The Politics Trump Makes

Every President is aligned with or opposed to the regime. Every regime is weak or strong. These two vectors—the political affiliation of the President, the vitality of the regime—shape the politics Presidents make.

Is Trump, like Carter, a disjunctive President?

Photograph via Flickr.

The interregnum between Trump’s election and his inauguration has occasioned a fever dream of authoritarianism—a procession of nightmares from faraway lands and distant times, from Hitler and Mussolini to Putin and Erdogan. But what if Trump’s antecedents are more prosaic, the historical analogies nearer to hand? What if the best clues to the Trump presidency are to be found in that most un-Trump-like of figures: Jimmy Carter?

Journalists and pundits often fixate on a President’s personality and psychology, as if the office were born anew with each election. They ignore the structural factors that shape the Presidency. Yet every President is elected to represent a combination of ideologies, policies, and coalitions. That is the President’s political identity: Lincoln brought to power a Republican Party committed to free labor ideals and the overthrow of the slavocracy; Reagan, a Republican Party committed to aggressive free-market capitalism and the overthrow of the New Deal.

Every President also inherits a political situation in which certain ideologies and interests dominate. That situation, or regime, shapes a President’s exercise of power, forcing some to do less, empowering others to do more. Richard Nixon was not a New Deal Democrat, but he was constrained by the political common sense of his time to govern like one, just as Bill Clinton had to bow to the hegemony of Reaganism. Regimes are deep and intractable structures of interest and belief, setting out the boundaries of action, shaping our sense of the possible, over a period of decades.

Every President is aligned with or opposed to the regime. Every regime is weak or strong. These two vectors—the political affiliation of the President, the vitality of the regime—shape “the politics Presidents make.” That phrase is the title of Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s classic study of the presidency, which, when it appeared in 1993, completely altered how political scientists understand the institution and its possibilities.

In Skowronek’s account, FDR ran against the Republicans’ sclerotic Gilded Age regime. The combination of the President’s opposition and the regime’s weakness enabled FDR to launch a radical transformation of American politics. Presidents like FDR—Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and Reagan—are “reconstructive” leaders. They are revolutionaries and founders, creating the terms and conditions of politics for decades to come.

Lyndon Johnson was elected to deepen and extend a still vital New Deal regime, making his role one of “articulation,” which is also a potent position. (George W. Bush was another articulation President.) Nixon, by contrast, was elected to oppose the New Deal regime, but the regime was not ready for overthrow. This put him in a position of weakness: unable to overthrow the regime, he pushed and prodded where he could (shoring up opposition to desegregation via the Southern Strategy) and placated and pandered when he had to (instituting wage and price controls, creating the EPA). Presidents like Nixon engage in a politics of “preemption.” Andrew Johnson was a preemptive President, as were Clinton and Obama. Preemptive Presidents tend to get impeached.

At the end of each regime—after it has completed its three-quarter orbit of reconstruction, articulation, and preemption—comes the politics of “disjunction.” Jimmy Carter is the most recent case; before him, there was Herbert Hoover and Franklin Pierce. Disjunctive Presidents are affiliated with a tottering regime. They sense its weaknesses, and in a desperate bid to save the regime try to transform its basic premises and commitments. Unlike reconstructive Presidents, these figures are too indebted to the regime to break with it. But the regime is too dissonant and fragmented to offer the resources these Presidents need to transform it. They find themselves in the most perilous position of all—hated by all, loved by none—and their administrations often occasion a new round of reconstruction. John Adams gives way to Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson, Carter to Reagan.

Many fear that Trump will follow the path of FDR and Reagan, combining Republican majorities in the House and Senate with his proven skill at demagoguery to launch a reconstructive presidency. Such a move would shift American politics even further to the right. It’s possible. And worrisome.

Yet when Carter won the presidency in 1976 in the aftermath of Watergate, with congressional majorities far greater than Trump’s, many also believed that he might save his party by renovating it from within. Carter expertly set the scene during the campaign, repeatedly declaring himself an “outsider” who would take on the established interests of not only the GOP but his own party as well. “They want to preserve the status quo,” he said of Democratic leaders. They want “to preserve politics as usual, to maintain at all costs their own entrenched, unresponsive, bankrupt, irresponsible political power.”

