Shaken and stirred: A year of Trump

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION - David Shrib­man Colum­nist

When Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump sent out a tri­umphal email to sup­port­ers a few days ago on the one-year an­niver­sary of his as­ton­ish­ing vic­tory, he put per­haps the only in­dis­putable re­mark of his pres­i­dency in the sub­ject line: You shook the world. This was one Trump dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion that was dead-on ac­cu­rate. No one could pos­si­bly ar­gue that sen­ti­ment. It was the year that shook Amer­ica, that trans­formed our pol­i­tics, chal­lenged the un­der­pin­nings of our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, shred­ded our no­tions of lib­er­al­ism and con­ser­vatism, and over­turned our pre­con­cep­tions of the pres­i­dency, of pres­i­den­tial com­port­ment, of pres­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Al­most noth­ing is the same. The over­seas pres­i­den­tial trip, the White House press brief­ing, the char­ac­ter of the Repub­li­can Party, the na­ture of the Demo­cratic Party, the way the pres­i­dent speaks to his al­lies, the way he treats his op­po­nents, the stric­tures of diplo­matic life, the pro­file of the main­stream press — all are changed, changed ut­terly.

Amer­i­can pol­i­tics is thor­oughly un­rec­og­niz­able from its ear­lier in­car­na­tion — an un­tamed wilder­ness with­out dis­cernible paths to­day, rather than the man­i­cured lawn with the well-lit walk­way it was be­fore.

There have been dra­matic changes in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal life be­fore, to be sure. An­drew Jack­son in­vited a demo­cratic spirit and pop­u­lace into the White House and into our pol­i­tics. Theodore Roo­sevelt in­tro­duced an ac­tivist, pro­gres­sive re­formism into the pres­i­dency. John F. Kennedy mo­bi­lized the English lan­guage and in­jected it with ide­al­ism at a time of abid­ing prac­ti­cal­ity, and two decades later Ron­ald Rea­gan in­jected it with op­ti­mism at a time of over­whelm­ing pes­simism.

Some­times changes in Amer­i­can char­ac­ter do come from the top, though from po­lit­i­cal fig­ures thrust into of­fice by up­swellings from the bot­tom.

It is im­pos­si­ble, at a mere year’s dis­tance, to of­fer any­thing more than a ten­ta­tive ver­dict on the ef­fect Trump has had on the pres­i­dency, though it is im­pos­si­ble, also, to ig­nore the early sig­nals.

In an of­fice where teams of strate­gists, an­a­lysts and speech­writ­ers once care­fully sculpted the words of the chief ex­ec­u­tive, Trump has been in­for­mal and in­stinc­tive — and prone to in­vec­tive. This thrills his ad­her­ents and hor­ri­fies his op­po­nents.

Much of this came into sharp fo­cus in the past week. The Democrats took the gu­ber­na­to­rial races in New Jersey and Vir­ginia.

Al­most cer­tainly, more was made of this than those Demo­cratic tri­umphs war­ranted; the Repub­li­cans took all four spe­cial House elec­tions this year in con­tests where na­tional is­sues were at play, while the elec­tions for gov­er­nor were con­ducted amid state is­sues.

Amer­i­can pol­i­tics may look a lot dif­fer­ent a year from now, after the Repub­li­cans’ con­trol of the House and Senate are tested in midterm con­gres­sional elec­tions. Those con­tests may truly be ref­er­enda on Trump and his poli­cies.

But this much is cer­tain: Trump is not likely to change his pro­file or his com­port­ment.

The ques­tion his­to­ri­ans will have to an­swer — and very likely it will be vis­i­ble to the non-aca­demic eye as well — is whether the change in tone and tim­bre Trump has in­tro­duced into the pres­i­dency is a pass­ing phase or a per­ma­nent trans­for­ma­tion.

Though bit­ter ri­vals be­fore be­com­ing post-pres­i­den­tial in­ti­mate friends and ad­mir­ers, Ger­ald Ford and Jimmy Carter in­tro­duced a whis­pery, al­most bash­ful style to the White House. That was over­turned by Rea­gan, much the way the Coolidge/ Hoover ret­i­cence and re­luc­tance were over­turned by Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt.

What­ever the long-term ef­fect, Trump is both con­se­quence and cause of a bit­ter, bru­tal style of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, sketched in blacks and whites, with hardly a patch of gray any­where on the na­tional land­scape. There are in our pol­i­tics to­day he­roes and vil­lains aplenty. Those who ex­ist in the dan­ger­ous mid­dle of the road are scarce, and scared.

The re­sult of the Trump pres­i­dency may be the emer­gence of the shouted word and the impulsive tweet — a far cry from the no­tion, ex­pressed 28 years ago by Ge­orge H.W. Bush in his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, that his pres­i­dency would be “the age of the of­fered hand.”

This in­stead is the age of the clenched fist — and of the clenched jaw. No his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sion­ism, for Trump or any of his pre­de­ces­sors or suc­ces­sors, is likely to change that as­sess­ment.

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