Donald Trump won the presidency with a mandate to "make America great again." As a candidate, he promised a novel and vigorous program to reverse what he and many in his party saw as a period of drift, retreat, and acrimonious gridlock under President Obama. From pushing Paul Ryan's health-care plan to cozying up to Saudi Arabia, it's already pretty clear that in most areas, President Trump's agenda is neither novel nor vigorous. Even dropping out of the Paris Agreement was more a species of “performative isolationism” than a profound policy shift. But that doesn't mean the next four years will be a period of aimless drift.
On the contrary: In both the domestic and international spheres, having a dyspeptic void at the head of the executive branch is rapidly revealing the degree to which the Obama administration was engaged in the small-c conservative project of propping up arrangements and institutions that were already losing their natural cohesion. With the props removed, get ready for change to accelerate.
Consider the domestic sphere first. The Affordable Care Act was intended to build upon the existing hodgepodge of American health care, extending its benefits more broadly and giving it greater longevity. Obama's financial policies evinced continuity with the Bush administration response to the financial crisis, with an emphasis more on preventing a recurrence than on punishing malefactors or materially challenging the power of the financial sector.
Even on immigration, Obama's initial impulse was to use stepped-up enforcement coupled with the effects of the recession to reduce the salience of the issue, and then use that political capital to resolve the status of the undocumented immigrants who remained. (And in terms of numbers, he largely succeeded; net migration between Mexico and the U.S. dropped and even reversed during the Obama years.)
Obviously, the politics did not play out as Obama hoped or expected. But the Trump administration's initiatives to date do not look like reform in a new or opposed direction, as, say, the Bush administration’s initiatives did. Substantial expectations were raised in multiple areas about what this administration would achieve, or at least attempt: in trade, in health care, in immigration. Very little of it looks likely to happen — and what does happen (such as sabotaging the ACA) is likely not to deliver on promises but to exacerbate the underlying problems that he vowed to address.
The issues that brought Trump to power, then, may well endure and even get more fraught — particularly since it will be in Trump's interest to stoke continued concern. But far from triggering another swing in the pendulum, this time back to the Democrats, they may accelerate another trend: toward the crackup of the American political system.
Domestically, it's already a commonplace that 2016 was the most polarizing election in recent history. In that regard, 2016 capped a trend that increased every year since 1992 (though 2008 was something of a respite, the only election since 1998 in which the victor won a substantial and broad popular majority). Trump's election accelerated the sorting of the geographic and demographic bases of the two parties: He won a larger percentage of the rural vote than George W. Bush as well as a larger share of the white evangelical vote, despite being a multiply-married and irreligious New Yorker, and he won a smaller percentage of the vote in California than any major party candidate since before the Great Depression.
Both the polarization and the disgust with both parties has if anything increased since the election. That polarization makes it extremely difficult for either of the two parties to make meaningful headway in the contest with the other's base. The Democrats will have a hard time, at least in the short term, capitalizing on the failure of the Trump agenda. That failure, though, will likely breed greater discontent within the Democrats' own tent. The disillusionment with both parties also means there is a real possibility of further dramatic political change: either a revolutionary upheaval within the Democratic Party or a third party insurgency to rival that of Ross Perot in 1992 (or both). The policy consequences, in either case, are difficult to predict.
Now consider the international sphere.
The recent high point of American power and prestige was in 1991, right after our victory in the Gulf War at the head of a supremely broad coalition of nations. In the wake of that conflict, President George H. W. Bush saw the prospect of a "new world order" based on law rather than great power conflict. It was the logical culmination of America's policy of global leadership through multilateral institutions that we had adopted in the wake of World War II.
By the time Obama came to office, those institutions were badly frayed, both by changes abroad (such as the rise of China) and American actions (the Kosovo war and the expansion of NATO, and especially the Iraq War). His major initiatives were aimed, once again, at shoring up that order. From the New Start treaty with Russia to the Iran deal to the "pivot" to Asia to the negotiations for the Paris climate treaty, Obama's aim was to reaffirm America's centrality to a community of cooperative and allied nations and to prevent the emergence of a serious great power rival.
His efforts were certainly not always successful. But the Trump administration came into office promising not merely a better plan for achieving the same aims, but new aims altogether. Far from aiming to preserve American centrality to world affairs, Trump vowed to get the best deal for America out of every bilateral relationship.
In the abstract, there is nothing wrong with pursuing the national interest — and, indeed, most internationalists would say that internationalism is ultimately a matter of enlightened self-interest and not pure altruism. But in the context of the pressures that pre-existed his election, it required a concerted American effort merely to preserve the American position. In the absence of that effort — to say nothing of active self-sabotage — we were likely to see rapid and disadvantageous change.
The United States has been pressuring Europe to take more responsibility for its own defense for at least a generation — and Trump ran on a platform of demanding it. Now, with the chancellor of Germany asking whether Europe can rely on America anymore, the context of any effort at European rearmament (if it comes) will likely be a conscious uncoupling from America rather than burden sharing. Similarly, America's Asian allies are increasingly concerned about Chinese assertiveness. But in the wake of Trump's comic reversals on Taiwan and North Korea, those allies must be asking whether being tethered to America is wise, or whether it might not be wiser to develop relationships with Beijing instead. South Korea in particular must be wondering, if America is counting on China to resolve the North Korean situation, and also pressuring South Korea to pay for their joint defense, whether Chinese security guarantees might not be more valuable than American ones.
Then there is Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Since the treaty was itself a voluntary and therefore largely symbolic document, our absence alone will hardly make any difference to the course of climate change. But it will give China and Europe the opportunity to negotiate in our absence, and come up with arrangements that may or may not be more protective of the environment — but will certainly be less-cognizant of America's commercial interests.
Many commentators, observing the chaos of this White House, have voiced urgent concern of how Trump will respond to the first foreign crisis for which he is not himself responsible. But we should consider the possibility that far from holding their breaths, the leaders of the other major powers are already planning to take the initiative themselves, without waiting to see whether Trump's America has a coherent response or what response it might prefer.
There is a price to be paid, of course, for being at the center of events, and it may be worth refusing to pay that price in order to husband our resources. But will we be husbanding our resources, or just squandering them in an even less-noble fashion than usual? Meanwhile, we flatter ourselves by saying we are the indispensable nation. But all that proves is that Americans are ill-prepared for a world that not only refuses to dance to our tune but increasingly just tunes out the music we are playing.