Is the presidency changed forever?
As norms fall, experts debate how much of this is indelible
WASHINGTON — Aside from the promises kept or broken, the turmoil and tweet rants, historians are already debating whether Donald Trump has had a lasting impact on the presidency.
The American system of government hinges not just on constitutional checks and balances but also on norms and expectations. In his first year as president, Trump has shattered one after another.
That has delighted supporters.
He cast himself as an outsider who would shake up Washington and “drain the swamp,” and they welcome whatever change he can bring to the office, the longer-lasting the better.
The pivots from precedent have gone far beyond policy shifts. The 45th president has done things the first 44 never considered.
He refused to set aside business interests, questioned the legitimacy of judges whose rulings he disagreed with and railed at a free press. He’s warned of conspiracies in his own government. He’s turned a friendly face toward Russia while pressuring NATO allies, and demanded jail for his main political rival while urging an open mind toward white supremacists.
His vulgar and scornful description of developing countries last week was only the latest instance of
harsh rhetoric toward immigrants, fueling a sense that he’s removed some stigma from xenophobia and racism.
At the United Nations, he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” and mocked its reclusive leader as “Rocket Man” after a series of missile tests. In the face of withering criticism about his mental state, Trump declared himself a “very stable genius.”
None of that is even close to illegal. It’s just not something the country has ever seen in its leader.
Will future presidents find it easier to flout convention?
“The strict academic answer is that it’s too soon to tell. We’ll find out in 25 years how the presidency has evolved post-Trump,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.
Much will hinge not on Trump himself but on the next president, and the one after that. On that, scholars agree, whether or not they believe Trump has already altered the institution.
“Our civic society and our sense of what the presidency means for the country is not written down,” Engel said. “He has already laid the seeds of fundamentally changing the presidency. … Nobody is going to trust norms in the same way that we did before.”
No one would argue that Trump is conventional, said James Dickey, chairman of the Texas Republican Party. But he said the president has “absolutely” had a good first year, giving conservatives much to celebrate, including judicial picks, the demise of Obamacare’s individual mandate, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and a tougher stance on trade.
“The biggest reduction in regulation in decades. Biggest tax reform in decades,” Dickey said, adding that Trump’s playbook is working. “Clearly, being a traditional Republican wasn’t cutting it.”
As for any hand-wringing about Trump’s impact, he said: “I can’t tell you how exciting it is to me and other conservatives to finally hear Democrats remember that there are actually constitutional limits on the presidency. They weren’t listening to us when we were trying to raise those concerns over the last 20 years.”
Trump has already made clear his intention to seek re-election.
‘He could be a fluke’
H.W. Brands, the University of Texas historian whose 25 books include a number of presidential biographies, notes that Trump’s major accomplishments — the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and passage of a sweeping tax code overhaul — “have come through the standard channels.”
Likewise, he has followed the model of Barack Obama and, before him, George W. Bush in resorting to executive orders to implement much of his policy vision. His most controversial was the travel ban aimed at Muslimmajority countries, a campaign promise he tried to deliver on at the end of his first week in office. When a federal judge struck down the ban a week later, Trump denounced him as a “so-called judge” and pre-emptively blamed him for future terrorist attacks on American soil.
In international matters, Trump’s actions have often been less dramatic than his rhetoric, though he’s managed to alienate or, at the least, rattle even the closest allies. He just scrapped a visit to Britain, where his anti-Muslim tweets had made him a pariah.
“While his statements have caused American allies to question America’s steadfastness, most foreign leaders seem to chalk these up to Trump and to be reserving judgment on whether they represent a permanent change in America’s approach to the world,” Brands said.
In short, he said, “Donald Trump hasn’t changed the presidency, yet. He has introduced a new style in the White House — blunter, less filtered — but so far that’s Trump, not the presidency.”
One hard-to-miss feature of the Trump presidency is how unpopular he is. Other presidents have been hobbled by low approval ratings, but none so soon after winning office.
Even other presidents elected without winning the popular vote have enjoyed a honeymoon that eluded Trump.
The tax overhaul has been his only major legislative win, despite a Congress controlled by fellow Republicans.
“He’s ineffective because he’s unpopular,” said Robert Dallek, a retired Columbia University historian who has written biographies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt.
But, he added, “we’re mid-story. We don’t know where this is going to end.”
One of FDR’s advisers quipped that Herbert Hoover, who had led the country into the Great Depression, was a good act to follow. Jimmy Carter’s assurance that he would never lie to the country buoyed a public disheartened by Watergate. George W. Bush promised to “restore honor and dignity” to the Oval Office, a slap at an outgoing president, Bill Clinton, who had recently survived impeachment after an affair with an intern.
It’s a recurring pattern — a new president offers an antidote to the old one. Historians fully expect the next president to represent the antiTrump, just as the cerebral and aloof Obama gave way to a boastful and coarse successor.
“He could be a fluke,” said James Pfiffner, a professor at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs. Future candidates and presidents, he said, “aren’t going to do that unless it works out for him.”
To the establishment, the Trump model doesn’t look like something to emulate — the staff turmoil, impulsive policy rollouts, friction with allies. To Trump fans, though, the president’s ability to thrive amid chaos and to keep adversaries off balance, even the enmity he stirs among political elites, is part of his success.
Either way, said Pfiffner, “He has violated a whole lot of norms.”
But there’s an alternative scenario. Even if the next president is staid and polite, a seasoned Washington hand surrounded by loyal aides, there’s the possibility that Trump has stretched the definition of acceptable behavior by a commander in chief.
In particular, scholars point to the way Trump has sown doubts about the institutions that serve as checks on presidential power: the news me- dia, the independent judiciary and federal law enforcement.
