Whether you are a fan or a critic, President Trump has likely occupied some part of your consciousness every day for the past year. Each day offers new drama, a fresh wave of statements and counterstatements, and presidential tweets delivered in the early morning hours. As esteemed political writer Peggy Noonan put it on the same day Congress voted to end a three-day government shutdown, triggered by an impasse over the federal budget: “However you feel about him, you have to say, ‘Whoa, this has been an interesting year.’”
Noonan shared her take on Trump’s first year in office during a speech to the ULI global governing trustees, who were in Washington, D.C., for the Midwinter Trustees Meeting at the Institute’s global headquarters. The trustees met at the Anderson House, a historic mansion on Embassy Row, for a reception and dinner. Noonan, a celebrated Wall Street Journal columnist who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2017, was the honored guest.
“Trump has been relentlessly at the center of it all,” she said. “Donald Trump has relentlessly been subject number one, and it has become somewhat exhausting.”
Those who work for Trump, those who work against Trump, those who cover Trump—they are all exhausted. The Washington press corps, cable news pundits, and all other members of the political class normally hit a more relaxed stride one year into a new president’s term, settling into a predictable rhythm of intense activity and quiet periods. Not so with Trump, whose desire to be the center of attention reminds Noonan of President Teddy Roosevelt, who felt compelled to be “the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral.”
“There has been no relaxation, and nobody sees any relaxation coming. [Trump] is at the center of all stories, and there is never not a story,” she said.
In Noonan’s view, Trump’s supporters have some bragging rights. The stock market is up, unemployment is low, and the economy is showing a new dynamism unleashed by the rollback of what she calls “excessive” federal regulations on business. “That kind of thing will set a mood, it will establish a sense of, ‘Oh, we can breathe and move around now.’ When your attitude is, ‘If it moves, regulate it,’ then you’re putting a wet blanket on business and its animal spirits, which business needs.”
Trump’s tax reform bill also is something his supporters can cheer on as it seems to be having a stimulating effect on growth and is expected to benefit the average person’s pocketbook, according to Noonan. She also pointed to Trump’s swift appointment of a raft of qualified, yet conservative judges to the federal judiciary to balance out the many of the liberal-leaning jurists appointed by President Obama.
Yet for all of Trump’s wins during his inaugural year, his temperament and leadership style continue to hamper his ability to get things done, Noonan noted. “He has reflected a certain immaturity, vulgarity, a shocking-ness, a daily shocking-ness,” she said. “He likes chaos too much. He works poorly with Congress. None of that is good. None of that works for him.”
More significantly, Trump has failed to do what his predecessors have consistently done in the aftermath of an election: use the powers of the presidency to reach beyond their political base in a spirit of bipartisanship, boosting their own approval ratings in the process and attempting to unify the country.
“They speak to their core, and from there they radiate out, speaking, persuading,” she said. “They show a largeness of spirit that relies on the natural good will of the American people in wanting to be supportive of their new president. Donald Trump has not done this, and shows no interest in doing this. . . . He has relished too much the role of divider.”
And for a real estate executive who has flaunted his deal-making powers, Trump has demonstrated a limited ability to strike deals with Congress, “who always feels he’s going to pull out the rug from under them,” Noonan said. Case in point: the government shutdown, caused by Trump doubling back on commitments he had made to Democrats regarding a deal on immigration that accounted for both the Dreamers—children brought to the United States illegally who are protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—and enhanced border security. Democratic leaders felt “jerked around” by Trump, and were rightfully angry, Noonan observed.
Part of the problem is that Trump “doesn’t bother to have command of the details [and] in government, in legislation, the devil is in the details.” While Washington is hardly a town that runs on trust, government cannot run without a certain degree of confidence. “Your intentions have to be clear, and to some extent, your word has to be trusted.”
Earlier in her remarks, Noonan referred to Ronald Reagan, one of the most popular presidents in modern American history and for whom Noonan served as a speechwriter and special assistant. Noonan called Reagan “the last gentleman of American politics,” a person “of great personal dignity and warmth.” He spoke softly and never yelled—qualities that feel quaint in an era of daily acrimony, insults, and the airing of personal grievances on social media.
Love him or hate him, though, Trump is a historic figure, Noonan said as she concluded her remarks. There is no going back to the way things were before—when politics was polite and predictable. When Trump barreled into the White House one year ago, “he blew the door frames off the entrance of the presidency,” she said.
Archana Pyati is senior manager, member engagement, at ULI.