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What Kind of President will Trump Become?, Part II-- Donald Trump and the Politics of Disjunction
In my last post, I considered the possibility that Donald Trump's presidency might be reconstructive and repudiationist. He might be attempting to construct a new political regime that simultaneously takes over the Republican Party and repudiates Reaganism. Although we can't discount this possibility, I also argued that it doesn't seem to explain the facts. It doesn't explain Trump's embrace of many aspects of the Reaganite Republican agenda (pro-life, low taxes, pro-business, anti-environmental, anti-regulation, opposed to "political correctness") that are stapled onto unorthodox positions on trade and immigration. Trump doesn't seem to be repudiating Reaganism so much as trying to fix it and push it in a more populist direction.
If I'm right about this, then Trump is not a reconstructive president at all. He doesn't represent the beginning of a new political and constitutional regime. He's not repudiating the Reagan regime--at most he is repudiating liberal Democrats like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton who were in opposition to the regime. Rather, the best way of describing his presidency is what Stephen Skowronek calls the politics of disjunction. If Trump is a disjunctive president, he is the last Reaganite, not the first Trumpist.
What do we mean by a politics of disjunction? And what does it have to do with where we find ourselves today?
Recall the basic idea: Presidents opportunities for political action are shaped by what previous presidents have done. They operate in "political time." At the beginning of each cycle, a new regime organized around a dominant political party replaces an older exhausted regime, and a new political coalition emerges, led by the dominant party and its presidents. (As examples, think of the elections of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1932, and 1980). The new coalition claims that it has decisively rejected the perceived failures and outmoded values of the past regime, and it dedicates itself to a new ideology, to a new set of political values, and a new set of political interests.
Each successive president in the dominant party tries to keep faith with the regime and its commitments of interest and ideology in the face of ever-changing circumstances and new challenges. Over time, this task becomes increasingly difficult. The coalition fragments. People within the coalition emphasize different issues (e.g., pro-life versus lower taxes versus national security), and new fights break out within the party about issues that weren't particularly central to the regime's commitments at the outset (e.g., immigration). Factions form, and the dominant party's ideological commitments seem increasingly irrelevant to solving today's problems. Demographic changes make the party less attractive to new voters. The party is hobbled by policy failures, scandals, and infighting. It gradually loses legitimacy in the eyes of the public. As Julia Azari puts it, "The different factions in the party can no longer be reconciled [with each other], and the priorities of powerful voices within the party can no longer be reconciled with the national mood and its policy imperatives."
Late in the life cycle of an old regime, political leaders emerge who seek to reinvigorate a regime that is nearing collapse; they try to give it a new shot of legitimacy. These leaders operate in what Skowronek calls a politics of "disjunction." (The word "disjunction" means that things lack connection to each other.)
Why disjunction? Well, as time goes on, there's a sort of "regime drift"-- leaders take a variety of new positions that weren't in the original package. Skowronek explains that "one of the great ironies of the politics of disjunction is that the presidents who come to office in these sorts of situations tend to have only the most tenuous relationship to the establishments they represent. Long-festering problems within the regime tend to throw up leaders only nominally affiliated with it, and in their efforts to address the issues of the day, these affiliates often press major departures of their own from the standard formulas and priorities set in the old agenda. The political effect of these departures is disjunctive: they sever the political moorings of the old regime and cast it adrift without anchor or orientation." (The Politics that Presidents Make, p. 40.)
How does a disjunctive president try to invigorate an old regime? These leaders take unorthodox positions designed to repair increasingly serious breaches within the party. Suppose, for example, that the Republican party includes a coalition of wealthy individuals and businesses on the one hand; and working class whites on the other. These two parts of the coalition find their interests increasingly at odds in an era of globalization. The wealthy have profited handsomely, while the white working class feel left out and increasingly screwed over.
