David Shribman, the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.
Donald J. Trump has been a feast for cable-television commentators, investigative reporters and federal prosecutors. Just look at what has occurred during the first two years of his administration: He has overhauled years of U.S. trade policy, including NAFTA; challenged the primacy of America’s security relationships, including NATO; recast regulatory policy, including measures intended to battle climate change; changed the tone and timbre of presidential conversation; and pushed the ultimate arbiter of American economic and social life, the Supreme Court, to the right. And he’s not finished yet.
And so, years from now, after he leaves the White House, Mr. Trump will be a gift to biographers and historians who almost certainly will look with wonder on this period in U.S. history and this unusual President.
Indeed, just as the passage of decades has clarified our views on Thomas Jefferson (no longer simply the innocent lyricist of American freedom) and John A. Macdonald (no longer simply the heroic principal figure of Canadian Confederation), the ticks of the historical clock will clarify the role and impact of the 45th President. And it may help us understand the present if, at the mathematical halfway point of his term, we examine his presidency from some imaginary future, where the following questions may have some decisive answers.
Was the Trump presidential style a departure from form or was it the new model?
With instant access to the public through his manic tweets, with a disregard for presidential precedent and with contempt for the customary rituals of the presidency, Mr. Trump has defied all the historical folkways of his office. ‘’The American president as crime boss,’’ is the way essayist Lance Morrow has put it.
The question is whether Mr. Trump’s defiance of presidential tradition has destroyed, or merely recast, public expectations. Will the next occupant of the White House reflexively provide a generous salute to a contentious major figure such as Senator John McCain of Arizona on his death, or virtually ignore the demise of an otherwise respected critic, dismissing or diminishing his contribution? Will the next president, to cite repeated examples where Mr. Trump’s comportment did not match public expectations, offer comfort and conciliation at moments of national challenge or tragedy, or widen divisions among the public?
Mr. Trump does not do the rituals well, sometimes not at all – aspects of the presidency that relatively recent chief executives such as Ronald Reagan (following the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster), George W. Bush (after the 2001 terrorist attacks) and Barack Obama (at the 2015 funeral of slain South Carolina minister Clementa Pinckney) mastered. In fact, Mr. Trump has spurned some of the ritualistic aspects of the office, with the threat of protests keeping him from the Kennedy Center Honors or greeting some champion athletes at the White House.
That added awkwardness to his appearance last fall at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 worshippers were slain in a shooting spree immediately characterized as a hate crime – the most vicious act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history. While Rabbi Jeffrey Myers welcomed the President into the synagogue, which had been rendered a crime scene, hundreds of protesters on the streets of the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood held placards and chanted that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric contributed to the coarsening of American life and empowered white supremacists and anti-Semites.
Moreover, just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt redefined the presidency with the radio (especially with his fireside chats, which calmed a stricken Depression-era country) and John F. Kennedy did so again with television (especially his set-piece news conferences, which put his intellect and sense of humour on display), Mr. Trump may have redefined the presidency with the late-night and early-morning tweet. (Some of his most acidic have been aimed at Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.)
This question – about the Trump presidential style – has a foreign-policy and trade component that Canadians have watched with bewilderment, even horror. Past presidents have embraced the notion of cross-border amity, while Mr. Trump has sowed cross-border enmity. And past presidents have approached traditional allies in Europe with care, making efforts to cultivate relationships that had their roots in the Cold War, the Second World War, even the First World War and earlier. Mr. Trump has disrupted many of those relationships, and as a result multilateral leadership summits have often been preceded by private conversations among Western leaders about how to handle, contain or oppose Mr. Trump and how to react to his outbursts.
The mystery is whether Mr. Trump’s successor will follow his lead or seek to restore the relationships that have given shape to the U.S. presidency for decades. That won’t be known for many years. Meanwhile, this question lingers:
Did Mr. Trump unbalance the balance of power between the branches of government in the United States, or did he establish a new equilibrium?
