Alex Kingsbury | Ideas

The Trump surprise doctrine

getty images/shutterstock; heather hopp-bruce/globe staff

To: Ideas Editor, Boston Globe

From:Alex Kingsbury

Date: 1/17/2017


Re: Trump story assignment

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Reporting on the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump has proven far more difficult than we imagined in the story assignment meeting at Morrissey Blvd. on 12/15/15. Regretfully, I have concluded that the piece as we envisioned will be impossible to deliver for the print issue 1/17/16. It may be impossible to ever complete.

As you’ll recall, the initial impetus for this story was to clearly articulate for readers what the administration of President Donald J. Trump would look like, giving voters a point of comparison between Trump and the other contenders for the GOP nomination in time for the New Hampshire primaries on 2/9/16.

Reporting for this story involved conducting interviews, attending and watching political rallies and speeches that the candidate conducted during the period proceeding Christmas and immediately after the New Year, reviewing written information posted to his official website, and monitoring related political coverage of the campaign.

Yet, pinning Trump down on his specific plans for the nation and the world across a spectrum of policy challenges, has proven unsuccessful. Apparently, this is by design.


Consider the candidate’s plan to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: “We’re going to knock the hell out of ISIS, we have to do it,” I watched him tell a crowd of screaming supporters in Lowell four days into 2016. “We’re going to be smart, but we’re going to be unpredictable . . . I don’t want to tell people, I want to surprise them.”

Here the candidate seems to channel less of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” and more the Spanish Inquisition. Just like no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, no one expected the rise of Trump. Trump and Torquemada also share the same chief weapon: surprise. It has become apparent that the candidate plans to deploy the same tactic against nearly all complex policy challenges that he will face as the next commander-in-chief.

The Surprise Doctrine, however, has five prominent exceptions: immigration, fixing the VA, the Second Amendment, tax policy, and relations with China. In fact, those are the only positions that the candidate mentions in official campaign documents. “I do not want to say that because I want to show unpredictably. You have to,” Trump said recently in a television interview. “You can’t just go around and say that.”

Briefly stated then, here are the specific proposals that Trump has made on five important issues. He notes in his white papers that all five will make America great again.

Immigration: Build a 1,989-mile fence along the land border between Mexico and the United States. Trump says that the Mexican government will pony up the estimated $6.4 billion that this infrastructure project will cost, but Mexico has publicly denied this. With the price of oil cratering, the Mexican government’s revenue is plummeting. How Trump will force Mexico City to allocate such resources will remain a surprise. How the wall will stop the 40 percent of undocumented persons who overstay their legal visas will also be a surprise. A Trump administration also will deport the estimated 11 million people residing in the country. This will cost an estimated $200 billion. How it is paid for and accomplished will be a surprise.


In order to combat terrorism, Trump has proposed blocking entry for all Muslims. Whether this applies to, say, former translators who worked with the US military in foreign wars, or even Muslim Americans returning from visits overseas, must, for reasons of national security, remain a surprise.

Trump also proposes to end birthright citizenship. His plans for calling a constitutional convention to amend the country’s founding document on this score remain a surprise.

Veterans’ Affairs: Make all veterans eligible to receive care any place that Medicare is accepted, expand services, reform inefficiencies, fire corrupt or incompetent officials. These are all solutions that have been raised by numerous experts in the past, but the sticking point has always been how to pay for them. “We’ll actually have money left over,” Trump said when announcing the plan. His ledger for this initiative remains a closely guarded secret.

Tax reform: We can also expect some big surprises from President Trump’s tax proposals. He promises tax relief for the middle class and a simplified the tax code. The Tax Policy Center, a joint effort of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, reviewed the specifics and found the plan would cut 22 percent of the revenue of the federal government over a decade, some $9.5 trillion. While the candidate insists that his tax plan will be deficit-neutral and not add a penny to the national debt, the way in which this will be accomplished will be a surprise.

Second Amendment: Trump proposes to create a national conceal-and-carry permit as well as to fix the country’s national background check system including more mental health records. He also notes that high-capacity magazines and assault weapons shouldn’t be regulated, but whether he’d work to repeal such bans will come as a surprise.

China: Trump plans to declare China a currency manipulator; force the Asian nation into negotiations where it will agree to uphold intellectual property, end illegal export subsidies, enforce environmental and labor laws; and militarize the South and East China Sea. “Nobody is more militaristic than me,” Trump told the crowd in Lowell. How he’ll manage to get China to go directly against its self-interest — and not spark soaring consumer prices, a global depression, and potentially even another worldwide conflcit along the way — will be a surprise.

Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of the candidate’s specific proposals for all the foreign and domestic policy challenges that the next president of the United States will face.

One of the primary, nonverbal human responses to surprise is the raising of the eyebrows, curved and high, and the dropping of the jaw, as tension relaxes around the mouth. The only thing certain as the candidacy of Donald J. Trump continues is the widespread proliferation of such reflexive actions as we continue to be surprised.

Alex Kingsbury can be reached at