Although the American people voted not to give Donald Trump a second term, history will regard him as a consequential president—if not always for the reasons he intended.
Working with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he reoriented the federal judiciary, appointing three carefully vetted conservatives to the Supreme Court and 53 appellate-court judges, two shy of Barack Obama’s count during two terms. By making aggressive use of executive authority, Mr. Trump demonstrated that many limitations on presidential power are customary norms rather than legal restraints. Future presidents and Congresses will have to decide whether to ratify Mr. Trump’s expansive conception of his office or enact new limits.
On the domestic front, Mr. Trump’s most enduring legacy may be on the Republican Party. When he announced his candidacy in June 2015, the GOP was a coalition of social conservatives, national defense types and free-marketeers. Mr. Trump made his peace with social conservativism and supply-side economics—tax cuts and deregulation—while altering his party’s stance on foreign, trade and fiscal policy.
Mr. Trump endorsed robust military budgets while challenging party orthodoxy on alliances and the use of American power. “America first” represented a shift away from internationalism toward self-interest understood mainly in economic terms. He repudiated what he called “endless wars,” especially those initiated by George W. Bush, and turned away from democracy promotion, which Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush emphasized.
Mr. Trump’s revisions to party orthodoxy in economic policy were equally far-reaching. From President Eisenhower to Speaker Paul Ryan, Republicans favored balancing the budget, even if some were more talk than action. Mr. Trump barely paid it lip service. In his announcement speech, he promised to “save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts,” adding for emphasis: “Have to do it.” During his first campaign, he proudly called himself the “king of debt”; later he presided over a trillion-dollar annual deficit even before the Covid-19 pandemic.