It didn't take long after President Trump took office for conflicting views about the strength and duration of his legacy to surface.
A "regime" theory of the presidency — developed in "The Politics Presidents Make" by Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale — provides the theoretical basis for the view that despite his victory in 2016, Trump represents the final collapse of Reagan-era conservatism. Skowronek described his overall project as a "study of presidents as agents of political change" that produced a framework of "four types of political leadership," each of which I will explore in more detail below, with and without reference to the seeming anomaly of Trump.
Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale, adapting Skowronek's model, argues that Trump epitomizes the fourth type of political leadership Skowronek identifies because Trump is "in the same structural position as Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter," caught in an uphill, presumptively doomed, struggle "to hold together the fraying coalition of an exhausted regime."
Our current political problems stem from the fact that we are in the final days of a crumbling, decadent political regime, and no new regime has yet appeared to take its place." It will, however, according to Balkin, soon be over. "We will get through it. And when we get through it — about five to ten years from now — the present will seem like a distant, unhappy nightmare, or an illness from which one has recovered.
In "Democracy and Dysfunction," a book published last month that Balkin wrote with the constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson, Balkin describes the Trump administration as a "disjunctive" presidency, the last gasp of the vanishing Reagan era that began in 1980.
Other examples of similarly disjunctive presidencies, Balkin writes, following Skowronek,
are John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. They have the misfortune to lead the dominant party when the regime is losing its legitimacy and the party's factions are at each other's throats.
For his own part, Skowronek describes the first of his four categories of presidencies as "reconstructive" or transformative. This group is made up of exceptional politicians who
found new ways to order the politics of the republic and release the power of government; but they have done so by building personal parties and shattering the politics of the past, actions the Constitution was originally supposed to guard against. Moreover, each of these great political leaders — Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan — passed on a newly circumscribed regime, so tenacious as to implicate their successors in another cycle of gradually accelerating political decay.
These regime-establishing presidents have been followed, historically, by a second cycle of what Skowronek calls "affiliated" presidencies — Harry Truman, John Kennedy, George H.W. and George W. Bush — who basically continue the work of their predecessors.
A third category ("pre-emptive") is filled by successful opposition party nominees — Dwight Eisenhower during the ascendancy of the New Deal Coalition, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama when Reagan's conservative coalition still held sway — "presidents who pre-empt the received agenda and offered an alternative." Pre-emptive presidents are constrained by the prevailing regime as exemplified by Eisenhower's support of expanding Social Security and raising the minimum wage and by Bill Clinton's 1996 declaration that "the era of big government is over."
Finally, in Skowronek's fourth cycle, there are the end-of-era "disjunctive" presidencies like those of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, under whom the regime implodes, laying the groundwork for the election of an innovative "reconstructive" president to begin the process once again.
Balkin and Skowronek contend Trump falls into the same disjunctive category as Hoover and Carter, leading Balkin to argue that
Trump's greatest gift to the country is the gift of destruction — not of the country, but of the coalition he leads and the complacent oligarchy that strangles our democracy. The greatest irony of a fool like Trump is that by betraying his working-class base and wrecking his party, he may well help make American democracy great again. He is the unwitting agent of reform.
Would that it were so.
The conception of Trump as a momentary phenomenon, a disjunctive president who brings closure to a burned-out Reagan regime, does not necessarily fit the facts in their totality.
There may well be something to the claim that Trump's is a disjunctive presidency representing the end of the Reagan era. But to jump from there to the conclusion that he does not pose a serious threat to democratic institutions strikes me as facile. Such a claim too easily sets aside important contextual differences between this administration and those of other "disjunctive" presidents.
Levitsky provided a long list of contemporary factors that distinguish the Trump presidency from the Hoover and Carter presidencies, including
extreme partisan polarization along overlapping social/cultural/cleavages, the hardening of partisan identities and the rise of intense negative partisanship, the crystallization of white identities and the perception among some white voters of threat in the face of decades of immigration and steps toward racial equality; dramatically higher levels of income inequality and declining social mobility; the weakening of party elites' gatekeeping capacity, reinforced by the introduction of party primaries, and, in the context of extreme polarization, the erosion of key democratic norms.
Levitsky's argument goes beyond the overarching political environment to Trump's character.
Trump "has shown himself," Levitsky continued,
to be a more openly autocratic figure than any of the other disjunctive president I am aware of. So we have a president with authoritarian instincts in a context of extreme partisan polarization (such that Republicans line up behind Trump no matter what) and weakened norms. That strikes me as quite a bit different — and more threatening — than say, the Carter presidency.
In addition, Trump must be viewed as the avatar not only of an American political phenomenon but a global one.
Levitsky argues that the "disjunctive presidency" theory
lacks any comparative or global perspective. There are changes occurring globally that have unleashed illiberal or populist right wing reactions across much of the industrialized West. Whether it is globalization, migration and ethnic diversification, technological change, or some combination thereof, at least some of the dynamics that are occurring in the US cannot be understood in a vacuum. It would therefore be silly to assume that the context in which we are operating in 2019 is easily comparable to those of 1924-28 or 1976-80.
Ziblatt, Levitsky's co-author, argued in an email that it is a highly risky proposition to take any comfort in a theoretical construct placing Trump as the endpoint of the Reagan era:
It is very, very dangerous way to feel reassured and to write off the Trump presidency as the final, dying days of the Reagan era. There are certainly analogies to be drawn from earlier eras but it is only an analogy, not a law of history.
Trump stands apart from past presidents in his willingness to capitalize on what Ziblatt identifies as an "existential fear" among voters in the face of broad demographic change:
The huge demographic changes underway in the U.S. since the 1970s have prompted Republican existential fear about the future and an increasingly stiff resistance to democracy itself. Like Conservatives in Europe before 1914 or Southern Democrats in the 1890s, fear of the future means a greater willingness to play dirty and to block the emergence of any "recuperative presidency."
Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard, sharply criticized the Skowronek-Balkin theory because it masks what she contends is a fundamentally different and dangerous moment in American politics:
We are in a very extreme period in U.S. political history because of the radicalization of the GOP and the apparent willingness of virtually all of its officeholders, candidates, and big donors to go along with authoritarian and anti-democratic measures of many kinds, not just presidential power grabs but legislative and judicial steps to curtail voting and organizational rights of opponents, in essence rigging future electoral contests in a very minority rule direction.
Skocpol warned of "mechanistic over-optimism," writing that "things will look very different if Trump is re-elected, as he may very well be." The current state of politics "is no ordinary cyclical turn," she notes. "I would rank this period as one of the most conflictual since the late 1960s and early 1930s and the one with the greatest potential for actual regime change since the Civil War."
There are some political scientists who generally agree with the Skowronek theory of cyclical regime change but who raise concerns about how well Trump fits into that analytic structure.
Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, poses a basic question about attempts to place Trump within a repetitive historical context:
We have both a president who is distinct in history and an era in political time that differs from previous ones in important structural ways. This combination points to the limits of history as a clear set of instructions for what might happen next.
In an email, Azari wrote that
the overall dynamics of party competition have changed in part because, for the first time in US history as far as I can tell, race and immigration are sorted between the two parties.
In the case of Trump, Azari points out that
Presidents who violate norms, especially those about the boundaries of their power, tend to be reconstructive presidents who reset the terms of debate and the expectations for the presidency — FDR and Jackson are perhaps the clearest examples of this.
Trump, in this context, is more like a reconstructive president than a disjunctive president:
Trump has also changed the language and, I think to some degree altered the identity and agenda of the Republican Party — and of the Democrats, who are responding to him. Trump has altered how we use political language — we all use adapted Trumpisms all the time, like make X great again or a riff on "build the wall." He looms large in politics and in culture. This is not a typical disjunctive trajectory.
Azari was a student of Skowronek's at Yale and believes his cyclical theory of regime change remains "incredibly useful for looking at politics."
Both Azari and Skowronek acknowledge, however, that something that does not fit the theory of regime change may be taking place in American politics.
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Here is how Azari, in an unpublished paper written with Scott Lemieux, a political scientist at the University of Washington, pursues the idea that Trump may not fit into Skowronek's scheme:
It is far from obvious the Reagan coalition has become electorally unviable. While it is true that Republicans have lost the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 presidential elections, they have also been the dominant congressional party since 1994, and the fact that the House, Senate and therefore the Electoral College all overrepresent predominantly white rural areas gives the Republican Party as currently constituted a very high electoral floor that will make its consignment to the political wilderness unlikely.
Instead of setting the stage for a transformative reconstruction of American politics, the country may have entered what Azari and Lemieux call "the long disjunction," a "new era in American politics where there is not a clear majority party, but there is strong, ideologically-driven partisan contestation."
If this is the case, Azari and Lemieux write, the "politics of the long disjunction are unlikely to be pretty." Instead, they write:
The combination of the Republicans currently benefiting from the malapportionment of the Senate and the erasure of norms surrounding judicial confirmations makes it more likely that serious clashes between the elected branches and the judiciary will lead to lengthy Supreme Court vacancies and attempts to restrict the power of the courts through formally legal but nonnormative measures like court-packing and jurisdiction-stripping. Government shutdowns in periods of divided government may become more common. Congress is likely to abuse its oversight powers under opposition presidents and let them lay mostly dormant when partisan allies are in the White House. A long disjunction is, above all, a period in which neither party can effectively legitimatize its power, but power will continue to be exercised. This is not a formula for political stability.
And here is how Skowronek himself addresses the possibility that Trump may represent something not heretofore conceptualized in Skowronek's own analytic structure, that the Trump presidency may mark the onset of unresolved political competition instead — what Skowronek calls "perpetual political pre-emption."
In a podcast of a talk Skowronek delivered on May 2 at the London School of Economics, Skowronek suggested that
We may be witnessing the long-awaited arrival of the president as a party unto himself, with all the independence in action that that implies. By this reckoning, an uncontested Trump makeover of the Republican Party would mark a profound shift in the historical relationship between the presidency and the American political system.
A Trump re-election victory in 2020, Skowronek writes, could signal the end of cyclical regimes and a "convergence on a kind of perpetual pre-emption, on a continual, unresolvable shakedown of authority."
Despite this possibility, Skowronek believes that his cyclical theory is still likely to hold:
Trump's success in consolidating his hold over a new, even more radically skewed Republican Party would be remarkable, but it does not preclude a pivotal defeat in 2020. My wager is that, when all is said and done, this case will confirm the residual strength of the regime-based structure of presidential leadership.
Skowronek went on:
If there is something new in Trump's leadership that claims special attention — something that cannot be bracketed off as a character issue, a personality disorder, or a historical fluke — it lies here, in its forceful push against the boundary condition of affiliation and in its expression of newfound political independence in presidential action. Independence, not only from party ties but from established authority of any kind, portends far more idiosyncratic forms of leadership to come.
Skowronek's phrasing — in particular the idea of "newfound political independence in presidential action … from established authority of any kind" — brings to mind authoritarian rather than "idiosyncratic" leadership, which casts new light on Nancy Pelosi's concern, as The Times put it earlier this month, "that Mr. Trump would not give up power voluntarily if he lost re-election by a slim margin next year."
In this country, independence of the president from established authority of any kind is supposed to be impossible. Its emergence represents, at the very least, an erosion of democracy — a nightmare, not a legacy.