Will Donald Trump be a “transformative” president? His predecessor did us the favor of defining the term.
“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” presidential candidate Barack Obama said in 2008. Reagan “put us on a fundamentally different path.”
Unequivocal victories are rare in politics. Not all victories are created equal, however. Only some are fundamental. Significance and durability determine whether a president has or hasn’t effected fundamental change. Minor policy tweaks don’t qualify. Things that could be done easily, or which are uncontroversial, would have been addressed long ago.
Changes quickly reversed don’t qualify, either. Durability, the imperviousness of one president’s innovations to subsequent politicians’ desires to reverse them, depends on shifting the “Overton window” — the boundaries defining the roster of public policy options that are politically feasible, rather than considered so extreme as to be out of the question.
A president who makes the sort of fundamental changes Obama described in 2008 shifts the Overton window in two stages. First, he advocates, enacts and implements some policy previously considered unthinkable, a nonstarter. Second, he secures his legacy so that the once-unthinkable departure comes to be considered unalterable, something that cannot, realistically, be unwound.
Reagan, for instance, campaigned for across-the-board cuts in federal income tax rates in 1980, an idea so unorthodox that even George H. W. Bush, his Republican rival and subsequent vice president, called it “voodoo economics.” Reagan not only got the rate cut he sought in 1981, but a second, even deeper one in 1986. During the 28 years since Reagan left the White House, few have advocated and none have tried returning tax rates to where they were before 1981. As historian Sean Wilentz said in 2008, “We are never, in our lifetimes,” going to see a top marginal tax rate return to 70%, something that “if you stood looking at the future in 1980, would have been amazing.”
Supply-side tax cuts were a significant departure from Republicans’ long preoccupation with fiscal discipline, one rendered palatable by Reagan’s standing within the party and conservative movement. Trump, virtually a third-party candidate who took over the GOP, has no such reservoir of trust. Trumpism, furthermore, is yet to be defined — it’s far more attitudinal than programmatic or ideological.
What big victory can President Trump seek that will change the nation’s trajectory, and set America on a different path that will be hard to abandon? Given the importance he and his strongest supporters placed on the issue, immigration has to be the top contender for that honor. Enacting and implementing more restrictive immigration policies isn’t a sufficient condition for a successful Trump presidency — he could fail other important tests — but it’s clearly a necessary one.
In the course of detailing and implementing his immigration policy we are likely to discover the limits of journalist Salena Zito’s famous formulation about Trump’s fans taking him seriously but not literally. Does he need to build The Wall, for example, or will they be satisfied if we significantly expand and reinforce physical barriers like fences at our southern border?
The question is one of immigration policy but, more generally, of whether our government is competent and trustworthy. The cynicism that made Trump’s election possible is not mystifying when one recalls the Department of Homeland Security’s high-tech border “fence,” consisting of radar, cameras and satellite data. “It was a great idea, but it didn’t work,” said the department official in charge, after millions had been spent to no effect. Little wonder that Trump campaign rallies featured his applause line, “We are led by very, very stupid people.”
Changing feckless immigration policy also entails supporting the Constitution’s opening stipulation that all legislative powers shall be vested in Congress, which is based on the self-evident truth in the Declaration of Independence that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. When Congress passes laws that go unenforced, such as those prohibiting the employment of immigrants in the country illegally, the people’s ultimate sovereignty over their government is degraded. The fact that the Trump administration can implement what amounts to a dramatically different immigration policy without passing new laws, but just by enforcing existing ones, is a stark indictment of unaccountable modern government in general.
The durability of such policies after Trump leaves office will depend, ultimately, on his success in fortifying American nationalism. “We don’t have a country without a border,” Trump insisted repeatedly during the campaign. Though founded on universal principles, the United States is a particular nation facing, like every nation, the imperative to defend its territory and sovereignty.
In this respect, as in so many others, Trump has been blessed in his political opponents. After his acceptance speech promising to stop illegal immigration and give highest priority to American citizens’ needs, a New York Times news analysis scolded, “Under his presidency, the American dream would be primarily reserved for Americans.” If that complaint sounds ludicrous to more voters after the conclusion of this presidency than it does at the start, Trump will have changed America’s trajectory in a lasting way.