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Donald Trump's mandate claim is about power, not votes

Matt Mills McKnight/Getty Images

Donald Trump, after receiving about 40 percent of the Republican primary vote so far, has declared that he has a "mandate from the people." It's tempting to write this statement off as meaningless bluster. And that would be half right. Bluster — of course. But meaningless? Surprisingly not. Trump's claims fit right in with several trends I found in my research on mandate claims.

We are, as I've argued many times, living in an age of mandate politics — pulling meaning out of election results and using that as the primary justification for governance. This has been evident for a while — in my book, I note that George W. Bush and Barack Obama talked about campaign promises and election results much more than any of their modern predecessors.

Responses to the 2010 and 2014 midterms also reveal the power of mandate politics — of the idea that elections are the core source of legitimacy and that they generally lend themselves to cohesive policy interpretations. While pundits debated over whether the 2014 midterms were a "wave" election, Obama looked for a way to cast the midterm loss that would leave the political project of his presidency intact.

And now, with Antonin Scalia's death leaving a vacancy on the Supreme Court, Republican leaders have asserted that the choice should be made after the people have a chance to weigh in during the election.

The age of mandate politics, in other words, represents a way of thinking about the role that elections play in informing agendas and lending legitimacy to political power. These are important ideas, central to what democracy is.

But they are often presented in ways that run counter to what people expect — by politicians who haven't won by that much — and seem self-serving coming from politicians who try to use election results to enhance their own power. Trump's claim is no exception here. He hasn't been elected to any office. He didn't win a majority of votes. Turnout is not high in primaries. His policy positions are unclear.

Yet his remarks reflect the key markers of the age of mandate politics: polarization and legitimacy problems. As the two parties become more distinct, it's easier for leaders to credibly claim that their ideas were clearly presented, different from what their opponent(s) offered, and won over the voters on their merits.

A weird version of this is at work with Trump's claim, where he cited "leadership" and his differences from other Republican hopefuls in the area of "trade deals." Trump's interpretation of the primaries may be arguable and his majority nonexistent. But when he says he offered something different to Republican primary voters, that's pretty consistent with the ways in which presidents have claimed mandates in the recent past.

In 2009, Obama was fond of repeating the line, with regard to Republican economic ideas, "Those ideas have been tried, and they have failed." He'd then note that voters "rejected" those ideas in the election. Again, what voters really intended in 2008 is anyone's guess, but it would be hard to confuse the two parties' economic positions. This doesn't make Trump's claims to a mandate valid, but it does make them resonant with existing understandings of politics.

Mandate claims are, at their core, arguments about the basis of democratic legitimacy. My research suggests that presidents step up their emphasis on how close they are to the will of the people when they've pushed at the boundaries of presidential authority. This happened with Andrew Jackson destroying the national bank, FDR trying to restructure (and "pack" the Supreme Court), and Nixon tangling with Congress over budget issues and eventually defending himself against Watergate.

Obviously, the issue with Trump isn't exactly about governing legitimacy, but I think it's safe to say that legitimacy questions still swirl around his candidacy. His crass and out-there statements, alongside his lack of experience and party support, leave a gaping legitimacy hole that conventional candidates don't have to deal with until they get the nuclear codes. It's not surprising that Trump would be reliant on the idea of "the will of the people" early on.

Many scholars acknowledge Andrew Jackson as the first president to use mandate claims to justify expansive, unilateral use of executive power to make policy over the objections of other elected leaders. Trump has been compared to Jackson throughout the election, and, as Steve Inskeep points out, though their biographical similarities are limited it's worth keeping an eye on. Jackson was a military leader by training, used to giving commanders. Trump's behavior thus far has echoed this tendency, in the manner of someone accustomed to business rather than the coequal, collective morass of politics.

The context of a possible Trump presidency would, of course, be very different. But Jackson was very focused on the enforcement component of presidential power, and used the idea of the mandate to justify ignoring objections from his Cabinet and members of Congress. He didn't behave totally lawlessly in office, but he didn't have too many qualms about carrying out laws as he wanted.

Trump, too, has demonstrated a preoccupation with the power of the executive branch to achieve ends directly, without input or compromise. The presidency, then as now, afforded a lot of latitude when it came to actually putting policy into practice. That is the essence of executive power. Mandates, ephemeral as they are, tend to provide some sense of authority for use of that power.

For Jackson, a strong party system with vigorous links between state and presidential parties helped check his more autocratic tendencies and spread the mandate to an entire governing philosophy instead of an individual. For Trump, no such robust party checks have emerged so far, and a mandate claimed in a primary is by definition not a party one. In this regard, Trump's claims are consistent with current trends but also represent something new. And as we've learned over the past year, what seems like rhetorical bluster can start to add up.