That doesn’t mean that the Trump administration has failed to try to reshape the United States. Trump’s appointees have been fervent in doing so, and Trump himself has signed a blizzard of executive orders of varying utility.
Trump’s approach generally has been to decrease restrictions on businesses while embracing the priorities of the conservative right. That latter effort was spurred by the 2020 election, in which he gambled that he could win a second term by energizing his base of support. It was, in essence, an effort to leverage the second reason to be president (effecting change) to maintain the first (holding power). Presidents always try to keep their bases happy, of course, but usually while trying to expand their support and while effectively managing the affairs of state. Trump not only declined to try to expand his support but also used his political opponents as a foil for strengthening his support with his base.
It didn’t work. Support for Joe Biden — itself often driven by frustration with Trump — exceeded support for Trump, flipping five states that the president won four years ago. Trump’s nonexistent second-term agenda would not be enacted.
Trump's behavior since he lost brings the rest of his presidency into sharp relief. His daily calendar is regularly blank. His public commentary, almost exclusively offered on social media, has focused on his increasingly bizarre and utterly unsubstantiated allegations that the election was somehow stolen from him. His allies and appointees appear to be doing everything in their power to cement as many Trumpian policies in place as possible while throwing up as many roadblocks to Biden as they can.
One administration official told CNN that a goal on foreign policy was “to set so many fires that it will be hard for the Biden administration to put them all out.” That’s not about reshaping the United States. It’s about power. It’s the strategy that was deployed after Republicans in Wisconsin and North Carolina lost governor’s races in those states and then set about scaling back or limiting executive power. It treats the position as something being usurped, a pawn in a struggle for power, not as something being redistributed by the will of the voters. But now it’s at a national level.
Trump’s disinterest in the hard work that accompanies the presidency has long been obvious but became particularly apparent earlier this year when the coronavirus began to spread. Trump insisted that it would all go away and then proceeded to act as though it would. In March, following the guidance of government experts, he advocated measures meant to contain the virus.
Soon after, though, he decided that his reelection depended more on economic than public health. He bet that a laissez-faire approach of leaving management to states while accepting increasing infection rates would allow him to argue on the campaign trail that he had done his best on the virus while protecting people’s pocketbooks. It convinced some voters, yes, at the cost of nearly 250,000 American lives. But, again, he made a choice between power and governance, in favor of the former.
Since Election Day, Trump has only sporadically mentioned the ongoing pandemic, which is daily infecting more than 160,000 people, a significant number of whom won’t survive.
“We’re actually told by sources he’s much more consumed by the state of this election and contesting the results than he is with the pandemic surging across the country,” CNN’s Kaitlin Collins reported Wednesday.
That's unquestionably true. Trump makes it obvious with his increasingly anti-democratic effort to have states ignore the votes of their citizens and hand him a second term in office.
In doing so, he reinforces what has long been apparent: Trump's interest in the presidency was always about the power and the trappings. It was never substantially about reshaping the United States in any way beyond enacting the criticisms of Obama that had been airing on Fox News for the preceding eight years.
For millions of Americans, that was enough. The cultural fight was the point. Empowering Trump was a sufficient outcome. But over the past two weeks, Trump has made it impossible to pretend that his presidency distills to much more than that.