Politics After Trump
What will be Donald Trump's lasting effects on American politics? In 20 years, how will we assess his presidency? These questions have generated continuous debate since Trump was elected in 2016. Three conventional wisdoms have arisen in response, each consistent with the data on hand.
In one view, championed by President-Elect Joe Biden and his "return to normalcy" campaign, Trump was an aberration — a minority president elected by the peculiar rules of the Republican primary and Electoral College systems, his political priorities out of sync with public opinion and the views of his own party. He was a weak leader with little policy influence, an amateur politician hopelessly flailing for four years in Washington before being unceremoniously booted from office by an exhausted and demoralized public.
According to this view, though Trump's policy choices will unquestionably leave lasting marks on the people affected, his impact on the institutions of government and politics will be modest. His faction of the GOP will be discredited as business-oriented Republicans and social conservatives rebel against his self-serving populism, recklessness, and lack of leadership. The policy imprint of Trumpism will fade as President Biden reverses his executive actions, and a bipartisan consensus will come to view his legislative accomplishments as simply reinforcing traditional Republican priorities. Biden will adhere to the old norms of governance and diplomacy, as will his successors. Congress might even pass ethics laws to restrain future chief executives in light of Trump's behavior in office. In short Trumpism, save for the backlash against it, will be erased.
A second view sees Trump as transformative. According to this narrative, Trump's unconventional campaigning and governing styles upended norms of presidential behavior and shattered received democratic wisdom. His brazen dismissal of ethics scandals, consistent lying to the public, unprecedented expansion of unilateral executive authority, shameless personalization of foreign policy, impulsive repudiation of traditional alliances, and relentless personal attacks against opponents, judges, the press, and even members of his own administration will set a new standard for presidents to come.
In this view, Trump decisively reconstructed both the presidency and our broader political culture. He transformed the GOP into a populist, nationalist party, with corresponding ripples among Democrats. His breaking of norms tipped the balance of power decisively toward the executive branch. Future presidents will adopt not only his personalized style of governing, but also his blunt assertions of executive authority — to the detriment of all involved.
There is also a third view, common among political scientists, that downplays Trump's role in the political dynamics of our time. Per this interpretation, Trump was mostly a symptom of larger forces in American and global politics. His rise is thus best understood through the structural root causes from which it stemmed; his unique personality was merely an accelerant for a burgeoning trend.
Indeed, as globalization has disrupted national economies, populist ideologies have mushroomed across the democratic world, reshaping party systems in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Often led by strongman types, these parties have pursued nationalist policies focused on protectionism, immigration restrictions, and a weakening of liberal rights. In America in particular, ideological sorting has transformed our decentralized, catchall party coalitions into nationalized tribal factions held together largely by negative partisanship. In this story, Trump is not the tiger; he's just riding it.
These interpretations would seem to stand in direct tension with one another. Was Trump a passing aberration, a transformative disruption, or merely a reflection of the state of our politics? Though they do not seem compatible, each view reveals an important facet of the truth, as each highlights a significant institutional fact about the modern presidency.
The disruptive character of Trump's time in office reflects some elements unique to him, of course. But it also reflects a core fact about the nature of the American presidency: It is inherently disruptive. All presidents, by nature of the authority they wield, re-arrange coalitions and ideologies, alter future agendas, and transform institutions and practices. It's true for political failures like Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover as well as successes like Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt. In this respect, Trump will inevitably reshape American politics. The scope of the disruption, however, remains less than clear, as it will be a product of how current and future political actors come to understand the Trump disruption and react to it.
A second core fact about the American presidency is that presidents do not take office in a vacuum. Rather, the institutional context in which presidents govern affects both their behavior and their impact. Trump assumed the presidency at a historical moment anchored by three key features: the large, post-New Deal set of statutory authorities and governing resources that characterize the modern presidency; the expanded, unilateral executive power of the post-9/11 era; and record-high levels of partisan polarization and nationalization among the public. These constraints create continuities in the practice of presidential politics between Trump and other recent presidents.
