Lessons From Trump’s First Year

Political experts reveal what they’ve learned about the 45th president—and the country—in the last 12 months.

President Trump pauses during his address to March for Life participants at the Rose Garden on Friday.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Jan. 19, 2018, 12:52 p.m.

After entering the White House as the first president with no electoral or military experience, President Trump’s first year in office has been a time of learning both for the country and for Washington and political veterans. National Journal asked several of them for the most important thing they learned in the last 12 months:

The electorate:

“I conducted almost 50 large focus groups last year in two dozen states, and I was horrified to see firsthand that the divisions of 2016 have become chasms in 2017. And I’m afraid we’re past the point of no return.”—Frank Luntz, Republican pollster and political consultant.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is that the gap between thriving metropolitan areas and the rest of America is deeper and more pervasive than at any other time in my life. The contrast between the diversity, innovation, and optimism of the former and the stagnation, nostalgia, and despair of the latter is stark. Big cities used to be sources of growth for their hinterlands. No longer; their key economic relations are now with other big cities, at home and abroad.”—William Galston, chief domestic policy adviser to President Clinton.

“What I’ve learned applies to both Republicans and Democrats: In this highly polarized, almost tribal environment, party members rally around their leader, as well as his/her policy positions, because ‘our’ leader is so much better than ‘your’ leader.”—Whit Ayres, Republican pollster.

The presidency:

“We have learned that even an ignorant and incompetent president can have a substantial impact on public policy using administrative discretion. We have also learned that the American public recognizes and rejects mendacity and crudeness in its chief executive.”—George Edwards III, Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University and editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly.

“After a year of Trump’s presidency, how worried should we be about the future of the institution? Is there permanent damage? Or will we simply revert to tradition?”—Stephen Hess, veteran of the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses, and author of books on how Washington operates.

Donald Trump:

“The most important thing I’ve learned watching the president is that despite his occupying the Oval Office, he continues to see himself as an outsider. He comments like an outsider, he tweets like an outsider, and he says things that people in the government would never say. He may be working the levers of power behind the scenes to advance a policy or diplomatic objective, but his words and tweets seem to register much louder.”—Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary for President George W. Bush.

“That Trump is neither a political genius nor Teflon-coated. For a variety of reasons, his inexperience and demagoguery paid off in the campaign. But since then, he has paid a huge political price for it. He has been the least popular president in polling history at each stage of his tenure; he’s driven support for the Republican Party to record lows; he’s made Obamacare popular and tax cuts unpopular.”—Mark Mellman, Democratic pollster.

The Republican Party:

“I’ve learned this Republican Party has deserted me. They’ve redefined and self-defined themselves into something I never thought the party would become. They’ve turned into nationalists and isolationists on trade and immigration that have been traditional Republican issues.”—Stuart Spencer, manager of Republican presidential campaigns in 1964, 1976, 1980, and 1984.

Foreign policy:

“I have learned how vulnerable and yet how resilient our key institutions are. Vulnerable, because adversaries and competitors have been able to interfere and frustrate without receiving commensurate penalties. Yet resilient, because despite all of the shocks and setbacks, still no rival has a stronger hand.”—Peter Feaver, former member of the National Security Council in George W. Bush’s White House, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, and one of 50 Republican national security experts who signed a letter in the campaign opposing Trump.

“Donald Trump actually meant what he said on the campaign trail. Many experts in Washington expected, or at least hoped, that he would moderate his views once in the Oval Office. He didn’t. He remained focused on what he considered his electoral mandate—the wall, the ban, pulling back from multilateral trade deals—while keeping faith with the people who elected him. Whether this is the right foreign policy is an entirely separate question.”—P.J. Crowley, veteran of the Clinton National Security Council and the Obama State Department.

The press:

“For all the criticism and skepticism about the press, the mainstream media still gets the content, does the reporting, and sets in motion the debates we have on cable TV, social media, and elsewhere. The free press is still the first and most important of our constitutional rights, and Donald Trump’s war against the media is losing, not winning.”—Mike McCurry, White House press secretary for President Clinton.

California and politics:

“California has become the alternate universe. We are the anti-Trump. We are the ideological flip side of the coin, a very blue state dealing with a very red Republican administration. Look at any decision this administration has made, and California gets it in the gut. … It is flat-out revenge because we are the state that gave Hillary Clinton her popular-vote margin.”—Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Women’s activism:

“The most inspiring thing I have learned is the willingness of women to stand up to the threat Trump poses to our democracy. Whether it is the Women’s March in January, the special elections every month ever since then, the 450-plus women running for Congress, the 33,500-plus women running for office across this country in 2018 … the refusal to back down and insistence that women be heard have been not only inspiring but reinforces what we’ve always known in life: When the going gets tough, women get going.—Mary Anne Marsh, Boston-based Democratic strategist.

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