I have noticed a disturbing trend in my social media discussions over the past hundred days or so: some of my colleagues refer to the current stewards of the executive branch as the “Trump regime” rather than the “Trump administration.” I honestly wonder if this is fair.
Let me explain. Layman might think of “state” and “regime” and “government” as synonyms, but to political scientists they carry three distinctly different meanings. A “state” refers to the political organization that has the monopoly on coercive violence in a territory — for most WaPo readers, the United States of America. States can disappear from the globe, but over the past few centuries they have tended to multiply. “Regime” refers to the kind of governing system that runs the state. The United States has a constitutional republic for a regime, the People’s Republic of China has a communist regime, and Iran’s regime is a Shia theocracy. Regimes change more often than states, but it’s still not that common. A “government” — or, for the United States, “administration” — refers to the particular cabinet of officials running the executive branch. From 2009 to early 2017, the Obama administration was the government in the United States. Democratic governments change on a regular basis; more autocratic regimes tend to have far fewer changes in government.
When the political scientists I know talk about Trump, an increasing number use “Trump regime” rather than “Trump administration.” The implication might be subtle to you but it carries meaning to social scientists. Basically, many of my colleagues are saying that under Trump, America’s liberal democratic regime is changing into something else, a fact that should be acknowledged.
Is it a real fact or fake news, however? Books like Tim Snyder’s On Tyranny imply that the answer is yes, but as I noted in my brief review of that book, “Trump’s brand of populist nationalism may be illiberal, but it is also not very popular. Since his inauguration, a critical free press, independent judiciary, patriotic Civil Service and robust social movements have placed significant constraints on Trump’s actions.” Trump has violated countless norms, but Congress and the judiciary are still being treated like co-equal branches of government. Civil liberties still exist. The current administration has made a lot of moves that I find personally objectionable in its first hundred days. That doesn’t mean that the character of the republic has permanently shifted.
On the other hand, one can point to elected populists who eventually did alter the nature of their regime in deeply illiberal ways. We have just seen Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan pull off this move in Turkey. In this century, elected leaders ranging from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Hungary’s Viktor Orban have taken actions that changed the character of political authority enough to talk about shifts in regime type.
The past week has revealed some nascent signs that the Trump administration is a wee bit different from previous administrations. Consider:
- The president’s full-throated support for authoritarian strongmen.
- A protester is found guilty of, in essence, laughing at a nominee’s answer during a Senate confirmation hearing;
- The secretary of state now cautions against the constant invocation of American values in conducting foreign policy. He did this at the same time that President Trump stripped one White House official title from anything related to “human rights.”
- Powerful staff positions in the White House are now a function of family lineage rather than merit or political skill.
- The White House chief of staff says he’s looking into a constitutional amendment that would restrict First Amendment protections of free speech.
Oh, and this morning, there was this from the president of the United States:
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that these seem like steps toward a populist, illiberal system of rule. This would indeed represent more than just a change in government from Obama to Trump, but a change in regime type as well, from liberal to illiberal.
Don’t just take my word for it; see this piece by historian Heather Cox Richardson about what makes this administration different from the modern constitutional republic that Americans have lived in for quite some time:
Trump’s administration looks a great deal like those of the 1850s and the 1890s, with business and government so intertwined that they cannot be disentangled. It makes sense that he would think it should have been easy for the nation’s elite leaders to “work out” the tensions that caused the Civil War: Easy solutions arranged by strong, elite leaders have been Trump’s go-to solution all along, on health care, taxes, immigration, the Islamic State, even the Arab-Israeli conflict. So why not the Civil War?
The answer is: Because America is not an oligarchy in which the wealthy hammer out their own rules among themselves; it is a democracy.
I hope Richardson is correct, but I fear that it requires some actual debate to consider whether she is indeed correct.
For now, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts will continue to use “Trump administration.” But I can no longer dismiss my colleagues who say “Trump regime” out of hand. That is more than a little disturbing.