Finally, contingent events matter. The disruptions and continuities Trump has imprinted on the presidency and the political system will be magnified or attenuated by how political actors interpret and retell the stories of Trump's term and the 2020 election. That Trump is considering remaining active in politics ensures that the public's understanding of his presidency — and the responses of other political actors to it — remain up in the air.
By considering each of these institutional factors in detail, we can come a little closer to a sense of what to expect as Trump's legacy takes shape.
ALL PRESIDENCIES ARE DISRUPTIVE
The American presidency is a blunt instrument. Though the president is encased in a system of divided institutions and shared powers in which he enjoys few unilateral constitutional authorities, the presidency is almost custom designed to create political change.
The executive power, hazily defined in Article II of the Constitution, is a virtual engine of political, policy, and electoral re-arrangement. While legislatures or courts may exist passively for extended lengths of time, executive administration demands that each president continually make decisions that restructure the political landscape for other actors. Every decision a political official makes creates winners and losers, allies and opponents, short-term and long-term reactions — and the president makes the most decisions of all.
Perhaps more important, the presidency also changes more abruptly than other governing institutions. In Congress, the strengths of parties and ideological factions ebb and flow thanks to staggered elections and the shifting winds of public opinion. The ideological makeup of the federal courts can take decades to change. Additionally, both Congress and the courts turn over personnel gradually. The presidency, by contrast, is a unitary office occupied by a single individual — at least until another comes along. With each new president comes a new administration filled with new cabinet officials, sub-cabinet officials, and White House staff, all of whom reflect outlooks, agendas, and styles of governing that differ from those of their predecessors.
Consequently, each new occupant of the office has a strong disruptive incentive. For all presidents, challenging the received political order and successfully creating a new one is an essential mark of strong leadership. This is particularly true of presidents who replace a predecessor of the other party. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 72, "to reverse and undo what has been done by a predecessor, is very often considered by a successor as the best proof he can give of his own capacity and desert." President-Elect Biden ran and won on a message of disruption, even if he did so by arguing for a return to a less-disruptive mode of governing.
Some presidents have been more successful than others at wielding their disruptive power. Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan are widely seen as presidents who fundamentally reshaped American life by achieving durable changes in the very nature of our politics, simultaneously driving policy, solidifying winning ideological coalitions, and altering institutional structures for decades. Other presidents have found it nearly impossible to gain traction for their disruptive goals. James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter are generally seen as examples of such failures.
But a failed presidency can involve as much disruption as a successful one. A president can badly misuse the tools of the office — squandering political resources, collapsing political coalitions, failing to significantly influence policy — and still serve as the driving force behind political change. The choices of the Buchanan administration — in its ill-advised Kansas policy, mismanagement of the Democratic coalition, acquiescence to the Dred Scott decision, disastrous approach to the slavery crisis, and ruinous mishandling of secession — were key ingredients that shaped the Republican Party, the crackup of the Democratic convention in Charleston, and Lincoln's political synthesis of the rebellion.
Even more acutely, the blunt tools of the presidency are themselves subject to review by other political actors. Most presidential authority is statutory, not constitutional, which means that although a president's creative use of such authority can greatly expand his governing and political possibilities, he cannot act without the risk of institutional counter-action from Congress, the courts, or the public. The excesses of the Nixon administration were famously met by a significant congressional response driven by public outrage and an appetite for reining in the so-called imperial presidency. No president has fallen as hard as Richard Nixon, and yet his presidency was among the most consequential to our governing arrangements — in large part thanks to laws Congress passed to prevent his successors from repeating his transgressions.
In this broad view, the Trump presidency appears much like any other: He broke with prior governing and policy practice, he reshaped the political landscape, and only the short- and medium-term reactions of other political actors to his decisions will reveal his ultimate impact.