This wasn’t just posture; it was also policy. Carter railed against the “horrible, bloated, confused . . . bureaucratic mess” that was the New Deal state, “the layers of administration, the plethora of agencies, the proliferation of paperwork.” With almost Trumpian crudity, he decried the liberal tax system as “a disgrace to the human race” and wrote off Congress as “disgusting.” In a frontal assault on the legacy of FDR and LBJ, he declared welfare a “failure” in “urgent need of a complete overhaul.”

We remember Carter as an extraordinarily hapless President, but for a time he was remarkably effective at scrambling the political map. (Both Tip O’Neill and Robert Byrd marveled at his success.) Delivering on his promise to abandon old ways of doing things, Carter deregulated the banking and transportation industries. He distanced the Democratic Party from its Cold War liberalism by negotiating a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union, recognizing China, and criticizing anticommunist dictatorships. But he also signaled his fidelity to traditional liberal ideals by creating a Department of Education and Department of Energy, pursuing aggressive conservation policies, and pressing for a consumer protection agency, a subtle but supple nod to the consumer republic of the late New Deal.

For all the innovations of his presidency and the considerable power he wielded, Carter found himself undone, not just by the crises with which his name is associated today—oil, inflation, and hostage-taking—but also by the very innovations he pursued and the power he exercised. Standing atop a party increasingly divided over the New Deal—one faction, based in organized labor, demanded the old regime’s extension; another, based in the professional classes and younger voters, thrilled to the new currents of the free market and deregulation—Carter made no one happy. In the fading shadow of the New Deal, his meager liberalism seemed both too much to the right and too little to the left. His reconstructive achievements—particularly toward the end of his Presidency, when he elevated Paul Volcker to the Fed, slashed social spending, and increased the military budget—became the signs of his disjunction. Like Herbert Hoover a half-century before him, he was the last man standing, the poor schmuck who came into office to nudge his party away from its commitment to a weak regime, only to be deserted by his party and tarred by his opponents as that regime’s most orthodox defender.


The differences between Carter and Trump are many and obvious: Carter shyly confessed to having “committed adultery in my heart”; Trump brags about grabbing pussy. Carter was a moralist and a technocrat; Trump, an immoralist and a demagogue. Carter was a state senator and a governor; Trump has no political experience. Carter wouldn’t hurt a fly (or a rabbit). Trump takes pleasure in humiliating others, particularly women and people of color.

The parallels between Carter and Trump are also many, if less obvious. Like Carter, Trump ran hard against his party, decrying its most basic orthodoxies on trade, immigration, and entitlements. Throughout the campaign, Trump proudly and repeatedly declared his refusal to cut Social Security and Medicare. Like no other Republican in modern memory, Trump railed against the plutocratic union of money and state power.

Carter declared, “My positions are not predictable.” Trump, too, has occupied an ambiguous ideological space of ever-changing policies and commitments. And like Carter—who anointed himself the sole vehicle of reform, cultivating, in his words, “the lonely, independent candidate image depending on the voter only”—Trump has declared himself the single, solitary voice of renovation: “I alone can fix it,” as he said at the Republican National Convention.

Since his election, Trump has opened an even wider breach with his party, waging an astonishing war against the nation’s security establishment. After the media reported CIA claims that Trump was elected to office with help from the Russians, and Republican Senate leaders announced their intentions to open hearings on the topic, Trump began tweeting on a semi-regular basis about the CIA’s incompetence and buffoonery. This unprecedented attack by a President-elect on the CIA prompted another first: the Senate Minority Leader musing on national television that an elected President should be careful about what he says, because the CIA has “six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”1

Both Trump and Carter failed to get a majority of the party’s vote during the primary before winning the presidency. Both Trump and Carter, in other words, were nominated to lead parties that tried bitterly to resist their rise. Just as Trump provoked a variety of last-ditch attempts to stop him, so was there an abortive “Anybody But Carter” movement late in the 1976 primaries.

Trump will enter the White House with an even greater liability: the loss of the popular vote. And while Trump’s unfavorable ratings have declined since his election—every President-elect enjoys a honeymoon—they still remain, as of early January, unprecedentedly high. As the authors of a recent Gallup poll put it:

Trump still has time to turn the tide and avoid starting his presidency with the lowest public support in Gallup’s polling history, but that would largely entail gaining the support of independents and, in particular, Democrats—most of whom appear reluctant to back him.

