent by name and suggesting that those who burn the American flag should be punished by having their citizenship revoked.
The only remotely plausible sign of Trump making a play for the center has come in the form of his emphasis on infrastructure spending. (Though it's also true that he's proposing an infrastructure plan that's heavy on tax breaks for private companies, which will presumably cheer pro-business Republican more than a plan for direct government spending would be likely to do.) The president-elect has also made some vague statements to The New York Times indicating a willingness to back away from the use of torture, reconsider his skepticism about climate change, and entertain a compromise on immigration.
We'll see if any of that materializes. At the moment, these sound like unenforceable, rhetorical gestures toward the center in the midst of a series of dramatic lurches to the far right on personnel and policy. By Inauguration Day, Donald Trump may well have succeeded in making Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush look like liberal squishes in comparison.