If we’ve learned anything about American civic affairs in recent years, it’s this: The iron laws of politics are made to be broken.
Donald Trump has broken them, his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination have broken them, Joe Biden has broken them. The rules of the road of the country’s politics have been swept to the side of the road.
It’s not that established rules were not broken before. It was a rule that Democrats didn’t undertake a frontal assault on racial segregation, until Lyndon Johnson did; the 36th president pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was a rule that Republican presidential candidates couldn’t win Southern states, until Richard Nixon did; he competed heavily in Dixie and made the South part of what came to be known, in the phrase of Republican theorist Kevin Phillips, “the emerging Republican majority.”
It was a rule that Democratic political candidates couldn’t criticize labour unions until, in the 1984 presidential campaign, senators John Glenn and Gary Hart did; their complaints about the power of “the barons and the bosses” nearly sank the front-running nomination campaign of former vice-president Walter Mondale. And it was a rule that business executives couldn’t win the presidency, until two did; George W. Bush and Donald Trump did what Wendell Willkie, Steve Forbes and Ross Perot couldn’t accomplish.
Now, in the early days of the 2024 presidential election, some of the remaining iron rules have turned to dross:
— Presidential campaigns against incumbent presidents are really referenda on the sitting president.
There’s plenty of evidence for that. Franklin Roosevelt won that referendum three times. The election that followed in 1948 was more about Harry Truman than governor Thomas Dewey of New York, just as the 1996 election was more about Bill Clinton than senator Bob Dole. And surely the 2020 election was more about Mr. Trump than Joe Biden. Mr. Biden won largely because he wasn’t Mr. Trump.
But now, as the Great Rematch looms for 2024, the election may be partially on the record – on immigration, the economy and foreign policy – of Mr. Biden, but it really is a referendum on Mr. Trump, who has cast a shadow over this successor far greater than even Herbert Hoover did over FDR in 1933. The question in 2024 is whether the American people want four more years under the influence of Mr. Trump, who has dominated American politics more than any former president, ever.
— Presidential elections are about the future, not the past.
In a country congenitally future-oriented, that has always been the case. Abraham Lincoln’s election was about the future of slavery. Warren Harding and FDR won the presidency because they offered a break from the past. John F. Kennedy was elected promising a “New Frontier” created by “a new generation of leadership.” Barack Obama implicitly, and in rare occasions explicitly, campaigned on creating a fresh era of racial reconciliation.
Not this time. Mr. Trump is re-litigating the 2020 election, which he still insists he won, and in campaign appearances cannot resist returning to the battles of his past: against Hillary Rodham Clinton, against the criticisms of his ties with Russia, against the press, even against Mr. Obama. To the extent that his campaign is future-oriented, it is dominated by threats to the individuals and institutions that have produced the grievances of his past. Conservative politicians are fond of employing Winston Churchill’s remark that “if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” Mr. Trump has either not encountered that notion or simply cannot heed it.
— Presidential candidates summon the troops by referencing the heroes of their party’s triumphs.
Until the mid-1960s, Democratic presidential candidates invoked the name of FDR, who built the coalition that gave the party victories in seven of the nine elections beginning in 1932. You haven’t heard a Democratic candidate make a triumphal reference to the 32nd president in years. Until the late 1990s, Democratic presidential candidates imitated the style of John F. Kennedy. You haven’t heard a competitive Democratic candidate play the Kennedy card since Mr. Clinton; indeed the only political figure summoning Kennedy overtones is Casey DeSantis, the wife of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis whose couture seems to mimic that of Jacqueline Kennedy. (The campaign of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. doesn’t count. He was born with the Kennedy name.)
It’s not different for the Republicans. In three presidential campaigns, Richard Nixon either sought to personify the aura of Dwight Eisenhower or subtly invoked it. Mr. Eisenhower now is as much a part of the GOP past as James A. Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes. For years Republicans sought to recapture the mantle and magic of Ronald Reagan. Hardly anyone besides Mike Pence does that anymore, though Senator Tim Scott’s sense of optimism is reminiscent of Mr. Reagan’s, and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is a popular venue for Republican candidates to make major campaign pronouncements. (In that setting, though not in many others, it is inevitable to invoke the name of the 40th president.)
The bottom line: Mr. Trump has so remade the GOP in his own image that his presidential predecessors seem like fallen idols.
— Candidates profit when their rivals encounter trouble.
It was an immutable rule, until it wasn’t. Former president Nixon profited in 1968 when governor George Romney of Michigan said he had a “brainwashing” in Vietnam. (Senator Eugene McCarthy, contemptuous of Mr. Romney’s intelligence, said that a “light rinse” would have done.) Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts emerged as a leading Democratic candidate when senator Gary Hart withdrew from the 1988 race after he was caught in awkward circumstances with a model.
Then came Donald Trump, for whom bad news does not create a bear market. His first indictment proved to be a popularity and financial boom. His court appearance Tuesday after his indictment was the same. Mr. Trump may lack conventional skills, but he possesses one remarkable skill. Even out of office, he strikes down established laws. For Mr. Trump, if not for the nation, bad news is good news.