However tempting it may be to ascribe these phenomena to Trump alone, some part of the specter of illegitimacy and disapproval that has enveloped him is due to the increasingly fragile nature of the Republican regime itself. In the same way that Carter was saddled with a debilitated New Deal regime, so has Trump, despite his moves toward heterodoxy throughout the campaign, hitched himself to Reagan’s free-market regime, with its worship of the man of the market and the man of money, and concomitant commitments to tax cuts and deregulation. That regime has been in a slow free-fall for several years.

The declining trajectory of support for Republican Presidents—from Nixon’s 60.7 percent of the vote in 1972 to Reagan’s 58.8 percent in 1984 to Bush’s 50.7 percent in 2004 to Trump’s 46 percent—is one measure. The steady diminution of voters identifying as Republicans—Gallup polls consistently put Republicans behind Democrats and independents—is another. And while Presidents winning without the popular vote was unheard of throughout the 20th century, that has now occurred twice in the 21st, both times with a Republican.

As multiple media outlets have reported over this past year, younger voters consistently voice a preference for socialist or anti-capitalist politics. The breakout support for Bernie Sanders offers an additional measure of dissatisfaction with the reigning neoliberal regime, as do Trump’s erratic jabs at crony capitalism and fitful defenses of Medicare and Social Security. Under George W. Bush, the Republicans were undone by Iraq, Bush’s failed effort to privatize Social Security, and the financial crisis of 2008. Trump—elected with far less support than Bush and without, at least not yet, the ballast of a popular war—is the inheritor of this uneasy, increasingly fractious coalition.


American history has seen six regimes. Some have persisted for decades: Lincoln’s Republican regime lasted from 1860 to 1932 (though scholars still argue over whether the election of 1896 inaugurated a new regime). FDR’s New Deal regime lasted nearly a half-century, from 1932 to 1980. Others, like the Federalist regime of 1789-1800, were short-lived. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican regime lasted from 1800 to 1828; Jackson’s Democratic regime, from 1828 to 1860.

We are now reaching the end of the fourth decade of the Reagan regime. Whether Trump will prove to be a reconstructive, articulating, or disjunctive President—that is, whether we are nearing the end, entering the middle, or about to double down on the Reagan regime—remains to be seen. Skowronek’s model is not predictive; it sets out possibilities rather than prophesies. Trump may launch a reconstruction or founder in disjunction, and over time the distinction between reconstruction and disjunction can begin to blur. The outcome will depend on Trump, his party, international events, the economy, and his opposition, both inside and outside the Democratic Party.

But there are signs of a possible disjunction, which we would be foolish to ignore. As was true of Carter, the tensions within Trump’s party may prove to be a challenge beyond his talents.

Of all the heterodoxies Trump campaigned on none was more salient than trade. Within weeks of the election, Trump was stacking his transition team with hardliners from the steel industry, who had long struggled with China over imports and exports, and promising to impose a 35 percent tariff on companies that moved jobs out of the US. Congressional Republicans—including the House Speaker and Majority Leader—were horrified, quickly and loudly voicing their opposition.

Trump’s appointments also may become a flashpoint. Where strong majorities of voters approved of Obama’s and Bush’s appointments, only 41 percent approve of Trump’s, with 41 percent disapproving. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Trump transition team engaged in little to no vetting, leaving the job of scrutinizing the speeches, transcripts, tax returns, and other records of his nominees—the kind of thing that has sunk or threatened presidential appointments in the past—to ambitious Senate staffers with no loyalty to Trump.

Key Republicans, like John McCain and Lindsay Graham, have signaled their intention to rake Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, whose record of lubricious dealings with Putin has raised alarms, over the coals. John Bolton, Trump’s possible nomination to be the second-in-command at State and a favorite of the pro-Israel, neocon wing of the GOP, is also expected to come in for stiff opposition from Republicans: Rand Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has announced his intention to block Bolton.

