by Uwe Nerlich

At noon on January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Few of his predecessors have so profoundly shaken long-cherished beliefs about domestic and global politics even before taking office. It remains to be seen whether forecasts of disaster will come true, or whether the new administration is an agent of the sort of “creative destruction” that, in a different era, Joseph Schumpeter considered as the precondition for a “new combination” of economic and political factors – a new order.

When Barack Obama took the oath of office eight years ago, his 80 percent approval rating reflected an expectation that he would heal the national fault lines. After weathering a severe economic downturn that dented his popularity, he stepped down with three out of five Americans again satisfied with his conduct as president.

Donald Trump, by contrast, starts off with the lowest approval ratings for a new president in modern times. His campaign’s dominant theme was a pledge to obliterate the Obama agenda and achievements – and that promise President Trump intends to keep. In so doing, he is offering a completely new kind of “vision” to the nation.

Turning point

Mr. Trump won the election by a razor-thin margin, thanks to clever tactics, weak opponents and lucky circumstances. But his victory was the product of more powerful undercurrents that laid bare the hollowness of the political status quo, both in domestic and global terms. There is no going back. The main reason Hillary Clinton lost was that she offered continuity, trying to buck an anti-establishment bias that had become pervasive.

However, there is no shared national sense of what the new era will bring. That will depend on the outcome of social changes and global competition, which will unfold for the most part independently of domestic politics. American society no longer works as a melting pot, while the limits of U.S. global reach have become evident. This is different from earlier turning points in U.S. history – for example, the onset of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, which presented a comprehensive vision of generational change. Even so, we are certainly witnessing a major shift. The world order will be reshaped by the course this new administration sets.

Disruptive change

Given the need to distinguish between the person and the office, Donald Trump may yet be given the chance to grow on the job and explore the possibilities it affords – something the GOP largely denied President Obama during his eight years at the White House.

Mr. Trump is self-consciously aware of his unconventional path to power, as shown by his frequent protestations that “I am not a politician.” Nor does he mistake his “vision” for a comprehensive domestic and global strategy to be consulted with allies and electorates. Instead, the new president considers it a virtue to be a doer. He does not aim for structured change, but for a series of ad hoc deals that over time may transform the domestic and international scene.

Public outrage at Mr. Trump’s rise to the world’s most powerful political office has swept across the world, but perhaps obscures more than it enlightens. The more prudent course seems to be that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has adopted a respectful stance of watchful waiting. While not immune to the pervasive sense of uncertainty, she seems ready to cope with disruptive changes, if and when they come.

Since the working of checks and balances within the U.S. political system may be at risk, it is important to look for the players and processes that may shape policy formation in the new administration. Possible signposts might include:

  • The president’s message, including his inaugural speech and other public statements
  • Personnel appointments and early policy decisions
  • Mr. Trump’s personal style of governance
  • Broader social and political processes that elevated him to the White House
  • Global obstacles, competitors and challenges he will face, including the need to keep or restore a common purpose to the alliance with Europe

Trump’s message

Donald Trump’s inaugural address – a central step in the transfer of power – departed markedly from the example set by his predecessors. Since George Washington gave the first such speech in 1789, there has existed a widely accepted distinction between the office, or “station,” and its occupant. Inaugural speeches typically focus on the former, expressing respect for American institutions, optimism about the country’s spirit and destiny, and moral confidence about how to behave when faced by challenges. The latter aspect took on an increasingly international dimension after World War II, when the U.S. became a global superpower.

President Trump’s speech was shorn of most of these traditional features, even if it avoided most of the abusive rhetoric he had used during the presidential campaign. There was little attempt to summon the spirit and grandeur of the nation. The new president began with the miserable state of the union, painting a gloomy picture of a run-down economy and armed forces, both suffering from neglect.

His recurrent “America First” pledge ignored what so many of his predecessors had emphasized – the bonds of cohesion holding the nation together. Mr. Trump’s pledge to give power “back to you, the American people” was a traditional trope, but he gave it a revolutionary spin by deriding government as the Washington “establishment.”

The message was reinforced by the president’s novel method of communications, which focused on new media technologies that allow behavioral micro-targeting and tracking. For example, the use of Twitter for important policy announcements or to threaten or rebuke foreign partners allows Mr. Trump to bypass the ordinary channels of government and orchestrate pressure from below. This looks like a recipe for political chaos, in wait for a savior.

Elective affinities

To be sure, there have been strong personalities in the White House before, including some with certain similarities to its latest occupant. Exactly 200 years ago, President James Monroe took office as an unambiguous nationalist, placing domestic before foreign affairs, building border fortifications and (by our present standards) proving himself a highly effective dealmaker.

But Monroe was also one of the young republic’s most experienced public officials, who saw himself “rather as an instrument than the cause of the union.” The fifth U.S. president enlarged the union by five states, while avoiding foreign entanglements and Europe’s quarrels for two successful terms. And he did so as man without pretense.

Only 12 years later, following one of the dirtiest campaigns in U.S. history, Andrew Jackson became president. He did so as an outsider, backed not by an established faction but by a grassroots movement that he turned into the Democratic Party. That makes Jackson one of the most tempting analogues for President Trump from the union’s formative stages – but it also underscores the latter’s weaknesses. Like Jackson, Mr. Trump is a practical man with high ambitions. But he must govern in a period that requires not just pragmatism, but a guiding set of principles to align the domestic thrust of the U.S. with its central role in global affairs.

Policy formation

When Donald Trump first considered running for president back in 2000, he was guided by ambition, not ideology or circumstance. This displays what Mr. Trump referred to during the election campaign as his greatest asset – his temperament. With no lasting roots in either party, he conquered the GOP as a de facto independent, jumping into the primaries as a clear outsider to overwhelm the 15 contenders with party support. At the time, Mr. Trump was even seen by some Europeans as less abhorrent than extreme Republican conservatives such as Ted Cruz.

Mr. Trump alienated much of the GOP during the primary campaign before thoroughly antagonizing the mainstream media during the general election. He did profit from dominating global coverage in both races, while picking up valuable support from outlets like Fox News. This came at the price of being identified with simplistic, extreme positions on such issues as immigration, healthcare, terrorism and national security, and relations with key rivals such as China and Russia. None of this seems to have hurt him.

Policy formation began in the early stages of the pre-inauguration phase, when the president-elect needed to maintain a degree of consistency without falling victim to a paradox identified by the political theorist Robert Dahl: “the process of discussion itself may preclude choices of the very policies that members of the society would have chosen as a result of their discussion.”

Pre-inauguration politics has three stages: positioning by the president-elect, nomination of candidates for key cabinet and White House positions and their confirmation in the U.S. Senate. Arguably, a new president’s influence is at its peak just before inauguration. He is mostly unopposed and still enjoys great flexibility, especially in choosing top officials who either reinforce his core positions or moderate and broaden them, providing a wider range of options. The need to steer candidates past opposition in Senate confirmation hearings tends to serve the latter purpose.

Impatient pragmatist

In Mr. Trump’s case, any step toward the middle ground would create space between himself and his closest advisors, which the media would quickly move to exploit. The president-elect seemed unperturbed by such inconsistencies, satisfied that each candidate say whate