Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Trump as a Different Type of Failure

Guest Blogger

Calvin TerBeek

After the shock of President Trump’s election, some political scientists and legal scholars turned to Stephen Skowronek’s theory of political time to understand Trump’s place in presidential history. Political scientist Julia Azari, arguing that Trump might best be understood as a “disjunctive,” or failed, president, detailed how to think about Trump as the last gasps of the Regan Revolution and movement conservatism. Corey Robin, a political theorist who has written a popular (if whiggish) history of conservatism, penned a well-circulated n+1 essay arguing that Trump is most akin to Jimmy Carter in the political time model. That is, Carter is our last disjunctive president; the New Deal Coalition, a political regime ushered in by the “reconstructive” presidency of FDR, finally fell apart under Carter’s watch. (In Skowronek’s political time model, Regan was the last reconstructive president whose victory in 1980 marked the triumph of movement conservatism). And in this venue, a few days after Trump’s electoral college victory Jack Balkin wrote a sophisticated analysis of Trump and the politics of disjunction.

Carter, and before him Herbert Hoover, are salient examples of failed (disjunctive) presidencies. Disjunctive presidents, according to Skowronek, have the poor fortune of coming to power when the warrants for presidential action and authority are at their lowest ebb. These presidents come to be seen “as central parts of the governing problem.” Because they are saddled in this way, disjunctive presidents tend to engage in a managerial dialect—Skowronek thinks it no accident that Hoover and Carter were engineers. Carter told the American public there were “no easy answers” to the problems of the day (e.g., the failure of Keynesianism, stagflation, a globalizing economy), but imagined he could solve the issues with managerial acumen. Indeed, Carter so concerned himself with the minutiae of governance that he issued an edict limiting the number of ceremonial pens used for signing ceremonies. Similarly, Hoover, as Skowronek notes, was concerned with finding “appropriate administrative techniques” to combat the Great Depression. Jimmy Carter, somewhat humorously, was tagged with the sobriquet “Jimmy Hoover” because both were seen as ineffectual engineers not up to the presidential task—not leaders, but mere managers, and poor ones at that.

More than that, and perhaps more than Skowronek realized, disjunctive presidents in many ways prefigure the coming regime. Consider Carter’s fiscal conservatism, support for deregulation, his personal pro-life stance and evangelicalism, desire to reform AFDC (welfare), his southern origins, and his support for reducing the individual income tax during the 1980 campaign. For his part, Hoover prefigured FDR in that he took steps toward government intervention in the market after the Great Depression. In addition, Hoover’s technocratic bent prefigured the consolidation of liberalism, the administrative state, and technocratic expertise that congealed during the New Deal and World War II. In other words, inherent in a disjunctive presidency is being caught betwixt and between the seemingly stale ideational solutions of the failed regime and the political framework that will structure politics in the coming regime.
Turn now to Trump. The similarities between (say) Carter and Trump are largely superficial. In some sense, Trump is movement conservatism’s version of a “managerial” technocrat: the businessman who can solve government’s problems by imbuing it with the private sector’s sensibilities (in fact, it is telling that three of the past four GOP presidential nominees have been (variously successful) businessmen before turning to politics). Like Carter, Trump is a political “outsider,” but rather plainly he did not suffer from the initial lack of name recognition (“Jimmy Who?”) that marked Carter’s national ascent. The inability, thus far, of Republicans to achieve any significant legislative goals despite unified control is perhaps reminiscent of the full employment paper tiger legislation of 1978 (Humphrey-Hawkins) and labor’s stinging defeat that same year despite Democratic control of the House and the Senate.

But these surface analogues aside, Trump’s young presidency seems better understood as the distillation of movement conservatism—the ideology of the Reagan Regime taken to its logical extreme rather than, like Hoover and Carter, prefiguring a putative reconstruction. That is, if Trump is a disjunctive president he is operating in a manner deeply inconsistent with how one would expect. This has important implications for how we understand the American presidency in historical context.

