The turning point of US political history - opinion

The White House became the center of abusive rhetoric, unfounded allegations, in which the truth played a secondary role and unscientific arguments became the norm

U.S. President Donald Trump works in the Presidential Suite while receiving treatment after testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S. October 3, 2020 (photo credit: JOYCE N. BOGHOSIA/THE WHITE HOUSE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump works in the Presidential Suite while receiving treatment after testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S. October 3, 2020
(photo credit: JOYCE N. BOGHOSIA/THE WHITE HOUSE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
July 19, 2016, was a turning point in US political history. On that day, Donald Trump was formally nominated by the delegates of the 2016 Republican National Convention.
A turning point in history denotes a dividing line between the events that preceded it and the subsequent events that would come in its wake. A turning point is akin to a historical Janus, having two faces, one facing backward and the other facing forward. It is the launching pad to a historical process. A turning point is the event that could explain a chain of events in the future. It is not merely an immediate cause, but a long-lasting one.
A turning point may be seen as such with the benefit of hindsight, observing the wider historical landscape, assessing the historical process that followed in the wake of the event concerned.
US political culture would undergo a profound change on July 19, 2016. What had transpired during the primaries of the Republican Party had seemed to be an exception. The confirmation of Trump as the official presidential candidate put a seal of approval to it. The exception became the norm.
A hitherto unknown political rhetoric of personal abuse and disdain for traditional decorum became a regular feature of Trump’s campaign. Such a mode of conduct would have been inconceivable in the Republican Party before. Rather than face widespread repudiation, it propelled Trump to victory. The forecast that beyond the Republican Party, the national electorate at large would reject him, as it would have in the past, turned out to be wrong.
The expectation that the trappings of the presidency and the responsibility entailed in it would transform Trump from an exceptionally abusive candidate to a more restrained president turned out to be groundless.
For the first time in living memory, the White House became the center of abusive rhetoric, unfounded allegations, in which the truth played a secondary role and unscientific arguments became the norm.
There was no shame in either word or action. In this context it ought to be stressed that the comparisons drawn with the late president Richard Nixon were clearly incorrect. Apart from the obvious intellectual differences, Nixon’s abusive rhetoric and questionable actions took place behind the scenes. Trump, both as a candidate and as a president, did so in the glare of public view.
The well-established, traditional framework within which political rivalries occurred and ideological debates took place was torn into pieces by Trump. The rules of the game defining the political contest were violated as if there were no tomorrow. This is the core of the cleavage for which Trump is responsible in the history of US political culture: Every political candidate, no matter which party he or she belonged to, spoke and acted as if there were a day after. Expected consequences were taken into account; not so for Trump.
To be sure, politicians may say unexpected things just for the sake of effect, beyond the intrinsic message entailed. Trump has transformed that exceptional rhetorical device into a norm.
The Republican Party has been transformed by Trump. The change is not merely ideological. It is more profound than that. A politician with Trump’s characteristics would not have survived as a national figure within the Republican Party before.
He managed not only to survive, but to define the collective mode of conduct of the Republican Party. Apart from a few exceptions, Republican politicians either came out openly in Trump’s defense or maintained a conspicuous silence in the face of his unprecedented behavior.
Trump managed to limit criticism within his party to a bare minimum, not only by imposing his authority, but also, and perhaps more importantly, by projecting his influence with the rank-and-file members of the Republican Party. Republicans knew that their chances of being elected or reelected might be adversely effected if they were perceived to be critical of Trump.
This is a further, more profound change brought about by Trump: The Republican Party has gradually been transformed from a popular, Center-Right national political party, guided by a combination of moderate libertarianism and social conservatism into a populist, protectionist party, guided by an opaque ideological agenda and rhetorical demagoguery.
Donald Trump may leave the White House on January 20, 2021, but the turning point of July 19, 2016, may outlast his presidency as long as he is still politically active and he enjoys widespread support.

The writer is a lecturer at the School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University.