The Complicated, Consequential Legacy of President Donald Trump

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Legacy

At dinner recently, a friend from France asked about the legacy of President Trump and what the 2024 election might look like. Those are good questions, and there is enough distance between January 2021 and now to give us some perspective. Let’s start with Mr. Trump’s legacy, which will endure irrespective of what happens in 2024.

 Nationalism

Mr. Trump benefited from and promoted a recrudescent sense of nationalism (with a tinge of isolationism) in the United States. Most clearly seen in the emphasis on securing the southern border, rewriting trade agreements and seeking to exit wars that appeared to have no end. This sentiment is in line with longstanding and often ignored voter sentiments about immigration and military adventurism.

Team Biden seems to grasp this only dimly. Their emphatically disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the crisis at the border and their inability or unwillingness to address Chinese communist aggressions, both micro (flyovers of Taiwan) or macro (widespread spying in the United States), indicate they have yet to fully embrace the surging sense of nationalism.

Judges

Mr. Trump’s most durable domestic legacy is the appointment of more than 250 federal judges, including three Supreme Court Justices. Those appointments will affect the United States and its federal government for at least a generation.

 Foreign Policy

Mr. Trump reoriented American foreign policy towards the 21st century. Most importantly, he pivoted the United States towards the challenge posed by China. As part of that, the rejuvenation of the Quad — the alliance of India, Japan, Australia and the United States — was essential, and it is likely that the Quad (and the additional nations that will no doubt be added) will be to the next 75 years what NATO has been to the last 75 years.

Part of the foreign policy reorientation included a more realpolitik view of the postwar order, including NATO. Mr. Trump is not alone in that reexamination. Brexit, NordStream 2, and even President Biden’s intentional failure to notify allies of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and to alert France that we had undercut them with respect to selling submarines to Australia are all parts of the same mosaic.

European leaders now see what Mr. Trump saw first: the relationship between Europe and America has changed in fundamental ways. The institutional arrangements and treaty commitments need to change as well. Is it likely that Russia will invade Germany? Is it likely that Europe will help the United States in the event of a war in the Pacific?

The most immediately successful part of that reorientation is the Middle East and the Abraham Accord. The Accord, signed in September 2020, ratified the validity of Israel, severed the Palestinian question from the larger and more urgent matter of Arab-Israeli relations, and laid the foundation for greater commercial and social cohesion within the region.

It was also a rebuke to the American foreign policy establishment’s bipartisan cluelessness with respect to the Middle East. For 60 years, that establishment has pretended that the right answer was to force the Israelis and the Palestinians into ever more meaningless “talks” while ignoring the fact that the Arab world has interests that go well beyond the question of Israel.

Mr. Trump and Secretary Pompeo wisely ignored all that and treated Israel as a sovereign nation with rights, including determining the location of its capital and defending its borders. They also recognized that the real threats to the Arab world originate, now as then, primarily from the Turks and the Persians.

The Arabs also, obviously, understand that the real challenge in the Middle East is not Israel but rather the immediate threat posed by Iran, the scavenger states of China and Russia and the slightly longer-dated threat posed by Turkey. In those contexts, Israel is an ally, in large part because of its ties to the United States and also because Israel has an enduring interest in ensuring that the Middle East remains peaceful.

When confronted with the civic and institutional deterioration of the last four decades in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya and the challenges posed by Iran and Turkey, it was natural for the Arabs to turn towards collective defense and include in that collective sentiment their neighbor Israel.

Secretary Pompeo, especially, knew that Iran — not Israel or the House of Saud — is the immediate problem child in the Middle East. The difference is that he and the president acted decisively on that knowledge, imposing steady downward pressure on the regime and, ultimately, killing the mastermind of its expansionist agenda.

Compare that with the dithering approach of the Biden administration on Israel, on Iran, on OPEC and on American energy independence (which is, of course, materially and immediately relevant to the economics and politics of the Middle East).

Political realignment

Finally, Mr. Trump accelerated the migration of the Republican Party away from business interests and towards a multi-ethnic, multi-racial populist coalition. White, college-educated suburban voters have been slowly but steadily moving away from the Republicans for the last two decades.

Mr. Trump created a new path forward for the Republicans built on populism, nationalism and religiosity that resonates with working-class Whites, Hispanics, and African-Americans.

In the wake of the 2020 elections, Democrats put out a post-mortem on why they didn’t do as well as expected. Unreasonable expectations, a failure to message beyond “President Trump is bad,” and an assumption that minority communities are unthinking adherents of all of the tenets of White progressivism served to minimize the scope and scale of Democratic victory.

