Column: Has Trump set a new style of leadership?

David Shribman

The conventional wisdom is that last week — with a much-watched congressional special election, a shakeup in the diplomatic profile of the country, and internal White House debates about how and against whom to impose steel and aluminum tariffs — answered several vital questions. In truth, the opposite may be the case.

Indeed, there may be more open questions about the course of American politics and the character of the Trump era today than even a week ago. These questions address the very nature of the administration, the prospects for the midterm congressional elections and the outlook for the nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula. Here are some of the questions that remain open in this critical time:

Did the Democratic triumph in the special congressional election in Pennsylvania tell us anything about the political prospects for the midterm congressional elections or about the sustainability of the Trump phenomenon?

Almost certainly not. Lost in the media mayhem of the contest between Conor Lamb and his Republican rival, state representative Rick Saccone, is the notion that the significance of special elections is almost always exaggerated. By their nature these races — there have been 86 of them since the beginning of the 21st Century, all of them forgettable — are idiosyncratic, conducted in regions with peculiar economic and cultural circumstances and contested by local candidates with assets and defects that have little resemblance to presidential nominees.

(I wrote the last paragraph hours before the 18th district ballots were counted — proof that my conviction has no party bias. Consider the 16 midterm elections during Ronald Reagan’s first term. In only one of them did a seat change partisan hands. Reagan won his second term in a landslide. The special elections told us nothing.)

Indeed, all we know from the Pittsburgh suburbs is that an attractive young Marine defeated a rival lacking his opponent’s political skills. Yes, and one thing more, the relevance of which is debatable: Trump is a better campaigner for himself than he is for others.

Is Trump’s embrace of steel and aluminum tariffs a harbinger of a fundamental change in the profile of partisan doctrines, or is it merely the redemption of a campaign pledge?

This is one of the big questions of the age, for while protectionism was but one of the issues that Trump rode into the White House, it is an important element of the American partisan divide.

In recent years, it has been the Republicans who were free traders and the Democrats who leaned toward protectionism. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt won the 1984 Democratic caucuses in Iowa on the strength of a series of Christmastime television advertisements that raised concerns about imported Japanese automobiles and won him support among members of the United Auto Workers union, a strong voting group in Iowa.

The Democrats remain skeptical of NAFTA, citing job losses in manufacturing and elsewhere, even though the trade agreement, backed by 27 Democrats in the Senate, was signed by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. The lead NAFTA opponent in America today is Trump himself, and though Democrats generally deplore much of the Trump portfolio, union leaders support his trade policies while business groups such as the United States Chamber of Commerce, traditionally aligned with Republicans, oppose the president’s trade initiatives. The result is that the political calculus on trade, as on so many other issues, is in transition.

Is Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un the 21st Century equivalent of Neville Chamberlain’s trip to Munich in 1938 — or Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing in 1972?

Here the party breakdown isn’t as clear as might be expected. Many Republicans, skeptical of the president’s sophistication in diplomatic affairs, worry he would be more interested in the spectacle of a deal with nuclear-armed North Korea than in the details of a deal with the isolated nation.

The issue is complicated by Trump’s dismissal last week of Rex Tillerson, his first secretary of state, in part because of the former Exxon chief’s general support of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated during the Barack Obama years. But voices in Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill, cognizant that North Korea actually possesses nuclear weapons while Iran apparently does not, point out that the weapons inspections protocols of the Iran deal the president opposes are very likely to be more effective than any that might be won in North Korea, which has spectacularly adept methods of concealing its weapons.

This puts both parties in awkward positions peculiar to their own interests and histories.

The Republicans are wary because their party traditionally favors conventional diplomacy, with comprehensive negotiations before a summit meeting and clear expectations from the summit. The Democrats are in an immensely uncomfortable position because the national interest requires a swift and crisp resolution to the Korea crisis but a Trump triumph at the summit would render the president the hero of a country breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Is the Trump style of disruption the new normal?

On one thing everyone in the nation, except the occupant of the Oval Office, agrees: The Trump years have been exhausting to Washington and to the country. Whatever their virtues — whatever their faults — these 14 months have left the nation not merely fatigued but outright overtired.

But this question does not only address the velocity of politics but also the Trump style of politics. No respecter of rules, he troubles many Republicans because of their native affinity for order, while alienating Democrats, who wrote many of the rules when they were the natural party of governance between 1933 and 1969.

The president operates at 78 rpm in a 33 rpm world. And because hardly anyone knows what that means anymore — it’s the playing speed of a vinyl record — that may be the new style of presidential leadership. We won’t know until Trump has a successor, or two.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.