To paper over the differences, a presidential candidate like Trump might craft a shrewd mixture of orthodox and unorthodox positions. For example, he might break with the party on trade and immigration while doubling down on white identity politics and objections to political correctness-- a move which, incidentally, meshes pretty well with a stance opposed to immigration and in favor of getting tough with terrorists. This selective embrace of unorthodox positions gives a candidate like Trump the space to continue to support the interests of wealthy supporters on other issues like lowering taxes and opposing business regulations. He offers something to different parts of a coalition that find themselves increasingly at odds with each other. (In like fashion, Jimmy Carter presented himself in the 1970s as an outsider who could bridge the increasing gulf between different parts of the New Deal coalition. He was a moderately conservative pro-life Southerner who was also a racial liberal.)
This strategy of making significant (but selective) breaks with party orthodoxy might be difficult for many establishment Republican politicians to manage. However, because Trump portrayed himself as an outsider (and someone who had only recently become a member of the party), it was easier for him to get away with it. In fact, although his primary opponents repeatedly complained that Trump wasn't really a Republican at all, it has been enormously to Trump's advantage that he is largely unaffiliated with the Republican establishment. It gave him credibility with white working class voters and allowed him simultaneously to run against the Republican establishment in certain respects (immigration, trade) while embracing its ideology and interests in other respects (taxes, regulation, judicial appointments).
A second feature of disjunctive politics also applies to Trump. As differences within the coalition become increasingly obvious and difficult to manage, disjunctive candidates argue that they are able to fix things because they have special technical abilities. For example, they might portray themselves as extremely skilled politicians (John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan), outstanding technocrats and problem solvers (Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter); or, as in Trump's case, outstanding deal makers. They explain to the public that what is important is not ideological purity but the ability to get things done.
In like fashion, Trump has used his image as a successful businessman who is good at making deals to assuage different parts of the Republican coalition. As Skowronek puts it, in the last days of a regime, mastery of technique-- in this case deal making and business acumen-- "is a hallmark of the politics of disjunction." (TPTPM, p. 40). Focusing on technique allows the new president to remain ambiguous about what he or she stands for. This allows each side of the coalition to believe that it will get what it wants from the new presidency.
Unfortunately, the politics of disjunction presents an gauntlet that is close to impossible to traverse successfully. Disjunctive presidents are caught between the demands of increasingly antagonistic factions, whom they cannot all please simultaneously. Technique is not enough to keep the coalition together or maintain its legitimacy. Being a great deal maker, for example, is not enough if people don't like the deals, or if they come to believe that you have sold them out.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence we have that Trump is facing a politics of disjunction is that the Republican Party was already in the midst of a civil war when he emerged on the scene. The fight between Tea Party and establishment Republicans eventually led to a debt ceiling crisis, a government shutdown, the defeat of the House Majority Leader and the resignation of the Speaker of the House. Trump's entry into Republican politics didn't seem to resolve that conflict; rather, it simply added a new group of combatants to the mix. The Republican Party's civil war seems to have mutated, not ended, as a result of his candidacy.
If Trump turns out to be a disjunctive president, he is probably not going to be the next Mussolini. Rather, he will turn out to be an unsuccessful president, like Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter. He will prove ineffectual despite the fact that, as in Carter's and Hoover's case, he entered the presidency with his party controlling both houses of Congress. One of the remarkable (and often forgotten) features of Carter's presidency, for example, is that post-Watergate, the Democrats seemed to hold all the cards politically. Yet within four years, everything fell apart for them, and they began their long period in the wilderness. Hoover also entered the White House in a period of one-party rule (indeed, the Republicans had controlled all branches of government from 1921 to 1930). But Hoover had the misfortune to serve as President during the beginning of the Great Depression.
If Trump turns out to be a disjunctive president, we should not expect that he will last more than one term in office. He may face serious internal challenges within his own party. Elements of his party may even try to impeach him and replace him with his vice-president, Mike Pence, who is a more traditional Reagan conservative. Trump may face a challenger inside his own party when he seeks reelection; or, for reasons of unpopularity, or poor health (he is 70 years old) he may not even run for a second term.
Moreover, if Trump is a disjunctive president, his party will probably lose to the opposition party (most likely the Democrats) in the 2020 presidential election. This will clear the path for a new political regime in which the opposition constitutes the new dominant party. Barack Obama will have taken the Democrats to the mountain, but it will be the next Democratic president who will lead them to the political Promised Land.
