Why is Donald Trump picking Southerners like Rex Tillerson?

Rex Tillerson. Image by DonkeyHotey.

Donald Trump spent weeks flirting with Boston Brahmin Mitt Romney and fellow New York blowhard Rudy Giuliani for his most important appointment after Vice President. But after one meeting December 6, he knew he had found his man: Rex Tillerson, Texan CEO and career employee of Exxon Mobil. So what drew Trump to him?

Tillerson’s business credentials didn’t hurt, but more than anything this was a gut choice. According to one transition official, Rex is “totally the Trump M.O…. Strong guy… as soon as he met him, he told people that Tillerson is the kind of guy that walks in a room and commands respect.” Another said, “he liked the outsized, Texan, can-do swagger.”

Tillerson is one of at least four Southern white men Trump has nominated for his cabinet. As a New Yorker myself, I can see the imagined appeal. To sort out Trump’s confused and hyperactive mind come father figures who speak slowly, softly, and with authority. In them, Trump sees ‘authenticity,’ sense of self, and unwillingness to cower in the face of his bluster.

Trump is playing along with a common cultural trope. From June Bug to Hart of Dixie and Sweet Home Alabama, countless Northerners have fallen for imaginings of strong Southern types. One of Trump’s favorite movies, Gone With the Wind, features a classic Lost Cause strong-willed Southern belle [his campaign’s slogan could’ve been “after all, tomorrow is another day!”].

Past political figures have fallen under the same spell. Lincoln grew so enamored with his no-nonsense General Ulysses Grant—who grew up on the Kentucky-Ohio border—that when Abolitionists told him he was a drunkard, he asked where he got his drink “Because, if I can only find out, I will send a barrel of this wonderful whiskey to every general in the army.”

Trump’s fetishization has led him to appoint outsiders who seem to project this personality type. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who called Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” is set to run the Department of Energy, a bureaucracy he once forgot he wanted to abolish and is wholly unqualified to lead.

Trump’s stereotyping of Southerners stands in for his larger conception of ideal masculinity. For instance, he selected General James Mattis, a Marine from Washington State, based on his demeanor reminding him of George C. Scott’s portrayal of Patton. Trump, whose bullish persona only highlights his deep insecurity, admires quiet confidence these men seem to project, while also expecting their personalities not to outshine his.

Trump’s views of masculinity and toughness, largely formed from popular culture, are mental models that impact not just his selection of advisors but his perspective on world events. This soft-spot for ‘strong men’ dovetails with his admiration for autocrats. So given Trump’s temperamental inclination towards order and black-and-white narratives, the Tiananmen protests aren’t seen as a fight for freedom but rather a “riot” of unruly kids that a “strong, powerful government put down with strength.” And Putin isn’t as a dangerous autocrat but rather a tough-talking sheriff whose tip of the hat is worth pursuing.

WWII General Omar Bradley in 1948 said that “ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” Come January, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson will be working for one. But where will Rex lead him? Tillerson as CEO has answered press questions for just fifteen minutes a year. As CEO he has represented shareholders, so it is difficult to project personal political opinions onto his actions.

Tillerson is a committed Boy Scout, and perhaps he will do his duty to God and his country without conscious reference to Exxon’s interests. However, at times he seemed to willfully disregard the second order consequences of the firm’s dealing with unsavory governments. For instance, as Steve Coll writes of Tillerson’s oil negotiations with Nigeria, “his feel for political economies in poor countries was limited,” and he seemed to be “hopeful—if not in a state of denial—about Exxon Mobil’s place in the hearts and minds” of the local people. As Secretary of State, Tillerson will have to recognize and manage, not just ignore, shades of gray.

Tillerson may fall into the trap of another former private sector executive turned cabinet official, Robert McNamara. As Secretary of Defense, McNamara lost touch with the human dynamics of the Vietnam War. He focused on the information he felt most comfortable with, like body counts and weapons capabilities, while shying away from more knotty subjects like regional history and culture. Hopefully, Tillerson will recognize that there’s more to diplomacy than operational efficiency and pay attention to the moral aspect of international politics.

It remains an open question whether any such dalliance would last. If Tillerson refuses to bow to some of Trump’s more inane foreign policy ideas, Trump may grow frustrated and freeze him out. Dealing in truth, nowadays, may be the most we can hope for from a Trump appointee.