Donald Trump and the Politics of Disjunction
I posted the following discussion of Donald Trump’s candidacy on Balkanization in January. I think it stands up pretty well while being neutral, so I thought I would reprint it here:
We’ve had an extended discussion on the blog about whether Barack Obama is a “reconstructive” President as described in the groundbreaking scholarship of Stephen Skowronek. Part of the answer turns on the outcome of 2016 presidential election. Will Obama’s successor build on what he did or repudiate his legacy? That remains to be seen.
There is another way, though, of looking at this question. Skowronek’s presidential typology says that political coalitions in decline tend to turn to outsiders who have, for lack of a better term, a reputation as a “Mr Fix-It” rather than deep connections to the party’s ideology or constituencies. Past examples include Herbert Hoover, a self-made millionaire who (though it’a hard to remember now) was widely thought of as a problem solver before he was elected. Jimmy Carter is another example–he was an engineer by training–who was a classic outsider in 1976. On the losing side, there was Wendell Wilkie (the GOP nominee in 1940) who had never been elected to anything and was touted for his business success. These are the “disjunctive” presidents or presidential candidates.
The Republican Party went with this sort of strategy in 2012. Mitt Romney was mainly known as a success in business and as a highly competent manager (of, for example, the Winter Olympics). As Governor of Massachusetts for one term, he certainly did not come from the heartland of the GOP coalition and did not have broad government experience. There was a plausible advantage in this, though, as he also did not carry much of the baggage that a party insider or crusader would.
Now we are getting disjunction on steroids with Donald Trump. He is also pitching himself as “Mr Fix-It” without any significant commitment to the traditional ideology of the party or, of course, any service in office. He is presenting this as a plus, and certain party elites are in the process of deciding that this he be better than someone closely identified with the party’s ideology–Ted Cruz. You can also contrast Trump’s success with the weakness of the obvious Establishment candidate–Jeb Bush–to see how far the traditional formula for success in the GOP primary is falling short this time.
Why does this matter? Because disjunctive candidates only do well at the end of a particular coalition, which implies that the other side represents the start of a new one. But has that already happened with Obama’s election, or will it happen after, say, President Trump has a disastrous term?