clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Donald Trump, like Theodore Roosevelt, is in the party but not of the party

What sort of president will Donald J. Trump be? Is he a complete outsider who can "drain the swamp," as he often said during the campaign? Or is he, as Vice President-elect Mike Pence once argued, the political second coming of Ronald Reagan?

In a recent post, Julia Azari discussed the concept of political time and the theory propounded by Stephen Skowronek on the cycles of presidential power. She argues that a Trump presidency may most closely resemble that of Jimmy Carter. I would like to use this post as an opportunity for proposing a different way of looking at a Trump presidency in this context. Perhaps, more than anyone, the president that Trump most resembles is Teddy Roosevelt.

Skowronek argues that there are four types of presidential politics: reconstruction, in which a president has the latitude to break the old order and remake existing governing commitments; disjunction, which involves the end point of the incumbent regime; preemption, where a president from the opposition gets elected but finds himself trapped between both sides; and articulation, in which a successor carries out the legacy of the reconstruction into a new era. This last type can also be thought of as an "orthodox innovator," someone who tries to uphold the accepted beliefs while simultaneously pushing new ways of establishing those ideas in a new time.

Teddy Roosevelt fits the last category: someone who accepted the principles of the Republican regime that came from Abraham Lincoln but also wanted to do something new to change politics in his own time.  These presidents are committed to the established regime, but they also want to be significant presidents in their own right.

Like Roosevelt, Trump is someone with a high degree of political independence — in the party but not of the party. This creates the political space to innovate even while swearing loyalty to the ideas of the regime's founder. According to Skowronek, Roosevelt succeeded as an articulator of the dominant Republican regime "by building into the presidency itself new resources for executive action." Trump may try to do the same, using aggressive executive actions to get his way on controversial issues, like his proposal to ban Muslims from certain countries from entering the United States.

Also, like Roosevelt, Trump is using new methods of communicating with the public to succeed. TR helped to create the "rhetorical presidency," in which presidents have the ability to take their case directly to the public instead of only negotiating with Congress to pass their policy proposals. Trump's way may be limited to 140 characters per post, but it too breaks the mold of customary presidential communication and reaches over the heads of Congress and the traditional media.

And, like TR's efforts to break up the trusts, Trump apparently intends to bargain directly with private sector leaders to get the results he wants (see the recent announcement that Carrier is keeping 1,000 jobs in the US after negotiating with the president-elect).

Trump has established his independence in new ways, of course. The NeverTrump movement during the campaign opens up the possibility that a bloc of Republicans highly skeptical of his candidacy may remain in a position to undermine his presidency. Trump himself has stated that while party unity may be nice, he doesn't really need it, because "it's called the Republican Party, not the conservative party." The potential for a break with Reaganite orthodoxy (on trade policy, for instance) could lead to a lot of displeased congressional Republicans. This independence carries with it the danger that the existing regime can fracture in the process, if the innovation begins to swamp the orthodoxy.

Like Roosevelt, an articulator who came decades after the original regime founding, Trump may find he has new latitude to change policy priorities. But he always has to contend with the possibility that the regime's supporters will be dissatisfied with his actions.

In my next post, I will follow up on what the late 19th and early 20th century period might be able to teach us about a president coming into office at a time so far removed from the original founding of the new regime.

William Adler is an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University. His research focuses on American politics, in particular the American presidency.

Watch: How the GOP went from Lincoln to Trump