Steve Bannon, the former investment banker turned conservative media proprietor and (now) White House strategist, talks of the “destruction of the administrative state.” Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court (really, Leonard Leo’s), will almost certainly agitate for strengthening judicial review of the administrative state as a way to scale back the constitutionally suspect (to conservative and libertarian eyes) “fourth” branch of government. Justice Alito has already done just that in a remarkable speech at the Claremont Institute (affiliated with the “academic home” of Trumpism). Indeed, Scott Pruitt, the newly appointed head of the EPA has put in place plans for an “EPA Originalism” which would dramatically scale back the agency’s capabilities.

This bent toward anti-expertise and hostility to technocratic and policy know-how, long a central component of movement conservatism—recall the resignation letter of Princeton’s John Diulio, a conservative public policy expert, bemoaning George W. Bush’s White House of “Mayberry Machiavellis,” or Reagan advocating in 1980 for biblical creationism to be taught in public schools—has reached a crescendo under Trump. As political scientist Phillip Rocco recently pointed out, Trump “has gone much further than others in trying to unleash the ‘anti-analytic’ presidency Williams once described. In addition to de-skilling the bureaucracy, Trump has launched an unparalleled attack on the infrastructure of public statistics on which American politics plays out.” And this is to say nothing of “election integrity” commission set up by Trump premised on the non-factual basis that there exists rampant voter fraud at the polls.

Trump has also taken the cultural populism inherent in movement conservatism to new, troubling levels. Along with attacks on federal bureaucrats, hostility toward established media outlets and consumption of conservative media has long been central to the conservative ideological identity. But Trump has created an atmosphere where the media is seen not only as biased, but ipso facto untrustworthy (“Fake News”) and an enemy, it is implied, actively conspiring to remove Trump from office (many times working hand-in-glove with the bureaucrats in the “Deep State”). Similarly, movement conservative suspicion of academia is at least as old as a young William F. Buckley, and recent Pew Research Center polling data shows 58 percent of Republicans now believe “colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year” (though perhaps the bigger story is that as recently as 2015 nearly 40 percent of Republicans already held this view).

Relatedly, despite some Trump campaign rhetoric that sounded economic populist notes, the Trump Era has seen the GOP double down on conservative economic goals. The BCRA only masquerades as health care policy; its policy goals appear to be, first, a tax cut for high-income earners, and for the more ideologically motivated Members, placing an entitlement program (Medicaid) on precarious financial footing. Finally, along with a cabinet culled from the ranks of business in historically disproportionate numbers (surpassing even Reagan), Trump’s tax plan is deeply rooted in Laffer Curve supply-side economics (Trump’s Treasury Secretary averred that “The tax plan will pay for itself with economic growth.”).    

More examples could be mounted (an entire post could be written on the return of “old-fashioned racism”), but the point should be clear: rather than a Hooverian managerial style that fails to satisfy conservatives while striking progressives as weak tea, Trump’s presidency—a failure and perhaps worse thus far—has consisted of movement conservatism’s worst pathologies. If this is disjunctive politics, it is a new breed of such.

What to make of this very different sort of disjunctive politics and its interaction with political time more generally? As I have argued before, Obama is an awkward fit vis-à-vis Skowronek’s model as a preemptive president (in short, preemptive presidents are thought to be forced to work within the dominant regime’s policy and ideological framework (think Nixon and the EPA or Clinton and welfare reform), but Obama’s two major policy achievements, Dodd-Frank and the ACA, were diametrically opposed to the ideological goals of the Reagan Regime. Now we have a distinct type of disjunctive politics propounded by Trump. Something is amiss with political time and perhaps it is time to reevaluate the model’s continued usefuleness. In the least, we should start digging deeper as to why we are seeing mutations in political time’s presidential typologies. Skowronek wondered in the 1993 if political time was “waning,”—now we may have to consider if it has completed that process.

Calvin TerBeek is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago. He can be reached at

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