Donald Trump held a press conference on Thursday in which his familiar brand of narcissism clashed dramatically with the familiar setting of the East Room. In a rambling diatribe against reporters that lasted well over an hour, Trump displayed the same talent for channeling grievance that propelled him to the Republican nomination. He claimed credit for unspecified accomplishments, denied his White House is in chaos, and continued to obsess over the terms of his election victory.
The reaction from opinion leaders was brutal. Legacy media outlets were quick to call his performance dishonest, self-indulgent and unhinged. CNN characterized it as a stunning display of anger. The New Yorker referred to it as “alternative reality” where a manifestly unsuitable president bragged about the mythical progress he has made. Criticism crossed ideological lines. Fox News’ Shepard Smith called it absolutely crazy. Joe Scarborough said it was chaotic and rambling, and noted how Republican members of congress he had spoken to were scared to death by a president seemingly out of touch with reality. Retired Admiral Robert Harward reportedly walked away from the chance to head the National Security Council after watching it.
But among the still significant legions of core Trump supporters, reactions were quite different. For those less concerned with substance and fact than with visible displays of strength, Trump’s press conference was a tour de force, an over-the-top reminder to his voters that he’s in charge and doing things differently. NBC News solicited reaction from blue collar voters in Kenosha, Wisconsin (because, why not) and had little difficulty finding people who thought it was great, or who at least felt Trump should be given a chance to prove himself. Noted Scarborough, a former Continued
Pretend for a moment you’re a Republican member of congress representing a district drawn to maximize the influence of base Republican voters. You don’t worry much about losing to a Democrat in the next general election, because your district was carefully gerrymandered to protect you from a general election challenge. But that same gerrymander boosted the influence of Republican primary voters on your re-nomination, so ever since the district lines were drawn after the 2010 census you have been looking over your right shoulder at potential primary challengers who could attack you for being too moderate.
You’re a reasonable sort. Privately, you think the new president is a few blue moons shy of a full box of Lucky Charms. You cringe at his tweets and recoil in horror whenever he has a conversation with a head of state. But despite your personal feelings, you can’t avoid this: almost nine in ten Republicans approve Trump’s performance, even though he’s deeply under water with the rest of the country. Your base loves the way he’s taking on Washington. So what if he’s breaking the furniture—he’s doing what he said he would do (or at least it appears that way). To cross Trump would invariably unleash his wrath, and the wrath of the voters next year. So you keep quiet during the opening act of the most problematic administration in American history.
Sound familiar? It should, because we have been talking about this exact problem for over a year. It’s the reason why #NeverTrump efforts never amounted to anything, why Republicans were unable to deny Trump their nomination or mount a credible general election challenge to him, and why it’s fanciful to imagine an impeachment trial or a 25th Amendment solution to the chaos at the top as long as the political cost of opposing Trump exceeds the cost of defending him. Base voters were the biggest prize in Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Divorce him and you divorce them too.
During the campaign, the mantra of the opposition was: you can always stop him later—on Super Tuesday or before the convention or at the convention or through an independent conservative general election challenge. It never Continued
So I’ve heard some things have happened since the last time I posted . . .
The process of revising two books—the longer being a 450,000 word government textbook—has taken more time than I anticipated, but both projects are coming to a close and I will be back shortly with some thoughts on the chaos around us and where we may be going as the Trump era makes its inauspicious debut. Specifically, in the coming weeks I plan to write about:
- The core political problem that’s helping to prop up the Trump administration despite evidence of massive incompetence and disregard for the rule of law
- The key cultural dilemma that underpins the political problem
- How we can address the key cultural dilemma that underpins the core political problem
- Legitimacy—and why it matters
- Why it’s important to begin envisioning the future
And much more. To those self-described “sheeples” who have been asking me to post again, thank you for your patience. I’ll be back very soon.
As the unexpected turns of 2016 give way to the unpredictability of 2017, I’d like to take a moment and send my wishes for a healthy and fulfilling year ahead. I haven’t posted much in the last month and most likely won’t write much in the next few weeks as I face January deadlines for two manuscripts. The sixth edition of my American Government textbook is due next week, followed later in the month by the second edition of a book on American political parties co-authored by my friend and colleague John White. Much about American politics and political parties remains as it was when those earlier editions were written, but the events of 2016 have raised fundamental challenges to the political process that need to be addressed. We will all be living through those challenges together, and I will be writing about them here as they unfold in the year ahead.
