The most fraught and controversial American presidential campaign in more than a century and a half is over.
But across a broad continent, the issues it raised, the themes it explored, the political techniques it displayed, the personal styles it exposed, the fractious debate it prompted and the bitterness it spawned have not disappeared with the close of polls in urban centres and rural crossroads. Indeed, they may become a permanent part of politics in the United States – and perhaps beyond.
At the centre of the campaign – more bitterly contested than any since the 1860 election that propelled Abraham Lincoln into the White House and plunged the country into civil war – was the politics and personality of one man, himself a kaleidoscope of contradictions: A tycoon whose businesses have declared serial bankruptcies. A sentinel of traditional values who practises the lifestyle of a libertine. A champion of the family who has had three marriages. An unstinting apostle for blue-collar Americans in mill towns and mining centres who installed golden toilets in his penthouse at 725 Fifth Ave.
These moving parts of the personality and profile would fit only in the floppy Brioni suit coats with the throwback box shoulders that are favoured by Donald Trump. His greatest supporters and gravest detractors agree that he stands alone even as he is at the centre of American politics, a singular figure who has disrupted those politics even as he has dominated the American conversation.
“We know that this is a different country after four years of Donald Trump,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a Gettysburg College presidential historian. “We don’t ordinarily hire someone who has no experience, and we’re not likely to have another president who throws around insults. But even so, we don’t know for sure how long the Trump changes will persist, or even which ones are permanent and how many are an aberration.”
Indeed, as Americans trudged to polling stations in libraries, community centres and school auditoriums Tuesday, the question that lingered in the air – the question that has no explicit answer – is whether decades from now, when the din of the 2020 campaign has faded and the second drafts of history are being written, the vast transformations set in motion by Mr. Trump will be seen as prelude or interlude.
If the 45th President and his combative style are prelude, then the Republican candidates of 2024 and beyond – and perhaps the Democratic presidents of America’s future – will adopt or adapt his methods, eschewing the totems and taboos of political life, wandering off the established byways of civic behaviour, abandoning the last remnants of comity in the capital and attacking democratic institutions.
If, on the other hand, he is mere interlude – a raucous but temporary departure from the presidencies of his predecessors – then he will be remembered as an aberration, a force of sheer animal spirits who inspired blind loyalty and blind hatred in nearly equal measure. He raged and rampaged like a feral bull in what once was the relatively mannerly salon of official Washington, trampling the wait staff, toppling the platters of canapés, upending the furniture, smashing the vases, sweeping down the sconces and then fleeing in white fury, leaving to others the task of clearing away the rubble and restoring the furnishings and fixtures.
On that question – prelude or interlude? – the future of American politics depends.
From the start, Mr. Trump – outside history and yet the defining author of the contemporary American story – offered vinegar as an antidote to the sugar of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Each, during his time in the White House, inspired great resentment from his rivals. But viewed through the prism of Trumpism, each seems a placid figure, as bland as any of the occupants of the White House in the colourless parade of late 19th-century presidents who present a blur to 21st-century eyes.
But the great truth of American history is that some presidents are antidotes to their predecessors while others are extensions of them – and it is that conundrum that befuddles America and the world as they look to an uncertain future in a period of rapid, bewildering change.
The presidents who follow Mr. Trump could go either way – continue his means and methods or repudiate them – but in any case they will inherit a presidency that has been changed, changed utterly, by the self-styled Manhattan tycoon.
It is not, outside of immigration and respect for international institutions, merely a matter of policy. It is also a matter of style.
Mr. Trump ran for re-election without a discernible policy outline. Indeed, for the first time since it was founded in the years before the civil war, the 2020 Republican presidential nominee – the heir to Abraham Lincoln’s views on the expansion of slavery, of Theodore Roosevelt’s vision of a muscular America emerging bravely on the world stage, of George W. Bush’s conception of compassionate conservatism – offered no fresh platform, but simply copy and pasted its worn manifesto from four years earlier onto a blank computer screen.
