Commentary: An unprecedented presidential year
Has there ever been a presidential year quite like this one?
An Inaugural Address that was at once a statement of triumph and a manifesto of change. A Supreme Court nomination fight that altered the Senate’s customs and transformed its rules. Repeated efforts to overturn Obamacare. Heightened tensions with North Korea -- and with the mainstream media. A final push for a tax overhaul. Ferocious opposition, and ferocious devotion.
And that’s not mentioning the tweets. About the president’s putative allies (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky). About his opponents (Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York). About Kim Jong-un (“Little Rocket Man”). Nor the new terms: “Alternative facts.” “Fake news.”
Other presidents have had difficult starts. Abraham Lincoln watched 11 states depart the Union. Franklin Roosevelt confronted a Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson inherited a grieving nation. But none of them had the kind of instant and comprehensive access to the American people at a time of crisis that Donald J. Trump now employs at a time of relative ease.
“It has no precedent, and no one could have expected it,” said G. Calvin Mackenzie, an emeritus political scientist at Colby College. “No public figure ... has ever dominated the news cycle this way.”
The result is a nation divided and confounded -- but mostly exhausted.
“The rise of social media, and the president’s enthusiastic participation in it, has shifted how quickly news stories arrive,” said Andrew Rudalevige, a Bowdoin College political scientist. “The old message was that the president had to say the same thing 25 times to make an impact. But, aside from phrases like ‘fake news,’ President Trump never stays on the same subject.”
Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, believes the president creates what he calls “unforced tumult,” not tumult prompted by looming calamities or even challenges. “It’s all kind of internal,” he said. “It’s because Trump and his party are trying to do a great many things that are very disruptive.”
That gets to the heart of the president’s profile -- and the country’s.
Trump may be many things -- democrat or autocrat, visionary or demagogue, man of the people or plutocrat, authentic populist or poseur -- but here is one description that allies and critics alike will find indisputable: disrupter.
He has changed how presidents behave. He has changed how presidents talk. He has changed how presidents communicate. He has changed how presidents deal with Congress. He has changed how presidents approach the press. He has changed how presidents regard international trade. He has changed how presidents deal with foreign countries. He has changed how presidents interact with scientists. He has changed how presidents treat the agencies and departments of their own government.
As disrupter in chief, Trump is arguably more in tune with the national zeitgeist than was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, though she would have been the first female president, would have comported herself more like previous modern presidents, from FDR to Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. For Trump, there seems to be no antecedent, although John Tyler, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson might be the closest approximations.
If, in a complex society that is being transformed simultaneously in multiple directions and dimensions, there is one word that describes this dizzying change -- in the way news is covered and delivered, in the way music is produced and distributed, in the way education is conceived and transmitted -- it is disruption.
That is Trump’s cause, and it is his effect.
In that -- if in few other areas, with the exception of this month’s tax bill and the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court -- he has been supremely successful.
But he has not been the lone disrupter. The Republican Party -- for generations the repository of quiet nostrums and generally quiet political figures, a political party that, in contrast to the more unruly Democrats’ embrace of social unrest, prided itself in cultivating social rest -- has itself been both disrupter and disrupted.
The GOP no longer speaks in one voice, proselytizing its message of thrift (traduced in a tax bill that provides for $1.5 trillion in deficits in a 10-year period) and restraint (a quality unknown in the Freedom Caucus or the White House).
It is in upheaval with few precedents -- perhaps the Republicans after the Civil War, perhaps the Democrats during the civil rights and Vietnam War periods, two epochs where the word “radical” was tossed around with both abandon and accuracy.
“There’s been a complete erosion of what the Republican Party used to be,” said former GOP Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, a founding trustee of the devoutly conservative Heritage Foundation. “The party has turned its back on our basic principles.”
At the same time, the broader political world has changed. With no liberal Republicans (who helped pass the civil rights legislation of the 1960s) and no conservative Democrats (who applied a brake to Democratic social programs, sometimes from nefarious and racist instincts), there is no middle ground between the parties, no impulse for bipartisanship and large political rewards for stridency.
“The rhetoric has heated up year after year; there’s a constant inability to keep the government from shutting down, and Congress isn’t passing legislation that used to be easy,” said Thomas J. Whalen, a Boston University political scientist. “There seems to be a breakdown of democratic institutions, and this is the logical conclusion of that. It’s as if we have been watching this happen in slow motion.”
The president, meanwhile, is the personification of these changes.
Trump is not the first president who has sowed a combination of devotion and alienation. Take a stroll through the Warhol Museum on Pittsburgh’s North Shore and you will see a painting of Richard M. Nixon by the pop art master. Beneath the image of Nixon stretch two words: “Vote McGovern.” The painting was created in 1972, when Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was defeated in a Nixon landslide.
The Gallup Organization has been measuring Americans’ views of Trump for eight months. Its surveys have found that three-quarters of Americans view the president as “intense.” Little disagreement there. But only a third consider him “visionary.” That reflects the Great Divide. Those who love him are loyal. Those who don’t harbor doubts or declare themselves “resisters.” The struggle between the two groups almost certainly will be the story of 2018.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org.)