But there is no question that there will be an impact. No one can reset American politics to a previous date; any effort to do so would merely synthesize a new, forward-moving reality. Even a complete repudiation of Trump's presidency would leave an institutional, coalitional, and public understanding of politics that differs from what came before it. More likely, parts of Trump's disruption will persist, others will be discarded or amended, and the resulting combination of ideas, institutions, and interests will meld into something wholly new.
Trump's governing style will likely be the least influential aspect of his presidency. Previous presidents have profited from an outsider orientation to Washington, but Trump took this outsider advantage to an extreme — and not a positive one. He routinely and publicly undermined his own cabinet; beefed with celebrities on social media; spoke ill of the dead; blew up legislative and international deals via Twitter; lied about basic, unassailable facts; and shamelessly disregarded personal scandals. He promised to be a different president, and he did not disappoint.
But little of this behavior is likely to persist. Whatever its value as a refreshing change from establishment Washington politics, Trump's style came to be viewed by political actors across the spectrum as a detriment to political and policy goals. Republican Party leaders routinely voiced hope that the president would speak publicly less often. Frustrated members on the Hill repeated the phrase "I haven't seen the tweet" so often that it became a punchline. Allies and opponents uniformly agreed Trump had no message discipline and little influence on the legislative agenda. The chaotic management structure of the White House led to an intense power struggle among staffers and a legendary level of strategic leaks to the press, all to the detriment of any agenda becoming reality.
Regardless of whether other politicians are capable of imitating Trump's governing style, few will see wisdom in doing so. In fact, for many on the left, Trump's presidential style turned out to be a blessing in disguise. A more disciplined, strategic Trump could have better advanced an agenda that may have generated a stronger re-election record, or at least avoided alienating voters who simply could not support the way the president went about his duties.
Vitally, though, Trump lost re-election in 2020. The presidency is at its strongest when it repudiates the failed arrangements of its predecessors. The Biden campaign has seized on this opportunity by promoting a return to normalcy; the easiest and least-divisive fulfillment of that promise will be a return of presidential dignity and respect for the office. As a result, we will not be privy to 30-message tweetstorm mornings, nor will we witness the president plugging merchandise being sold by his supporters. Instead, precisely to offer a contrast, the Biden White House will probably look and operate much like those of Trump's immediate predecessors. Meanwhile, many Republicans will likely ascribe Trump's loss not to a rejection of his ideology or policy choices, but to his communications strategy and personal governing style.
Trump's disruption of institutional norms will be of more consequence. Throughout his term, Trump repeatedly challenged the informal rules that constrain the presidency: He tried to dictate cases at the Justice Department, fired inspectors general, refused to release his tax returns, held political rallies at the White House, mixed governance with personal business interests, relied on acting officials in prominent posts rather than Senate-confirmed nominees, stonewalled congressional investigations, and encouraged foreign governments to investigate his domestic opponents.
Certainly, some earlier norms will simply return. Future presidents and presidential candidates will likely release their tax returns, for instance. Congress may also formalize some norms as a means of repudiating Trump and his behavior. House members have already introduced legislation that would codify the anti-corruption, executive-oversight, nominations-related, and transparency norms Trump flatly disregarded during his term in office.
But some norm-breaking will persist, in effect creating new norms. Presidents are unlikely to agree to serious limitations on their authority, which means that, absent a congressional supermajority, it won't be possible to formalize what many future presidents will see as innovative expansions of executive power. President-Elect Biden, for instance, has not signaled support for bills aimed at formalizing pre-Trump norms. In all likelihood, he will proceed as Barack Obama did when congressional Democrats moved to repudiate excesses of the Bush administration: by promising to refrain from such practices but denying the need to legally constrain his capacity to undertake them. The net result will presumably be a presidency further empowered at the expense of Congress.