On the surface, and especially to his rivals in the Democratic Party and the newly resurgent left, Mr. Trump acted through his first two years as President as a government of one, having co-opted the legislative branch, transforming the Republican-controlled Congress into an extension of his own power and prerogatives. But after 40 seats in the House of Representatives were turned over to the Democrats in a midterm rout, restoring the party’s control of the chamber, the calculus has changed – but not necessarily improved.
It certainly is true that the President has almost silenced dissent in the Republican Party, an institution against which he prosecuted a hostile takeover in 2016. That made his relationship with the GOP leaders in the Senate and the House far more difficult than even the grudging rapport between Barack Obama and the Democrats he faced on Capitol Hill.
Because Mr. Trump was not a long-term member of the GOP, and because the Republican establishment, offended by his behaviour and horrified by his departures from party orthodoxy on trade and national security, fought mightily to deny its presidential nomination to such an apostate, there were initial tensions between the two branches of government. And yet on most matters – the President’s unsuccessful drive to repeal the Obamacare health plan is the principal exception – the legislative branch his party controlled in 2017 and 2018 bowed to his wishes and was not a forceful balance to the activist executive branch.
Future students of the separation of powers may not be astonished at these developments, as we are, and in fact may not regard the first two years of the Trump presidency with the same perspective we have today. There have been many times – the New Deal era of FDR, for example, or the Great Society domestic initiatives of the Lyndon Johnson era, or even the tax and spending cuts of the Reagan years – when a Congress dominated by the president’s party did not act as a brake on the White House.
Now the separation-of-powers question has a new dimension, for the new power lineup on Capitol Hill almost certainly will scramble the political calculus in Washington. As a result we are led to the next question, where the answer may require even more care and nuance:
Did Mr. Trump set the Republican Party on a new path, remaking a generations-old institution in the image of a man who had been a Republican for less than a decade?
The answer to this also will not be known for years, perhaps decades. Only then will we know whether the GOP will return to its free-trade past, its interventionist impulse, its fiscal conservatism or its profile of quiet restraint, established values and respect for the past and its hoary customs.
But there can be no doubt that there is a feud in the Republican Party. It exploded into view this month as a result of a quarrel in one of the signature families of the party, the Romneys, who account for three presidential campaigns, one Republican presidential nomination, 10 years in gubernatorial chairs in two states (Michigan and Massachusetts), four years in a GOP cabinet (during the Nixon presidency) and, now, tenure as chair of the Republican Party and the beginning of a Senate career (from Utah).
First Mitt Romney, the last GOP presidential nominee before Mr. Trump, blasted the President in an op-ed in The Washington Post, questioning his character (‘’the president has not risen to the mantle of the office’’) and arguing that Mr. Trump lacks the ‘’essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and [the inclination to] elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect.’’ Then his niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel, who has been encouraged to drop her maiden name while serving as chair of the Republican National Committee during the Trump ascendancy, fired back, referring to her uncle merely as ‘’an incoming Republican freshman senator’’ and arguing that Mr. Romney fed ‘’into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive.’’
In truth, family feuds – especially in families as mild-tempered as the Romneys – seldom define the fissures in national political parties, but American parties are constantly changing, shifting their centres of gravity, adjusting their outlooks and viewpoints. Republicans once were champions of free trade, Democrats celebrants of high tariffs. Republicans once were the party of big government and centralized power, both required when the young party fought a civil war (1861-65) and needed to mobilize the arms of government to fight the Confederacy, which was freighted with former Democrats who were skeptical of centralized power, especially when it contemplated restricting slavery.
Since the middle of the 19th century, the Republican Party has been shaped by Abraham Lincoln (making it a party of rights for former slaves), then reshaped by William McKinley (making it a party congenial to business interests), and reshaped again by Mr. Reagan (who brought an end to the big-government notion of Washington that had its roots in the Lincoln years).
Although a former Democrat, Mr. Trump had transformation on his mind when, six months before he was elected, he told Bloomberg News he envisioned a GOP that was “a workers’ party,’’ one that was a ‘’party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.” That kind of idiom once, within living memory, belonged to the Democrats, whose allegiance with blue-collar workers was forged in the 1930s and was not even questioned for the next half-century, when it began to erode under the appeal of Mr. Reagan.