More people have asked me to explain the Electoral College over the past two weeks than at any time since I last taught the subject in my American Government course. And at no time in memory has the Electoral College been more relevant to a presidential election. For as long as anyone can remember, electors have done little more than ratify the popular vote through an obscure procedure of interest only to C-SPAN junkies. But in a year when stopping Donald Trump has been an ongoing subplot in the reality television show we call American politics, the Electoral College has emerged as a constitutional choke-point where the results of November 8 could be set aside, at least in theory.
If we lived in a democracy, Hillary Clinton would be president-elect by virtue of having won 2.8 million more votes than her opponent. But we live in a republic, where the Constitution’s framers set up a system of elite presidential selection designed to keep the decision out of the hands of the masses and avoid the selection of an unqualified charlatan skilled at manipulating popular passions. In creating an Electoral College they envisioned an elite group with no collective self-interest whose singular purpose would be to elect the president, then disband. This sidestepped the problem of having congress select the president (a violation of the doctrine of separation of powers) and, like so much in American history, appeased slave states by apportioning electoral votes according to representation in the House and Senate, where the odious three-fifths compromise boosted their political strength. But they didn’t envision the emergence of political parties and the way party competition would turn the Electoral College into a rubber stamp for partisan decisions, where we assign states to the red pile or the blue pile and add up their electoral values until either red or blue achieves a majority. It’s usually so automatic that we skip over the part where actual electors cast actual votes. But they do.
Despite what you have been reading and hearing, Donald Trump has not yet been elected president. That won’t happen until next Monday, when electors in each state, equal in number to the electoral votes of that state, meet in Continued
Trump voters wanted to blow up Washington. Regardless of what else they may disrupt, they have succeeded in disturbing the entrenched partisan divisions which for years have cemented our politics in a tedious and angry stalemate. The election has handed Republicans the imperative to govern and Democrats the need to regroup. These realities will place pressure on both parties and create a four-way political dynamic. Democrats will still oppose Republicans and Republicans will still oppose Democrats, but these disputes will be complicated by the heightened presence of intra-party wrangling. The stress of governing promises to exacerbate Republican divisions between conservatives and reactionaries. The stress of losing power will advance the cause of progressives in the Democratic Party and empower them to confront entrenched monied interests with greater determination.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Before the election, the Reagan coalition was in twilight but still resistant enough to prevent Barack Obama from repudiating it, and the lingering pull of a business-centered neoliberal politics prevented the Democratic president from bringing about the kind of progressive economic changes which might have broadened his coalition. Both these things may change in the months ahead.
Now that they have more power, Republicans paradoxically are more vulnerable to succumbing to internal strife between conservatives and reactionaries. Governing is hard. It puts pressure on coalition partners in the best of times, which these most certainly are not. Trump ran as the leader of a reactionary faction, which remains a minority even in the Republican Party. His governing options are tricky. Reactionary candidacies like Trump’s are oppositional rather than forward-looking. He is not positioned to implement a new agenda based on the campaign because he never asked for a mandate to do anything other than build a border wall, deport undocumented immigrants and keep Muslims from Continued
One of the key analytical frameworks of my book Next Generation Netroots is derived from the work of Yale political scientist Steven Skowronek, who views presidential administrations in terms of their relationship to prevailing political coalitions rather than as isolated entities. Skowronek contends that the options available to presidents and the results they achieve are determined to a large degree by their position in what he calls political time—whether they come to office in support of or in opposition to an era’s dominant political regime, and whether that regime is strong or vulnerable during the president’s administration. Political regimes are the electoral coalitions that dominate politics for long stretches of time before they succumb to infighting among coalition partners and lose the ability to govern. So the New Deal coalition, which dominated politics from 1932 through the 1960s, began to weaken as southern whites abandoned it in the wake of the civil rights reforms of the Johnson era. The Reagan coalition that followed is now running on fumes, its once strong alliance of fiscal, social and foreign policy conservatives burdened by divisions so great that a large number of party regulars wouldn’t endorse or utter the name of their standard bearer.
Presidents who serve at the start of a regime are the ones you remember. Skowronek calls them “reconstructive” presidents because they initiate a new regime on the strength of an electoral mandate they interpret as a rejection of the old. These presidents have the political space to get things done. Think Reagan, FDR, Lincoln, Jackson, Jefferson. Bill Clinton, who served at a less propitious regime stage, once said that if he could switch places in history with Franklin Roosevelt he would be remembered as a great president. No kidding.
