The Memo: How Trump changed everything

One year into the Trump presidency, supporters and critics agree on a single thing: America has never seen anything like it.

To his detractors, President TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE is a reckless and uncouth figure, out of his depth at best and, at worst, putting American democracy at risk.

To his backers, the 45th president is delivering on his promises, especially on the economy. He is staying true to himself as the ultimate outsider in the face of a hostile media and political establishment.


Either way, Trump is altering the face of politics.

During his campaign, Trump “struck at the heart of the two-party establishment and he totally upended this long-held notion that the candidate with the most money prevails,” presidential counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayAides who clashed with Giuliani intentionally gave him wrong time for Trump debate prep: book 7 conservative women who could replace Meghan McCain on 'The View' Karen Pence confirms move back to Indiana: 'No place like home' MORE asserted to The Hill. In power, she added, “on the things that matter to Americans, he has achieved mightily.”

A diametrically opposite case is made by Allan Lichtman, an American University professor who went against the grain by predicting Trump’s victory in 2016. In April 2017, Lichtman published a new book, “The Case for Impeachment.”

“On balance, the Trump presidency has been very dangerous for our country,” Lichtman said. “One of the most important requirements of a president is to try to bring us together … Donald Trump has seemed intent upon dividing us. He has demeaned people based upon their race, their religion, their nationality, their gender. That hearkens back to some of the most dangerous elements in American history.”

Trump’s propensity to polarize is seen over and over again in opinion polls. They show that Trump has historically low approval ratings with the public at large, but very solid numbers with Republicans. 

A new Marist poll released Thursday indicated that 53 percent of Americans see the president’s first year in office as a failure, while only 40 percent view it as a success. But 87 percent of Republicans see Trump’s first year as a success, the poll found. 

As of Saturday morning, Trump’s job performance earned a thumbs-up from 40.1 percent of the public while 55.2 disapproved, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Those numbers disconcert plenty of Republicans — as do recent election results. The brightest warning flare for the GOP came in Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones won a Senate seat in one of the nation’s most conservative states in December, defeating the Trump-backed and scandal-tarred Republican Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoy Moore loses lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race Of inmates and asylums: Today's House Republicans make the John Birchers look quaint MORE.   

But there have been other examples, including a surprise loss in a Wisconsin statehouse election on Tuesday. In that instance, the Republican candidate lost, by about 10 points, a district Trump carried by 17 points in 2016.  

Even Republican insiders who are broadly supportive of the president wonder what kind of verdict the voters will render in November’s midterm elections.

“The midterms will be a good report card in terms of what the electorate feels,” said Brad Blakeman, who served on President George W. Bush’s senior White House staff. 

Blakeman praised Trump for “bluntness and directness” but also argued he could have “more finesse” in his approach.

Democrats are desperate to make big inroads in November. If they seize the majority in the House, which is less of an uphill climb than taking the Senate, they could block Trump’s legislative agenda. They would also have the power — theoretically at least — to start impeachment proceedings.

Democratic leaders have suggested the time is not yet right for impeachment, but high-profile members of the party have rained down criticism on the president. 

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenCalifornia Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election Pelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans Warren hits the airwaves for Newsom ahead of recall election MORE (D-Mass.) has called him a “racist bully.” Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersAngst grips America's most liberal city Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Democrats say they have the votes to advance .5T budget measure MORE (I-Vt.) has labeled him a “pathological liar.”  Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandTreat broadband as infrastructure and we have a chance to get it right House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors To make energy green, remove red tape MORE (D-N.Y.), who accused Trump of a “sexist smear” against her during a December spat, is one of several Democrats who have called for the president to resign.

Democrats say their abhorrence of Trump is not merely a matter of yawning ideological differences. They assert that Trump has vaporized important norms. 

They cite his willingness to engage in bellicose language, both in person and in tweets; his conduct of foreign policy (calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man,” for instance); his ferocious attacks on the media; and the probe into allegations of collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign.

The last issue — especially the events surrounding Trump’s firing of FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyBiden sister has book deal, set to publish in April Mystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records NYT publisher: DOJ phone records seizure a 'dangerous incursion' on press freedom MORE in May 2017 — is explosive. Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE is reported to be investigating whether the president obstructed justice.

Whatever Mueller’s verdict, some Trump critics worry that permanent damage has been done; that the norms won’t snap back into place whenever his time in the White House is over.

“What started out as buffoonery and burlesque has become darker and more serious,” said Harry Litman, a deputy assistant attorney general during President Clinton’s administration. “The debasement of the political culture, and the penetration of the wall between politics and the White House on one hand, and prosecutors and law enforcement on the other … I’m concerned it will be hard to step all the way back from that.”

Such criticisms are not confined to Democrats. Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz.), an increasingly strident Trump critic, on Wednesday drew parallels between Trump’s rhetoric against the media and the terminology employed by Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

In an earlier speech in October announcing he would not seek reelection, Flake bemoaned a political culture riven with “personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.” Few observers doubted he was talking about Trump.

But Trump loyalists have a ready response to figures like Flake: How do the naysayers fare with voters? 

Flake’s approval rating among Arizonans last summer stood at just 18 percent, according to one poll. His decision not to seek a new term came in the face of near-certain defeat.

Where Trump critics see a president flagrantly flouting standards, supporters delight in his transgressions — apparently seeing them as a refusal to bend before the forces of the hated establishment.

Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, said her members would give Trump an “A” grade for his performance so far. But that was not a blank check, she added.

“We are constantly watching and reminding him of what he promised to grass-roots voters around the country,” she said. “We want him to keep those promises, despite the pressure from the establishment.”

Asked how she and her fellow activists feel about instances where Trump is accused of having gone too far in his language or deeds, she replied, “The things I’ve heard from our supporters, oftentimes, is ‘We voted for somebody who is not a politician, somebody who wanted to do things differently.’ ”

Conway made a similar point in a different way. Many Trump critics, she insisted, had failed to grasp the public appetite for someone who was “an outsider but with lots of experience.”

Those critics “still fail to understand who he is and how he communicates,” she added. “Very few people, including working journalists, have stopped to really learn him, to learn his decision-making process, to understand,” she said.

On the other side of the divide, dissenters insist they understand all too well. They see Trump as an aberration. And they wonder if the country will recover, or if he has wrought permanent change.

“He has shattered reality itself,” said Lichtman, the American University professor. “There is no such thing as reality in the world of Trump.”

Donald Trump, after just one year, is already a transformative president. 

The big question is whether the transformation is for good or ill.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency