One of the many unprecedented things about the election of Donald Trump is what a black box he is. The day after the election, I pinned the following message at the top of my Twitter profile: "We still don't know what President Trump is going to do." And it's true: Trump likes being unpredictable. He thinks of himself first and foremost as a dealmaker, and one of his key dealmaking tactics is to keep as many options on the table as possible.
This is why watching who he appoints to various Cabinet positions is so important. They give us some flavor of what his administration is going to be like, and what his priorities might be. Speaking as someone who opposed Trump's candidacy from the start, I have to say, so far, I'm quite pleased with what I see when I read the tea leaves. Trump has made some very inspired appointments that probably no other president-elect would have made.
Let's review them:
Steven Mnuchin, treasury secretary. Mnuchin himself seems to be kind of a blank slate, an interchangeable Wall Street guy among Wall Street guys. But since his appointment, he's made all the right noises. Trump officially campaigned on a platform promising more of the same supply-side economics as every GOP candidate and administration, while speaking a very different language on the stump, one that promised an economic policy focused on the working and middle class. Whatever he believes in his heart of hearts, Mnuchin has been sounding more like the latter than the former. He has spoken about the importance of pro-family tax policy and maternity leave, and of a working-class agenda. On higher-income tax cuts, he has said he doesn't want to scrap them, speaking only of lowering rates while cutting exemptions, so that taxes would overall stay the same. (The math here is tricky, and it might not end up like he hopes. But, it's early, and the language is good, which is all one can hope for at this point.)
Rex Tillerson, secretary of state. I regard this as a genius pick. Tillerson is nothing if not a pragmatist. His job, as CEO of ExxonMobil, requires that he understand tricky geopolitical issues around the world's trouble spots, knows the key players, and understands negotiation. What's more, he looks like the kind of figure who can earn the trust of someone like Donald Trump, which is so crucial for this job. I think his "friendly" relation with Vladimir Putin is a non-issue — it's infinitely more likely that he acted friendly with the Russian autocrat because it was his job to do so, rather than that Putin made him drink some kind of love potion whose effects would never wear off.
James Mattis, defense secretary. A wonderful pick. Mattis is positively venerated by the Marine Corps. He is an immensely well-read and thoughtful man. And there's a crucial but under-appreciated virtue to the Mattis pick: As Thomas E. Ricks convincingly argues in his book, The Generals, the reason the U.S. military has had a frustrating tendency to run in circles and fail to adapt to unforeseen circumstances is because the practice of relief — of relieving incompetent generals of duty — has fallen by the wayside. During the war in Iraq, Mattis was virtually alone in bringing back relief. Let's hope he shakes up the Pentagon's culture.
Betsy DeVos, education secretary. This is where my conservative sensibilities show. Of course I'm going to think that someone who dedicated most of her adult life to agitating for school choice is a perfect pick for the Department of Education. I personally believe that my grandchildren's generation will see public schools roughly the way we now see bleeding the humors, or foot-binding: as a practice somewhere between tragically misguided and sadistically cruel. And this is where I am learning to appreciate Trump's near-total indifference to controversy. DeVos is (gasp!) a billionaire GOP donor! Pass the smelling salts. Who cares? She's been working this issue 20 years, she has the right views, game on. Jeb Bush's heart is almost certainly in the same place as DeVos', but would he have taken a gamble on such an on-paper controversial pick?
Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary. In the mainstream media, Ross is described as a "billionaire investor," a meaningless category that could fit a Russian oligarch, Bernie Madoff, a Wall Street greenmailer, a silver spoon heir, Warren Buffett, and Elon Musk, but works great for attack ads. Ross made his fortune investing in distressed companies. Throughout his career he's actually earned the grudging respect of many in the labor movement. His most famous investments, in the steel industry, are credited with saving or creating tens of thousands of jobs, in a highly distressed industry. As a free market conservative who thinks crony capitalism is a perennial problem in the GOP, I'm not much more happy than your average liberal with the idea of an administration staffed with businesspeople, but Ross is that rare businessperson who actually brings unique — and key — expertise to the table, and I'm happy to think he'll be in the room when key economic policy decisions get made.
There are others: Tom Price (health and human services secretary) is one of the smartest Republicans in Congress when it comes to healthcare. Mike Pompeo (CIA director) is one of the smartest Republicans on the intelligence committee. Liberals like to laugh at Rick Perry, but he's the most successful governor in the recent history of a large state with an important and diverse energy sector, which makes him plenty qualified to run the Department of Energy.
Of course, there have been some duds (Ben Carson, anyone?), as there are in any incoming administration's Cabinet. But overall, these picks have been not only reassuring, but downright inspired. No, we still don't know what President Trump is going to do, but I am almost allowing myself to be cautiously optimistic.