If the early controversies of the Reagan administration are any indication — the contretemps over whether the Agriculture Department should count ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches and whether Interior Secretary James Watt’s view that Americans should “occupy the land until Jesus returns” was national policy — the current furors swirling around the Trump administration are mere distractions.
It will not matter a decade from now whether Education Secretary Betsy DeVos believes pupils need guns to protect them from grizzly bears at school or whether Donald J. Trump believes his 304 electoral-vote majority is bigger than Barack Obama’s 365 in 2008. Far more important issues are at stake, vital questions of national philosophy and governance that will shape the profile of the nation for the remainder of the first quarter of the 21st century, perhaps beyond.
Here are some of them:
• Are domestic politics and issues affecting the economy and lifestyle the principal focus of the United States — or does the country have a role, and a stake, in world affairs?
The United States has answered that question in different ways at different times in its history. For most of its early years, when the country’s name took a plural verb (“the United States are…”) the focus was inward; the country was still a work in progress — economically, culturally — and had a fast-changing national identity. Later, with the issues of slavery and secession settled, the country took a singular verb (“the United States is…”) and, with the advent of a quixotic foreign policy under Woodrow Wilson, the country began to look outward.
There were, to be sure, diversions. The nation sought “normalcy” under Warren G. Harding following World War I and again after Vietnam, and strains of isolation thus returned to American politics. But generally the nation, a superpower first preoccupied with containing communism and then with imposing order on a disorderly world, has looked outward, often but not always in an idealistic and selfless way.
Now Mr. Trump speaks of “America First,” an unfortunate phrase given its provenance in the effort to keep the nation out of World War II, and his Inaugural Address made his vision clear: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America.” There arguably were times in the past three-quarters of a century when American presidents did not put America first — even the early days of the Vietnam War may qualify in this category, along with the Suez Crisis and countless examples of humanitarian intervention. Is that era over?
In an important essay in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Bard College scholar Walter Russell Mead examines the populist-nationalist presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) and in this context argues, “For Jacksonians — who formed the core of Trump’s passionately supportive base — the United States is not a political entity created and defined by a set of intellectual propositions rooted in the Enlightenment and oriented toward the fulfillment of a universal mission. Rather, it is the nation-state of the American people, and its chief business lies at home.”
• What is the place of the American elite and of the conventions of American domestic and foreign policy?
On the surface, Mr. Trump, with his Ivy League degree and his real estate and casino fortune, is a classic member of the American elite; he’s not Andrew Jackson, fatherless at birth with his chances seemingly determined by a six-month apprenticeship to a saddle-maker. But everything from Mr. Trump’s manner to his manners, his speaking style to his style of dress, is at odds with the American elite.
That is the least of it. In selecting his issues and his advisers, Mr. Trump rejects the established order and embraces the new and insurrectionist. His dismissal of former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, first for his credibility as a presidential candidate and then as a potential secretary of state, was not an impulse but a statement.
American politics has its established order and its establishment figures — the men to see, in one locution, or the wise men, in another. None of these are in the presidential inner circle, as they were in the Reagan years, when the outsider president chose two Princeton graduates, James A. Baker III (a veteran of George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon campaigns, undersecretary of commerce for President Gerald R. Ford and chief of Mr. Ford’s 1976 campaign) and George P. Shultz (a former labor secretary and treasury secretary in the Nixon era), as top aides.
• What value does the Trump team place on continuity?
Great powers, from the Holy Roman Empire to the British Empire and, in more recent times, the United States, place great value on stability and its handmaiden, continuity. The last outsider Republican president, Mr. Reagan, made great efforts to blend into the parade of presidents by paying fealty to the established buoys of American policy. Bill Clinton, who ran as an outsider, was a devout student of presidential precedent and a careful cultivator of traditional American customs and alliances.
This is not Mr. Trump’s style, nor his inclination.
Every president since Harry Truman has regarded NATO as the foundation stone of U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Trump has questioned its value. Every president since Franklin Roosevelt sought, and prized, fast-track approval for trade deals, first for tariffs, then for broader trade deals that most presidents have wanted as part of their White House legacies. Mr. Trump opposes these sorts of pacts.
At the center of Mr. Trump’s skepticism of continuity is his conviction that prior policies were the province, and the product, of a cabal of elitists who saw their own interests as congruent with the national interest.
Traces of this argument can be found in the Trump Inaugural. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” he said. “Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. … The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs.”
The answer to these questions, not the events of the day, will determine the lasting significance of the Trump era — four or eight years that have the potential for being not the conservative era that its liberal critics fear but something far more disruptive: a radical departure in American history, welcomed by some, reviled by others.