The Entertainment Presidency

Trump hasn’t accomplished much in policy terms in his first 100 days. But he’s had a huge impact on politics and culture.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The conventional wisdom is that Donald Trump didn’t get much done in his first 100 days in office. His signature campaign promises—the Muslim travel ban, the border wall—are no closer to fruition than they were when he took office. He has not figured out a way to work with Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare. Despite an appearance of perpetual activity—a flurry of executive orders, leaks to the media about the inner workings of the West Wing—and a real win in nominating and confirming new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, this White House hasn’t made much of an impact policy-wise.

All of this adds up to an impression akin to the sound of a balloon deflating. “I've got an entirely conventional view of this: He's done basically nothing,” said one Washington conservative who speaks to Trump.

But there are ways in which the presidency matters that have little to do with policy or legislation. Where Trump has unquestionably had an impact, both as a candidate and now as president, is in the shifting of culture and the breaking of political norms. Trump changed the rules of how people can run for office; his ability to steamroll his way through gaffes and scandals, disregard for the infrastructure and leadership of his party, and lack of any experience in government didn’t prevent him from winning the presidency. His victory has thrown decades of political conventional wisdom out the window.

Trump never “pivoted,” as candidates are supposed to do when they win their party’s nomination and begin campaigning in the general election. And he has continued to not pivot as president, even despite pundits breathlessly observing him “becoming president” on the night of his first speech to a joint session of Congress. Despite the presence of moderating influences in the White House who have, sometimes successfully, pulled him away from the nationalist impulses that drove his candidacy, Trump hasn’t changed--and there’s no evidence he ever will. He is one of the least conventional candidates to ever win the office.

Trump has had a profound effect on an American political culture already heavily weighted toward entertainment. The battles in the White House play out on cable news, the palace intrigue akin to a season of The Real World. Who will win this round — Steve Bannon or Jared Kushner? Gary Cohn or Peter Navarro? Trump himself views the world through the prism of media coverage, is obsessed with cable news, and acts accordingly. It’s the entertainment presidency. And despite the stasis on policy—the U.S. is still in the North American Free Trade Agreement, and serious tax reform looks unlikely this year—Trump’s unconventional approach has changed the debate surrounding these issues in ways that could eventually have real impact. It’s Trump who has made renegotiating or terminating NAFTA into a live issue, and who has expanded the range of tax proposals being seriously debated.

Those two issues offer a glimpse into how much Trump has changed the presidency, even as he struggles to change policy. He came close last week to signing an executive order that would withdraw the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he has repeatedly promised to renegotiate if not terminate—only to back down after speaking to the leaders of Canada and Mexico.

On tax reform, his team rushed out a one-page plan last week that was roundly mocked in Washington as half-baked; a source close to the White House said that Sean Hannity and most of the presidential staff had encouraged the president to focus first on health care, saving taxes for after Obamacare had been repealed. (Hannity declined to comment.) Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had said previously that tax reform probably couldn’t get done this year.

But after an op-ed by Larry Kudlow, Stephen Moore, Steve Forbes and Art Laffer in The New York Times last week urging tax reform forward, the plan went ahead.

Kudlow said he had been at the White House on Tuesday and Wednesday and he and the others have “made their views known.”

“We were down there yesterday, we were in the West Wing,” he said on Thursday. It was a dramatic example of how Trump’s willingness to operate outside the usual policy process, and to accept advice from informal advisors, has reshaped the way debates are unfolding.

Whether Trump’s challenges to convention permanently change Washington’s culture, though, or become a cautionary tale for future politicians, may largely be less determined by his success in reshaping debates than by his ability to deliver substantive results. “If you are viewed as successful, yeah, you may have altered the presidency,” said Tim Naftali, a clinical associate professor of history and public service at New York University. “But if you’re viewed as a failure, no.”

“The long-term effects of his allergy to existing norms will depend on how well he does as president,” Naftali said.

And, at the moment, views of Trump are starkly polarized. His approval ratings are historically low for a president at this point in his tenure. A Gallup poll this week put Trump’s approval at 43 percent.

But Trump has never much cared about pleasing everyone. This weekend, he ditched the White House Correspondents Dinner to hold a campaign rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He thrives off the adulation of his core supporters, and he still has it, despite not delivering on some of the signature promises that drew them to him.

“Trump never suffers politically if he tries and fails,” said the longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone. “He only suffers politically if he stops trying. His voters don’t blame Trump because the travel ban has been knocked down by two federal judges exceeding their authority.”

And on a range of other equally contentious issues, he’s still trying. “There’s a lot of speculation about what he might do on taxes and I’m glad he put this out,” Kudlow said of the tax plan. “He’s writing his own page, not letting others write the page.”