clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump's presidency signals the end of the Reagan era

Donald Trump with Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence.
Donald Trump with Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence.

It's difficult to think of two modern political figures more different than Donald Trump and Jimmy Carter. Carter came into the White House with quiet style, downplaying the trapping of the office. His scandalous revelation was that he had "lusted in his heart," as he admitted in an interview with Playboy magazine. Revelations of the thrice-married Trump were, well, somewhat different.

But Carter remains an illuminating parallel within an important theory of the presidency: political time. Political science has been wrong about a lot this cycle, but one theory offers something about what's in store. This is the theory of political time, an idea by Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek (who, full disclosure, is one of my advisers). Skowronek posited in a 1993 book that presidents govern in cycles of political time: new political eras pioneered by presidents like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and, most recently, Ronald Reagan.

One of the core arguments is that presidencies are just defined not by temperament or even ideology. The president's relationship to the dominant party and the health of that party's ideology and coalition influence the success and legacy of the administration.

This isn't a theory about polls, and it doesn't predict elections exactly. But it tells us quite a bit about what a Trump presidency means and what we might expect.

Trump, who was elected as a Republican, will make what the theory describes as "disjunctive" politics: the last gasp of the incumbent era. To take a step back for a moment, this casts Barack Obama — and Bill Clinton before him — as an opposition president, prone to ideological shape-shifting and serious legitimacy challenges (like impeachment), and hard-pressed to hand off the presidency to a partisan successor.

Shifting back to Trump, disjunctive presidents tend to be outsiders and technocrats. They run on promises to get things done. They are divorced from the roots of the old ideology, by time and by belief, just as Carter was from FDR and, thinking back to the 1850s, like Franklin Pierce was from Andrew Jackson. These presidents didn't have concrete political connections to the old administrations, and despite shared party labels, they weren't true believers in the ideology.

Skowronek elaborates on this comparison in an interview with the Nation, placing President-elect Trump in the context of historical cycles. In a series of posts here at Mischiefs of Faction, fellow presidential scholar William Adler and I will elaborate on how the theory of political time can illuminate this moment in history and help us understand the politics of the 45th presidency.

A key feature of disjunction is the inability to reconcile policy and politics. Proposed plans to replace Obamacare, many of which favor the young at the expense of older Americans, are a good example of this. Republican policy priorities, as stated, lie with spending less public money on health care. But their political fortunes rely pretty heavily on older voters. Maybe they can reconcile this in the long term somehow. But bringing these priorities into alignment seems like a big challenge.

Turning to the executive branch, Trump's transition already reveals some parallels between his administration and Carter's. While Carter was lambasted for bringing in the "Georgia Mafia" of personal associates with little Washington experience, Trump is facing some pretty significant challenges assembling a Cabinet with conventional experience. While some of his newly named Cabinet officials have standard qualifications, there are a number of people with state- and city-level qualifications, and no national experience, on the short list or selected for positions like UN ambassador and secretary of state. Even Mitt Romney, under other circumstances, would be an unusual selection to head the State Department.

Outsider status is a tricky thing. This is true intellectually for those trying to parse the contours of the Reagan era using political time. Disjunctive presidents, as Skowronek points out in the Nation interview, are loners, who operate separately from and often in open hostility toward their parties. But in the Reagan era, cultivating a superficial outsider image hasn't just been for disjunctive leaders. Nearly every president in this period has offered an individualistic claim in this vein. Most have been governors, not members of the Cabinet or Congress. (Obama's time in Congress was quite short compared even with that of, say JFK, to whom he is sometimes compared.)

We have yet to see what it will mean to have a president who has never held public office or served in the military, and who won the party's nomination with only the thinnest of elite support. But one possible perverse consequence is that Trump's outsider status will require him to seek advice and assistance from party insiders — like future chief of staff and current RNC Chair Reince Priebus — from movement conservatives like Paul Ryan, and from people with clear and longstanding policy agendas like Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos.

It's already apparent that Trump's administration will not look like the team we might have expected from a more conventional Republican. But a lack of expertise at the top makes Trump more dependent on advisers who are, if not experienced, highly orthodox conservatives. The potential for "draining the swamp" is low.

The terms of each political era carry the seeds of the eventual disjunction. One of the defining aspects of the "Reagan revolution" was pushback against federally imposed civil rights policies. The approach to this was multifaceted; overt racism and support for segregation would not make for a successful national platform. But the embrace of individualism allowed for a rejection of programs like affirmative action. (See Andrew Busch's account of Reagan's governing philosophy.) Furthermore, Reagan's appeals in the South were the product of years of Republican efforts to build up support in this region.

Racism is a persistent feature of American politics. This is true all over, but it also means that a minority of the country — mostly but not totally located in the South — has made preserving racial hierarchy a political priority. American politics has functioned through, with, and, when we were lucky, around this vocal political minority.

Although this dynamic has always been present, its politics have been different in the post–civil rights era. For the first time, Republicans rather than Democrats have been primarily responsible to this constituency. And the cultural and legal differences are significant.

Overt segregation and racism were, most of us thought, no longer allowed in polite society. Yet de facto racism persists and pervades nearly all aspects of American life — from implicit bias to residential segregationThis development overlaps with several others: a country that is growing more diverse in many ways, the abandonment of old gender norms, and gains for the rights of LGBTQ Americans. Political resistance to an evolving society has been apparent for years.

And this makes the possibilities for a Trump disjunction different. As I wrote several months ago, Trump's candidacy was disruptive to the normal functioning of politics and had a strong preservationist message, often invoking the message of America's past greatness. Both effects depended on a racial message. Trump has disrupted American politics by introducing overt race appeals into national politics at the end of an era when such appeals have typically been either coded or localized. We know at the end of 2016 that it would be incorrect to characterize such appeals as "fringe." They obviously have broader appeal than most people predicted in 2015. But they are violations of decades' worth of norms.

Now the president's pick for attorney general has a stated agenda to roll back civil rights protections — to put it mildly. Steve Bannon — an individual for whom I currently have no adequate words — will be a White House adviser. This is qualitatively different from the politics of disjunction that have come before.

Racism and other forms of overt bigotry have been roundly stripped of their legitimacy in mainstream media, in the educational establishment, and, so we thought, in politics. The views expressed by people like Bannon and Sessions are viewed as illegitimate by many Americans. Yet such people have attained positions of power through our very own institutions.

Assuming the process followed the rules (and I do, until further information comes to light), substance and process have diverged. Both cannot be legitimate at the same time. It is these kinds of contradictions, more than anything, that shape the most unnerving forms of disjunctive politics.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.