Trump's Victory — One Year Later: The President's Culture War
US President Donald Trump speaks during rally for Alabama state Republican Senator Luther Strange at the Von Braun Civic Center September 22, 2017 in Huntsville, Alabama.
Trump is visiting the southern US state to endorse Luther Strange, a candidate for US Senate in the state's Republican primary. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty ImagesBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP - Getty Images
Breaking News Emails
Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By almost any traditional measure of presidential success, the year since his election has been a dud for President Donald Trump.
He was equipped with every president's dream tool: control by his party of both chambers of Congress. And yet, his first major legislative achievement remains elusive, and the signature policy promises of his campaign — Obamacare repeal, the wall, a trillion dollar infrastructure blitz — stand unfulfilled. The tax cut plan now taking shape represents Trump's last, best chance of putting a meaningful win on the board heading into the midterm year.
More galling has been his lack of urgency and discipline. Trump has been a distant figure in the negotiations over his policy agenda and routinely sends contradictory public signals, leaving even his own allies baffled about what to do. Over and over, he's attacked and insulted Republicans whose cooperation he needs.
Eight years ago, Barack Obama was handed similar power at the start of his presidency; by this same point, he'd already enacted a massive stimulus program and a fair pay law, and was months away from signing the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.
For Trump, this is a damning comparison — unless it's the wrong one.
Obama, after all, was like just about all of the presidents before him. He had a background in politics, had developed a cohesive ideological framework, and had surrounded himself with issue experts and legislative operators. He came to office with both the will and the means to turn policy into law. It's how we're used to thinking about, and judging, presidencies. What did you promise to enact as a candidate, and what did you actually get done?
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
But maybe we need a different framework for understanding Trump. It has not, to date, been a legislative presidency, and there's little evidence to suggest he's willing to contort himself in the ways necessary to make it one. What has defined the Trump presidency, though, is culture.
Take what happened on Sept. 22. In Washington, Senate Republicans were scrambling to salvage their latest effort to roll back Obamacare — something candidate Trump had promised to achieve "very, very quickly." Their prospects were dimming, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announcing his opposition, and Trump facing the real possibility of coming up empty.
In Alabama that night for a rally, the president did attack McCain and make his case for the plan, but it ended up being a footnote in the coverage of his speech. That's because, in what seemed like an impromptu riff, Trump tore in to NFL players who refused to stand for the national anthem. As the crowd in front of him cheered its approval, he called for fans to walk out of stadiums and owners to fire the players.
The uproar was instant, and bled far beyond the political corner of the media world. It became an all-consuming cultural event — athletes, sports commentators, entertainers, talk show hosts all weighing in with heated responses. It was a controversy that gave birth to its own controversies. When an ESPN anchor suggested fans should boycott the Dallas Cowboys if the team punished players for not standing, she was suspended, setting off a debate over the boundaries between sports and politics in the Trump-era.
Trump's relish in provoking the fight, and then stoking it for weeks, was obvious. He had no formal power over the protests and the issue wasn't about to become part of his legislative program, but he dove in with an energy and a focus that has been utterly absent from the more traditional aspects of his presidency. His vow to repeal Obamacare was on the line, but what the president really wanted to talk about was the NFL.
The episode was not an aberration. It has been this way with Trump since he launched his campaign, and long before it. He seems indifferent to policy details and consistency, and even when the subject is politics, he prefers to fight in the arena of popular culture. This is not a legislative presidency; it is a cultural one. And that raises all sorts of questions about how to understand it.
Measuring success for past presidents was straightforward: What have they achieved? Trump poses a new question: What happens if a president doesn't really care about achieving much — except, of course, winning the next election? The instinct is to say that the two must ultimately be related, that a president can't win re-election without being able to point to big, specific programs that have been enacted on his or her watch. In the end, voters just won't accept that, we are conditioned to say.
And maybe that's true. After all, Trump's approval rating is now under 40 percent, lower than any of his modern predecessors at this same point, and it's been stuck under 50 for his entire presidency. It may be that he's already lost a critical mass of voters, and that three more years of a cultural presidency will do nothing to win any of them back.
But maybe it's possible that a cultural presidency creates new and different divisions among voters. Before Trump, the narrative of most presidencies tended to be set by the political media, which — quite reasonably — looked to Capitol Hill to measure success and failure. But Trump's presidency, as the NFL conflagration demonstrated, engages so much more than just the political media and stirs up passions that have little to do with policy. Congress and any legislative agenda often feel like an afterthought.
It's constant, too. His predecessors would fade into the background for stretches of time, but Trump and his culture war are an ever-present force, challenging Americans to pick a side. Are they for him or against him?
It could also make his critics part of the equation. Trump has generated a profound backlash, a presidency that has given rise to a wide-scale "resistance" movement that frequently finds expression in popular culture. But does the intensity of this resistance stir its own backlash — one that works to Trump's favor? Are there voters who have a low opinion of Trump — and who would tell pollsters they disapprove of his job performance — but who will nonetheless side with him the next time he's on the ballot?
That's what happened a year ago, when a significant share of Trump’s own voters told exit pollsters they didn't like him and didn't think he was qualified to be president. The debate still rages about why they made that choice, but a year later it's worth noting that Trump himself hasn't changed much.
He was a culture warrior as a candidate and he's a culture warrior as a president. Maybe, deep down, that's exactly what 46.4 percent of Americans want.
Steve Kornacki, author of "The Red and the Blue: 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism," is a national political correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.