Throughout the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump has shown little respect for democratic norms. In part, this makes him an aberration. No modern American head of state has gone as far as Trump in denigrating minorities, alienating allies and furthering society’s epistemological crisis.
But, put another way, the current commander in chief is merely a continuation of a process long in the making. President Richard Nixon attacked the press, much like his eventual Republican successor. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich turned his bully pulpit into a partisan weapon, lobbed across Washington to little effect against President Bill Clinton. More successfully, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used his perch to steal a Supreme Court seat, eliminating the need for filibuster-proof majorities in the process.
The downward spiral of American politics is hardly a single-party affair. Democrats share the blame, as well. It was Sen. Harry Reid, after all, who first abolished the filibuster for district and appellate court nominees. And it was the Democratic Party that most recently shut down the government this past weekend, albeit in a noble effort to ensure continued protections for DACA recipients.
It’d be incorrect to say Republicans aren’t the prime motivators of this brave new arena of partisan gamesmanship, however. It was the right who gave birth to Fox News and Breitbart rather than adhere to the traditional establishment press — those lauded newspaper journalists who’ve heralded objectivity for generations. And the right’s government shutdowns of the Obama-era, lasting for weeks at a time, far exceeded the three-day weekend of the Democrats’ making.
The left is an amorphous coalition with a tiny extremist flank. Conservatives are a military regiment with purpose, cunning and tact. It’s time we recognized this has nothing to do with the traditional left-right ideological gulf, but rather different definitions of fair play.
The modern Republican Party has continually pushed democratic norms. With Trump, they’ve almost gone too far — but not quite. In a few election cycles, Democrats will no doubt regain most or all of their lost political power. The United States is, permanently, it seems, a two-party state. Power oscillates as public perception shifts, and the American populace is a fickle mistress, indeed.
So say Democrats win the presidency, and Congress, in 2020. Maybe they even retain that power in 2024. What then? Republicans will be back sooner or later. If they haven’t excised the demons of Trumpism by then, we should all fear their return. Next time, they may pick a man capable enough to see his will enacted with devastating effect. If that happens, we might remember the Trump era as fondly as late-night hosts currently do the presidency of George W. Bush.
At one point, we thought Bush was the lowest Republicans could go. Boy were we wrong about that. Surely we won’t make the same mistake twice. ■