Trump, Carter, and the Politics of Parties

Trump has been a remarkably weak leader. And that may turn out to be his salvation.

Pro-Trump signage in rural Oklahoma. Frank Boston / Flickr

Using Steve Skowronek’s theory of the presidency, particularly his theory of disjunctive presidencies, I’ve been plugging the Trump-Carter comparison, as many of you know. It occurred to me yesterday morning, however, on reading this quite astute piece from Matt Yglesias, that there may be an interesting flaw in that comparison.

Yglesias points out, and I think he’s right in ways that few people have grappled with, that in many ways, Trump ran well to the center of the Republican Party during the primaries. Trump promised not to touch Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid; he seemed chill with gay marriage; at times he praised Planned Parenthood; he ran against free trade; and he was a sharp critic of the neocon adventurism of the Bush administration. Rhetorically; in the campaign. I’m not talking about how he has governed; that’ll come in a minute.

That kind of willingness to mix it up, to fuck with standard GOP positions, is the hallmark of disjunctive presidents. Carter did something similar during the campaign in 1976: he promised to scramble the New Deal coalition (particularly labor), to roll back the regulatory state, to take on welfare. As occurred with Trump, that scrambling of the map provoked a major backlash from the pillars of the party, and like Trump, Carter won the nomination and the presidency.

Oddly enough, one of the few people to appreciate how powerful and potent Jimmy Carter was in this regard — and to appreciate that early on in the wake of Carter’s failed reelection campaign in 1980, when the standard line was that he was a massive fuck-up and a loser — was none other than one Donald Trump. In The Art of the Deal, Trump recounts a story in which Carter comes to him, asking for five million dollars for his library. Trump is dumbfounded — and impressed.

Until then, I’d never understood how Jimmy Carter became president. The answer is that as poorly qualified as he was for the job, Jimmy Carter had the nerve, the guts, the balls, to ask for something extraordinary. That ability above all helped him get elected president.

The reason candidates like Trump and Carter do this sort of thing is that they have a sense that the established orthodoxies, the familiar coalitions, are no longer working. Where candidates like Ted Cruz or Teddy Kennedy believe that the answer to a party’s dwindling fortunes is to double down on the party’s commitments, the Carters and Trumps know something (believe it or not) that their competitors don’t: not simply that the electoral majority no longer answers the party’s call, but that in its heart of its hearts the party itself is no longer where it once was. It no longer truly believes in the animating faiths of the regime. That’s what enables an ideological scrambler like Carter or Trump to slip through and win.

But here’s where Skowronek’s theory and the Trump-Carter comparison gets wonky.

As Yglesias points out, Trump in office has reverted to the conservative mean. He’s become pretty much a bog-standard Republican: going after Medicaid, trying to defund Planned Parenthood, budgets that look like they were designed by the Heritage Foundation (budgets that were in fact designed by the Heritage Foundation). For all the white worker vanguardism, Steve Bannon has mostly cooperated and worked with the free-market/ Chamber of Commerce wing of the Republican Party.

More than that, Trump hasn’t done much of anything. At least not legislatively and not in terms of delivering on long-promised Republican dreams. Outside the Gorsuch ascension, which was engineered entirely by McConnell, and the deregulation that he can do on his own, without Congress, Trump has mostly been standing still. No repeal of Obamacare, no tax overhaul, no Ground Zero budgets, nada. At least not yet.

By the end of his first year in office, by contrast, Carter had so dominated the political field that seasoned pols like Robert Byrd and Tip O’Neill were marveling at his political prowess. The most commanding politician of the age, they thought.

Carter was constantly, and successfully, acting in ways that did scramble the political map: he did deregulate the airlines, trucking, oil, and banking industries; he did increase the military budget. Carter was also constantly, and successfully, acting in ways consistent with traditional Democratic Party ideals: he did create an Energy Department; he did create an Education Department; he did aggressively pursue conservation policies. That combination — of scrambling the political map, of carrying out longstanding liberal ideals — is what got Carter into so much trouble. The right hated him for his fidelity to traditional liberalism, the left hated him for his breach with traditional liberalism.

Trump, in office, has done the reverse. He’s reverted to the Republican mean, and outside his rollback of Obama’s regulations, he’s not done much of anything to advance that mean. Carter actually acted in the political field; when he did something like create a new administrative department, he did it with Congress. Trump hides behind the entirely executive powers of his office. He doesn’t scramble the political map.

And that may be, in the end, what protects him. That may be the one thing that saves Trump from becoming Carter.

In Skowronek’s theory, the cause of a president’s undoing — like Carter’s — is not that the president is weak or does nothing. It’s precisely that that president is strong and does something. For all his reputation for haplessness and weakness, Carter, as Skowronek shows, was remarkably powerful and potent as a leader. He really did undo the Democratic Party coalition. He really did set it on a new course. And that’s what he was most hated for. And why he lost the reelection.

Trump, on the other hand, has done the opposite. He has been, as a leader, not just domestically but also internationally, remarkably weak. And that may be his salvation.