The Trump Dynamic: What is Its Impact?

By Harald Malmgren

The election of Donald Trump is still reverberating throughout the American political system.

Rather than being an aberration which the professional political class might never wish to see repeated, President Trump’s election was a bold, powerful shock to the long-prevailing, deeply entrenched political system in Congress, the Executive Branch, and the machinery of both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee.

Trump was not a typical product of RNC primaries.

Chosen over professional politicians, he emerged as an agent of change, not an agent of continuity.

Now, as 2018 begins, both political parties seem frozen in the unanticipated outcome of a Trump victory.

In his first year as President Trump’s bold, iconoclastic speeches and actions had not only a shock effect on the operations of both the Executive Branch and the Congress, but of politics throughout America at the local as well as national level.

Looking ahead to November midterm elections, Congressional Republican incumbents appear to be unusually on edge about the potential losing their majority control of the House to the Democratic Party.

Discouraged by internal party divisions and polls showing a strong wind of political change, the list of Republican incumbents who have decided not to run again grows longer each day, including several who had become firmly established in seniority and leadership of Committees and Subcommittees.

The Republican majority control of both House and Senate revealed deep fractures in the coherence of Republicans on many key political issues, including treatment of Obamacare and possible healthcare alternatives, tax policy, immigration reforms, defense spending, entitlements and particularly debt and deficits.

President Trump added to his party’s divisions when he intervened from time to time to alter or override Republican House and Senate leaders’ priorities and legislative logistics, weakening their grip on the contents and pace of Congressional action.

One might characterize House Republicans at the start of this year as paralyzed, unable to regain teamwork, and therefore unable to formulate common policies except under pressures of open GOP conflicts.

While Republicans have found themselves floundering, Democrats have not yet found a way to develop coherent new policy themes.

The loss of Hillary Clinton, the party’s favorite, brought a powerful shock to the entire machinery of the Democratic Party across America.

Unprepared for Clinton’s loss, Party members and the DNC were left without any logical leadership successors.

Still stunned after a year of Trump’s Presidency, Democrats have no new political agenda of their own for the run up to the midterms.

As for the Presidency, there is little sign of early Democratic Party efforts to identify potential candidates for the next Presidential election, which should begin even before the midterms, given the very elaborate, time-consuming process which has characterized Presidential elections in recent decades.

At the start of 2018 the only apparent point of broad political consensus among Democrats is that Trump initiatives should be opposed, and continuing challenges should be made to Trump’s competency or legitimacy in the face of a plethora of allegations of violations of personal and financial ethics.

Nationally, the Democratic Party will try to select and support a broad range of candidates who might have a plausible chance to win House seats against Republican incumbents or newly emerging Republican candidates.

The Republicans will of course seek to retain majority control of both Congressional bodies in midterm elections. However, Republicans facing midterms months away are still deeply divided over both policies and choice of Congressional leaders. Now, President Trump’s approval ratings have fallen, and his alleged “base” seems to have settled at a level slightly above 1/3 of voters.

Trump’s seemingly impulsive, erratic behavior as President sparked widespread controversies not only among Democrats but also among many Republicans, and has become daily fodder for journalists and political comedians alike.

Incumbent Republicans who seek to survive the upcoming elections are increasingly uncertain whether it is politically safer to be seen to be a strong Trump supporter, or instead to put a distance from Washington and be seen as a staunch defender of local values.

Democratic candidates for House and Senate can be expected to force Republican candidates to identify whether they are supporters or critics of Trump, in hopes of splitting Republicn donor financial support and divisions of GOP voters in each District or State.

As a tool of leveraging continuing Special Counsel investigations, Democrats will likely seek to amplify doubts about sustainability of Trump’s influence.

Some Democrats will continue to stir public discussion of assertions that Trump’s impulsive or erratic behavior raises questions about his fitness for continuation as President, under the framework of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution (which provides for replacement of the President if his political colleagues decide he is no longer able to serve competently.

This effort will gain little political traction, but will cast a shadow over Trump’s decision making in the months before the midterms.

If Democrats were able to regain majority control of the House it is likely that talk of the 25th Amendment and possible impeachment under other grounds, including allegations of obstruction of justice, the political atmosphere turn toxic, impeding any hopes for potential bipartisan legislative action.

Added to the Republican Party divisions are disputes between President Trump and some of his former senior aides, most notably the public split between him and his former confidante and White House Counselor Steve Bannon.

This is not simply a matter of personality clashes.

