Pundit claims of permanent changes to the political landscape are almost never true. 9/11 was not “the day that changed everything,” despite the way it felt at the time. Everything reverted back to its mean eventually.
Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency did not alter the state of race relations in America, nor did it signal the public’s long-term (or even short-term) embrace of big government. The moment felt historic, but the underlying fundamentals really didn’t change.
Even the vaunted Reagan Revolution didn’t establish Reagan’s core beliefs as permanent features of the nation’s political landscape, no matter how unyielding that 49-state sweep in 1984 made it seem.
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So be cautious in your embrace of the talk that Donald Trump has permanently altered the Republican Party. The assertiveness of Trump’s true believers suggests the following: The GOP is now a protectionist, isolationist party that’s more about taking down global elites than it is about small government, prosperity and national security. We’re told that the Trump brigades have achieved a permanent break from the old Republican Party that championed business interests and private-sector investment, and will now steer a Republican Party that prioritizes nationalist impulses and anger toward the establishment.
Like the other examples listed above, it feels that way right now, but no such thing has been set in stone.
Parties always take on the personalities of their leaders as long as the leaders remain on the scene – and as long as the leaders remain successful. Trump engineered a stunning upset in 2016 and achieved some important policy goals. But before you conclude that he remade the Republican Party in his image, consider:
Trump’s domestic policy achievements were very much in the traditional Republican mold. Cutting taxes. Appointing constitutionalist judges. Unleashing domestic energy. These are all things Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush would have done given a willing Congress. Trump’s biggest foreign policy wins have come in the Middle East, and were the result of his decision to break from conventional approaches and throw more weight behind Israel. That was a good change and Trump deserves credit for it. But it was hardly a radical direction from a conservative perspective. It’s what traditional conservatives have wanted presidents to do for decades.
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When it comes to more distinctly Trumpian policy goals, the record is much less impressive. Nothing has been settled as far as a trade deal with China. Only a small fraction of the wall got built. We’ve talked about withdrawing from Afghanistan but we haven’t done it (and it’s far from clear it would be wise to do so).
In order for a president to reshape his party in his image, he needs real policy wins that are distinctly his. Trump has really not achieved very many.
And as much as you don’t want to hear this: Trump’s political influence wasn’t even sufficient to earn him re-election which makes him the first incumbent president in 28 years to seek, and be denied, a second term.
Trump remains dominant over the Republican Party now, for lack of anyone else to fill the vacuum. But that will not hold. The next Republican who wins the presidency will have an agenda of his or her own, and will at that time be said to be remaking the Republican Party in his or her image. And that too will only be a temporary thing.
The punditry always wants to believe that the moment it’s covering is historic, and loves to proclaim that permanent changes have occurred. It is almost never true, and it’s not true now either. Trump’s moment will pass, just as all moments pass. A party’s identity is defined whoever is leading it to success. The next Republican to do that will almost certainly not be named Donald Trump.