The jostling over foreign-policy appointments only points to deeper cleavages in the party between an ascendant Christian nationalist wing that is warm to Putin and Russia and a residual neoconservative wing that is fearful of what such a direction might mean for Israel and other US interests. Whether Trump chooses Bolton or not, whether Tillerson is confirmed or not, the conflicts between these two factions suggest that the administration may be in for trouble.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry recently announced, for example, that it would be “unforgivable” for the US to scrap the nuclear treaty with Iran, which was one of Trump’s major campaign promises. In the same way that Carter promised a break with Cold War liberalism, only to disappoint his allies when he spiked the military budget in response to the rise of the Sandinistas and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, so, too, might the tensions between Trump’s promises and the reality of international politics create conflict within his party.

Trump also may discover, as Carter did early on in his presidency when he launched his failed plan to reform welfare, that agreement with one’s party can quickly turn into disagreement. Trump and the GOP seem to agree that most of Obamacare should go but that its no-preexisting-conditions provision should stay. That agreement is the problem: no one knows how to scrap the mandate and the subsidies and retain the policy on pre-existing conditions. One large part of the GOP wants to simply repeal the law now, while stipulating that the repeal won’t go into effect until later when a replacement will be found. A smaller but influential faction, including, at last count, five Republican senators as well as the American Medical Association and the hospital lobby, has firmly declared there must be no repeal without replacement. (That both sides agree that replacement must follow repeal is another testament to the weakening of Reaganite ideology; an earlier generation of Republicans would have slashed the program, confident that hosannas to the free market and the ingenuity of the American people would take care of things.) Even if the first faction wins, the electoral costs of skyrocketing premiums, which would begin rising far in advance of the actual repeal, will weigh heavily on Trump, who will have less leverage in the Senate than Obama had when he passed Obamacare. One of the signature promises of the Trump campaign is already turning into a curse.

Where all this will lead is anyone’s guess, but the most likely outcome is that Trump and the GOP will fall back on what Republicans know how to do best: tax cuts and deregulation. At moments of articulation, holding fast to the regime’s orthodoxies can be intoxicating sources of power, as Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush learned. At moments of disjunction, that kind of steadfastness can lead to disaster.

Jimmy Carter, like Herbert Hoover before him, tried to resolve similar challenges through his mastery of the bureaucracy. Carter was trained as a scientist, and technocracy was his métier. No one understood the various bills and policies that went in and out of the White House better than he. What he lacked in political standing he tried to make up with technique, and by appointing experienced Washington bureaucrats to flesh out the more important positions in his Cabinet.

So far, the most, perhaps only, seasoned administrative operative in Trump’s cabinet is Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. Most of Trump’s other appointments are a random assortment of frustrated generals and cronies, capitalists and congressmen. For all the disapproval and illegitimacy Trump is entering office with, polls do show that a strong majority of voters expect him to deliver change. Given his administrative and political inexperience—and the inexperience of the people around him—that may be the one thing he will be unable to do.

“Nothing exposes a hollow consensus faster than the exercise of presidential power,” Skowronek writes. In the coming days, we’ll see if he’s right. But lest Trump’s opponents on the left draw too rosy a conclusion from Skowronek’s analysis, The Politics Presidents Make suggests a worrying word of qualification. Though disjunctive Presidents like Carter—and, maybe, Trump—are politically weak, they are Presidents, with considerable resources and powers—some quite violent and coercive—at their disposal. Constrained politically, they are prone to rely on the tools of their office and the executive branch. They compensate for their political weaknesses with robust exercises of state power. If Trump manages to put into effect much of his agenda despite the disjunctive political moment, it may be through the raw force of the executive branch rather than the alliance with the Republican Congress being tested out now.

  1. Lost in the spectral lunacy of this back-and-forth is the fact that the Republican Party rode into power in 1980 with the help of a much quieter revolt of the security bureaucracy against a sitting President. In 1975, the CIA commissioned a study of US intelligence—the so-called Team B report—that found that the US had systemically underestimated Soviet military capabilities. While Team B was initially directed against the détente of Kissinger and Ford, conservative hardliners used it against Carter and his dovish liberalism; in 1980, Reagan ran against the “window of vulnerability” on security supposedly opened by the Democrats. However ironic it may be for a Republican President-elect to come under attack from the very security establishment that once spirited his party into power, the political significance of the leader of the Republican Party declaring war on one of the foundations of modern Republican hegemony should not be overlooked. 

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