Similarly, the Democratic Party of segregation in the 19th century became the Democratic Party of civil rights in the mid-20th century – so much so that a party that fought giving blacks the vote 120 years ago last fall ran African-American candidates for governor in two states of the Old Confederacy, Georgia and Florida. (Both ran spirited campaigns, but both fell short of victory.)
Right now we don’t know whether the Republican Party – once shut out of the South because of its embrace of civil rights but now claiming the South as its political base – will in the future again resemble the mannered, conformist GOP of George H.W. Bush or the manic, insurgent party of Mr. Trump. But we do know that the answer to that question will give shape to U.S. politics – and we know that the vast majority of Republicans whom Mr. Trump endorsed in GOP primaries last year won.
Did Mr. Trump define the American character or did he defy it?
This question, a hardy perennial of the Trump years, came into sharp relief last year with the death of Mr. McCain, one of Mr. Trump’s predecessors as a Republican presidential nominee. The two men may have shared an instinct for combativeness, but in his later years, Mr. McCain was a symbol of reconciliation rather than confrontation.
In his farewell to the American people, released after his death, Mr. McCain left an eloquent plea for a more conciliatory style of politics: ‘’We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,’’ he wrote in a subtle but inescapable swipe at the Trump style and the Trump ethos. ‘’We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.’’
And yet the American temperament isn’t defined only by compromise and teamwork. In his 1972 interview with Oriana Fallaci, Henry Kissinger, like Mr. Trump a product of the urban East, nonetheless mused that “Americans like the cowboy … who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else,’’ adding, ‘’This amazing, romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style or, if you like, my technique.” Mr. Trump, a virtual pariah at multinational summit meetings, has been doing a lot of riding alone in recent months.
One moment in the President’s first two years was particularly telling. He sat in the usual presidential seat – aisle seat, front row, left centre – at the funeral of one of his predecessors, George H.W. Bush, whose presidency he reviled and whose sons he taunted. But he was visibly uncomfortable as speaker after speaker, including former prime minister Brian Mulroney, cited the 41st president’s character – his gentleness, his impulse to conciliation and compromise. It was evident to everyone in Washington’s National Cathedral that the Bush funeral was in part a statement about Mr. Trump, a hushed rebuke to the incumbent President and an unmistakable celebration of the personal characteristics of Mr. Bush that Mr. Trump clearly lacks – and for which he has unbridled contempt.
Years from now history may portray Mr. Trump’s physical swagger and his uncompromising rhetorical style the antidote to a flaccid style of Republican, or even of American, leadership. Or it may portray the Trump style as an extension of the mythology of the old American West. Or it may portray the President as the 21st-century incarnation of the Ugly American. Like so much about Mr. Trump, so much depends on history’s answer to this final, vital question:
Did Mr. Trump’s style of populism endanger democracy or did the President become a new voice of the people?
His critics argue the former. Mr. Trump argues the latter. It is incontrovertible that Mr. Trump heard, or intuited, the despair of many Americans in rural areas and in manufacturing regions where jobs have fled overseas. That is why, for example, many union members whose factory-worker parents were beneficiaries of the New Deal and loyal to its Democratic Party progenitors supported Mr. Trump two years ago.
But it is also true that Mr. Trump has attacked the media and trampled on the truth.
It is, of course, possible to endanger democratic institutions in the service of the voiceless, just as it was possible – in the 1920s, the 1980s and the 1990s, the early years of the 21st century, particularly after the economic crisis of 2008 – for democratic institutions to survive while Washington ignored the needs of large swaths of the American population.
The key challenge for the historians of the future is to uncouple these two elements – preserving democratic institutions and heeding or voicing the public’s despair and desires – from the facile formulations of CNN (generally opposing Mr. Trump) and Fox News (ardently supporting him).
It is rather for these future historians to examine whether the rule of law, freedom of expression, the balance of powers and the protections of the Bill of Rights are as robust at the end of the Trump years as they were at the beginning. Making that judgment is the work of scholars. But preserving those democratic values in real time is the responsibility of all Americans, including Mr. Trump.