Culture Wars/Current Controversies

How much has American political life changed since the end of the Trump era?

The Signal

How much has American political life changed since the end of the Trump era? Bill Scher on U.S. public policy and political culture after two years of Democratic governance.
Anastasia Fomina
For the first time in a century, the U.S. House of Representatives failed Tuesday to elect a Speaker on the first ballot—adjourning with a divided Republican Party unable to unite around Representative Kevin McCarthy as the leader of its new majority. It’s a chaotic start to a new era of divided government in America, two years into the presidency of Joe Biden. At his inauguration in 2021, Biden pledged “to restore the soul and to secure the future of America,” after Donald Trump’s tenure ended with his supporters rioting at the U.S. Capitol as the former president continued to claim that Biden had stolen the 2020 election. Since taking office, Biden has won legislation for pandemic-relief funding, infrastructure improvements, limited gun-safety measures, and support for U.S. manufacturing; but—with a Republican Party shaped by Trump back in power—how transformative has it all been?

Bill Scher is an American journalist who contributes to The Washington Monthly, RealClearPolitics, and Politico Magazine. In Scher’s view, Biden’s legislative successes haven’t been as transformative as Barack Obama’s reforms of America’s health-care and financial sectors, and most Americans probably don’t recognize the tangible effects of most of his policies, which plausibly helps explain his low approval ratings. But two years from now, Scher thinks, the president will have a story to tell voters about how he’s made government function; and it’s a story that could sound all the more compelling if, meanwhile—as early appearances suggest—the fractious Republican conference in the U.S. House of Representatives devolves into chronic dysfunction.

Graham Vyse: The Trump administration was a dramatic time—but how did it actually change public policy in the U.S.?

Bill Scher: The truth is, Trump’s administration was ineffective at changing public policy. He didn’t have many legislative accomplishments, and the courts struck down much of what he tried to do through executive actions. At the same time, he certainly set in motion the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which ended the nationwide right to abortion in America, as a result of his appointments to the Court. Those appointments may have more significant policy implications in the future.

Some of Trump’s influence on U.S.-Mexico border policy also lingers. [The American government’s Title 42 policy, which Trump invoked in 2020 as an emergency public-health measure, has since been used more than two million times to expel migrants from the country.] The tax cuts he signed into law haven’t been reversed, though U.S. tax policy has fluctuated a lot in recent decades: George H.W. Bush raised taxes, then Bill Clinton raised taxes, then George W. Bush cut taxes, then Barack Obama raised taxes. Changes to tax policy tend not to be significant legacies for presidents—in part because those changes can be adjusted through Congress’ parliamentary procedure known as budget reconciliation.

Another notable piece of Trump’s legacy is the First Step Act, which built on the Obama administration’s criminal-justice policies and was a bipartisan, even mildly progressive accomplishment [that reformed federal prisons and sentencing laws]. If bipartisan criminal-justice reform were to continue, history might regard Trump’s law as a meaningful achievement, but reform appears to have stalled under Biden. Republicans have shifted toward a more “law and order” style of politics—accusing Democrats of being soft on crime—which diminishes bipartisan harmony on criminal-justice issues.

Vyse: Beyond policy, how do you see the Trump years having changed America’s political culture?

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Scher: A lot of Trump’s behavior isn’t really unprecedented in America’s political culture. He wasn’t the first president or presidential candidate to lie. He wasn’t the first president or presidential candidate to wage a culture war or campaign in a nasty way. This isn’t the first era in American politics to be polarized or divisive.

He’s unique, however, in that he lies, wages a culture war, and campaigns in a nasty way all at the same time—and in such a blunt, brazen, and extreme fashion. Trump changed America’s political culture by elevating the nationalist and isolationist traditions in the Republican Party. Isolationism and internationalism have existed in both major U.S. political parties over the last century, but the internationalist forces have generally dominated, especially in the party holding the White House.

Trump was really the first president who didn’t want to continue an internationalist foreign policy. He boosted the Republican Party’s far-right, conspiratorial factions, and he’s raised questions about the party’s essential nature. What are its defining characteristics? What are its abiding principles?

Vyse: I happened to see a tweet last week from the national Republican Party, which said, “Republicans believe in limited government.” I found it somewhat surprising, because Trump really deemphasized limited-government rhetoric in favor of his right-wing populist messaging.

Scher: It’s definitely not a settled issue in the party. Many Republicans love Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who may be a candidate for the White House in 2024, precisely because of his aggressive wielding of government power in an effort to change American culture. [DeSantis attacked the Walt Disney Company over its opposition to his Parental Rights in Education law, which critics believed to be anti-gay. He also signed a law revoking the company’s special tax status in Florida.]

Trump’s eagerness to instigate intra-party fights also greatly changed the internal culture of the Republican Party. He did away with Reagan’s “11th Commandment,” “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Reagan didn’t actually follow that commandment, but Trump abandoned it entirely. He pours gasoline on every fire.

The events of January 6th, and Trump’s role in them, were unprecedented in American history. We’ve never seen a president’s supporters rioting at the U.S. Capitol—and with his sympathy. Trump’s attempts to deny the results of the 2020 election—and his efforts to elect other election deniers—have deeply warped the politics of the Republican Party.

His efforts largely failed in important races last year, but the country now has a majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives who question or outright deny the 2020 results. Their party is still living with this toxin Trump injected into its bloodstream, even as most American voters—a coalition of Democrats, independents, and pro-democracy Republicans—reject it.

Darren Halstead
More from Billl Scher at The Signal:

It’s striking how much Biden has done on a bipartisan basis. It was an open question whether any bipartisanship was possible in the United States in such polarized times—many thought Biden was simply naive to believe it was possible. They thought he’d be humiliated if he pursued it. I wouldn’t say that what Biden accomplished is revolutionary; U.S. industrial policy doesn’t have the scale and scope of Chinese industrial policy, for instance—but it’s helping to prevent America from being eclipsed by other nations.”

Among Biden’s policy accomplishments, there aren’t many the average U.S. citizen will feel very acutely. His infrastructure law will produce a lot of infrastructure improvements, but those don’t happen overnight, and Americans may not recognize that individual projects are the result of the Biden administration’s work. I live in a town where there’s an Amtrak train station as a result of Obama’s Recovery Act, but I don’t think most people connect those dots. Biden’s semiconductor law should produce more semiconductor manufacturing jobs in the U.S. than would have existed without the law, but its effects will be limited.”

The biggest Obama laws—the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—are all more significant than Biden’s major laws. Obama achieved more reform of the U.S. health-care industry than Biden has, though Biden has extended and augmented Obama’s reform. Dodd–Frank marked the end of a deregulatory era for the financial industry in America and the beginning of a new regulatory era.”

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