FOR THOSE OF US PAYING ATTENTION, the first seven months of the Trump presidency (a phrase I still can’t speak without gagging), have felt more like seven decades. Every day, it seems, the commander-in-chief of the United States makes a move to worsen the lives of the people he’s meant to serve, whether that be by pulling out of the Paris Agreement, promoting hate and intolerance, or endangering global trade. The Russia scandal alone, breathlessly covered by our own Greg Olear, has already outpaced Teapot Dome and Watergate in its scope and criminality. Yesterday Trump proposed banning transgender people from serving in the military; today his collaborators in Congress may very well strip healthcare from millions of Americans.
But beyond policy Trump has had major impacts as well, not only on the daily lives of citizens and noncitizens alike, but on the coalitions that have dominated American politics for decades, the office and power of the executive, and America as both an idea and a culture. Although it’s still difficult to see how Trump’s tenure, assuming we survive him, will impact the nation long-term, we can at least begin to examine some of the immediate effects he is having on the nation he rules.
Over the next three weeks let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly wrought by Donald Trump. And let’s begin with the good.
Before Donald Trump, liberalism was the politics of complacency. Although major progress was made on gay rights, healthcare, and energy independence, President Obama and his allies failed to move the needle on some of the major planks of the liberal agenda. In many ways things got worse.
Under Obama, incarceration rates skyrocketed, as did police militarization, as did wealth inequality. For its part in the 2008 financial crisis, Wall Street got a slap on the wrist. A weakened American foreign policy, traumatized by years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, allowed for the emergence of a more aggressive Russia and the birth of the Islamic State.
While some worked tirelessly to push progressive causes, the great majority of the Left sat on its hands. As long as we had a smart, decent Democrat in office there was no reason to protest, or complain, or even to engage.
Since the 2016 election, things have changed and in dramatic ways. People who had never before thought of voting, much less participating, are taking to the streets. The ACLU, the DNC, and various anti-Trump groups have announced record donations. FOX, weakened by sex scandal and clear pro-Trump bias, has dropped in the ratings to fall behind CNN and MSNBC. The New York Times and Washington Post, recently in financial straits, are seeing huge spikes in subscriptions, both in digital and print. People are paying attention. And with every misstep by the White House, new alliances are being formed and a new liberal coalition is growing.
Trumpland may have won the battle, but the Left may yet win the war. In fact, Donald Trump may be the most important member the Resistance has, for he serves as the opposition’s most galvanizing recruitment tool.
Consider: would anyone have guessed a year ago that George Will, David Brooks, and Glenn Beck would stand on the same side as Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, and Michael Moore? Even now, even now, Trump is trying his hardest to recruit his own Attorney General to our cause.
And while Trump grows the organized opposition against him, his totalitarian tendencies have sparked a long-overdue discussion about the limits of executive power.
When this nation was founded, some of its architects, most notably John Adams, saw the office of the president as that of a king, demanding complete respect and sublimation. Others, however, Adams’ great rival Thomas Jefferson chief among them, believed that a powerful chief executive was a threat to the very institution of democracy. In fact, Jefferson famously stripped the office of much of its pomp and circumstance, much to the bewilderment of visiting foreign emissaries. For the first several decades of the nation’s existence real power lay with Congress, and it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that things first began to change. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson each expanded the powers of the executive further and further to the point that today the president has the literal power to end the world should he choose.
Donald Trump is not a stable man. Growing evidence of collusion with a foreign power, ignorance, or contempt for the rule of law, and demonstrated lack of impulse control, have all led to a re-examination of the powers of the presidency. Even now, in a time of intense partisanship not seen since the 1850s, the House of Representatives voted 419 to 3 to impose new sanctions on Russia, which President Trump would not be able to overturn.
Although the Russia sanctions bill has hit a snag in recent days, this unique moment of bipartisanship should not be taken lightly. It is only the first salvo at the imperial presidency, a major rebuke of executive power that will only become more limited the more Trump oversteps.
And here we come to the final, perhaps greatest irony. The more Trump rails against the Left and aligns himself to conservatism, the more he risks diminishing the power and influence of the Right.
Trump, more than anyone else, knows the importance of branding. He made his (yet to be determined) fortune by cultivating his image as a great builder and a business genius. But with every passing day, with each new crazy 8am tweet, with every firing, and every overly long, awkward handshake, Trump reveals himself as the oafish, know-nothing fraud that he is. And that image will stay with the Grand Old Party for a generation or more, depending on the damage he leaves.
The Republican party is fast losing its opportunity to disassociate themselves from Trump, and if they don’t act soon, they will go down with him. Cue political realignment. Cue the Newer Deal. Cue a liberal supermajority in 2020.
It may be very difficult to see it most days, but Donald Trump may just be the greatest thing to happen to progressive politics since the advent of the eight-hour day.