Has there ever been a presidential year quite like this one?
An Inaugural Address that was at once a statement of triumph and a manifesto of change. A Supreme Court nomination fight that altered the Senate’s customs and transformed its rules. Repeated efforts to overturn Obamacare. Heightened tensions with North Korea — and with the mainstream media. A final push for tax overhaul. Ferocious opposition, and ferocious devotion.
“It has no precedent, and no one could have expected it,” said G. Calvin Mackenzie, an emeritus political scientist at Colby College. “No public figure, let alone a president, has ever dominated the news cycle this way.”
Trump may be many things — democrat or autocrat, visionary or demagogue, man of the people or plutocrat, authentic populist or poseur — but here is one description that ally and critic alike will find indisputable: disrupter.
If, in a complex society that is being transformed simultaneously in multiple directions and dimensions, there is one word that describes this dizzying change — in the way news is covered and delivered, in the way music is produced and distributed, in the way education is conceived and transmitted — it is disruption.
That is Trump’s cause, and it is his effect. In that — if in few other areas, with the exception of this month’s tax bill and the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — he has been supremely successful.
But he has not been the lone disrupter. The Republican Party — for generations the repository of quiet nostrums and generally quiet political figures, a political party that, in contrast to the more unruly Democrats’ embrace of social unrest, prided itself in cultivating social rest — has itself been both disrupter and disrupted.
The GOP no longer speaks in one (whispery but wise) voice, proselytizing its message of thrift (traduced in a tax bill that provides for $12.5 trillion in deficits in a 10-year period) and restraint (a quality unknown in the Freedom Caucus or the White House). It is in upheaval with few precedents — perhaps the Republicans after the Civil War, perhaps the Democrats during the civil rights and Vietnam periods, two epochs where the word “radical” was tossed around with both abandon and accuracy.
But at the same time the broader political world has changed. With no liberal Republicans (who helped pass the civil rights legislation of the 1960s) and no conservative Democrats (who applied a brake to Democratic social programs, sometimes from nefarious and racist instincts) there is no middle ground between the parties, no impulse for bipartisanship, and large political rewards for stridency.
“There seems to be a breakdown of democratic institutions, and this is the logical conclusion of that. It’s as if we have been watching this happen in slow motion,” said Thomas J. Whalen, a Boston University political scientist.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.