The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The most underrated story in U.S. politics: The post-Trump consensus

Former president Donald Trump boards his airplane, known as Trump Force One, at Palm Beach International Airport on March 13. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
5 min

With a New York indictment of former president Donald Trump possibly on the way, everyone is bracing for yet another rancorous episode of the political drama that began when Trump disrupted U.S. politics by announcing his candidacy for president on June 16, 2015. His preemptive call for fans to protest on his behalf carried an ominous whiff of Jan. 6, 2021.

Partisanship and polarization are the dominant themes of U.S. politics, which Trump’s rise both exemplified and exacerbated. Democrats and what is still a Trump-centric Republican Party are locked in combat over race, gender, the “deep state,” immigration — you name it — to the point where they might fail at the basic task of raising the federal debt limit. In addition, the GOP is at war with itself over Ukraine, among other issues.

Yet this conflictual story has a surprising subplot: policy consensus. It’s rarely explicit or even acknowledged. Those who look for it, though, can find bipartisan overlap across key global and domestic policy issues. And this de facto agreement bears the imprint of Trump’s eight years at the center of U.S. politics.

In foreign policy, China is now universally regarded as a threat. Public perceptions of China were evenly split as recently as 2012, according to the Pew Research Center; today, “negative" beats “positive” by 66 points. Democrats and the GOP use various terms to describe the Beijing regime — President Biden says “competitor,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), “enemy.” No politician would say “friend” or even “partner.”

On the whole, this hawkish turn represents a necessary course correction in response to China’s human rights violations, geopolitical bullying and predatory trade policy. Trump was mainly interested in the latter and made it his main talking point; his political success in doing so has helped marginalize a business lobby, formerly strong in both parties, that favored economic engagement with Beijing.

Less defensibly, disenchantment over trade with China has fed wider disenchantment with global commerce itself; consequently, neither party actively supports new trade promotion agreements anymore.

This is true even regarding the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union, a high-wage geopolitical ally. Ditto the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Japan and others, which would have used U.S. economic influence in Asia to counter China.

Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP in his first year as president, taking on China with tariffs instead. He levied them by executive action, invoking a statutory exception to Congress’s usual authority. Yet the Biden administration has maintained the same policy of presidentially directed trade war — with acquiescence from both sides of the aisle.

Meanwhile, Trump has repudiated past GOP support for entitlement reform as politically suicidal, and most Republican lawmakers have fallen into line. Biden baits them by claiming they have a secret plan to cut Social Security and Medicare, memory-holing his role in the Obama administration, which at least considered selective savings in both. Political reality is that neither party wants to take the lead in trimming these programs for seniors, effectively putting a third of all federal spending off limits.

A de facto bipartisan consensus also rules out any tax increases on the 98.2 percent of the country earning less than $400,000, the latter figure being the limit set by Biden. Republicans, still the anti-tax party, accuse Biden of secretly plotting increases, but his new budget proposal appears to contemplate extending the 2017 Trump tax cuts for individuals beyond their scheduled 2025 expiration.

Neither party embraces a higher gas tax or a carbon tax, which, for Democrats, contradicts their view that climate change is an “existential” threat; putting a price on emissions could help fight warming more efficiently than the green energy subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Coolness bordering on hostility toward corporations is another area of bipartisan convergence, at least rhetorically. Drug companies take heat from both parties, as do social media giants, though, in the latter case, rationales differ: Democrats emphasize the failure of Facebook and Twitter to police “misinformation,” while Republicans accuse them, and other allegedly “woke” corporations, of doing so at the expense of free speech and traditional norms.

For the country, it adds up to a negative agenda — deals that won’t get done, spending that won’t get cut, revenue that won’t get raised. Except for the tougher stand on China, which was necessary and appropriate, the actual relationship between such policies and solving the country’s problems is questionable, to say the least. That shouldn’t be surprising, however, because they developed in the shadow of Trumpism.

The nationalist, populist agenda Trump imposed on an internationalist and business-friendly GOP has interacted with an analogous left-populist drift among Democrats, transforming economic and foreign policy debate in both parties. This transformation seems likely to last through the next presidential election and beyond.

Indicted or unindicted, elected president again or not, Donald Trump has been one of the most divisive, destabilizing figures in U.S. political history and, equally undeniably, one of the most influential.