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 John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her 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 ConwayTrump Jr. to Dem Senator: 'You admitted to hitting your wife so hard it gave her a black eye!' Conway to CNN's Cuomo in heated debate: 'I'll walk away' if you continue to interrupt me On The Money: Cohen reportedly questioned over Trump dealings with Russia | Trump hails economy | Tells workers to 'start looking' if they want a better job | Internal poll shows tax law backfiring on GOP 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 MooreSexual assault is not a game — stop using women to score political points GAO investigating after employee featured in Project Veritas video Roy Moore dismisses Kavanaugh accusation: 'So obvious' when claims come 'just days before a very important event' 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 Ann WarrenDemocrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her More Massachusetts Voters Prefer Deval Patrick for President than Elizabeth Warren Trump's trade war — firing all cannons or closing the portholes? MORE (D-Mass.) has called him a “racist bully.” Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Ben & Jerry’s co-founders announce effort to help 7 Dem House challengers Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states MORE (I-Vt.) has labeled him a “pathological liar.”  Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandTeen girls pen open letter supporting Kavanaugh accuser: We imagine you at that party and 'see ourselves' Poll: Most Massachusetts voters don't think Warren should run for president in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — GOP again has momentum on Kavanaugh rollercoaster 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 ComeyDershowitz: Trump's lawyers could force Rosenstein to recuse himself from Mueller probe New York Times defends bombshell Rosenstein report Donald Trump’s Rosenstein dilemma MORE in May 2017 — is explosive. Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe 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 FlakeGrassley panel scraps Kavanaugh hearing, warns committee will vote without deal Coulter mocks Kavanaugh accuser: She'll only testify 'from a ski lift' Poll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it 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