So how is it going? It turns out that in many ways, Donald Trump’s policy legacy is proving easier to roll back than that of most presidents. As Olga Khazan of the Atlantic reports, the Trump administration did such a poor job of writing and implementing its own policies that many either have already been struck down by courts or will be straightforward to dismantle:
The Trump administration seems to have fundamentally underestimated the difficulty of changing U.S. government policy: As of April, out of the 259 regulations, guidance documents, and agency memoranda it issued that were challenged in court, 200, or 77 percent, were unsuccessful, according to a tracker from the Institute for Policy Integrity, a think tank at New York University that researches regulatory policy. A typical administration loses more like 30 percent of the time, the group says.
There’s always a good deal of back-and-forth during any transition; for instance, every Republican administration reimposes the Mexico City policy, a.k.a. the “global gag rule” on abortion, as soon as it takes office, and every Democratic administration rescinds it. But one of our conclusions about Trump’s presidency may wind up being that his long-term effect on policy was minimal, while his political impact in one term was deeper and more profound than that of most two-term presidents.
Let’s consider the policy first. When Trump emerged as the front-runner for their party’s presidential nomination, many Republicans worried that he was neither conversant with nor committed to conservative ideology. But their nervousness faded as it became clear that it wasn’t that he disagreed in any meaningful way with what conservatives wanted; he just didn’t care. If he said something like “We’re going to have insurance for everybody” or claimed he’d take on the NRA, they knew there would be no follow-through and they could easily bring him back in line.
Apart from trade and immigration, Trump had almost no firm beliefs about any policy issue — but that made his administration more conservative, not less. Because he’d rather watch Fox News for hours and tweet at his enemies than sit through boring policy briefings, and because many mainstream Republicans decided not to forever soil their reputations by working for him, his administration was staffed largely by grifters and far-right ideologues.
But that led to the problem Khazan’s piece highlights: Without experienced Republicans staffing executive-branch agencies, the people whom Trump put in charge simply didn’t know what they were doing. In some cases, their incompetence combined with their malevolence to produce disaster, while in others, the incompetence actually prevented things from getting even worse. Both routes led to the kind of slapdashery that is now allowing Biden appointees — who are indeed very experienced and knowledgeable, with many of them having worked in the Obama administration — to reverse the damage.
Politics, on the other hand, was what Trump really cared about, and where his impact was so deep and lasting.
Whether Trump had a well-thought-out plan to remake the Republican Party is unclear; much of what he did seemed impulsive and ad hoc, done mostly for the purpose of feeding his deep insecurities and need for validation. But he did have an instinctive ability to locate and stimulate the worst in people.
And at a moment when many in the party were convinced it had to appeal to a changing America in which their base of White Christian voters would continue to decline as a proportion of the electorate, Trump saw the power of those people’s anger: that with enough stoking, it could bring him to an electoral college victory.
Through an extraordinary and unrepeatable confluence of circumstances — shout-out to Jim Comey! — it worked. And once it did, the party couldn’t go back. The fact that Trump lost badly in the 2020 election, and was the direct cause of Republicans losing both the House and Senate, didn’t change anything. Devotion not just to Trump himself but to Trumpism in all its forms now defines what it is to be a Republican.
Which is why a hard-right conservative such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is now considered not a “real” Republican. Being a Republican means you support (or at least give a wink to) the lie that Trump won the 2020 election, and that you want to make voting more difficult, and that your primary project is not advancing a policy agenda but Owning the Libs. It’s the party of Jan. 6, the party of scam election “audits,” and the party of endless fake culture-war controversies.
The policy story tells us that the particular personality of the president really does matter a great deal in what their administration does (how that applies to Biden is not yet completely clear). The political story tells us that Republican voters were just waiting for someone like Trump to come along and give them the kind of unadorned, rage-based politics they wanted. And once they got the taste for it, they couldn’t go back.