“Disjunctive” presidents fall at the other end of the spectrum. These are the unhappy souls who serve at the end of a regime cycle. Try as they might, they are unable to hold together a spent coalition and find themselves reviled by their contemporaries and consigned to the worst-ever list with Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan. Jimmy Carter was the Continued
In my previous post, I compared the political climate to an intense storm and suggested that it has been building for years. The frontal boundary is the place where the portion of the electorate that supported Hillary Clinton is pushing against the portion that supported Donald Trump. The Clinton electorate—young, multicultural, progressive and connected to the 21st century economy—has been building in size and political influence. The Trump electorate—white, older, conservative and connected to the 20th century economy—is shrinking in size and losing its political and cultural dominance. The Obama administration marked a noteworthy shift away from the rightward impulses of the Reagan coalition but it was held in check by the resiliency of a political system not quite weak enough to be repudiated and by a progressive coalition not quite strong enough to do the repudiating.
In this respect, the Obama administration resembles Richard Nixon’s attempt to move the country away from the New Deal. Just as Nixon’s rightward lean drew resistance from the press, the bureaucracy and an opposition legislature, Obama was squeezed by the Democratic Party’s allegiance to monied interests and the Republican Party’s institutional ability to resist his more liberal impulses. Like Nixon, Obama spoke to future leaders who might eventually change the country’s direction should they figure out a way to expand their coalition, as Reagan would several years later. And like Nixon, Obama was correctly viewed as a threat to the status quo and generated intense resistance from the other side. So while Obama was unable to establish a lasting progressive governing coalition, he did advance the interests and sensibilities of the emerging electorate, generating resistance from corners of the population where those interests are not shared. This contributed to the reaction that was Trump’s election.
Our political moment is precarious because both groups can claim a large number of adherents but neither has been able to establish a functioning majority. Our political disputes are intense because each group fears the loss of something fundamental if the other succeeds. This is intensified by the (correct) perception by the right that they are Continued
Let’s return to the fundamental premise of this cycle: it was a change election. During the campaign, I wrote extensively about the irony that, according to available public polling, voters clamoring for a new direction were going to ratify the status quo by electing a Democratic president and a Republican congress. Even when a Democratic wave appeared to be building several weeks ago, Democrats were highly unlikely to win enough House seats to end divided government, and even if they could, Hillary Clinton was not a credible change agent. This is why, as I wrote during the campaign, she was a bad fit to the cycle. But her opponent, a boorish, bigoted, unqualified loudmouth, was a bad fit to the electorate, and this bolstered Clinton’s chances. In a change year, Clinton appeared to have gotten lucky by drawing an opponent who was even more disliked than she. By all accounts, the second most disliked candidate in polling history was going to comfortably defeat the most disliked candidate because the Republican Party had nominated someone who was fundamentally unacceptable to too many people.
If there were clues to the strength of the reactionary sentiment roiling the electorate they could have been found in the countless times we heard pundits say that (fill in the appalling Trump news) would have ended any other candidacy. He was almost derailed by the visceral Access Hollywood tape, which vividly confirmed what was already known about Trump’s attitudes and behaviors, but he survived and was ultimately elected despite it, a testament to how badly Continued
At the Democratic Convention this summer, a respected political operative told me that Hillary Clinton would win the election because Democrats have a structural advantage in the Electoral College, enough to make up for whatever weaknesses she had as a candidate. Demography drives this advantage, which remains in place despite the uprising of rural and suburban white voters that changed the electoral math on Tuesday. Democrats are powered by a large and growing coalition of young, female and ethnically diverse voters in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, Pacific Rim and portions of the South and Southwest where the information economy has taken hold. This is the so-called “blue wall” that Donald Trump breached by turning out record numbers of white voters attached to the old demography and the old economy, the voters who supported Trump because he promised to blow up a political system that no longer works for them and, in turn, re-establish their lost place in the economic and social order. They were angry, and they voted in large enough numbers to deny Clinton the Rust Belt states she was depending on to win.
These economic, social and cultural divides are responsible for the zero-sum character of our politics, and turnout differences between the two groups have prevented either side from forging a lasting political coalition. The Democratic coalition powered Obama’s two victories but didn’t show up in the off years, giving Republicans control of congress and Continued