More worrisome is the challenge Trump has posed to some basic principles of democratic governance. Beyond breaking legions of presidential norms, Trump promoted an authentically illiberal challenge to our core republican governing institutions. This was most evident in his refusal to concede the election. That behavior was shocking yet also not surprising. During his presidency, Trump routinely accused opponents of treason and called for their jailing. He praised, threatened, and laughed at physical assaults on journalists, labeling the media the "enemy of the people." He praised foreign autocrats and suggested he trusted foreign leaders over his own intelligence agencies, which he accused of launching a deep-state conspiracy against him. However much his supporters believe Trump was a unique political figure, his behavior in office often mimicked that of dozens of authoritarian leaders, past and present, in other parts of the world.
The short-term collateral damage of such behavior includes the politicization of election administration and reduced public trust in the legitimacy of the electoral process. Unlike institutional norms, however, one cannot replace undermined democratic values with formal laws to enforce them; it's simply not possible to legislate the de-politicization of election administration or mandate trust in the electoral process. In the immediate future, Biden's impulse to repudiate the Trump presidency will probably prevent further erosion of these values emanating from the presidency itself. But the erosion that has occurred among both political actors and the public is a worrying feature of the new political landscape, especially when combined with the negative partisanship and intense electoral competition that already characterizes it.
Trump's disruptive influence has also reached the party system. This is perhaps the most predictable sort of disruptive impact a president can impose. By making choices under the authorities of the office as they seek policy influence, all presidents shape future policy agendas, give rise to new political coalitions aligned with and against them, and help redefine partisan and ideological divisions. Presidents also, purposefully or otherwise, influence the institutional development of the parties themselves as they seek to re-arrange the party machinery to support their policy and political goals.
Trump's presidency is unlikely to be remembered as having a lasting impact on public policy, but his influence on the party system will be more enduring and significant. Despite his failure to effect durable populist policies, he has elevated and emboldened a faction of the GOP built on fusing social conservatism with working-class economics. There still exists a rhetorical gap between politics and policy that some have termed "plutocratic populism," and yet Republican presidential hopefuls increasingly speak the language of economic populism and nationalist conservatism while traditional business-minded conservatives become increasingly disillusioned. Trump's apparent gains among minority voters — particularly Latino voters in Florida, Texas, and Arizona — represent another harbinger of this tilting of the party axes, especially when paired with the rejection of Trump among higher-income, suburban, college-educated whites.
More strikingly, Trump's illiberalism and unpopularity have accelerated a partisan political cleavage oriented toward institutions, with Republicans increasingly relying on counter-majoritarian tools — including the Electoral College, narrow Senate majorities, and court rulings — to secure legal, but often not popular, legitimacy. To these ends, Trump has also fostered the asymmetric constitutional hardball to which Republicans have increasingly resorted in state and federal power struggles. This, in turn, has fueled an intellectual and political response from Democrats, who have focused on narrowly majoritarian reforms and are no longer shy about advocating hardball strategies of their own to achieve them — including abolishing the filibuster, packing the Supreme Court, and strategically admitting new states to the union.
The Trump presidency has also altered the institutional machinery of the Republican Party. Like previous Republican presidents of the modern era, Trump has sought to take over the party apparatus and build out its capacity. He has also enjoyed significant success in personalizing the organization and wielding party tools to enforce loyalty. Unlike his predecessors, however, Trump's aims have been more personal than partisan. Whereas previous Republican presidents sought to harness party machinery for long-term majority-building, Trump has deployed party capacity for base-mobilization, eschewing broad coalition outreach in favor of cementing a narrower but deeper faction that is loyal to him personally.
All of these disruptions — in governing style, norm-following, and systemic party change — are natural consequences of the presidency's structure. They are also uniquely tied to Trump, both as an individual and as a product of his political context. To make further sense of his legacy, we must consider not only his decisions and behavior in office, but also the environment that constrained and enabled them.
POLITICAL CONTEXT AND CONTINUITY
Although the presidency is inherently disruptive, it does not exist in a vacuum; all presidents assume office in the context of a particular set of political and institutional arrangements. Many of these arrangements reflect the different eras of development in the presidency itself.
