Stephen Skowronek teaches American politics at Yale University. He is the author of “The Politics Presidents Make” and “Presidential Leadership in Political Time.”
For President Trump, the link between great disruption and great leadership is intuitive. His call to “make America great again” indicted both major parties and the institutions that support them. Now, 100 days into the shake-up, the question is whether Trump has the wherewithal to follow through. Great disrupters become great presidents when they lend legitimacy to something new.
Trump’s campaign resonated for a reason. Debates framed during the Reagan Revolution have worn thin. Americans are growing impatient with the received terms of legitimate national government. But Trump appears to be struggling with the reset. In full view of the early fumbling, we should look more closely at the historical pattern of presidency-led political reconstructions.
The model dates to the 1830s, when President Andrew Jackson joined the creation of a new majority party dedicated to the willful elimination of institutions that supported the politics of the past. Trump sees a parallel. But the template cast during Jackson’s “Bank War” has become harder to follow as the range of interests incorporated into governmental affairs has widened and the institutional environment of presidential action has deepened. With each successive attempt, presidential reconstruction has proven a heavier lift.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt found his signature initiatives defeated repeatedly by interests and institutions he sought to bend to his will. The Supreme Court declared much of his economic program unconstitutional while others beat back plans to pack the court, recast his party and control the bureaucracy. FDR orchestrated sweeping changes, but Jackson-style imposition was already proving anachronistic.
President Ronald Reagan’s reconstruction was shallower still. He altered political coalitions and recast policy debates, but little of the old order was dismantled or replaced. The frustrations attending institutional change in modern American government may deepen the appeal of a “great disrupter”; the problem is that the same developments magnifying frustrations have also made it easier to get tangled in the follow-through.
But let us assume for argument’s sake that old-school reconstructions are still possible. That does not necessarily bode well for Trump. There are always two sides to these pivotal events. For every Jackson and Reagan, there is an immediate predecessor of similar ambition who suffered a crushing misfire.
Jackson’s predecessor, John Quincy Adams, knew well the strains rending Jeffersonian democracy. He eyed a new governing coalition with a breakthrough program, and he openly mocked those too timid to seize upon his bold vision. But there was no electoral mandate for Adams’s radical departure. Instead of attracting friends, it mobilized foes.
Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, came to the presidency as a populist out to regenerate a corrupt officialdom, and his biting critique of the degradation of the American polity extended to the settled ways of his own party. For that, Carter found himself in a political no man’s land. When he sought a second term, Ted Kennedy challenged him for the Democratic nomination for betraying his party’s core values; then Reagan trounced Carter for perpetuating those values.
It is as if a political fiasco of this sort is an essential prerequisite, adding critical authority to the subsequent reordering. All the more notable, then, that Trump replaced a popular two-term incumbent and that he lost the popular vote. His relentless repudiation of the Obama administration and his hyperbole about his own election reach for reconstructive authority, but rhetoric goes only so far in creating its own reality. In his agitation for systemic change, Trump appears to be on the wrong side of the pivot.
Like Carter and Adams, Trump reached the presidency as a loner. All three found themselves in — but not part of — a long-dominant coalition. Each marginalized party orthodoxy and made their case instead based on some inimitable, personal capacity to put things right. Trump’s “I alone can fix it” echoes Adams’s “talents (and virtue) alone” and Carter’s “Why not the best?”
When the old order loses political purchase, the attractions of the loner-as-leader shine brightly. But such presidents have never been able to reorder national affairs. Once in office, they appear incompetent and in over their heads. Their disruptions characteristically drive the implosion. Reconstruction follows, but under other auspices.
Past patterns do not determine the future, but they do clarify the stakes of the game that Trump has put in play. A great disrupter who does not set a new standard of legitimacy will just pull things apart. By the same token, success in the follow-through will require more than just racking up some wins.
The Republican Party expects to deliver on old commitments. The Trump movement, an incipient coalition, is looking for an agenda of its own. That mismatch portends civil war in the Republican ranks. Even in the best of circumstances, a successful merger between these two coalitions would take political dexterity, policy creativity and a good bit of luck. So far, the administration has failed to brighten the prospects for success.