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Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.


Donald Trump's top adviser, Paul Manafort, recently reflected on the role of the vice-president in a Trump administration, saying: "[Mr. Trump] needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn't want to do. He sees himself more as the chairman of the board than even the CEO, let alone the COO."

Since declaring his candidacy for the Republican nomination a year ago, Mr. Trump has been underestimated at every turn: in his ability to woo voters, to transform the GOP opponents he insulted into sycophantic lackeys, and to sell himself as a leader despite being the only major presidential candidate in U.S. history with no legislative or military experience.

His bigotry and brutality – Mexicans are rapists, Muslims should be banned, waterboarding is good – are rationalized by his more moderate supporters as insincere pandering, a sales pitch to be walked back in practice. (That advocating torture and ethnic persecution is now a mainstream campaign strategy speaks volumes about both Mr. Trump and Americans.) His inconsistent positions and lack of government experience have left many wondering what he would actually do if he were to win office.

What is most likely, Mr. Manafort all but confirms, is that Mr. Trump would be deeply bored.

He plays to win – but wins to play. The day-to-day, bureaucratic machinations of power appeal to him less than the joy of flamboyantly wielding it. In his 1987 memoir The Art of the Deal, he scornfully listed "number-crunchers," "consultants," "surveys" and "committees" as things he could do without. This is unfortunate for a man applying for a four-year job dealing with number-crunchers, consultants, surveys and committees.

But his boredom can be assuaged – and that is why the vice-presidential candidate is so important. Exit the showman, enter the wonk. The United States is not only on the verge of electing a master con artist as president, but a con artist backed by a shadow government that may wield more pragmatic power than the president.

The idea of a charismatic but unstudied leader backed by a wonkish power broker isn't new. The United States saw it with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and to a lesser extent with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. What is different now is the weakness of the United States at this political moment: economically wounded from the 2008 crash, exhausted by 15 years of war, and torn apart by partisanship and racial unrest. Mr. Trump's rise was made possible by his country's decline. But his rule will rest on the subordinates to whom he outsources the art of statecraft.

He will likely not announce his vice-presidential pick until the Republican convention next month in Cleveland. But all signs point to it being Newt Gingrich, who served as Speaker of the House during the latter half of the Clinton administration. This week, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is backing Mr. Trump's campaign, indicated that Mr. Gingrich has been promised a senior role in a Trump administration.

Mr. Gingrich fills in the gaps. He is a policy wonk and PhD with decades of practical experience in the U.S. government. He is southern (a plus for New Yorker Trump) and, most importantly, he is a long-time nemesis of Bill and Hillary Clinton. As a career politician, Mr. Gingrich is "establishment" – a concept Mr. Trump rails against in rhetoric – but he has been out of the political scene long enough to be repackaged as anti-establishment, with the Clintons filling the role as establishment antagonists. Mr. Trump's vague promise to "make America great again" will likely draw from Mr. Gingrich's mid-1990s "Contract with America," a series of Republican policy positions often aimed at hurting vulnerable citizens such as welfare recipients.

This year has felt like a regurgitation from the 1990s, with everything from Mr. Trump and the Clintons to O.J. Simpson and The X-Files getting revived. Much as the 1990s culture wars were a retrial of the 1960s, this year's issues have been a retrial of the 1990s – with the election as a baby-boomer battle royale.

As vice-presidential nominee, Mr. Gingrich would build on his decades-long grudge against the Clintons, but it is what he would do in office that should be of concern. Mr. Trump is no puppet; he is a savvy businessman whose penchant for intolerance and venom should be taken seriously. But he's no bureaucrat, either. America is the puppet – and it may be Mr. Gingrich pulling the strings.