And when, in defiance of the polls, a quiet effort got under way in conservative circles last week to identify possible recruits to populate government for a second Trump term, it was not clear what his agenda might be beyond vague talk of a lunar colony and an infrastructure offensive.
Looming large, too, is that question of style – a matter of, as General Douglas MacArthur, another disruptive figure often described as a narcissist, put it in his famous MacArthur Credo, “a temper of the will.” Earlier presidents of both parties – the Republicans Lincoln and the two Bushes, the Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Mr. Obama – were conciliatory and comforting, ministering to the country at times of crisis and heartbreak.
Instead, Mr. Trump cultivated conflict, abandoning the notion of the president as pastor. In the last days of the campaign, five Reagan White House lawyers released a statement saying Mr. Trump had “fomented hatred.” No president since Woodrow Wilson, who left office nearly a century ago, could remotely be described that way.
And unless freshened by a new figure of compelling appeal, the new Republicanism of the Trump years may be destined to be remembered solely as what the Democratic political strategist James Carville called “a personality cult on a part of an America that is shrinking every day.”
There are, to be sure, Trump pretenders and potential Trump successors feeling their ambition oats in the GOP stable. And then there is a figure bearing a powerful name: Donald Trump Jr., often regarded as an heir apparent to his father, often displaying signs of political ambition reminiscent of his father.
All of them may mimic the original Donald Trump, himself an American original. But they, like potential Democratic successors to the President, eventually will have to confront the Washington Mr. Trump will leave behind, either to rebuild or to recast the political world that he upended. This will be a process that the University of Missouri historian Jay Sexton once described as "the peculiar American tradition of ‘moving forward while facing backward.’ "
“In office and in this campaign, Trump represented a threat to the institutional norms of the presidency,” said Lisa McGirr, a Harvard University historian. “That is what has made the focus on Trump so different. All of his predecessors embraced the customs of our politics even if those customs haven’t been written in law. He represents a deviance from our expectations.”
Even Mr. Trump’s Republican supporters agree that he has coarsened American politics, and his critics believe he has debased the presidency. Other presidents had blemishes, bad moments, enduring stains on their reputations – Mr. Reagan’s tolerance of selling arms to Iran and siphoning the proceeds to provide a subvention to the Nicaraguan Contras, Mr. Clinton’s dalliance with a White House intern, among many others – but they had a genuine reverence for customs and precedent.
To both backers and opponents, Mr. Trump is a president without precedent and without respect for precedents. And over a four-year period, he normalized behaviour and a political style that, until 2017, was completely abnormal. “In every way – in his abhorrent personal life, in his toxic approach to bipartisanship, in his scorched-earth tactics in every part of his presidency, in his foreign policy that failed to live up to the standards of human rights and freedom the United States has always stood for – he is a huge departure,” said Clinton speech writer Ed Widmer.
This is particularly evident in Mr. Trump’s relations with the world.
Canada provides a crisp case study. John F. Kennedy sparred with John Diefenbaker; Lester Pearson drew the ire of Lyndon Johnson, who physically shook him at Camp David; and Richard Nixon derided Pierre Trudeau. But in public these presidents' relations with Canada were conventionally respectful, even warm. They viewed themselves as curators of a vital North American relationship.
In contrast, Mr. Trump pilloried Justin Trudeau in public for his “false statements,” described him as “two-faced” and tweeted after the G7 meeting at La Malbaie, Que., that the Prime Minister was “very dishonest & weak.”
Future presidents are unlikely to act with such callousness and crudeness. And they very likely will re-evaluate the withdrawal of the United States from direct engagement in global affairs.
“Despite all the many differences between them, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all adhered to the notion of the U.S. as the ‘indispensable nation’ and had an allegiance to a global order where there was one superpower that had a role and responsibilities,” said Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., a retired career army officer who is a Boston University expert in international relations. “The 2016 election amounted to a repudiation of that consensus.”
In the post-Trump era, the United States may well return to that consensus. But future presidents – including Democrats, who surely will not trace the provenance of their policies to Mr. Trump – also will embrace some of the approaches that Mr. Trump set in motion.
