Last week in New York magazine, fellow political scientist Corey Robin made a three-part argument about the Age of Trump:

  1. Donald Trump is a phenomenally weak president.
  2. Far too many commentators fail to appreciate that fact.
  3. This is the fault of those who try to adopt academic research for a wider audience.

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is interested in all three of these questions, so let’s dive in!

Robin makes a strong case that Trump is a weak president. Despite his party controlling Congress for the first half of his administration, Trump was barely able to get anything passed — and the legislation that did get passed reflected congressional GOP preferences far more than the president. As noted in this space, Trump has abjectly failed to persuade the public to share his populist worldview. Quite the contrary, in fact. Furthermore, as Robin notes, “Trump’s recent antics on the campaign trail yielded the biggest midterm gain for the Democrats since Watergate. Fresh off that defeat, Trump launched the longest government shutdown in American history — only to come out of it with less money for his wall than he had going in.”

Still, there is a caveat. Robin suggests that Trump has failed to consolidate control over the GOP, and that does not really jibe with the established facts. Despite his travails with the rest of the electorate, Trump is polling at 89 percent among Republicans. He has helped to purge problematic Republicans such as Mark Sanford, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake from Congress. It is true that he faces some pushback among GOP senators from time to time, but as noted Wednesday, this is a party that fears Trump and his base far more than they fear the rest of the country.

Robin is unsparing on the question of whether commentators have exaggerated Trump’s strength and authoritarian tendencies:

Under Obama, there was a fashionable theory, derived from political science, that the presidency is a weak institution. Where once upon a time journalists would talk of the “bully pulpit” or agenda-setting power of the Oval Office, academically informed commentators like Ezra Klein pooh-poohed the notion that a president’s words had much effect. Congress, not the president, had power in the American system. Those who argued otherwise were dismissed as Green Lanternists, credulous folk who thought the president had all the powers of a comic-book superhero. Obama’s defenders in the media often used this theory to parry the claims of Obama’s critics, particularly on the left, who thought Obama should push harder on health care, taxes, and the like.
Since Trump’s election, we’ve not heard much about the weakness of the presidency. All the things presidents were supposed to be unable to do — reshape the public, their parties, and the polity — journalists and pundits now believe a president can do. Through words alone. Everyone’s a Green Lanternist now. The institution of the presidency hasn’t changed. But its occupant has, and with that, the needs of the commentariat. Instead of defending a beleaguered and beloved president against his critics on the left, the task at hand is to oppose a president who’s almost universally reviled, at least by the media.
But now, with the Democrats in control of the House, and maybe readying to win the White House in 2020, there’s less talk of tyranny, even in the face of Trump’s declaration of an emergency.

Brendan Nyhan is the political scientist who coined the Green Lantern theory of the presidency. He has been rather vocal about the threat Trump poses to America’s political system. In a Medium post, he fires back at Robin:

None of these facts [demonstrating Trump’s political weakness] invalidate the threat that Trump poses. As he has shown, weak presidents can still inflict damage on democracy while in office. In fact, the slow erosion of democratic norms and institutions — not coups or revolutions — is the most common threat to democratic stability in recent decades. (Think of the recent slide toward authoritarianism in Russia, Turkey, or Hungary, not the fascism of mid-20th century Europe.) While our institutions have limited the damage Trump has been able to inflict so far, there is strong expert consensus that U.S. democracy has degraded since he took office.
For instance, Trump’s weakness may frustrate his ambitions in the legislative sphere, but he can still erode protections against executive overreach in his use of national emergency powers to try to fund a border wall or undermine government efforts to punish and prevent foreign influence in elections. The powers of the presidency are potentially expansive even in the hands of a weak president

It will surprise no one who reads this column from last week that I side with Nyhan in this debate. Robin is correct in describing Trump as a weak president. Because the presidency is a strong institution in the foreign policy and national security arena, however, that is still plenty problematic.

Finally, Robin argues that the “Historovox” — the scholarship-industrial complex that fuels sites like Vox and the Monkey Cage — is guilty of multiple sins:

Where the day’s news once would have been narrated as a series of events, the Historovox brings together those events in a pseudo-academic frame that treats them as symptoms of deeper patterns and long-term developments. Unconstrained by the protocols of academe or journalism, but drawing on the authority of the first for the sake of the second, the Historovox skims histories of the New Deal or rifles through abstracts of meta-analysis found in JSTOR to push whatever the latest line happens to be.
When academic knowledge is on tap for the media, the result is not a fusion of the best of academia and the best of journalism but the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, we get the whiplash of superficial commentary: For two years, America was on the verge of authoritarianism; now it’s not. On the other hand, we get the determinism that haunts so much academic knowledge. When the contingencies of a day’s news cycle are overlaid with the laws of social science or whatever ancient formation is trending in the precincts of academic historiography, the political world can come to seem more static than it is. Toss in the partisan agendas of the media and academia, and the effects are as dizzying as they are deadening: a news cycle that’s said to reflect the universal laws of the political universe where the laws of the political universe change with every news cycle.

Ironically, soon after Robin published this Michael Desch made the opposite claim in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “The problem, in a nutshell, is that scholars increasingly privilege rigor over relevance.” Desch thinks the discipline has cut itself off from the rest of the world, while Robin thinks too many of my colleagues are striving for policy relevance.

Robin’s thesis rests on the notion that the Historovox exaggerated the initial threat posed by Trump and have course-corrected now. I do not read the literature in the same way. The overwhelming bulk of topical political science analysis has been an effort to apply general theories to the situation at hand (click here for my contribution to this genre). Most of it has been wary of Trump’s effect on the body politic, but has been far less hysterical than the typical offerings from the pundit class.

Robin aspires to a more critical agenda: “The job of the scholar is not to offer her expertise to fit the needs of the pundit class. It’s to call those needs into question, not to provide different answers to the same questions but to raise the questions that aren’t being asked.” I wish Robin well in that quest, but this is not an either/or question for our discipline. Indeed, contra both Desch and Robin, political science has reached a place where scholars can make the choice to do public engagement. The data bears this out:

Political science is a countercyclical field, and business has been booming since 2016. While the occasional Voxsplainer might not pan out, the discipline seems to be doing pretty well on the whole. This includes Robin, whose analysis is always worth reading.