Nineteenth-century presidents faced a very different political environment than contemporary presidents. Lacking the institutional resources and delegated authorities of the modern presidency, they played a decidedly smaller role in policy leadership and acted within a federal government that was far less involved in public life than it is today. The structure of the party system and the presidential nomination process often left presidents under the thumb of other party actors rather than the undisputed leaders of their parties. Free from modern mass media and expectations of moral leadership, presidents were often absent from public discourse for weeks or months at a time.
The creation of the so-called "presidential branch" in the 1930s — and the concomitant expansion of statutory executive power and responsibility — has meant that all presidents since at least Franklin Roosevelt have come to office under a radically different set of authorities, resources, and expectations than those who came before them. Since that pivotal decade, Congress has statutorily delegated sizable policy authority to the executive branch. Presidents, in turn, have assumed a more prominent role as legislative leaders, shaping the congressional agenda and building public expectations for presidency-centered policymaking.
The response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, signaled another transformation of the office. Once again, the authorities and responsibilities of the presidency, particularly in the area of national security, were greatly expanded. For close to two decades now, the president has enjoyed congressional delegation of what essentially amount to emergency powers concerning anti-terrorism responsibilities. With Congress lacking the will to expand its own resources, congressional power has reached its nadir.
Recent presidents have become increasingly comfortable with these arrangements. Obama, for example, presided over a major expansion of presidential authority across war powers, domestic surveillance, the prosecution of whistleblowers and journalists, executive encroachment on the power of the purse, and an enlargement of the scope of executive orders.
To all of this must be added the dynamics of heightened partisanship. Ideological sorting has created two polarized parties, both among the electorate and within government. Congressional voting has become increasingly polarized. Split-ticket voting in elections has dropped dramatically. The incumbency advantage politicians once relied on to remain popular locally even if their party was not has all but disappeared. And network news has lost significant market share to partisan cable news — a 21st-century version of the old party-aligned newspaper organs.
This has resulted in a Congress where each party is focused on holding or retaking majority status while indivdiual legislators face powerful electoral incentives to refrain from working with members on the other side. As a result, gridlock has reigned supreme. Congress rarely produces major legislative changes, leaving the president to choose between a stalled political agenda and the use of impermanent executive action.
Recent presidents have been enabled as well as constrained by serving during this unique combination of the modern, post-9/11 presidency and intense polarization. America has endured periods of high partisan polarization in the past, and the modern presidency itself has been in place for almost 90 years, but our current era is the first time these conditions have existed simultaneously.
For Trump, this state of affairs has been a mixed blessing. The contemporary era is not well suited to a president who is uninterested in being (or unable to be) a policy leader. As political scientist Julia Azari has suggested, Trump's approach in some ways resembles that of 19th-century presidents who handed off agenda control and policy direction to other actors. But such passivity grinds against both public and elite expectations of the modern presidency. Trump's handling of the Covid-19 crisis, for instance, has elicited poor reviews from both experts and the public. A recurring complaint is that he either refused to or was incapable of leading the policy response.
On the other hand, Trump has greatly benefited from partisan polarization. Republican elites, while consistently cool to his populist legislative agenda, only rarely ventured to formally constrain Trump's executive actions and virtually never sought to respond to the constant barrage of ethics scandals that scarred his administration. His approval rating, while consistently poor throughout his term, was also remarkably stable. This was the case even during the pandemic which, despite its massive human and economic toll, never sank Trump's approval rating to the lows the Bush administration witnessed during the 2008 financial crisis.
Trump's presidency, seen in this institutional context, shares many features with Obama's. Both presidents entered office with unified partisan control of the federal government, and both attempted to achieve narrow, partisan legislative victories (for Obama, the 2009 stimulus and the Affordable Care Act; for Trump, the 2017 tax cuts and the failed Obamacare repeal effort). These partisan periods were followed by electoral losses and split Congresses, with the president's party retaining the Senate but losing control of the House. As legislative gridlock set in, both presidents ditched congressional outreach and turned instead to executive orders to pursue their policy goals.
