When Donald J. Trump was elected in 2016, mainstream commentators spawned a plethora of dystopian analysis about what his presidency represented. A great number of American political scientists, however, generally interpreted these as mere noise. For them, it was clear that Trump, like Jimmy Carter before him, would end up on top of the list of America’s unsuccessful presidents.
These political scientists were interpreting things through the theory of political time, a seminal thesis written by foremost presidential historian Stephen Kowronek. This theory posits that America’s political history consists of a repetitive cycle of political regimes. These regimes set the parameters of the political debate at a given time.
Successful presidents — Kowronek labels them “reconstructive” — have each dictated these parameters and successfully built national consensus around them. Each of the unsuccessful ones — “disjunctive,” in Kowronek’s parlance — presided over the the unraveling of this consensus and thus the collapse of the regime it spawned.
Kowronek’s research found that the cycle has been surprisingly predictable. In the last two hundred years, for instance, two reconstructive presidents have ushered in two radically different regimes. Following the Great Depression and the Second World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted a regime that was underpinned by interventionism. Domestically, the New Deal instituted a welfare state. Externally, U.S. foreign policy built a liberal international order that emphasized rules over raw power.
For much of the last century until the 1980s, there was bipartisan consensus behind these interventionist principles. Affiliated presidents, or those belonging to the ruling Democratic Party, enhanced this consensus. Opposition presidents, on the other hand, sought to “preempt” the New Deal’s dismantlement by introducing incremental changes. Finally, a weak Democrat in the person of Carter oversaw the regime’s collapse. This led to the rise of another consequential president, Ronald Reagan.
Reaganism is the exact opposite of the New Deal. It argues that “government is not the solution to the problem; it is the problem.” Thus it can be understood why, as Elizabeth Warren likes to point out, the United States suddenly dismantled the regulatory architecture that had tempered the excesses of capitalism during the heyday of the American economy. In the same fashion, progressive economic redistribution gave way to the doctrine of “trickle-down economics.”
The cycle that characterized Roosevelt’s regime has been generally mimicked in the current Reagan era. Just as Roosevelt had Truman and Kennedy-Johnson as his affiliated administrations, so did Reagan had the two Bushes. The New Deal had two preemptive presidential administrations, Eisenhower and Nixon-Ford; as did Reaganomics: Clinton and Obama. Mirroring this timeline, therefore, Trump should be to the Republican regime what Carter was to its Democratic predecessor.
My problem with this analysis is that it tends to treat Trump as a conventional president elected under ordinary circumstances. Unlike Carter and Hoover, who did not deviate from the premise of the regime that they inherited, Trump professes no allegiance to the Reagan coalition. On the contrary, he was carried by a fundamentally insurgent wave.
Trumpism is in fact a rejection of orthodoxy. Reagan imagined America as a “shining city upon a hill,” from which the world could learn from. In contrast, Trump painted a decaying society under siege by savage outsiders. George W. Bush even used a colorful phrase to describe this dystopian worldview.
To rebuild this society, Trump suggests turning inward: America should retreat from the world and keep outsiders out. He also suggests a subliminal insurrection against society’s traditional gatekeepers: Americans should reassert their voice and reject the authority of scientists, bureaucrats, and mainstream media. All of these should also be appreciated from a broader lens. Rather than a uniquely American phenomenon, Trumpism is actually an offshoot of contemporary populism, which has been ascendant globally in recent years.
In short, my view is that Trump is in fact leading America out of Reagan territory — without him knowing it, of course. Few analysts realize this because the destination he proposes is an entirely different place than the one envisioned by mainstream anti-Reaganists, such as Warren and Bernie Sanders.
This could explain, for instance, the recent displacement of Reagan Republicans by ascendant Trumpists within the Grand Old Party. Traditional conservatives who heretofore saw America as a nation of immigrants no longer seem mainstream. Family values are emphasized no more. Most significantly, colluding with Russia — now seen as an ally in radical Christianity’s global culture wars — is no longer anathema.
For me, Trump’s relegation to disjunctive status requires two crucial steps.
The first step is for his worldview to be soundly rejected by the electorate. If the President is to be restricted to a single term, Trumpism would probably not make a significant dent in American political history. It could eventually be regarded as something akin to an outsize presidential fetish, perhaps not too different from Carter’s personal obsession with human rights.
But even this risks ignoring the fact that Trump is an unconventional president with a radicalized insurgent base. Trump’s loyalists see themselves as a threatened majority whose way of life is under siege from an increasingly diversifying mainstream society. No other disjunctive president had such an extremist base.
In fact, as some have correctly pointed out, Trumpers are probably the most radicalized constituency since the Southern Democrats of the 1890s. Just as Trumpers reject the progressive tide today, so did the Southern Democrats reject the abolition of slavery then. They saw emancipation as an existential menace to America’s traditional values.
The extremists then were not beyond pursuing their ends outside the parameters of institutional restraints. It is in this context that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Bill Maher have recently suggested that the party prepare for the possibility of the incumbent refusing to yield the White House even after losing the election. The only antidote to such a remote possibility is for the Democratic candidate to inspire a political base powerful enough to discourage any attempt at extra-constitutionalism.
But beyond defeating Trump, his successor must undertake the second crucial step: decisively reconstructing a new political order that will bury both Reaganism and Trumpism once and for all. This requires extraordinary political will.
Merely restoring the status quo ante, as the presumptive Democratic nominee recently suggested, would merely aggravate widespread disillusionment with the current political economy. Worse, it could lead to the emergence of another Trumpist president in four years. This possibility could herald a new era of populist politics in the United States. It is a prospect that could prompt future historians to classify the by-then-former-president Trump as a reconstructive president in the same mold of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan. In this scenario, Trump would still win even if Joe Biden becomes president next year.
Two months ago, the odds seemed to favor Trump. Biden has been unable to articulate a transformative vision that could excite voters and prompt them to form a new coalition. His emergence as the presumptive nominee is not due to any Democratic conspiracy as some suggest, but because the progressive alternative offered by the likes of Sanders, Warren, and Andrew Yang had seemed unripe for the mainstream’s pallet. The current coronavirus pandemic, however, could change all this.
The unprecedented disruption brought about by this pandemic is currently prompting a major rethinking not only of the prevailing American socio-economic structure, but also of the conduct of global civilization itself. We could therefore be seeing an evolution in the American worldview. Racing to seize the opportunity that such an evolution entails is now a contest for both Trump and Biden to lose.