In short, as Democrats pick up disaffected college-educated voters from Republicans, they are also picking up a suite of issues that repel minority conservative voters.

In 2020, about 10% of Hispanics who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 switched to Donald Trump. Hispanics who identified as conservatives (about 30% of that community) went from favoring President Obama in 2012 by 10 points to favoring Mr. Trump in 2020 by 40 points. Similarly, in 2012, African-Americans who identified as conservatives (again, about 30%) favored President Obama by 81 points and Mr. Biden by just 59 points.

In most places, the decline in support from minority constituencies in 2020 was more than made up by Democratic gains among White voters, especially college-educated White voters. For example, Mr. Biden won a smaller percentage of minority voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 (when she lost all three). However, he carried all three states because of gains among White voters.

That said, the trend line is not good news for the Democrats.

The not so good legacy

Mr. Trump had an unfortunate indifference to budget discipline. As someone who went through bankruptcy four times and emerged richer each time, he learned not to care about debt, personal, corporate or that borne by taxpayers.

The Trump administration was also marked by an indifference to policy and public administration knowledge and experience, which is partly why it underperformed. The president, like so many businessmen in or near government, failed to understand that policy preferences are as essential as business plans.

On a related note, Mr. Trump was indifferent to personnel, which led to an administration characterized by multiple instances of senior appointees who were, ab initio, opposed to the president’s agenda, as well as an administration where key positions remained unfilled throughout the course of the four years.

There are those who think January 6th is likely to wind up being a part of Mr. Trump’s legacy. Maybe. Eventually, though, the legal system is going to have to produce some material criminal convictions. To date, there have been about 600 people arrested and charged with crimes connected to January 6th. About 80 have already pled out to misdemeanors (trespassing and whatnot).

There have been two felony pleas (both for obstructing official proceedings), resulting in 16 months of sentencing so far. None of the charges to date have included treason or conspiracy or insurrection.

After ten months of investigation, that’s about it. No one has managed to articulate a conspiracy or even an organized effort, and certainly not one that involved President Trump. So, unless something else comes to light, which seems unlikely, it is safe to assume that January 6th will certainly be a part of the legacy, but it will not define it.

Finally, Mr. Trump accelerated the coarsening of public discourse. That’s probably not important now, but at some point in the future, we are likely to need national cohesion.

Other parts of the legacy

Mr. Trump encouraged disintermediation with respect to the media and other elites. Why bother with media gatekeepers when you can speak directly to people through tweets? Elites of all kinds now find the basis of their power — concentration and dissemination of information — has been destroyed by technology. Mr. Trump was the first president to understand that. He won’t be the last.

A corollary to this is ascendance of the power of celebrity. In contests between celebrity and elites, celebrity almost always wins. A natural consequence of this is that eventually there are going to be multiple celebrities running for offices across the land, whether they have any relevant experience or not (think Matthew McConaughey).

Finally, by dismissing traditional Washington norms and customs — some of which deserved to be dismissed — Mr. Trump expanded the window of the possible with respect to policy.

Mr. Biden and 2024

Now let’s think about Mr. Biden’s record in the context of 2024.

First, in politics, governance and life, perspective is critical. Team Biden and the progressives came to power ten months ago wanting to accomplish a bunch of things. Federalize elections. Grant statehood to DC and Puerto Rico. Kill the filibuster. Pack the courts. Help their friends and hurt their political adversaries by passing the PRO Act and the Equality Act. Establish net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 as a national goal.

None of that will happen.

Indeed, the most aggressive elements of the agenda are likely to fall away without even meaningful debate or votes. Congress is going to do what it really cares about (spend money, fidget with taxes) and ignore the rest.

One final insult will be reconciliation. The longer the consideration of reconciliation goes on, the smaller the topline number will be. Progressives originally wanted $10 trillion; we are probably heading towards $1.5 trillion (or less) spread over ten years. The progressives are already disappointed; they are likely to become angry and more disappointed as the process proceeds. Angry and disappointed activists usually mean more challenges in primaries against establishment candidates. Second, the simple and obvious truth is that Mr. Biden is not capable of running a campaign. He was incapable of running a campaign in 2020, preferring to remain in his basement and keeping public appearances both short and to a bare minimum. Such an approach will not be sufficient in 2024.