Facing institutional and electoral obstacles similar to those Obama witnessed, President Trump took a host of controversial actions to further expand executive power within the separation-of-powers system. From targeted travel bans to the rollback of environmental protections to the adoption of tariffs in the name of national security, Trump used a "pen-and-phone" approach to feign fulfillment of his campaign promises, achieving only marginal success.
The core problem with substituting executive action for legislation is durability. As theoretically easy as it is for the modern president to set policies by executive order, it is just as easy for his successor to reverse those policies. President Biden is almost certain to repeal the Trump tariffs, end the national emergency transferring military construction money to the border wall, and reverse business deregulation. Trump's tax cuts, which originated in Congress, will remain in place — perhaps as his sole significant policy achievement.
Trump's consolidation of executive authority itself may prove more durable. As Obama was before him, Trump was unwilling to reverse Bush-era expansions of executive statutory authority. Indeed, though both Trump and Obama rhetorically repudiated the unilateral excesses of their predecessors, each aggressively expanded executive authority in seeking their own policy changes. Neither president hinted at the possibility of relinquishing power to Congress — in fact, Trump's most durable innovation in this regard is likely to be his stonewalling of congressional oversight investigations. Trump's tactics in dealing with Congress and use of unilateral executive tools of governance were often shocking, but they tended to reflect the structural reality of partisan gridlock and a powerful presidency.
On this score, Trump was not unprecedented — or even particularly novel. President-Elect Biden will likely continue in the same vein: He will undoubtedly repudiate the excesses of the Trump era rhetorically, but he is unlikely to activiely try and reverse the governing arrangements that have resulted.
CONTESTED PUBLIC UNDERSTANDINGS
The disruptive nature of the presidency as an institution, combined with the political context in which a president is elected, serve to empower and constrain the actions of those who occupy the office, ultimately in ways that shape a president's legacy. But those actions alone don't tell the whole story. Political activity in a democracy occurs within the public sphere, meaning that future political possibilities depend as much on how the public interprets and recasts political events as they do on the events themselves. President Trump's legacy will thus depend on how political actors and the public come to understand his candidacy, his presidency, the 2020 election, and the terms upon which he leaves office.
This phenomenon becomes quite obvious during elections. While elections transform public policy by changing the composition of the government and resetting political time horizons, they also offer information to other actors within the political system. An election is a cataclysmic shock that provides a strong signal to all involved about which policy choices will likely succeed or fail going forward. As everyone struggles to understand the meaning of election results, elected officials will consider their public-policy opportunities. Will my ideas likely be accepted? Is it the right time for a bold initiative? Are conditions ripe for me to run for Senate, or perhaps president?
These dynamics are perhaps even more important to non-elected actors, who greatly outnumber elected officials. Executive-branch political appointees, interest-group leaders, talking heads, lobbyists, party leaders, staffers, financiers for the parties and candidates, and even individual citizens all look at the signals an election sends and alter their influence strategies in turn. What policies should we push for or refrain from championing? Which candidates should we support? Whom should we fund? Where should we expend our resources? How should we adjust our operational strategies? These are just some of the questions non-elected actors are asking now and will continue to ask in the coming months.
The phenomenon also occurs in response to non-electoral events. Indeed, every political action large or small creates a new state of the world, providing political actors with new information to consider as they make strategic choices. It's a never-ending process.
And yet, political actors do not sit idly by, waiting to receive a signal about what an election or other political event meant. Instead, most of them will actively try to shape that public meaning, hoping to create optimal conditions for the policies they would like to pursue, the officials they would like to empower, and the future candidates they would like to see succeed. All of this adds up to a massive policy fight in the public sphere, where actors constantly assess and re-assess their strengths, weaknesses, possibilities, and resources as they plan new tactics in a world transformed.