These divisions are likely to cause divisions among major Republican financial supporters.  In this regard, some major financial donors who supported Trump’s candidacy in 2016 now worry he may be a liability for Republican election prospects in Congress and in some State Governments.

What this means is that previous close coordination in guiding donor support for key Republicans has become broken, with money now set loose for greater dispersion of funds across a wider range of candidates in the Midterms.

Adding to complex political and financial calculations are uncertainties posed by Special Counsel Mueller’s deliberations, which might continue up to or even beyond November elections.

In the background, a new wave of forces is gathering that are aimed at replacing “professional politicians” and the bureaucratic machinery of the national committees of both parties with new faces from outside professional party machinery.

One still-strong group of potentially rebellious are younger generations who bought into Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, and who are attracted to like-minded political personalities like Senator Warren.

As the pro-Bernie generation slowly ages we shall likely see further political energy emerging from this populist wave in the next few elections.

Second, a new wave of empowerment of women is likely to give rise to a much higher number of female candidates at all levels of government, from local to state to national roles. Republicans may be slower to recognize need for attention to this growing wave, but Democrats can be expected to exploit opportunities to up end the traditional make up of local and national elections with choice of females as candidates as widely as possible.

Such a shift in political calculation could result in emergence of many females who are not now within the party structure, and who may come from previously non-political lives and have been successful and recognized in other professional fields.

Third, and thus far less visible, is the emergence of a growing number of private business and financial leaders who are giving serious consideration to running for political office at the level of State Governors and even for the Presidency in 2020.

For example, billionaire Mark Cuban is already gathering his own policy advisory team to explore a possible Presidential run.

Jeff Bezos, the man who built Amazon, bought the Washington Post 2 years ago in anticipation of playing a larger role in national politics.

Many of his colleagues believe he will explore candidacy for the Presidency in 2020. Oprah Winfrey, who has huge national recognition nationally, is clearly coyly weighing a run. Other wealthy personalities who have been recognized leaders in business, finance, and technological innovation are thinking Trump was chosen by voters who wanted a non-professional politician. For them, Trump’s breaking through the long-standing party structures opened the way for other personalities, particularly those with ability to self-fund a startup campaign of their own.

Voters chose Trump as that type of disruptive candidate, but Trump turned to be a real estate developer reliant on very small staff operations operating through more than 500 separate small business legal entities.

He evidently had no experience with managing large, complex corporations in which top executives rely on extensive delegation of authority and responsibility. As President, Trump was clearly unwilling to delegate to his principle cabinet officers and other designated leaders of agencies.

Therefore, his management structure faltered with excessive reliance on a single point of decision-making, weakening most of his designated high officials.

In essence, there are several among the most successful business and financial leaders in the US who have concluded that voters in 2016 were in search for someone who was not a professional politician, but who was experienced in managing large enterprises, to take on management of Washington.

They seem to think their own experience in managing large, complex enterprises is what voters sought when Trump emerged as a possible choice.

Thus, Trump’s election constituted a major breakthrough of the deeply rooted major parties and power structure of politically devoted professional politicians in Congress and in state and local governments.

Trump’s emergence opened the way for the ambitions of some of the nation’s most successful personalities, who seem to think voters are still ready to go for a “non-professional politician” who could take on and reshape the frozen Washington political impasse.

This means that in addition to rivalries among current politicians in both parties there may appear a new cast of non-professional politicians in competition for the Presidency, Governorships, and Congressional seats in 2020.

Some of these business and financial personalities have such large wealth they could build much of their initial campaign machinery long before seeking broader national financial support.

Seen from this perspective, Donald Trump looks to have been an icebreaker, forcing an opening for non-traditional candidates for high office who did not have long political experience.

The new configuration of forces of the Sanders’ left, emerging ambitious women, and challenging business and financial leaders may possibly bring a major change in “business as usual” in Washington and even in many state and local governments.

This inflection point may have begun the demise of the domination of the deeply rooted professional politicians and national party administrative structures.

Could the combination of present frozen divisions between the two major parties in Washington, and growing fractures within the ranks of each party, open the way for a profound shift in US political dynamics?

Regardless of how Trump’s own future as President may evolve, he may have proven to be an historic icebreaker, opening the way for a new generation of non-entrenched and non-professional politicians to seek and achieve leadership.

A similar breakdown of long established political structures seems to be taking place in many other nations in parallel with this profound transition in the US.

Who knows what opportunities might arise if frozen national positions were to thaw at a time when frictions among national governments seem on the rise?

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Second Line of Defense on January 21, 2018.