It used to be big news if the president said something that was untrue. Now it’s routine.
“That’s astounding,” SMU’s Engel said.
That and other traits, such as incivility, can’t be brushed off as idiosyncrasies, he argued, because presidents are role models — for future presidents and, in real time, for the American public.
“Think about the dollar as a concept. Economics 101 says paper money has no intrinsic value, just the value we think it has. The moment we start to doubt that value, it diminishes,” Engel said. “What Trump has done is diminish the credibility of the office and of America’s word around the world.”
The next president, and the one after that, can rebuild. But in this school of thought, Trump has punctured an aura that has long surrounded the presidency.
“Yes, the next president could come in and make a lot of political gain by saying, ‘I’m not going to tweet and I’m not going to be offensive.’ But we will be less aghast if he does,” said Engel.
To Trump’s defenders, the sniping stems from resentment that he’s unwilling to kowtow to the establishment.
“He is a political genius. … Yes he’s unique. He’s a unique New Yorker. There’s no question. He is a character. But he is also very bright,” Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union, told National Public Radio. “He is an outsider president, which we probably haven’t had since our founders.”
Many scholars do see a transformation underway. They’re just not sure if it’s reversible.
At American University, government professor Chris Edelson, whose latest book is titled Power without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency
and National Security, argues strongly that Trump has already transformed the office.
“It’s not illegal for a president to call a judge a ‘so-called judge,’ or to suggest he should be held responsible if there’s a terrorist attack. It’s a violation of a norm, though, and it undermines faith in the justice system,” Edelson said. “The message he’s trying to send is, ‘Don’t believe them, believe me.’”
Repeatedly, and as recently as this month, Trump has attacked the “deep state Justice Department,” alluding to a conspiracy theory about cabals secretly manipulating the U.S. government for nefarious purposes.
There’s a Nixonian paranoia to that, Edelson said, and it dovetails with an aim of discrediting the Russia collusion probe. Defanging the watchdogs is a path toward self-preservation.
“Donald Trump is not a dictator. But it is true that he has authoritarian tendencies,” Edelson said. “He’s doing things that suggest he doesn’t view himself as subject to rule of law. That’s dangerous.”
Dickey, the Texas Republican chair, argues that the country would have been better off if one president after another hadn’t let longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover push them around, and he lauds Trump’s firm stand against law enforcement officials who overstep.
“Are people literally making the case that it’s worse for bureaucrats to be called out for usurping constitutional authority than it is for those bureaucrats to usurp their constitutional authority? That’s crazy on its face,” he said.
Trump critics see him reshaping the presidency in other ways, too — notably the willingness to tolerate or even encourage racism.
Trump opened his campaign by labeling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” After deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Va., involving white supremacists, Trump insisted there was “blame on both sides.” His attacks on black NFL players protesting police brutality by kneeling for the national anthem were widely seen as racially tinged.
“Unlike any other president, he seems to have little to no interest in seeing himself as the leader of the entire country,” Edelson said. “He sees himself as the leader of a faction of the country, and a minority faction at that.”
Consider the uproar over the president’s disparagement last week of El Salvador, Haiti and much of Africa, in a meeting at which he prodded lawmakers to cut off immigration from such places.
These are norms that relate to the president’s role as the voice of the nation, and his unique perch from which to console, cajole and rally public opinion.
Nixon, LBJ and other presidents were vulgar in private, too. But their habits weren’t fodder for instant reporting.
“As a fan of history and someone who’s actually listened to some of the LBJ tapes, it’s absolutely untrue that those things weren’t said by presidents,” Dickey said. “The big difference is that we live in a 24-hour news cycle … and we have a level of people interested in making the president look bad that is unprecedented.”
‘Maybe things will hold’
One of the many remarkable features of the Trump presidency is the not-so-veiled threat to use his authority to put Hillary Clinton in prison. Chants of “lock her up!” still punctuate Trump’s campaign-style rallies, as they did during the campaign.
Presidential scholars cite this as one of the more ominous ways his behavior departs from the norm, in a country where politics is played hard but tossing opponents in prison — as strongmen have done in Russia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa — has never been an American tradition.
His vanquished rival is never far from his mind, even if top advisers insist otherwise.
“We don’t care about her,” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told CNN’s Chris Cuomo last week. “Nobody here talks about Hillary Clinton, I promise you.”
But Trump himself clearly does. On Twitter, he has attacked “Crooked Hillary” 33 times, including the morning after Conway’s assertion, as he fumed about the ongoing Russia probe and a damaging dossier on him that Democrats had funded.
“Where are hidden and smashed DNC servers?” he tweeted. “Where are Crooked Hillary Emails? What a mess!”
There are other lines Trump has crossed that go more directly to the institutional role of the president in a democratic republic.
Other presidents have complained about biased news coverage, but they’ve still paid homage to the role of independent journalism in holding the powerful to account. None before Trump has used the press so relentlessly as a foil, or taken such pains to sow doubts about the veracity of critical reporting, let alone labeled the press “the enemy of the American people.”
“It’s impossible to imagine any president saying that,” Edelson said. “It’s a crisis for constitutional democracy and it’s a test. Maybe things will hold, maybe they won’t.”
American democracy hinges not just on checks and balances but also on norms and expectations. President Donald Trump has shattered one after another — to the delight of some and the chagrin of others.
President Donald Trump has refused to set aside business interests, questioned the legitimacy of judges, railed at a free press and declared himself a “very stable genius” — all things the country has never seen in its leader. Will future presidents find it easier to flout convention?
Even if the next president is the antiTrump — staid and polite, a seasoned Washington hand surrounded by loyal aides — there’s the possibility that Trump has stretched the definition of acceptable behavior by a commander in chief.