Crowns All Around: The Transitional Presidents Who Failed To Unite America | Opinion

"I saw the crown of France laying on the ground, so I picked it up with my sword," Napoleon Bonaparte famously said about his rise to power. France was in the midst of chaos, civil unrest, economic depression and a brutal revolution. The people desired order and a restoration of France to its former greatness. While 2021 America is not in the same place as 1798 France, crowns can be seen all over the ground waiting for someone to pick them up.

Supporters of both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden hoped they would be transitional presidents able to reform the way Washington, D.C. works. Trump famously promised to "drain the swamp," while Biden said he could restore decency to one of the country's least trusted institutions—the federal government. But as we've seen with Biden's first few weeks in office and Trump's first and quite possibly only term as president, those commitments seem to live and die on the campaign trail.

For Trump, outsourcing most of his domestic agenda to the Republican Congress was possibly his biggest mistake. He spent whatever political capital he had on a failed Obamacare repeal, a deeply unpopular tax cut and a First Step Act jailbreak opposed by large swaths of his base. Yes, Trump supporters can point to some wins: renegotiating NAFTA, crafting "safe country" agreements with several Latin American nations, such as the "Remain in Mexico" plan, and altering our binational relationship with China.

Still, for each victory Trump had against "the swamp" and establishment politicians, there were two instances where he caved to their interests. Incapable of staffing an administration full of outsiders or unconventional thinkers aligned with the worldview he campaigned on, Trump relied too heavily on his family, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the Republican National Committee. Instead of campaigning and endorsing candidates who shared his "MAGA" worldview, he more often than not supported incumbents or establishment candidates who ran on boomer-esque hot takes like "stopping socialism."

Now, over four years after Trump won his election, the GOP has doubled down anew on outmoded talking points like deficit reduction and tax cuts. As an institution, the GOP is as incapable now as it was in 2016 of tackling the 21st-century issues that actually drove Republican voters to Trump's campaign message.

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It might seem obvious, given how weak-kneed Republicans are on so many issues, that the Biden administration would force the GOP's hand by taking on popular stances that most Americans agree on. Yet, despite Biden's vows to govern in a bipartisan fashion, bring Americans closer together and heal our nation's divisions, he has proven to be as much of a creature of Washington as any other politician.

In his first two weeks in office, Biden demurred on his promise to deliver Americans $2,000 stimulus checks, destroyed thousands of jobs by ending production on the Keystone XL Pipeline, halted Trump's widely praised opioid treatment plan, froze the implementation of the Trump plan to cut insulin prices and gutted immigration enforcement measures that had proven effective at stopping waves of frivolous asylum claimants inundating the southern border. The lattermost point is especially shocking: As recently as August 2020, polls found that most Americans wanted to suspend nearly all immigration amid the pandemic, including asylum seekers and temporary guest workers. Biden's immigration actions are sure to create another debilitating border crisis, just as our nation finally gets a hold on COVID-19.

For both Biden and Trump, the inability to rein in their administrations from pursuing partisan goals over the will of a majority of Americans is the recipe that has allowed for much of the chaos now afflicting our political system and the rise of a more extreme politics. Overall, we've had "change elections" in seven of the last eight elections—no recipe for stability.

Political crowns lay all over the floor in the U.S., waiting for someone to pick them up. Americans want constructive solutions on health care and education costs, a simmering of now-heightened racial anxiety, improved border enforcement, a winding down of America's foreign interventions and for leaders to work toward a more effective yet equitable economy. Napoleon only needed to use a sword, but American presidents may need a lot more than that to defy the entrenched interests and ideologies that have moved swiftly from administration to administration.

Ryan Girdusky is the author of They're Not Listening: How the Elites Created the Nationalist Populist Revolution.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.