The Lasting Legacy of the Trump Presidency is Already Written
The true legacy of some presidencies aren’t revealed to us until years or decades after the last shadow of the administration has been chased off of the White House grounds.
For example, given that the world had no idea the Cold War would stretch out almost 50 years, who could have known that the legacy of the Truman administration was that it laid the greatest foundation —perhaps the only foundation— that would allow America and the West to prevail?
The lasting legacy of the Trump administration, however, is becoming apparent and more solidified with each day that passes, even though we’re only slightly past the halfway point of the first term. And it may be surprising to some that the legacy has little to do with actual right or left policies.
It is undeniable that in some specific policy areas, immigration the most prominent, that President Trump has taken the Overton Window and shoved it to the right. On criminal justice issues (excepting some few actions by former AG Sessions), the president has pushed the Overton window left, especially with his use of pardons.
But the lasting legacy of the Trump presidency is that he has greatly widened the Overton Window; obliterating norms has now become a norm in and of itself.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Overton Window, here’s a brief explanation from the Macinac Center in Michigan, the conservative think tank which employed Joseph P. Overton when he defined the concept behind the principle:
“Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success.”
If the political goals you seek are outside the boundaries of the window, you generally had to find some way to move it.
News is the most available and conspicuous force that moves the window, which is why people have battled over the news and how it is framed for centuries, and why that struggle seems so heightened today in an internet era when more people have access to different kinds of news.
Although it’s quaint to think about now in the terms of all the explosive news we’ve seen from the Trump administration, try to recall that in the earliest days of December 2016, less than one month after the election, then President-elect Trump called the leader of Taiwan which quickly set off alarm in the international and State Department community.
Search for that news from that moment and you’ll see articles using words and phrases like: unorthodox, improvisational, precedent-breaking, “lobbed a firework into the delicate diplomacy of Asia.”
Before, the contours of the window dictated that official and direct contact between the President and Taiwan, a democratic outpost that is nevertheless under Chinese rule, was completely off limits for fear of disturbing the peaceful but nervous equilibrium between the U.S. and China. The call broke a precedent that dated back to the Carter administration.
Or consider moving the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. The action itself was close enough to the window’s edges that other presidents could articulate it. But the threat of Palestinian violence again kept the edges of the window constrained enough so that the action was never executed.
If advisors and editorial pages have warned the president he was over his skis, Trump has reacted to these cautionary tones by flying off the side of the mountain with a jet pack as if in a James Bond movie.
The other examples in which Trump has acted outside the window are almost too numerous to count, and other publications have striven to compile lists of norm-breaking moments.
In one sense, we’re already seeing it outside of the White House and Republican politics.
Previously, no Democrat, regardless of their socialist leanings deep within their own hearts, could openly declare their affinity for socialism. Now it happens proudly.
Before Trump, it would have been unthinkable for members of either party to go so far in openly defying the party-power machinery as to set up a completely extra-party fundraising infrastructure, but yet that is what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort of “Justice Democrats” are doing.
So many ideas believed to possess the power of blowing up the financial markets should they even be uttered – Trump has uttered them all now anyway, and the markets have reacted and recovered.
Before Trump, how many Democrats would have dared advocate for “packing” the Supreme Court, especially given the lessons of history of how badly FDR was bruised by the misstep?
If Democrats feel emboldened to change the rules of the game now, it’s only because they’ve learned from the master.
Naturally, Republicans are enjoying their moment. What's not fun about bold governance when you are the party in power?
But if the next Democratic president is as bold to ignore the guiderails of the edges of the Overton Window – edges made up of things like polling, long-held and well-researched beliefs supported by academics and tenured bureaucrats, unwritten rules of what constitutes presidential conduct, other historical precedents – those Republicans may find a wider Overton Window only brings them misery.
Estelle Jennings is a pseudonym for a political journalist in the D.C. area.