Even in the White House, the president’s schedule has been . . . leisurely. There are almost no days when there is more than one event on the calendar. Even now, with Mr. Biden’s poll numbers dropping precipitously, he is unable to make speeches, engage with voters, answer questions or do anything to change public perceptions.

Third, there is a belief among the administration officials and some Democrats that once reconciliation passes, all will be well. That is wrong. The simple truth is that the administration has essentially been swallowed whole by the multiple crises they face (or have caused, depending on what you believe): inflation, the border, supply chains, semiconductors, COVID, the lack of economic growth, the seeming reluctance (resistance?) of people to go back to work, the surge in parental activism associated with critical race theory, etc.

Nothing in reconciliation will solve any of these problems. More disconcertingly, no one in the administration seems to have either any idea about how to solve these problems or, worse, any interest in solving these problems.

Part of the problem is that the administration is jammed top to bottom with Obama alumni, many of whom are also Clinton alumni. They don’t have much juice left in the intellectual tank and are unlikely to launch a major regulatory jihad apart from attempting to ban internal combustion engines through regulatory collaboration with the automakers, some work around the edges of whatever financial risk might be posed by climate change (or more likely by governmental responses to climate change), and maybe take a serious run at regulating methane.

Considered together, it is small wonder that 71% of voters think the country is on the wrong track, and that only about a third (36%) of Democratic voters want Mr. Biden to run in 2024. That suggests that the Democrats know Mr. Biden is a one-term president.

 2022 Elections

There is a general sentiment that all the Republicans have to do is show up in 2022 and the electorate will hand them the House and the one Senate seat they need to preside over both legislative bodies. It is more complicated than that.

As we creep closer to the midterms, more Members are going to start to worry about their own election efforts and focus less on the party’s agenda. It is unlikely that Mr. Biden is either going to want or be able to help too many Members of Congress in tough races.

The recent results in the Commonwealth of Virginia are likely to be dispositive. Governor-elect Youngkin’s victory — in a state that Mr. Biden had won by ten points 12 months ago and had last elected a Republican statewide in 2009 — was wide and deep enough to project that the Republicans are likely to take both the House and Senate in 2022.

The 35 or so Democrats representing suburban congressional districts previously held by Republicans are at immediate risk. Suburbanites are not idiots; they know that citizens pay for tax increases, either directly, through reduced wages, increased costs or diminished economic activity. The proposed tax increases will be difficult to vote for and defend in those districts.

On the Senate side, the Republicans are going to be defending 20 seats, while the Democrats will be defending 14. For the Republicans, races in Wisconsin (where Senator Johnson won with 50.2% of the vote in 2016), North Carolina (where Senator Burr is retiring), and Pennsylvania (where Senator Toomey is retiring) are likely to be the most challenging. Missouri and Ohio should be straightforward.

 For the Democrats, incumbents likely to face challenges in 2022 include Senators Kelly in Arizona (who just won with 51.2% of the vote), Warnock in Georgia (50.6%); Cortez-Masto in Nevada (47.1%), and Hassan in New Hampshire (48%).

Final thoughts

  President Trump is an effect, not a cause. He represents a significant chunk of the voting population — somewhere between 40 and 75 million people — who have concluded that Washington, its elites and its processes are not at all interested in their perspectives about what might have gone wrong with the American experiment.

  They have also concluded that many Republicans are also incapable of or unwilling to see the problems, describe them accurately, and expand the range of acceptable solutions.

  In the January 2021 Georgia run-offs, Republicans explicitly made the pitch that if elected they would “hold the line.” That is a perfect and embarrassing summation of the problem. Republican voters have grown tired of a Republican Party that simply seeks to hold the line.

  President Trump’s power — which may wane over time as he and his candidates experience inevitable losses — flows in part from those who watch and sometimes participate in the Republican Party and conclude that it is not serious. A Reuters survey that was published right after the (second) impeachment vote indicated that 63% of Republicans believe there should be a third party.

  The almost two-thirds of the self-identified Republicans who are thinking about a third party are not going to be impressed with arguments about electability in 2022. They are likely to insist on someone who can get things done, although perhaps at a slightly lower volume than Mr. Trump.

About the Author: About the author: Michael McKenna is the President of MWR Strategies and a columnist for The Washington Times. He was most recently a Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House. He has worked in senior positions in a variety of government agencies at the state and federal levels. He has advised a wide variety of political and corporate clients with respect to government affairs, public policy issues, opinion research, and communications strategies. He has also worked on numerous campaigns and transition efforts.

Mike has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University and has been a Fellow at the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas and the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver.

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