Some outcomes are not contingent on these reactions, of course. In fact, many of the events that occurred during the Trump presidency are permanent. Dozens of federal judges were confirmed, the repeal of Obamacare failed, Trump was impeached, anti-Trump Republicans were largely purged from the House, and Trump ultimately lost the 2020 election. Other events have yet to occur, such as Trump's decision whether to seek the presidency in 2024. But none of these events have yet found a stable public meaning, so the public's retrospective assessment of the Trump presidency remains contingent on the meaning settled upon.
Though countless political actors are working to shape the public understanding of the Trump presidency, two are likely to end up being the most significant.
The first is President Trump himself. Within the Republican Party, Trump is already building a public understanding of the 2020 election that positions him well for future influence. While his attempts to overturn the results were bound to fail, they did serve to build within the party a mythology that Trump was cheated out of re-election. Unwilling to concede, he has convinced large numbers of Republicans that the election was stolen, reinforcing the conspiratorial populist ideology he has consistently deployed against elite institutions since 2015.
Here especially, Trump is working in the mold of Andrew Jackson, who rode a populist wave to the presidency in 1828 following a narrow loss in the previous election. After winning the plurality vote in a four-way contest in 1824, the House declined to name Jackson president. Accusing John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay of a "corrupt bargain," Jackson and his allies spent the next four years seeking to delegitimize the Adams administration in the public sphere. Jackson's triumphant return in 1828 unleashed one of the most consequential presidencies in our nation's history, radically transforming public policy, the party system, and the practice of governing.
Trump has already succeeded in at least one respect: Virtually everyone believes he wants to remain prominent in politics and that he will use whatever influence he has in the coming months and years to do just that. A current working assumption among Republican officeholders is that Trump has enough sway within the party to damage the political futures of those who cross him — coupled with the willingness to recklessly burn bridges out of sheer vindictiveness. His outsider status and hostile takeover of the nomination in 2016 reinforce this concern. If the party couldn't suppress him then, what's to say it could do so now?
This seems to have had a chilling effect on many Republican elites. The usual cacophony of post-election recriminations from the losing party has simply not materialized this year. In fact, an alarming number of Republicans actively supported Trump's claims of a stolen election. Others have twisted themselves into knots by giving credit to Trump for the surprising level of down-ballot success of the GOP even while he lost at the top of the ticket. Many Republicans are probably hedging their bets, waiting to see what comes of Trump's future. By remaining quiet, they may be unwittingly abetting it.
Of course, Jackson wasn't the only candidate in history to seek the presidency after losing an election. But a triumphant return to prominence, propelled by an emergent political movement, is the exception rather than the rule. Among sitting presidents, political influence has largely waned after electoral defeat. Grover Cleveland may have famously won a second term after losing as an incumbent, but in the modern age, no defeated incumbents have sought political office after losing re-election. Non-incumbent candidates have occasionally been renominated after a loss — William Jennings Bryan more than once — but in most cases, the parties simply move on.
Aside from Trump himself, no political actor is in a more powerful position to shape the public understanding of the Trump presidency than President-Elect Biden. Throughout his 2020 campaign, Biden promoted a "return to normalcy," a message he has continued to push both rhetorically and through his actions during the post-election period. Confident that he would emerge victorious, Biden and his team did not aggressively counter Trump's legal actions in state courts or pursue legal action themselves to compel the federal government to release transition funds, even after it became obvious that Trump had lost but was not going to concede. Instead, the Biden team presented itself as simply going about the business of preparing a transition: vetting nominees for cabinet posts, naming an advisory council on the pandemic, and beginning to staff the White House. The intended message has been clear: This is a professional operation going about its business, not the reality-television show we've been privy to for the last four years. In some sense, Biden's entire presentation of himself as president-elect is intended as a repudiation of Trump's presidency.
Biden has paired this procedural rejection of Trump with a substantive one. His announced nominees for cabinet positions and selections for White House staff are notable largely for their experience and competence. Almost all of them have deep ties to Biden, Washington, or both; many are veterans of the Obama administration. With few exceptions, news outlets have described them collectively as "boring." Whereas Trump's 2016 campaign ran as a rejection of Washington and sought to minimize the number of Bush-era Washington insiders in the administration, the Biden campaign is embracing "the Swamp."