All this sounds great if you're a liberal Democrat. But don't get your hopes up too fast. Consider these four caveats:
(1) Skowronek's model of presidential leadership may simply not apply to the present situation because Trump is such a different candidate than any we have seen before. If Trump becomes a dictator, you can throw away the whole analysis; all bets are off.
(2) There is a big difference between Trump and other disjunctive presidents like Hoover and Carter. Each of them ran as a technocrat and pragmatic problem solver. Trump ran as a demagogue. We have no previous examples of out-and-out demagogues gaining the White House in American history. Therefore we can't be certain of their fate. On the one hand, winning as a demagogue may make things worse for Trump once he tries to actually govern-- it may exacerbate his problems with his fellow Republicans. On the other hand, it make things better for him, for example, if he is able to establish a cult of personality and unify the warring factions of his party.
(3) As I noted earlier, Trump may actually be a reconstructive president, not a disjunctive president. He may turn out to be a particularly successful demagogue. In that case, we are in for a much lengthier--and scarier--period of Trumpian rule.
(4) Even if Trump is a disjunctive president, disjunctive presidencies are not happy times for the country. Lots of people suffer; indeed, the entire country suffers. Even if things eventually get better, the damage is done. The examples of John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter involve relatively peaceful (if unpleasant) transitions from the old regime to the new regime. The examples of Herbert Hoover (The Great Depression) and James Buchanan (The Civil War) are cautionary tales about how badly disjunctive presidents can screw things up in four year's time. When the country is so seriously polarized, and trust in government and elite institutions is so low, there is always the danger that political disagreements may turn violent. Or the country may face a constitutional crisis. Or both.
How will we know whether Trump is a disjunctive president or is a reconstructive president who is about to establish a new Trumpian regime? We really won't know for some time. But the central difference is that in reconstructive presidencies, the new leader unites an energized party around a common set of values, interests, and agendas that overwhelms the political opposition. In a disjunctive presidency, the new leader can't keep his party's coalition together and so it is every person for him or herself. This lack of unity allows the opposition party to grow stronger and enables the opposition to seize the political agenda in the next election. (Again, think of the period between 1976 and 1980, or between 1824 and 1828).
You may be wondering how much protests from the opposition matter to this story. Surely they do, but reconstructive presidents are also bitterly opposed by the party in opposition. (One might recall how Democrats felt about Reagan during his time in office.) So the strength of opposition doesn't by itself tell us whether we have a disjunctive or reconstructive presidency. Perhaps more important is that the disjunctive leader is often threatened by challengers within his own party who try to undermine him and stab him in the back. To be sure, presidents always face challenges within their own party for leadership--but reconstructive presidents are able to beat back these challenges rather easily, while disjunctive leaders are not.
Therefore, if we want to understand the likely future of the Trump presidency, we might look for signs that tell us whether the Republican coalition is holding together--and even getting a fresh burst of political energy--or is splitting apart. That is, the central question to consider in the next few years is whether Trump peacefully ends the Republican civil war or ends up becoming a casualty of it.
First, we might look for evidence of whether the Republican coalition is able to unite around Trump or continues to be riven by faction.
Second, we might look for evidence of whether Trump is able to work effectively with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, or whether, as in Carter's presidency, factionalism interferes with legislative progress despite one-party rule.
Third, we might look for evidence that serious challengers to Trump have arisen within his own party and are trying to neutralize him, replace him, or otherwise take him down. The most recent example of this phenomenon was Teddy Kennedy's attempt to displace Jimmy Carter as the leader of the Democratic Party.
Finally, we should consider how well Trump responds to serious crises that inevitably occur in a president's four-year term. An energetic and successful response to crisis tends to encourage intra-party unity, thus causing internal competitors to hold back. (For example, George W. Bush's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks undermined any potential challenges to his authority within his own party.) Energetic and successful response to crisis also tends to dampen the effectiveness of opposition from the other party. (Again, the Democrats' weak response to Bush in the 2002 elections is an example.) If Trump weathers the challenges of his office successfully, he may well win a second term. If not, well, we can't really say we weren't warned.