|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.