As America careened toward the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s supporters could not stop crowing about the “historic” nature of her impending presidency. Like Barack Obama before her, Clinton’s ascendance to the White House would mark an important “first”—she would be the nation’s only female president.
Unspoken at the time was that if Clinton’s opponent were somehow elected, he would represent an even more unprecedented break from historical practice. Sure, Donald Trump was an old white guy—but never before had the nation given its most cherished position of public trust to someone so erratic and ill-equipped to handle it.
We have seen women run major democracies before. But we had never seen a game show host whose claim to fame was fake-firing singer Meat Loaf ascend to the world’s most powerful position.
Thus, with Trump’s tradition-breaking election, it follows that other practices deeply ingrained in American democracy would also fall. As his first term comes to a close, Trump has transformed U.S. politics in ways we never could have imagined—and even if he loses in November, these changes aren’t likely to ever revert back to the old days.
The (political) party’s over.
Before Trump, political parties served an important purpose—they tried to convince as many voters as possible to join their side by using the “party line,” or arguments why their vision of America was better.
Over the years, campaign finance laws have served to weaken the parties, allowing independent lobbying groups to gain power in crafting campaign messages and helping candidates. As a result, the old-fashioned political parties have stopped even pretending they stand for any policy agenda—their only unbreakable position is that they should be in power, even if it means dropping their positions faster than Subway dropped Jared Fogle as its sandwich spokesman.
The Republican Party openly admitted this permanent change when it declined to even offer a party platform during the Republican National Convention this summer. The GOP’s only platform is whatever Trump wants. And now there’s little reason to believe any argument they make in the future isn’t simply a naked power play.
Politics is no longer local.
Trump’s singular guiding principle is that all news should be about him at all times. It is why he wakes every morning, reaches for his phone, and fires off a tweet that will have Americans chattering away until he does the very same thing the next morning.
The nation simply doesn’t have the attention span to keep up with his daily scandals and also pay attention to local politics. State and local races are now mere afterthoughts, with Americans believing everything good or bad in the country emanates from the White House, and candidates for city council and council commissioner ape his style and attitude.
Even local stories now become national referenda on Trump—no account of a police shooting or minor story about voter fraud or wackadoodle conspiracy theories stay within the communities in which they happen. They rattle around Twitter before they make their way to Trump, who passes public judgment without knowing any of the details.
This is no doubt exacerbated by the decline of local newspapers (more on that below), which in so many towns and cities are too understaffed to do consistent in-depth reporting on local issues. As a result, fewer people know anything about the events around them or the people who represent them locally—the people who have the most influence on their daily lives.
Lowering the bar on negative campaigning.
Before Trump, entire industries were built around the “dark arts” of campaigning—opposition researchers dug through old voting records, personal documents, and tax filings trying to find dirt on candidates of the other party.
But Trump’s ascendance appears to be, in large part, because of his wretched behavior, and not in spite of it. “He fights!” remains the rallying cry of those who defend Trump’s unwillingness to release his taxes or his mockery of American soldiers or his mistreatment of women.
So, if Trump can succeed with an entire landfill of dirty laundry out in the public, who’s going to care if a local or state candidate has some indiscretions on their record? Oh—you’ve heard Senator So-and-So took a $100 contribution from a millionaire who made his fortune turning baby seals into iPhone cases? Well the president won just weeks after a video was released in which he encouraged sexually assaulting women by grabbing their genitals.
Burning down the House (and Senate).
Congress has effectively ceased to legislate. Instead of winning political arguments on the floor of the House of Representatives, members see their primary duty as “clapping back at the haters,” a process notably un-referenced in Article I of the Constitution. (James Madison was famously more of an Instagram guy.)
This legislative flaccidity has affected other branches. Building consensus and passing laws through both houses of Congress can be arduous—which is why elected officials are far more likely to kick their desired changes over to the U.S. Supreme Court, where issues can be demagogued on social media without ever having to take a tough vote.
This shift in the power between the branches is why America now devolves into a holy war every time there is an opening on the Supreme Court—as the federal judiciary takes on more of a legislative role, voters are going to treat justices with the same vitriol and partisan rancor as they do members of the House and Senate.
It is the Senate that has most recently demonstrated how weak it truly is. Only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney, voted to impeach and remove Trump from office after the president effectively blackmailed Ukraine to get dirt on a domestic political opponent. It is a sign that moving forward, no president will ever be removed from office as long as his or her party controls the Senate.
The media are now a footnote.
Trump was the first president to circumvent the media to get his message out to his supporters, but he won’t be the last. Future politicians will simply take their message straight to the voters, spreading falsehoods portraying an alternate reality.
Of course, Trump’s critique of “fake news” didn’t come out of nowhere—for decades, conservatives have known the mainstream media was tilted against them, and Trump exploited this distrust to turn irritation with the “lamestream media” into outright contempt.
The best Americans can ask for at this point is for media organizations to serve as arbiters of what’s true and what is not—an endeavor at which they often fail miserably. Further, these messages won’t penetrate the large portion of Americans who get their news from conspiracy websites or aspiring movement “stars” who have a financial incentive to mislead them.
The only question is whether there will be enough reporters left to tell the story of their own demise.
A requiem for “conservatism.”
Since Trump won the GOP primary in 2016, the word “conservatism” has morphed from “free market, individual rights, and low taxes enthusiast” to “Trump fan.”
Out is the principled conservatism that stressed free speech and fought market regulation—in is a “conservatism” that thinks private social media companies should be regulated if they don’t meet Trump’s definition of “fairness.” Wave goodbye to the conservatism that stressed local control—welcome the new conservatism that thinks the federal government should mandate “patriotism curriculum” in local school districts. And so on.
Get used to stories like “conservatives oppose wearing masks in public,” “conservatives think Kamala Harris wasn’t born in the United States and isn’t eligible to be Vice President” and “conservatives think Tom Hanks, Hillary Clinton, and Ellen DeGeneres are stealing children to drink their essence.”
Even if Donald Trump loses in November, the office will have been distorted to fit his unique presidency. Hopefully, some of his more grotesque impressions will one day snap back—demonization of immigrants, overriding scientific experts, sowing distrust in election results, and the like.
But any desire for “normalcy” must recognize that “normal” now means something completely different. And we may just be at the beginning.
Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.