It has been a surreal year, a year that still feels like a dream. A year full of ups and downs, of victories and defeats, of excitement and anxiety. This year, one thing is for sure: we have never been closer to a complete political makeover than we are right now. It all started with a simple tweet. A simple, yet polarizing, “tweet” that would change the course of history. It started with a simple tweet. Then, everything changed. As we will see, it was neither simple nor small. It was a tweet, but it was also an entirely new way of doing politics. It was a new playbook, and it changed everything.
The Trump Effect
Last June, Trump tweeted that there was “blame on both sides” for the deadly violence that ensued during the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. He was roundly criticized, particularly by Republicans and conservatives, whose voters are generally expected to side with Trump on cultural issues like this one. Many prominent Republicans and conservatives called on Trump to clearly denounce white supremacy and speak out against it. They were not happy that he did not take a clear stand against neo-Nazis and white supremacists. But they were even more disturbed by what they perceived as his implicit endorsement of racial equality and tolerance. In short, the uproar was such that even mainstream Democrats began to criticize the president.
Trump, however, did not back down. Instead, he doubled down on his “both sides” argument in the most recent TV appearance, saying that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville conflict. Since then, his approval rating among Republicans has dropped from 79% to 63%. Perhaps more importantly, Trump saw a 17-point drop in his disapproval rating among independent voters, from 54% to 37%. In other words, his stance on Charlottesville may have cost him his strongest support base. And it seems that the more vocal his defenders are in denouncing him for his comments, the more likely it is that he will take action.
The Road To Nowhere
Trump’s first official trip as president was to Charlottesville. There, he saw first-hand the terrible results of allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to operate with impunity. It is safe to say that his takeaway from that trip was that he did not like what he saw and that things would change. In fact, his first address to the nation was not on healthcare, but about the violence in Charlottesville.
After Charlottesville, things began to change quickly. Less than a month after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order banning refugees and immigrants from some of the most dangerous regions of the world. Weeks later, reports surfaced that the White House was considering banning all trans fats. The FDA eventually banned the artificial substance, known to boost cholesterol, from processed foods, although it still allows it to be used in restaurants and other retail food establishments.
The changes kept coming. Trump also took an aggressive stance on the opioid epidemic, leading the charge in a bipartisan effort to tackle the growing problem. In 2019, there were over 75,000 deaths from drug overdoses in the US. The country, which had been slowly making progress in reducing opioid deaths for over a decade, now finds itself facing a public health crisis. It is a crisis that Trump has helped to create. The president has also taken a more proactive stance on climate change, pledging to take action on global warming.
Why This Is Important
The thing about Donald Trump is that he rarely does anything in a conventional way. He is a man who thrives on chaos and conflict. He loves controversy and conflict. It is thus completely understandable that his policies and actions would be unexpected and often contradictory. This unpredictability, however, is precisely what has made his presidency so interesting to follow. What was once considered radical is now the status quo, with many of Trump’s signature policies having seemingly mainstream support.
The reason this is important is that this unpredictability makes it extremely difficult to try and diagnose Trump’s political strategy. When he does appear to have a strategy, it is difficult to discern what it is. As we have seen, his Twitter account is a goldmine for anyone who wants to try and understand what the president is up to. In many cases, his tweets provide the only window into his thinking. In politics, as in life, with Trump, nothing is as it seems. In his own words, “You know, nobody ever wins a political battle.” In other words, it is always the strategy, rather than the strategy backs strategy.
To be clear, this is not to say that there is no strategy at all. Many of Trump’s policies have, in fact, had a clear and deliberate strategy behind them. In the case of his Muslim ban, for example, a primary strategy of demonizing Muslims quickly led to policy changes that will, in many cases, adversely affect the lives of those who Trump targeted. There is, however, a lack of forethought in the way that these policies are often implemented. The president apparently believes that his Twitter account is a protected space, where he can say what he wants without punishment.
Getting It Wrong
A major caveat is in order here. It is one thing to say that nothing is as it seems when it comes to Donald Trump. It is another thing entirely to say that we, as observers, got it wrong. In other words, it is one thing to admit that one does not know what Donald Trump is up to; it is another thing entirely to say that we were not looking in the right places, that we did not know what he was really trying to do. This, of course, is something that we should never say. It is also something that we should never believe, particularly when it comes to matters of politics and government. This is not to say that we should not question government and political leaders; far from it. It is just to say that we should question everything, not simply accept what people tell us without question. It is not that we should not believe in common sense; it is that we should absolutely question our most cherished beliefs when there is evidence that they are, in fact, wrong. Nothing is as it seems when it comes to politics and government. We should never, ever be quiet in the face of evil. But we should also never, ever believe that we have the full picture, that we know exactly what is going on.
A Tale Of Two Presidents
There are, however, two important things to note about the man in the White House. First, even though he comes from a different political background, Trump has not changed. He has simply applied the lessons that he learned in the political trenches to the Oval Office. Second, and this is a crucial point, even though his policies are often at odds with traditional Republican thinking, what we are witnessing is the continuation of a trend. We are, in fact, seeing the end result of a clear strategy implemented by the Trump administration. It is a strategy, which is, at its core, anti-democratic.
This is not to say that everything about the president’s agenda is, or should be, seen in such a negative light. There are many positive aspects to the Trump presidency and its impact on American politics and society. We should not forget, for example, that the Affordable Care Act is, for many, still in effect. It has certainly benefited those who have acquired health insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act. It has also helped to reduce the number of those who are uninsured, a problem that had plagued the country for years. The uninsured rate has decreased from 13.7% in 2016 to 8% in 2019.
One of the key architects of the ACA, Governor Nelson Mandela Bayes, said in 2013 that his goal was “to provide quality healthcare to all South Africans regardless of their economic status or geographical location.” This is precisely what Trump has attempted to do as well, although arguably for different reasons.
As we have seen, even some of Trump’s most vocal critics have had positive things to say about the president and his agenda. In fact, Trump’s detractors, who often find themselves on the receiving end of the president’s Twitter ire, have been some of his most vocal supporters, praising his accomplishments and defending his indefensible stances.
It would be wholly inappropriate, however, to defend the indefensible in this fashion. Even when his critics try to do so as a form of self-defense, it still comes across as a type of Stockholm Syndrome. The fact is that nothing that Trump does will ever be acceptable to his opponents, including those who agree with his policies. This, in and of itself, is indicative of the fact that he is, in fact, making a strategy out of unacceptable behavior.