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Early signals: The nascent shape of the Donald Trump administration

With Donald Trump holed up in his eponymous Manhattan tower, avoiding media as he scrambles to prepare for a presidency even he didn't expect to win, it's difficult to separate fact from fiction about his early decisions. But through the noise, a few signals have come through about how he is shaping his administration, and how others might respond to it.

His appointments offer the furthest thing from comfort

During this year's campaign, some nose-holding Republicans and others seeking reassurance that Mr. Trump's presidency wouldn't be a disaster, persuaded themselves he would be moderated by people around him. Given his lack of political experience, consistent ideology or patience for policy specifics, surely he would surround himself with professionals focused on traditional governance.

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The closest Mr. Trump has come so far to fulfilling that wish is naming Reince Priebus, the pragmatic if pliant Republican National Committee chair, as chief of staff. But after that, his appointments have instead doubled down on his version of nativist populism.

Alongside Mr. Priebus, in an apparently equal role as top strategist, is Stephen Bannon. As chairman of Breitbart News, he became a hero of white nationalists by providing a platform for racist conspiracy theories and other forms of xenophobia.

To serve as his top national-security adviser, Mr. Trump has tapped Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general who has followed his distinguished military career by becoming an advocate for the view that the United States is at war with the entire religion of Islam. A fierce hawk who called for Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned, Mr. Flynn is also unsettlingly cozy with Russia's government.

And to run his Justice Department, Mr. Trump has turned to a man once denied a federal judgeship because of allegations of racism and his open criticism of civil-rights groups and the Voting Rights Act. More recently, Jeff Sessions has been known as his country's most stridently anti-immigration senator.

There are still plenty of appointments to go, and someone like Mr. Sessions must get through confirmation hearings. But so far, Mr. Trump's inner circle appears less likely to moderate than to reinforce what many find scary about him.

Most Republicans are willing to work with him

Never say #NeverTrump again. Because if the president-elect does want to surround himself with insiders, mainstream Republicans who until recently couldn't abide the idea of him in the White House have changed their tune.

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From Mitt Romney to Senators Lindsay Graham and Ben Sasse, many of his most prominent critics have made conciliatory noises and in some cases expressed openness to serving in his administration. The same goes for lobbyists, members of the Republican foreign-policy establishment and conservative pundits.

One explanation for their about-face is rank opportunism. Another answer, probably fairer in cases such as Mr. Romney's, is that in some sense they owe it to their country to try to steer Mr. Trump in the direction they see fit. A third, somewhere between the two (and flowing down from a Trump skeptic like House Speaker Paul Ryan), is an awareness that his lack of preparedness gives them unusual leeway to advance their own agendas.

Some Democrats are willing to work with him, too

Republicans spent Barack Obama's presidency refusing to lend him any bipartisan support. But Democrats purport to be keeping open minds about Mr. Trump's, cognizant that he is less ideological than most Republicans on economic and social-welfare policies.

In a speech this week, Bernie Sanders (technically an independent, but effectively a highly influential Democrat) suggested there might be common ground on matters such as trade protectionism, Social Security, raising the minimum wage and standing up to Wall Street.

More surprising was a New York Times report that the new Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, has already been in touch several times with the president-elect, as Democrats "plan to announce populist economics and ethics initiatives they think Mr. Trump might like."

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Who knows how long such optimism will last. But for now, the race to fill Mr. Trump's policy void isn't just between Republicans.

One minority group has special reason to be afraid

Plenty of demographics have cause to be on edge – Hispanics because of talk of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, African-Americans from hostility toward Black Lives Matter, Jews from the anti-Semitism of an emboldened "alt-right" movement.

But Muslim Americans are in a unique category, because in these hazy early days, Islamophobia is shaping up as one of the incoming administration's defining features.

Probably most notable on that front is Mr. Flynn, who has promoted the view that Islamophobia is an oxymoron, because fear of Muslims is rational. Meanwhile, Mr. Sessions was the rare Republican to defend Mr. Trump when he flirted with a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the country. Rudolph Giuliani, possibly in line to be secretary of state, boasts about police surveillance of mosques when he was New York mayor. Newt Gingrich, a key member of Mr. Trump's transition team, has suggested all Muslims in the United States should be tested to see if they believe in Sharia law, and if so, deported. Mr. Bannon gave a platform to some of his country's leading anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists.

Nobody knows what policies such views will translate into. Possibly there's comfort to be found in the (false) claim by Mr. Trump's spokesperson this week that the president-elect never promised to create a registry for Muslim Americans, even as one of his campaign surrogates implied Japanese internment set a precedent.

What is clear is that, mistrusted by a majority of the next president's supporters and carrying less political weight than other minority groups, Muslims are uniquely vulnerable to an administration in which fearing them seems to be a job qualification. Amid an increase in anti-Islamic hate crimes, nothing is being more "normalized" – to use the buzzword for the mainstreaming of behaviours previously considered unacceptable – than Muslim-bashing.

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