National Perspective

When President Donald J. Trump sent out a triumphal email to supporters a few days ago on the one-year anniversary of his astonishing victory, he put perhaps the only indisputable remark of his presidency in the subject line: (BEGIN ITALS)You shook the world.(END ITALS) This was one Trump digital communication that was dead-on accurate. No one could possibly argue that sentiment.

It was the year that shook America, that transformed our politics, challenged the underpinnings of our political system, shredded our notions of liberalism and conservatism, and overturned our preconceptions of the presidency, of presidential comportment, of presidential communication.

Almost nothing is the same. The overseas presidential trip, the White House press briefing, the character of the Republican Party, the nature of the Democratic Party, the way the president speaks to his allies, the way he treats his opponents, the strictures of diplomatic life, the profile of the mainstream press -- all are changed, changed utterly.

American politics is thoroughly unrecognizable from its earlier incarnation -- an untamed wilderness without discernable paths today, rather than the manicured lawn with the well-lit walkway it was before.

There have been dramatic changes in American political life before, to be sure. Andrew Jackson invited a democratic spirit and populace into the White House and into our politics. Theodore Roosevelt introduced an activist, progressive reformism into the presidency. John F. Kennedy mobilized the English language and injected it with idealism at a time of abiding practicality, and two decades later Ronald Reagan injected it with optimism at a time of overwhelming pessimism. Sometimes changes in American character do come from the top, though from political figures thrust into office by upswellings from the bottom.

It is impossible, at a mere year's distance, to offer anything more than a tentative verdict on the effect Trump has had on the presidency, though it is impossible, also, to ignore the early signals. In an office where teams of strategists, analysts and speechwriters once carefully sculpted the words of the chief executive, Trump has been informal and instinctive -- and prone to invective. This thrills his adherents and horrifies his opponents. In a role animated by ritual and draped with dignity, Trump has discarded ritual, sometimes traducing earlier, staid conceptions of dignity. His supporters applaud this, his critics deplore it. To his backers he is Harry Truman, giving them hell. To his enemies, he is the devil himself, emerging unapologetically from hell.

Much of this came into sharp focus in the past week. The Democrats took the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. Almost certainly, more was made of this than those Democratic triumphs warranted; the Republicans took all four special House elections this year in contests where national issues were at play, while the elections for governor were conducted amid state issues. Besides, the percentage of the vote Republican candidates captured in both states was almost identical to the vote Trump received a year earlier. (In fact, the GOP vote increased by a tiny amount in both gubernatorial contests.)

But rather than offer the entirely plausible, and persuasive, argument that these results merely reflected the regular order -- blue states remaining blue, a Democrat replacing a Democrat in Virginia and the natural progression of a Democrat to the governor's chair in deep-blue New Jersey -- Trump attacked a man who, 24 hours earlier, he had supported fervently.

On the eve of the election, Trump sent out an email boosting Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, arguing, "Ed will be TOUGH on illegal immigration. He will CRACK DOWN on the MS-13 criminal gangs." After the election results were posted, the president took the opposite tack on Twitter: "Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for."

The only truly significant result of Tuesday's balloting may have come in Maine, where in a referendum voters chose to enlarge Medicaid spending after the governor, Republican Paul LePage, vetoed just such a measure on five occasions.

This will steel the determination of Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who has opposed her party's efforts to overturn Obamacare, to continue to balk at presidential entreaties.

American politics may look a lot different a year from now, after the Republicans' control of the House and Senate are tested in midterm congressional elections. Those contests may truly be referenda on Trump and his policies.

But this much is certain: Trump is not likely to change his profile or his comportment.

The question historians will have to answer -- and very likely it will be visible to the non-academic eye as well -- is whether the change in tone and timbre Trump has introduced into the presidency is a passing phase or a permanent transformation. Though bitter rivals before becoming post-presidential intimate friends and admirers, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter introduced a whispery, almost bashful style to the White House. That was overturned by Reagan, much the way the Coolidge/Hoover reticence and reluctance were overturned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Whatever the long-term effect, Trump is both consequence and cause of a bitter, brutal style of American politics, sketched in blacks and whites, with hardly a patch of gray anywhere on the national landscape. There are in our politics today heroes and villains aplenty -- in fact they are the very same political figures, just viewed from different perspectives -- and few whispery, contemplative introverts. Those who exist in the dangerous middle of the road -- where, according to country folklore, the roadkill lie -- are scarce, and scared.

The result of the Trump presidency may be the emergence of the shouted word and the impulsive tweet -- a far cry from the notion, expressed 28 years ago by George H.W. Bush in his inaugural address, that his presidency would be "the age of the offered hand." This instead is the age of the clenched fist -- and of the clenched jaw. No historical revisionism, for Trump or any of his predecessors or successors, is likely to change that assessment.

EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Gillian Titus, gtitus@amuniversal.com.

More like National Perspective