A few weeks after the longest government shutdown in history, projected to have cost $3 billion in lost GDP, it looks as though we won’t have another one right away. Over the objections of leaders in his own party, Trump has announced that he will declare a national emergency in order to construct a wall along the US southern border. Welcome to the politics of disjunction.
What does this mean? According to Stephen Skowronek’s theory of presidents and parties in cyclical “political time,” disjunctive presidents are the ones who go down in history as the worst. These presidents have some commonalities across historical eras, but a few things stand out: they come at the end of a “regime” started 40 to 60 years prior where a president of the same party set the terms of debate. But those terms, and the coalition that united behind them, have gone stale and no longer meet the demands of the era.
We can understand how disjunctive politics is shaping the Trump administration, the shutdown, and even what’s going on to some extent on the Democratic side, by thinking about three gaps.
The gap between Trump’s base and the rest of the country
During the 35-day shutdown, a poll by Pew said that 29 percent of Americans favored substantially expanding the border wall and found a budget deal without wall funding an unacceptable option. This number is a bit lower than what experts have estimated is Trump’s public opinion “floor,” so it probably reflects his absolute core supporters who are either diehard Republicans or simply devotees of the president and his ideas (or both). What’s more, this number is similar to the average polls on support for a national emergency.
One way to look at this is to say, well, 30 percent is far from a majority. The correct — or at least most representative — course of action should be obvious. In the context of disjunctive politics, it poses a trickier situation. One of the key features of disjunction is that presidents in this position can’t reconcile the imperatives of their party with the broader national conversation.
For Franklin Pierce back in the 1850s, this was reconciling the fact that the Democratic Party had built its political operation on balance across regions and compromise over slavery. As the conflict over expansion and the institution itself grew in intensity, the two political logics couldn’t coexist.
In the case of Herbert Hoover, the important ideas and players in the Republican Party weren’t compatible with making fundamental adjustments in the political economy to address the Great Depression.
For Trump, it’s a set of ideas that provided the justification for his presidential candidacy but have proven to be out of step with the country overall. It’s not just a matter of ignoring public opinion, but of the impossibility of bridging this particular gap. And the difference doesn’t seem to be shrinking: Americans tend to favor more “welcoming” immigration policies, in the words of Tufts University political scientist Deborah Schildkraut.
The gap between politics and policy
When politics and policy are aligned, politicians can run on slogans and ideas that garner political support for policies that are workable and reasonably popular. No policy is seamless in its implementation or unanimous in its reception. But sometimes leaders do manage to run on an idea that can translate into a policy change that achieves some of what it promises: new government programs, tax cuts, better health coverage, etc.
The way this seems to have manifested in contemporary politics is in debates that are long on symbolism and short on policy specifics. The wall is a good example of this; experts suggest that it would make no difference in stopping drugs or human trafficking, and his depiction of a disaster in places like El Paso doesn’t seem to resonate with either immigration experts or residents.
Symbolism also plays a role for Democrats. The proposed Green New Deal has drawn some criticism for being aspirational rather than a practical plan (it’s also been praised for the same thing). Being skilled at messaging (especially, but maybe not only on Twitter) turns out to be useful for politicians across the ideological spectrum, but it’s still an open question whether that helps change policy.
The long shutdown had a lot of negative effects, but it may have helped narrow the gap between politics and policy. Republican legislators clearly grew weary of paying the political costs of a prolonged shutdown. Americans got to see all of the areas where government performs an important function and policy matters: air travel, national parks, weather forecasting.
The emergency declaration, on the other hand, once again widens the gap between politics and policy, reinforcing a sense that rhetoric is separate from either tangible problems or pragmatic solutions. A Facebook meme has emerged where you can mark yourself “safe from Trump’s bullshit emergency.”
We might be used to a politics in which we expect a lot of symbolism and not a lot of concrete policy acton. But that doesn’t make it okay. A widening gap between politics and policy is a concerning development. In a democracy, words have meaning. Trump has declared an emergency, but even many members of Trump’s own party don’t buy the emergency characterization. A situation in which a president calls something an emergency in order to go around Congress not only undermines basic transparency and honesty, it also contributes to a general cynicism about politics that is often a feature of a disjunctive presidency.
The gap between Trump’s formal and informal power
I noted in my piece about the lessons of 2018 that we should think about Trump’s presidency not purely in terms of weakness and strength. Instead, we should consider the different kinds of formal and informal power that individual presidents can wield. Trump lacked the ability to make the border wall popular, but his formal capacities to veto bills informed Congress’ response to him anyway. And despite the president’s lack of any kind of formal control over his party, Mitch McConnell’s reaction to the shutdown illustrated that Trump is still in meaningful ways the leader of the Republican Party.
The emergency declaration has made this gap even more evident. The law allows Trump to declare an emergency (at least until courts say otherwise or Congress passes a joint resolution ending it). Nevertheless, the president’s political capital, informal authority, and influence, whatever you want to call it, is likely to fall as a result of the shaky justification for invoking a state of emergency. In classic disjunctive form, Trump can do it, because the presidency is powerful no matter where we are in the cycle. Defining and justifying it will be a lot harder.