They will be skeptical of trade agreements, though there is some evidence that the Trump tariffs, especially bitterly received in Canada, cost more American jobs than they preserved. They almost certainly will continue to insist that American allies bear a greater share of the financial burden in multinational organizations such as the United Nations. Though they likely will look more favourably on multilateral alliances such as NATO, they’ll also likely be firm in arguing that America’s allies, including Canada, step up their military spending.
And there is little likelihood that they will revert to the early 21st-century consensus that in both Republican and Democratic administrations governed U.S. policy toward Beijing, the hope that greater prosperity in China would bring about greater personal freedom there. In fact, though with a softer touch, future American leaders will continue to view China as Mr. Trump does: as a serious commercial and perhaps military threat employing nefarious methods in business and in geopolitical affairs.
“There’s now a bipartisan consensus that China is a major problem,” said Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speech writer who now is a political theorist at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “That’s the Trump effect.”
From the right, Mr. Trump is regarded as a man riding the slipstream of history, his policies being little more than the natural consequence of the maturing of America, the changes sweeping global geopolitics and the precedents of his predecessors.
“What we have seen in the last four years was a change in America’s role in the world,” said Kiron Skinner, former State Department director of policy planning in the Trump administration. “But not so much a disruption as a course correction.”
The American political landscape is constantly changing, propelled by great shifts in political tectonics, with massive plates gliding beneath the surface, set in motion by powerful forces of convection beyond the perception of the human eye. For more than a decade, these movements have pulled the two major parties apart, rendering it nearly impossible for Republicans and Democrats to work together. Whether or how the two parties move toward each other again is the great unknown in the geology of Washington.
Today more than a quarter of Democrats and more than a third of Republicans view the opposite party as a threat to the country, according to a poll conducted the Pew Research Center. But, in apparent contradiction, Americans generally deplore this situation, with Gallup polls consistently showing that the public favours compromise. Mr. Trump did not promote a bipartisan moment. But then again, neither did Mr. Obama, whose health care program bearing his name did not pass with a single GOP vote.
This is the biggest departure in Washington life, and veteran political figures do not believe it can long persist.
"If our country is going to operate effectively, both domestically or internationally, we have to have bipartisan agreements,'' said former senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat who teamed with Republican senators Dave Durenberger and Lowell Weicker Jr. to create the landmark Americans with Disability Act.
“We have to return to this,” Mr. Harkin said. “The Republicans need it as much as the Democrats do.”
Massive changes took place while Mr. Trump bellowed, seethed and tweeted in the White House.
The Democrats, since the FDR years the party of blue-collar voters, became the party of the coastal elites, the urban wealthy and the university faculty lounge even as the Republicans, traditionally the party of the affluent, attracted the votes and the sympathies of miners and factory workers and, just as significant, out-of-work miners and factory workers. Whether that pattern continues, and is solidified, is one of the great mysteries of contemporary American politics.
As Americans are examining the soul of their political system – wrestling with whether their democracy is in danger or is enduring – there is a parallel battle under way for the soul of both of the country’s major political parties.
Such intraparty battles are a familiar part of American history. The Republicans conducted one after losing seven of the nine elections between Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Democrats engaged in one after losing five of the six presidential races between Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.
But seldom have both parties engaged in such soul searching at the same time.
Today’s Democrats are struggling to determine how far left to lean and whether to inch toward the middle to broaden their appeal and win back the workers who were the foundation of their base since the FDR New Deal nearly a century ago.
Today’s Republicans are in a struggle of their own. “They are beginning the slow and painful work of transforming the party and regrounding conservatism in the 21st century, trying to update the old Republican shtick,” said David Azerrad, a conservative theorist at Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Government in Washington. They are doing it, the Montreal native said, with the realization that “there is no one like Trump.”
On that – in a country divided on immigration, split apart on gun rights, at odds even over whether to wear a mask in public – there is, finally, a national consensus.
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