Biden's actions represent a natural harnessing of the authority of the presidency, which is at its most powerful when repudiating what came before. It's also part of an effort to shape the public understanding of what exactly did come before. If the goal is to portray the Trump presidency as a reckless and dangerous departure from the traditional norms of republican governance and skillful executive leadership, the surest way to do so is to exhibit skilled, stable leadership while promoting traditional republican norms.
Biden is not promising to shake-up Washington; he's explicitly promising he will calm it down. He is in a strong position to accomplish this because he doesn't have to fake it. Although being a longtime Washington insider has proven an electoral detriment in recent decades, Biden's career as a senator and later as vice president represents the mundane manner of governing that predates the polarization, negative partisanship, and power politics that have come to distinguish the modern era. Instead of meeting Trumpian tactics with promises of retaliatory escalation, Biden is calling for commissions to study court expansion and suggesting bipartisan compromise in the Senate. The wisdom of these strategies has yet to be tested, but they fit perfectly the profile of a president seeking to practice the politics of repudiation by characterizing his predecessor as a reckless — and failed — outlier.
BIDEN AND THE POLITICS OF REPUDIATION
Any effort to assess Donald Trump's presidential legacy is of course premature. Battles are still raging, and will rage for some time, over how to interpret the past four years. The views that result will ultimately gel into conventional wisdom, informing decisions by political actors — among which include Trump and his allies, his rivals within the Republican Party, and his opponents outside of it — that will lead to a wide range of futures, from Trump seeking a return to the presidency in 2024 to him fading from the political scene fairly quickly.
One crucial factor in how that understanding takes shape will be the Biden presidency and its own forms of disruption. Biden will undoubtedly practice the politics of repudiation even as he seeks to couch his disruptive actions in the context of both moving on from the Trump era and returning to politics as usual. Just as he has consciously sought to distance himself from the Trumpian politics of the past four years through his post-election actions, he will probably work to define his presidency against that of his predecessor. His governing style is likely to be low key; his public leadership will emphasize competence and deliberateness of thought. He will likely avoid hour-by-hour Twitter commentary.
It's also probable, though far from certain, that Biden will pursue largely centrist policies at the outset of his term, resisting attempts by Democrats and progressives to escalate the hardball politics of recent decades to influence policy. And indeed, successfully turning down the temperature in Washington will likely repudiate the Trump presidency more thoroughly than almost anything Biden will be able to achieve legislatively. This may very well be a fool's errand, but Biden's own institutional context points in that direction: Without unified control of Congress, all-out partisan warfare will be of little durable value in the policy realm.
Biden will therefore probably seek to move on from the Trump era by publicly distancing himself from — or perhaps even opposing — any Justice Department actions against the former president. This could enrage many liberal constituencies, but the political advantages of it are clear and fit neatly into the Biden approach thus far. By avoiding high-profile prosecutions of former Trump officials, Biden will avert a continued politicization of the department and deny oxygen to Republican opponents itching for an all-out partisan fight.
No one should expect Biden to seek to limit or reverse core authorities of the presidency regarding war powers, oversight, or appointments, however. In these areas, he will likely rhetorically align himself against Trump's excess but seek to preserve presidential discretion. Yet on emoluments, presidential tax-return transparency, and the politicization of the White House staff and grounds, the Biden administration will likely not only repudiate Trump's actions, but even sign new statutory restrictions on himself and his successors. Doing so is both good politics and good for the institutions that have been under such disruptive strain over the past four years.
Disruption is what presidents do. This may have been more obvious during the Trump era than at other times in American history, but it was by no means unique to the 45th president's term in office. As his successor charts a new course, there is every reason to believe the core institutional dynamics that shaped Trump's incentives and actions will point President Biden toward a path of disruption as well — even if, in his case, a disruptive break means a return to lower-key politics and more traditional administration.