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?

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2 Responses

  1. Infinity183 says:

    Obama is definitely not a reconstructive President. While he did oversee a lot of victories for the Democratic Party, especially on healthcare and LGBT rights, his efforts have hardly been enough to completely reverse the nation’s system of influence that skews more towards Reaganite capitalists than economic and social liberals. Just look, for example, at how massive the income inequality gap remains today, not to mention how much the NRA has curbed his proposals to improve gun control.

    Bernie Sanders is actually more the type of person you would expect to be elected as a reconstructive President, as not only is his base of supporters comprised primarily of America’s future generations, his platform is an outright repudiation of the current establishment, not just a list of ways for which to improve it. Of course, Bernie Sanders predictably lost the Democratic nomination this year because it is still too early for such an establishment outsider from the non-regime party to garner enough widespread acceptance to overshadow the alternatives within the establishment like Hillary Clinton. Sanders in 2016 is just like Reagan was in 1976; the Goldwater Republicans weren’t quite powerful enough to control the GOP yet, but they were already a considerable presence, and within time, they were able to secure both the nomination, as well as a sweeping victory in 1980. I think that within either the next election or the one subsequent to that, the Democratic presidential nominee will be a lot like Bernie Sanders.

    As for Donald Trump, yes, I absolutely agree with you that he’s a disjunctive calamity just waiting to strike. I, too, thought Mitt Romney was a disjunctive-style candidate whose agenda was obtuse and not grounded by political legitimacy. Donald Trump may be much more of a big shot than Romney, but he’s an even more extreme case of late-regime politics, to the point that many of the most significant figures in his own party refuse to endorse him or are evening planning to vote for Clinton, like Bush the Elder. Trump can tout his plans for a wall on the Mexican border or extreme tax cuts all he wants, but he’d surely be confronted with so many enemies on every side that it would render him incapable of getting any of his ideas passed if he inherited the Oval Office.