I suspect that when we look back on the Obama years honestly—not just through the filtered light of the ceremonies as they dedicate his monument on the Mall—we will see that he ushered in a new era in American politics where ideology gave way to identity and tribalism.
And that by marrying the politics of identity to expanded executive authority and hyper-partisanship, he fundamentally changed America’s political compact. Think about the list of Obama’s most important accomplishments: the passage of Obamacare; the Obergefell verdict; mass amnesty; the Iran nuclear deal; the climate change treaty; and now his dictum on firearms. Not one of these programs had a solid majority of public support. And consequently, none of them were accomplished by normal legislative means.
It is difficult to imagine Trumpism arising in the shadow of either Bill Clinton’s administration, or George W. Bush’s—or even Hillary Clinton’s, had she been elected in 2008—because all three of these figures have traditional views on coalition building, legislative authority, and (small-r) republicanism.
Yet perhaps what’s most telling about Donald Trump’s rise is that the reaction of his supporters has not been (so far) to search for a leader who will return the political order to the old equilibrium. Instead, they seem to assume that the post-Obama political world will continue along tribalistic lines. And they want their own strongman.